Friday, September 18, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 11

It was just about dawn when the great battle ended with a massive blast of electro-magnetic energy. Our heroes took account of the damage to the AGV and it was massive.  The EMP took out all of the electronics, as expected, but the AGV has a mechanical override mode that allows them to burn readily available fuel and perform most of its essential functions.  The computers were all down, their circuits fried beyond any hope of repair.  But it moved, though only at 10mph.  On the other hand the turret could be crank turned and the machine gun worked.  It's a rough ride, but moving around in a tank has its advantages, even if it's slow.  They set about making whatever repairs were necessary.  Their android, Lexi, was equally fried beyond all hope of repair.

As he was surveying the damage to the hull Samwise spotted four horsemen on the horizon heading their way.  They were coming from the direction of the town of Page to the North.  Southward the storm could still be seen curling and churning out over the desert, flashing lightning and whipping up dust devils.

The horsemen arrived and announced themselves as the Golden Crusaders of Christ Lion, and they were out to slay the Beast of Shadows.  They carried golden swords and shields with religious insignia.  Sam, Pita, and Linda followed them into the desert to witness the battle, and help if they could.  Down into a dark canyon they rode, and almost immediately the battle was engaged.  The Shadow Beast was difficult to see, and leapt wildly over their heads and between the rocks.  The Golden Crusaders were overpowered by the creature, and were badly mauled before it escaped into the mouth of a cave set in the canyon wall.  One of the Crusaders was mortally stung by the scorpion's tail.  Another mauled from above with massive claws.  Another bitten and mauled.  The last, their leader, evaded being seriously wounded, his skill being that much greater than the others. The horses had all been viciously slain.  The golden swords, extremely heavy as Pita found out, appeared to damage the creature, but Pita and Linda's guns had no effect on it whatsoever.  After the battle, the heroes helped the Crusaders back to the AGV, carrying one on a makeshift litter.

They had a brief talk, and then the leader walked back to Page to fetch a priest from the village to help with his wounded.  The priest was elderly, but robust, and quite blunt about his views, to the point of being rude, but a good healer, and came with more horses. The Crusaders made their way back to Page.  While the heroes of Kitt Peak completed their repairs.  Enough so that the AGV could move.

They drove to Page, found the Church of Christ Latter Day Saints, and met with the Leader of the Crusaders once more.  They did not prevail upon him to provide much insight, though they did find out that the Priesthood were Christian Naturalists, and that there might be gasoline at the old derelict airport on the east side of town.  The Leader offered them horses, of which they apparently had enough to spare, but the heroes declined the offer, preferring the security of their roving fortress instead, cranky and rattling as it was.

Not wishing to waste any time at all, they went to the airport, found a old fuel tank and siphoned what little gas was there at the bottom.  It was a lucky find and enough to get them on their way.  As soon as they got the gasoline they decided to immediately head back down south to the Mech Base, about 80 miles, and salvage whatever components they could from the Mechs.  The trip was long, noisy, dusty, bumpy and hot, but eventually they found themselves at the base.  They dismantled both Mechs and used the components to re-establish their communications.  Linda sent a status report to Federation Command via ULF.  Hopefully they would receive it.

Some in the party wanted to return to Kitt Peak and abandon the mission as without the AGV's full capacity it would be a very hard slog up to Salt Lake.  But the Captain, not deterred, decided to press forward regardless. 

They left off at that point, and we called it a night.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Thoughts on the World of Lies

Some personal reflections on my mood lately, as it relates to the Covid-19 Pandemic, and other matters. This is likely to be a long post, so feel free to ignore it, or pop down to the bottom where I will try to summarize.


On the state of the World

One effect I've noticed of the Pandemic-Shutdown for me is that I have much less that I want to say to people, generally. I think it is the result of finding out that the entire world is actually very frail. And it scares me.  Much more than I expected it to. Growing up, I realized there were existential threats to both the earth as a biosphere and the civilization(s) that inhabit it, but I generally deemed those threats to be rationally improbable. However, I nevertheless felt that any existential threats should be taken with utmost seriousness by our leaders, regardless of the probability, as the consequences of a bad die roll would prove to be ultimately catastrophic.  It is only the sensible thing to do, of course.

In my late teens I noticed that there really seemed to be no orderly approach to such issues, and that the world appeared to be run by corrupt and stupid people (like, for example my dad, who was a very smart man but also a moral-imbecile who wrecked our family by lying incessantly - which as you will see colors my world view considerably).  They appear to only have a planning horizon of at most five years, and even those plans are flawed beyond comprehension.  I was 19 or so. I began to be deeply concerned. 

At a certain point soon thereafter I decided I couldn't support the decision making of our Leaders, and so I hit the road in an effort to avoid culpability for what I looked ahead and saw would be an amazing downward spiral towards cataclysm at the end of a once prosperous, and even virtuous civilization.  I didn't want to participate in the Great Downward Spiral.  So I left.  I traveled around the country for the next decade without money, shoes, or anything to call my own beyond the cloths on my back.  I was one with the Tao.

I often wondered, how is that the world can be run by a cadre of lying-morons? And why do The People allow it? When I saw clips of the movie Idiocracy recently, it rang a solemn bell. Can humanity as a whole really be this stupid? Unfortunately, despite the fact that some people are amazingly smart, it appears that en mass, humanity is alarmingly dumb. It is probably a law of nature. 

And so here we are.  That a single pandemic can cause all world governments (or I should say most of the people currently running them) to devastate their own economies, and thoroughly destroy the lives of the vast majority of their citizens on a single pretext, should be cause for alarm among the smartest and wisest among us. I think we are alarmed. This is probably the most important point in this post, btw.  How can we live with any sense of security when the impossible suddenly becomes a Fact?  If I told you one year ago that the governments of the whole world were going to shut down the entire global economy, casting countless millions into sudden poverty, I'm pretty sure you would have told me that I'm insane, and we would have had a chuckle and left it at that.  And yet... here we are. But what can we do about it?  That's the rub. There seem to be no obvious solutions to this dilemma.  It has effected my mood.  I feel alarmed.

Our Leaders are charging ahead talking about "The Science" while ignoring the science whenever it becomes inconvenient for them, and frothing at the mouth about how The Other Side is "lying through its teeth" and going to destroy the world, and the world is being systematically destroyed in the process. I do not care to watch tens of millions of my fellow citizens cast down into poverty in one fell swoop through no fault of their own. I don't like it. Observing this has effected my mood. I feel upset. 

My own life? Not so destroyed at the moment. I still have my job (though how long remains completely up in the air as the hospital has been financially ravaged thus far). Just the same, I have been scanning the job market since March and frankly, it's very slim pickings out there because most companies are not hiring, but have shed workers along the way, as we all know. Way too much uncertainty, both in regards to the virus, but also in regards to the economic conditions, which are anything but stable. For the meantime, though, life goes on more or less normally. I wear a mask to the super market. I don't go out much at all, but I do visit with my girlfriend who has been a beacon of sanity for me in this crazy time. And I also practice my Wudan Kung Fu, which has a leveling effect as well.  In my free time I hunker down to work on my Elthos RPG Project. So my life has remained reasonably stable, personally. But still, this has not managed to improve my mood very much. I guess seeing so many people suffering around me, I can't help but empathize.  So, yes, I'm in a pretty bad mood, I'd say.  And it feels unusual to me.  Like I've caught some kind of emotional flu.  I'm not happy about it.  I feel like I am on the verge of letting down those who count on me to be reliable, stalwart and determined.  I don't want to let them down.

I wear a mask, btw, despite the fact that I suspect it does very little to protect anyone, which is what Fauci apparently stated in an interview last February. He's the expert so I guess he would know. Except he changed his mind later and now everyone has to wear masks or you're "Killing someone's grandma", or something. I don't know. I get the feeling that Fauci doesn't really know either. Which leads me to believe that no one knows. Or some people are, or have been lying along the way, for various reasons. It has effected my mood, and I feel angry about this.

Which brings me to another aspect of this entire episode that has very much effected my mood. They, the proverbial "They", keep lying to us. Over and over again. Lying and lying and lying. And they keep repeating the same lies over and over again as if this will somehow make the lies true. Or they will convince enough people (hint: voters) they are true so that they will forget all the evidence to the contrary they have seen along the way, and "do the right thing". *Ahem*.  

The lies are incessant. They lie about the virus, the politics, the impossible-to-prove motives of people they don't personally know, the shut downs and its effects, the employment rate and its causes and trajectory, the death rates in various states and countries (why did Google Covid-19 Stats gray out China's number counts?), the economy... just lying and lying and lying about pretty much everything. (Has there been anything they haven't lied about?  Curious.) 

And so, there's been a tsunami of lies by weasels pretending that they are "authoritative" and in control of the situation, when really nothing could be further from the truth. Oh yes, they have their reasons, and their reasons are all very important, I'm sure. Maybe they don't want people to panic.  Or maybe they want people to get rid of "The Orange Man", or "The Witch of the West", or whatever.  They all have their very important reasons.  Except they're lying. And in almost every case, they know it, but they do it anyway, because "reasons".  Look, folks, the lies are not justified. They never are.  Lying to the public by public officials should be a criminal offense on the level of Treason, if you ask me.  Can we agree on that?  No?  I didn't expect so. Ok, anyway. I digress.  I will do that often.

Reality keeps proving over and over again that they are lying, and have been lying, the entire time, to everyone, on all sides. They're all doing it. It's incessant. They can't stop. They started a long time ago on this path. It's just that now, its become a Pandemic of Lies. This is not sustainable. 

As for the nature of the lies, I notice that lately they've begun to lie actively quite a bit, but historically it's been mostly lies by omission. I guess in earlier eras they didn't dare lie actively, but now... well, all hell is breaking lose, so I guess they think there is no point in restraining themselves anymore.  And so they have begun simply lying outright.  However, for lies of omission, the trickier modality, this is how it works - they frame a situation in a way that in court you might call "asking a leading question", which designed to draw one toward a preconceived conclusion, without stating them as such. They draw a line pointing in a direction, and they expect your brain to fill in the blanks for them. Because that's just Propaganda 101.  It is much more effective to get people to "think up the answer for themselves", than to simply state it.  Much more effective! And so they do it because it works. On stupid people. Which is good enough for their purposes.  So they do it.  A LOT.  

Anyway, all of this has effected my mood. I never liked being lied to to begin with. But this? During an actual global Pandemic? You have got to be kidding me. But no, there they are, lying up a colossal shit-storm. As usual. In The Great 19 Pandemic nothing has changed except the volume and velocity of lies has increased. We're now in what I think could safely be termed "Super-Lie" mode.  And so the newly phrased adage "Never let a good crisis go to waste" is not going to waste.  And here we are.

All that lying... it's just made me want to shut it all down, turn them all off, and shuck it all down the toilet with a big Flagoosh. I don't believe a goddam word any of them say at this point. If they say "the sun is shining", I'm going to suspect the sun burned out while I wasn't looking somehow and go outside to check. Nope. Still shining. Ok.  But the point is, I do not trust them. Not at all. Not even for the most basic and obvious things.  I suspect I'm not alone in this.

How has this all effected me? Well, my Trust Level was hovering near zero to begin with, and had steadily been decreasing since 1981. Now, though? I think I'm in negative territory. I actively distrust whatever any politician says. Period. Before I used to be like "hmmm... um... well... ok, maybe... I guess...". But now I'm more like "Ok just shut the hell up you lying little turdflinger".  It's not the best attitude in the world to carry around.  But there you have it.  That's where I'm at.

This has had an impact on many of my relationships, as you might guess. Many people who I used to feel I could tolerate as they regurgitated other people's lies, and kind of debate with them about it and, you know, get along with folks... well, I find I can no longer tolerate them very easily at all. I just want to walk away, and leave them to stew in their own crazed juices. I've had quite enough. I'm no longer interested in discussing it. They want to believe the turdflingers and go on lunatic rants over something they know extremely little about? Ok. Be my guest. Just don't expect me to be a Believer with you. I am not. I do not believe Fauci. I do not believe Trump. I do not believe Pelosi, or Schumer, or McConnell or the Governors that did the Great Global Shutdown. I do not believe the "Reporters" on CNN, or ABC, or NPR, or FOX. They're all lying all the time. 24/7/365. It just comes down to a question of "Do you want lies from the Left? Or lies from the Right?" I don't want any lies, thank you. I'm opting out. Thanks.

So I've pretty much stopped talking with most of my old buddies. I see them, as we attend certain social events together, but I find I have nothing to say. They go on and on, joking around as ever, railing about their current political hate-addiction, spewing out all the lies they have received from their favorite "news" sources as if they're absolutely 100% sure it's all so very true, and screeching about how "the other side are lying their asses off!!"... sigh ... not my cup of tea.  Seriously. I'm godawful tired of it.

And I find myself completely disinterested. It's become ... intolerable to me. So I just walk away without saying anything to any of them. No, "Hey gotta go", no "sorry" or "see ya later". Just walking away. Period. And it's bad. It's not the way to be a social person. I've gotten a bad reputation among my old buddies. I'm not interested in explaining it to them. They are wound up tight in the The Great Web of Lies... and I just can't save them from that. I'm not Bilbo. They won't listen to me. And I'm too tired, honestly, to get into a shouting match about whose lies are bigger or worse or more destructive than theirs. I just don't have the strength for it. I'm out. It's sad. They're not bad people. They just believe lies that I simply can't bring myself to believe. And they can't stop spewing them out at each other. Yep. I'm out. I suppose that makes me a bad person. Probably does.  But I'm just not Bilbo. I can't rescue them. I can't even imagine how to try to rescue them.  I got no Sting. And they don't want to be rescued either.  They're Believers, after all.  And they want to do the rescuing, because they Believe.

Which leads me to another self-realization. Bear with me if you will. I'm not a very convincing person.  I don't do things in a way that leads to success, even though I would argue that most of my view points are perfectly correct, and that over the years I've been unusually insightful about how this stupid world works.  But I can't convince anyone of anything.  I'm like Cassandra over here, and have been since the 1980's.  I try, but no one listens.  But why?  It's not fate.  I've not been cursed by the Gods, I don't think.  It's just ... I have no confidence in the future at all. I have not had confidence in the future since 1981. I have felt all along that it is all coming to ruin.  Because, specifically, the people in charge are making the catastrophe happen.  And so this lack of faith in the future of this Civilization has made me entirely unsuited to take action that would have any long term effectiveness.  I have planned, like our best leaders it seems, only as far ahead as a few years, and only as an expedient while I wait for the world to burn itself down.  And for this reason, I have no worldly success.  I expect the world to be destroyed by the people in charge, and I see no way to prevent it.  I feel I'm insightful for recognizing this and not wasting my time or investing my emotions in building important things that would be doomed to be destroyed by Them later on.  In fact, i never built anything that went anywhere.  No book was published.  No artwork put in a gallery.  No wife, no kids, no home.  Nothing built for the long term.  Except for Elthos.  It is the only thing I built in my life, and I built it to last for a long long time... though frankly, I have no confidence in that either.  And so, even if my thoughts about the world are perfectly correct, I do not present them in any way that will lead to the successful propagation of those ideas.  I just don't.  I post them to Blogger instead. Where they will naturally languish with about 50 views, and zero comments.  Because that's how I'm presenting things.  Because I don't see the point in putting in greater effort.  Because I'm convinced that the world is on the verge of collapse, and ... I just don't see the point of trying very hard to do anything other than focus on my more immediate interests.  Will I publish a book explaining how the world has gone wrong and what we could do about it?  Nope.  I won't.  Because I feel, I guess, that hopeless about the future of this world.

You notice I keep phrasing this as "this world"?  The reason is because I believe there will be a great cataclysm that will destroy "this world"... and after that will be "the next world".  One that will give humanity a chance to start over.  And having learned all of terrible lessons about why allowing stupid evil people to run amok is a very bad idea, humanity will advance.  There will be a better world after this one.  That is something I do Believe.

On the other hand there are a few people who I feel I can converse with. But it's really very few. They are the people, like me, who look around and have realized that we really have scarcely any idea of what is really going on. We look, we hear, but no truth comes. And we know it. So with this people I can have a conversation at least. I don't feel like I want to put a 30" steel wall between me and them to shut out the lying. But, at the same time, our conversations usually end with a "and so we kind of have no idea what to do because we really can't get a bead on what's really happening, or more importantly, why... oh well." We have a little laugh about it, and then we've run out of things to talk about. After that, it gets a bit awkward. But ok.  I at least have a few people I know who I can relate to.  That's good.  I'm really glad about that.  

But the upshot is I don't feel like talking with most of my buddies.  I just can't find anything to say.  Sorry.  Can't take it.  I just leave without a word.  I don't hate them, and if they talk to me I'm cordial.  But I just don't feel like I want to converse with most of them at all.  Not even to say "See ya later".  It's sad.  Really, I see this as a personal problem. I'm not handling the crisis well if that's my reaction.  I can blame this and that about everything that's going on... but really, I don't have any excuse.  I'm just letting myself deteriorate and become morose about how things are going.  I could, instead, maintain a positive attitude and laugh all of the shit off myself. I'm seriously thinking about that.  Wukong laughed all of the Evils into oblivion. I need to learn how to do that, too.  I think so.  My old buddies aren't bad people.  They're caught up in The Web of Lies.  I shouldn't treat them as if they're bad people.  I just don't know what to say.  I'm going to work on it, though. Somehow.

On The Elthos Project

As for my Elthos RPG Mythos Machine project. I mentioned this once or twice along the way, but one of its original goals was to give me something to occupy my mind on while the world falls apart. Yep. True. I have been working on this since 1994, and that was one of the original goals. True.

I had a premonition about the world falling apart since 1981. It's taken longer than I expected, and may never happen, actually, but the slow perpetual grind downward appears to have been steady, with a brief and illusionary blip upward in the 1990s. Really it's all been a downward spiral since 1913, I think. Anyway, so here we are. Did we get Arthur C. Clark's future? Nope. Not at all. We got this mess. Roddenberry at least foresaw that it would take one more Great Global War before humanity could mature and reach for the stars. Well, we ain't there, yet. Getting closer by the minute, it looks like, but not yet. Wait for it.

Anyway, about Elthos-as-distraction. The plan.  With the flaw.  The problem with the plan is that all along I had slowly accumulated an expectation, however distant, of financial success with the thing. I imagined that there actually would be a market for just such a piece of RPG World Builder Software, and I felt early on that I could not only build it, but bring it to market and make it into a financial success.  

Somehow I lost sight of Lao Tzu. I forgot from my days on the road to let go of the fruits of my labor, and just let it be whatever it is, and not try to hard to make something last in this world. I erroneously began to accept the idea that success should be measured in dollar signs. 

By this standard the Elthos Project has a success rate of, well, near zero. Its generated roughly $78 in total since 1994. I've probably put in, if you count the time I've put into it as paid at my normal yearly rate of pay, and in particular the Mythos Machine programming, roughly $840,000. So, by the measure of dollars, it's been a roaring and unmitigated disaster. Total Fail.

I should have, and may still, had the presence of mind to let go of that Dollar-Success criteria. But it's been a slow growing expectation like a weed. Damnit. But the truth is, I am constitutionally unwilling to do those things that are required in this civilization to make the thing a financial success. 

I recently read Ryan Holiday's Trust me, I'm lying about the modern advertising industry, and came to the conclusion that, yep, I'm not suited to make anything financially successful in this world. Nope. Not my MO. I strongly suspect I may have come here from another time long long ago where people by and large were honest, and valued truth, decency and integrity, and wherein the Ryan Holidays of this world would find themselves ostracized, lonely and poor.  I come from a world where villainy and deceit are not the norm, but are instead shunned by the civilized folk.  In fact, it is what we mean by "Civilized".  But that world is long gone. No one here remembers it, and only a tiny few believe that such a world is even possible.  Pretty sure.  But I do.  And that's one of my problems.  That's what I'm a Believer of.  And yes, frankly, it is a problem.  Because of all the things that I might have built, Elthos was the one thing I chose.  And thus far making it into a financial success has completely eluded me.  It is, after all, a Total Fail at this point.  Financially speaking.  And for good reason. I just can't get myself behind the sneaky lying underhanded marketing tactics of the Ryan Holidays. And so, I can't get the "Reach" needed to get Elthos off the launch pad. She's got what it takes, but ain't got no fuel. But enough of that.  I've written enough about that in a previous post. The upshot is, to make Elthos successful financially requires a set of skills and resources that I do not possess. 

On the other hand, Elthos RPG Mythos Machine as a pure work of Art. A masterpiece, actually.  And on that basis, it's been a monumental success for me. It is a software tool that allows GMs to create their own worlds, and populate them with whatever they want, and players can log in and create characters in those worlds and as they play they can record their adventures for all time. GMs can even sell their Worlds to one another on the system. It is a first of it's kind work. I wrote the specs and registered them in the US Copyright Office in 1994. So yes, it's a first of its kind. And yeah, I'm proud of that. 

But still, others, far more nimble in the ways of the world than I, have of course shot out into the actual market with their own implementations of the concept and done amazing things, and produced some great and well known successes. But I still maintain that in fact, Elthos is still the best of them all. It's code base has the greatest diversity of features, and the earlier version even includes a fantastic built in VTT where the GMs could paint their own maps, and the mapping system handles movement and combat according to the Elthos RPG tactical rules. All without the GM needing to create any macros, or anything like that.  It is, actually, a fantastic feat of software development... the most unknown amazing RPG software no one has ever heard of in the history of the world. I stand by that statement.

Anyway, I don't think I can carry Elthos into the market.  At least not on my own. I'm still going to try, but I realize, there's a lot about business that I either don't understand or don't want to understand (the seedy under belly of it all does not appeal to me). I would need the help of some very clever and resourceful people to take this to market in a way that will be successful. It's not just an RPG rules system... it's a full blown web application constructed as a SaaS, and with an internal marketplace for World Publishers. Not quite perfected, but damn close. At any rate, I'd most certainly need help. I have a handful of leads, and there's still some promise there, but I think my role needs to remain that of Visionary Artiste.  So I'll be reaching out to a few people soon to see if I can drum up support on the marketing and business fronts. We'll see. And even if that falls through, Elthos as an Art form will live on, and it will always be it's own amazing thing ... even if no one happens to notice it. 

Not everyone sees the most amazing sunrises in the world. Most people, actually, miss them. And yet, there they were... and I was one of those people who saw it. Except in this case I was the person who brought it to fruition. I think I can be happy with that.  I just need to remember Lao Tzu.  

Sorry for this great long ramble. I tend to ramble. But then, I didn't write it so much to communicate this to you, but to help me to think through these things and organize my thoughts. I often find writing thing down as if I'm explaining something to someone else helps me to clarify what I'm feeling. So if no one else, this helped me. Sorry about this, but I am going to post it anyway. There's a few thoughts amid the rambles that others might be able to relate to, and perhaps benefit by, so here you go.

Summary

I've fallen into a bad mood lately because there's too much lying going on out there and I'm sick of it. I have been treating my buddies pretty poorly, though it's not my intention, I just find I have nothing to say when they are reguritating the panarama of lies.  But I need to work on that.  I feel bad about it.

I'm going to focus on Elthos as a work of art, but I think that I'm just not suited to carry the thing to financial success, at least on my own. I'd need help with that part, and will be seeking it as I go forward.  

I want to remember always, though, the words of Lao Tzu.  
“The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao. In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present. When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching


Sunday, August 23, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 10

The heroic band sat in the Armored Ground Vehicle (AGV) overlooking the township of Page, Arizona at the intersection of routes 98 and 89.  They had little interest in the town itself, and only mild curiosity about the single light that shone from some window on the far side of the town.  They were far more interested in the condition of Glen Canyon Dam Bridge, but from where they were on the southern edge of town, they couldn't see it.  It was 3 am, and everyone was tired after a long and rough ride.  A dry hot wind was blowing hard off the desert. The sky was speckled with coldly glinting stars, and only a few slivers of coruscating radiation bands were visible towards the western horizon.  It was unusual to see such a clear night, and Guns was enjoying the view.

A debate began as to which way they should go from there. Guns recommended that they leave the town alone, avoid whatever the light was, and take an off road route to the bridge, which they hoped would prove sturdy enough to allow them to cross over the Colorado River gorge safely. 

From his position in The Perch, the diamond-glass domed turret containing the 50 caliber machine gun, Gun's spotted a storm rising in the south east. He gave a casual mention, and they decided to make headway before it swept over the area.  At first it just a appeared to Guns as a dark cloud against the stars that flashed a single thin bolt of redish lightning from on high.  But as he watched it began swirling darkly and growing in size and began to spread rapidly out over the desert.  He couldn't see it entirely because it was dark, with only a sliver of moon in the west, but the cloud began flashing often enough for him to get a sense of its movement.  The clouds were roiling in on themselves with surprising speed, and beneath them a dark circular wall cloud emerged.  In fact, it soon began casting lightning with such intensity that Guns became alarmed.  After a minute or so the flashes were blazing out at more than one per second.  Most of the lightning was inside the cloud, but quite a few bolts were landing on outcroppings of rock in the desert, blasting some to pieces, and catching tall cactus on fire.

"Hey Cap'n," called down Guns, "you know how I can make lightning happen by lookin in places?  Well, it's happening again.  There's a storm coming our way, and it looks like it's gonna be a bad one.  It's coming in from the south east and I reckon it will hit us in about in ten minutes", he said. 

They started looking for a place to hold up and considered the singular light in the distance, but knowing nothing about the town, and considering the amount of time it would take the storm to reach them, they decided to find a terrain feature they could hide in. Linda scanned the map for a safe place to hunker down and found a spot in a small ravine to the north that would serve to shelter the vehicle. 

Guns watched the storm writhing through sky like a great serpent, roiling wildly, blazing with purplish blue lightning. He even recorded the storm on his Visi-Screen, and closed his eyes for 15 seconds, and then reviewed the video.  He wanted to determine whether or not his looking at the storm happen to be causing the lightning, something he thought might be true.  But no, when he reviewed the recording it looked just as bad, eyes open or closed.  Not good, he concluded.

While they watched the incredible lightning display through the AGV windows, Linda brought the storm up on the Visi-Screen.  It looked by radar relatively small, but as they watched they could see it growing rapidly.  Even by the green screen view, the storm looked like it was actually a living creature, writhing and transforming with ever growing tentacles flowing out in several directions.

"Lexi," asked Pita, "based on the telemetry data, can you determine how long this storm will last before it abates?"  Lexi performed the necessary calculations and after a few moments he started to answer, but then went dark.  The blue lights in his eyes lights flickered and shut off.  He was inert. The same thing had happened in the storm they encountered on the far side of Flagstaff. 

It was at this moment that Captain Samwise remembered a dream he had while he slept on their way up from Bitter Springs to Page that he'd completely forgotten until just then.  It was a vision of a Kachina, the same one he'd seen outside of Mech Base 12, standing gigantically on a hill with a lightning storm behind him. Now he sensed the strange being had tried to warn him of the storm. He stared at it through the window of the AGV.  This wasn't a normal storm at all, he thought.

They drove about a thousand yards due north and parked next to the canyon wall. The AGV vibrated with a loud grinding sound as the vehicle drilled its heavy tungsten steel pylons into the ground to secure it.  Once done, Captain Samwise flipped the switch and they went into Low-Power mode.  Now they waited. The storm came roaring in.  A vast bolt of lightning struck within a hundred feet of their position, and all their lights and computer screens flickered.  Lexi remained inert.

Linda switched her view to the town and studied it in more detail on her Visi-Screen. She pinpointed the source of the light in the town as being the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, and mentioned it to the Captain. He took note of this fact, but took no action.  

"I never understood why back in the day they named Churches after ladders", commented Guns, trying to add a little levity, but the crew was a bit too nervous to respond in kind. The Church, at any rate, seemed too far to make a run for it under the circumstances. Looking at the radar image, Samwise noticed the storm was unaffected by the presence of the Church.  In fact, Samwise noted that the storm seemed to be flashing lightning around the Church more than anywhere else.  A number of buildings near it were hit by lightning and caught fire.  The dry hot wind fanned the fires and soon the buildings were engulfed in fiercely burning flames.

The wind kicked up a sand storm from under the cloud.  It was coming on as a wall of broiling brown, lit by hundreds of flashes of lightning.  Linda reported that it would hit the town in approximately 7 minutes.

All of a sudden there was a loud bang towards the rear of the AGV.  Fred, who was laying on his couch looking at the ceiling thinking, and was closest to the "bang", was jolted upright.  Everyone turned to look. He sat up and looked down across the aisle between him and the opposite couch. The sound had come from the steel door on the cabinet vault in which they had secured the iron chain, the talon'd hand, and the data crystal in its Hermetic-Box. That was the steel door that they had welded shut.  Below the door on the carpet he noticed something out of place. There was a piece of burned paper, somewhat crumpled, and stained laying on the floor.  He hadn't seen it there before.  He mentioned it vaguely to the Captain, but didn't feel very much like going down and seeing what it was. Guns, who had bobbed his head down to take a look, clambered from the turret, picked the piece of paper up, took a brief look at the words typed on it, and walked over to the Captain to hand it to him.  Without further ado, he climbed back up into the Perch to keep an eye on the storm.

Samwise, deeply puzzled as to where this slip of paper came from, read it out loud...

The Second Coming 
By W.B. Yeats 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre 
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. 
The Second Coming! 
Hardly are those words out 
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert 
A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, 
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it 
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. 
The darkness drops again; but now I know 
That twenty centuries of stony sleep 
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, 
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

As he finished the last line a tremendous clap of thunder engulfed them, loud enough to cause the AGV to vibrate, and then there was silence.  Even the winds seemed to die for a few moments.

Out in the desert Guns thought he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye.  It only lasted a moment.  Perhaps it was a shadow against a canyon wall, illuminated by several flashes of lightning.  It seemed to him to resemble the outlines of the black winged lion-like thing they'd seen on the top of the volcano two days earlier.  He rubbed his eyes. He was sure he'd seen something out there.  "Captain, there's something out there in the desert, sir. And I think it looked like that thing we saw on top of the volcano back yonder", he reported.  Samwise ordered Linda to see if she could locate it, but her best effort with the Visi-Screen only revealed something too fleeting to pin down.  An almost-shape, perhaps just an oddly transfixed shadow. She couldn't get a better read on it than that. Pita was watching out the window and he thought he saw it, too. But nothing showed up on their screens. And yet, still, the hair on the back of everyone's necks was standing up on end.

At this point the sand storm came barreling down on the AGV with a mighty and sustained roar. Despite the slim chance that a large enough lightning bolt could potentially cause a feedback loop with the AGV's outer power system, Captain Samwise decided to put up the Plasma Shell as additional protection. A shimmering silvery sphere surrounded the vehicle at a distance of about 20 feet on all sides. As the sand storm swept over them. millions of high speed grains of silicon burst into flaming iridescence as they hit the plasma, causing it to glow with sparkling bright orange flashes along the south east side.

No one said anything.

Suddenly there was another bang from the rear of the AGV, and this time the steel door was slightly yet visibly dented from the inside. The Captain stood up.  He walked down the aisle in order to inspect the cabinet for himself.  Indeed there was a dent, and a hairline fracture on the weld. As he looked another loud "bang!" caused him to step back. And now there were two dents.

He quickly went to work and unhinged a steel door from another cabinet, got his arc-torch, and began welding the second door over the first. There was another loud bang from inside which caused him to pull away, and now there where three dents in the door, and the the weld had a distinct crack in it.

"Captain, why not create some sort of electrical impulse thing that might take this thing out?", asked Guns. "You know ... can't you make one of those, watchya call em ... EMP things?"

"Well", replied Samwise, "that might cause..."

"Yes sir,", interjected Guns,"that's definitely for sure.  But then again, look at what that thing is doing in there, and the storm out there.  Hell, even if the AGV loses power and everything, we can just carry on like everyone else out here in the wilds... eat'in folks and walking down the roads barefoot, and you know... stuff like that.  We can make it, sir." 

Meanwhile, sitting in the Perch with his hands on the machine gun controls, Guns watched as a large dark shadow moved slowly across the surface the brightly sparking plasma. And then there was a redish glow which grew and transformed into a massive lion-like head fiercely protruded into the Plasma Shell from the outside, glowing crimson, eyes blazing with scarlet sparks, its enormous jaws gaping wide into inky blackness.  After a moment it receded, snarling in silent iridescent rage.  Guns blinked several times.

"Um, Captain," said Guns as calmly as he could, "I think we got a problem out there".

"What did you see?" asked the good Captain, trying to keep his voice steady.  

"Oh nothing, nothing.  Never you mind, sir.  Wasn't anything after all.  Why don't you just keep carrying on with that welding you're doing down there", replied Guns, realizing that trying to explain what he'd just seen at that moment would probably be counter productive. Everyone was already busy enough dealing with the menace inside the AGV.

"I think we might want to uproot and move on, actually, sir," put in Pita.  

"Why? Did you see something out there?" inquired Samwise as he put down his face plate and went back to welding.

"Well, I did see something that I didn't exactly like, sir.  And it's just that we're kind of like sitting ducks out here.  We might want to make a move before ... "

The door of the cabinet banged with a loud crack.  The original weld was broken. But the Captain was undeterred and resumed his work just the same. He decided to stay put and handle things there. He deemed it safer to stay grounded.

Guns began shooting the machine gun through the Plasma Shell.  Rattatatatatata!  Rattatatatatata! Rattatatatatata!

"What are you shooting at?!" demanded the Captain.

"I can't hear you over the machine gun fire, sir!" shouted Guns in reply.  He chewed through 3000 rounds.  He was pretty sure he hadn't hit anything.

Meanwhile, Fred was still laying on the couch, contemplating the poem.  He felt a pang of foreboding dread as he ruminated over its dark and sobering words, and put his hands down his pants. 

Another tremendous bang sent the good Captain sprawling backwards onto Fred.  This time the steel door was broken and set ajar by about a half inch.  The original weld was completely broken. Fred and Sam stared down through the half inch gap into the blackness of the cabinet-vault... they could see reflections of the blue static electric charges writhing up and down the iron chain, and caught a glimpse of it coiling and uncoiling like a serpent.

The Captain cast around for a heavy crate.  He thought if he put something heavy in front of the cabinet door, he could try to weld the door shut again.  However, he quickly realized that with the door broken there was no way he could get a flat surface layer upon which he could weld a solid seal.  He took his hammer out, and with a mighty blow, he bashed the door back into place.  Fred was deeply impressed by this.  Samwise won them a moment of reprieve.  Fred leapt down and told the Captain to step aside. His skill with this kind of welding was better than the Captain's.  However, when he tried, he couldn't get the weld to seal either.  It was shot. And this was unfortunate.  Another bash from the inside of the cabinet caused a spray of sparks to blow out from the cabinet door, and inside the iron chain was writhing wildly.  Fred shoved the arc-torch into the opening in the hopes that he could deter the chain long enough for them to come up with another plan. The Captain pulled out his beam pistol and aimed it at the crack.

Meanwhile Pita has been working on Lexi to try to fix the inert Android.  The panels on the back of his head were open, and Pita was working as quickly as he could, tapping across the circuitry to diagnose the problem, however he wasn't having any luck with it at all.  Something very strange had happened to their Android.  Something very strange indeed.

Guns sat spinning the turret around looking in every direction.  No sign of the fiery beast, but he maintained extreme vigilance.

While this all was happening Linda had stood up, looked at the crack in the vault door, and quietly walked over to the AGV Exit.  She stood there with her hand on the Exit panel, ready to open the door and flee out into the storm and down into any convenient hole she could find in the ravine.

"Now, now, Linda, don't do that," admonished Captain Samwise. "There's no need to go running out into the lightning storm, now is there?"

"Sir," she replied with a certain level of panic in her voice, "with all due respect, that thing in the cabinet is going to kill us all, if you can't contain it.  And frankly, I think our chances outside are appreciably better than inside."

"Don't worry, Linda. This is all happening in our heads. Nothing is going on. Just go over the Pita and he will back you up. But whatever you do, don't open that door," ordered the good Captain, but Linda evinced no sign of being inclined to obey that order.

"No sir. That chain has broken through a steel vault door.  I don't think you can stop it with a torch sir.  I don't think you can stop it with a Lewiston Beam Pistol, either, sir."

"Linda, there's still a storm going on out there with lightning arcing everywhere.  It's dangerous outside. Go towards the front and back up Pita."

"I think I'd rather take my chances with the storm, sir," she stated as she stared at the gap into which Fred had shoved the blazing arc-torch.  The edges of the cabinet had begun to glow red, and the fire-resistant couch cushions had already begun to smolder.  

Pita, restrain Linda," ordered the good Captain. 

"Snap out of it!", Pita demanded as he man-handled her away from the door.  

Guns shouted down from the turret, "You know, Captain, why don't we all don our Armored Body Suits, just in case Linda is right and we need to vamoose out of here?"  It was agreed that this was a sensible plan.  

Fred was screaming, "Get a fire extinguisher! Screw it! Screw it!"  With this Samwise grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall and began using it against the cushions.

Pita, meanwhile, got lucky and flipped the right switch in Lexi's head that turned him back on, however his Main Intelligence Unit was still offline.  His lights turned on, but he didn't speak.  He did look around, and his eyes blinked.  This was a step in the right direction at least.

Guns pointed out that the chain must be reacting to the presence of the storm, and that the two events were related.  They thought about how to cut off the link between the two.  Perhaps it was sound that linked them?  Or electromagnetic frequency. They asked Linda if she could find a way to do something along those lines. She was far too panicked to do anything more than stand next to the AGV door.  So Guns went to her panel and began fumbling randomly with dials.  She was not impressed.  Fred then spoke up.

"Linda, your sister wouldn't walk out on her mission.  Don't you do this!"  She was seriously affected by this. 

"It may be our only chance of survival, you realize," she retorted.

"None of us has given up yet, I don't know why you are.  Get back to your station and help us solve this situation!" commanded Captain Samwise with a determination and resolve that none of them had heard from him before.

And with that Linda grimly returned to her station, pushed Guns aside and began working the dials.

Pita, with another lucky flip of a switch, got Lexi's Intelligence Units back online. It seemed to him mighty strange that the offline switch had been flipped to begin with. "Lexi, do you know what happened just now?" he asked.

"No, sir, I do not," replied the Android.  

"Somehow your Intelligence Unit Power Line had been switched off.  Is that something you could do?"  

"It is possible sir, but I would not do that."

"Then the only alternative is that someone else in the AGV did it."

"That would seem like a logical conclusion," replied Lexi.

"Which implies that we have a saboteur onboard," stated Pita.

They decided that under the circumstances they would have to skirt the issue.  Lexi was tasked with helping to secure the cabinet door.  With his robotic strength he was able to grip the door shut long enough for Fred to put a temporary weld in place.  The chain was bashing and thrashing inside the cabinet. The weld would be unlikely to hold for long, but it did buy them a bit more time.  

"What's that chain made of?" asked Guns.

"Iron," said Samwise.

"Well, why don't you use that education of yours and build some sort of magnet thing to hold it down", suggested the gunner.

The team discussed this idea back and forth for a minute.  They considered using Lexi's new high capacity Brachiation Motor to generate a powerful enough magnetic field. The problem would be that any field of sufficient strength to restrain the chain would likely also affect all of the circuitry in the AGV.  That could be disastrous.  They considered creating a Faraday cage but the complications involved with getting the both the Magnetic-Field Generator inside the cage, along with the iron chain itself, given it's electric charge and apparent strength, turned out to be impractical and unlikely to work.  The other problem would be how to wield the magnetic device so that the chain could be managed if it indeed could be restrained by it.  Nevertheless, despite their reservations Samwise quickly crafted a makeshift Faraday Cage, but he couldn't work out the technical problem of how to use it to trap the chain.  So be it.  He put the cage aside and went to work removing the Brachiation Motor from Lexi, and one of the Power Crystals from the AGV, and used them to constructed a Unidirectional High Intensity Magnetic Field Generator, and attached it to a mount that could be wielded by holding onto two handles on its sides.  With this they could, if all went well, immobilize the chain for long enough to get it outside the AGV.

They were aware of the fact that the Plasma Shell had been significantly draining their power supply, and at some point the unit would fail. They had to move fast because the Shell was already losing power, and Linda noted that it had visibly dimmed.  

The Captain decided he would be willing to sacrifice the AGV's circuitry on the expectation that it would still be able to function mechanically as a vehicle should the Magnetic Field actually take out the onboard computers. It was a risk they'd have to take. They downloaded all of their most important data into Lexi, who would step outside to protect his own circuits from the Magnetic Field, and the rest was downloaded to Fred's Portable Spike, which they put inside the makeshift Faraday cage.  They wanted to put the Data Crystal that they obtained from James Maloy into the cage as well, but getting it out of the cabinet vault in order to do so seemed like a bridge to far.  There was a chance, however, that the container the Data Crystal was locked inside of might protect it sufficiently to keep it from being destroyed. 

Everyone put on their Armored Suits. They opened the AGV door and Lexi walked with his old stilted gait outside, followed by Linda who held on to his arm as they moved along the side of the vehicle away from the door.  The Plasma Shell was faded but still shimmering, its external power supply nearly depleted. 

And so they decided they were ready.

Sam flipped the switch on the Magnetic Field Generator.  

Every panel and component in the AGV began to spark, and small fires broke out as the magnetic field fried circuits in every direction.  Fred used a crowbar to violently unhinge the cabinet door, and Samwise shoved the Magnetic Coil into the cabinet. He managed to get the iron chain to lock onto the coil.  It was almost immobilized by the powerful field, but not entirely, and so it used its mysterious power it had to pull its "head" off of the trap, and began to coil itself slowly in the air trying to latch onto something. It found the Captain's arm.  Unfortunately, Samwise was not the strongest man in the world, and the device immediately latched onto the cabinet door and he could not pull it lose, try as he might. They needed to get the device through the door of the AGV so they could get the chain outside.  

Bright blue electric arcs were flying in bizarre patterns off the chain and being diverted along invisible lines of force into the magnet.  Seeing the Captain trapped against the hull, Guns, a man of considerable physical strength, leapt into action and grabbed the wildly sparking device, and with a heave detached it from the hull.  From there he used his brawn to maneuver it towards the AGV door.  The chain was not entirely immobilized, however, and was still writhing around, albeit slowly, and managed to wrap itself around Guns' arm as he pulled and shoved against the magnetic field towards the Exit.  Sam wanted Guns to throw the device outside, but it was apparent that the powerful field would merely cause the device to latch onto the side of the AGV and they'd never be rid of the chain.  Samwise tried to help Guns maneuver the device, but his lack of physical strength was such that there was little he could do to prevent the chain from wrapping itself around Gun's body.  The chain seemed intent on wrapping itself around the hero's neck.  With this, Guns was unable to prevent the magnet from reattaching to the hull just inside the Exit, and so was trapped within the coils of the chain.

Seeing this, Pita, also a man of formidable strength, leapt into action and grabbed onto the chain. And while he did so he executed one of his Mentarian Powers, known as Psychometry, which allows Mentarians to see the history of any thing they are touching. With his great strength he pulled both the magnet off the hull, and the chain off of Guns.  He felt his strength was even greater than usual, and that somehow something was helping him to execute these maneuvers. Could it have been the Kachina?  Perhaps it was.  

Pita now controlled the chain and walked steadily through the AGV doorway and outside into the storm wind.  As he did, he found his mind leaping back in time along the trajectory of the chain's long and dreadful history.  He suddenly knew the thing's name.  It was known from ancient times as "The Chain of Thanatos".  It was far older than his mind could see, its origins buried in the sands of time, but he could see as far back as a thousand years.  The chain being hoisted up in a special box, ornate and dazzling, overlooking a body of water from the walls of an ancient city.  Men were yelling, fires were burning, flaming arrows whizzed through the air.  The man holding the box was Prince Alexius III of Byzantium.  Below the wall there were dozens of Venetian warships mounted with Crusader flags. The chain was allowed to fall out of the box and into the waters below.  It began moving through the waters like a great iron serpent, and through the hulls of each ship it bored a gaping hole, wrapped itself around the masts, and slew anyone who came within range.  Amid fire and smoke and blood curdling screams, the Crusader ships were destroyed and sank beneath the waves.  And then the vision faded.

A fantastic amount of lightning was striking the Plasma Shell. Pita lumbered heavily away from the AGV until he felt that the field would not cause the device and chain to fly backwards towards the hull.  He came within five feet of the Plasma Shell before he felt there was even a chance that the magnet would not bound back towards the AGV.  

At that moment a bright red spot appeared on the surface of the Plasma Shell. It rapidly grew from a foot to five feet to ten feet, forming the blazing lion's head that appeared like some unholy apparition of evil rage. It seemed to be pushing its way entirely through the weakened shell and one paw began protruding through, bearing down on Pita.  He felt his skin starting to burn and the smell of burning hair filled his nostrils.

"Throw it into the Plasma Shell!" shouted Captain Samwise. 

And with that Pita hurled the Magnetic Field Generator at the lion's head, flipped it the bird, spun around on his heels and ran as fast as he could back towards the AGV doorway.  As he got close he grabbed Linda in both arms, and then there was a massive explosion from behind. He and Linda were hurled through the door into the AGV, and at that exact moment, every electronic component in the AGV, top to bottom, was utterly fried in a cascade of sparks and fire, and everything went black. 

There everyone lay or stood, singed and panting as the storm outside rapidly abated, and the lightning began to lessen and fade away.  Pita watched the reflections of the last bolts of lightning in Linda's eyes.

And that's where we left things that night.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

The Teachings of Disaster

Ah! Finally! I have been restored to civilization! I now have electricity again after 5 days. Internet access has also been restored! Now, from all this I want to tell you a few things I learned from my experience. 

1. There is no prep adequate when your Leaders have failed to establish a sound and reliable infrastructure in the case of disasters. We have no such leadership, nor have we for several decades now. No one should feel smug and safe that somehow natural disasters won't impact them harshly, nor that whatever preparations they have spent time and money making will actually be adequate when the infrastructure itself fails. You can please thank the Leadership for that fact. 

2. Fire-tech is really the most essential tech we have. Being able to see in the dark means you can move around in the cave at night. Without it ... holy crap, after the sun goes down, that's it. You're done. Plus ... it cooks food. Scares animals away. Warms the cave. I mean ... seriously. Fire is the actual high tech of our species. 

3. The mind is an amazing thing. When faced with an ice cold shower you can calm your mind, and enter it without flinching or cringing if you have the right state of mind. It took one ultra-cringy ice cold shower for me to get it together and calm my mind down about it. After the third day I could walk into the icy water and not flinch, but just take a normal shower. The hardest part was turning around for icy water on the back. But still, if you have the right state of mind, it becomes much easier to deal with. 

4. I do not need the internet, or advanced tech, nor does it need me. We spend a lot of time doing stuff in the Virtual World, and frankly, about 90% of that is a waste of our time. Not that without it we have anything better to do, really, but I am now aware that most of my time, generally speaking, is simply wasted on endeavors that produce no results. Elthos RPG is a good example. I spent 24 years working on it, and hardly a living soul in this world knows about it, cares about it, wants to use it, or has even ever heard of it. Of course, that is my fault in this sense - My priority has been to work on it as a game to be created, a technological problem to be solved, and a fun time to be had whiling away the days and years ... not as a business to make prosper. If I want to do that going forward I will need to completely change my orientation in regards to the project. I have a product and a service. What I do not have is a business. Note to self: next lifetime be sure to put a team together earlier in the timeline. This kind of thing can not be made to prosper by one person working alone. Also note: I found out that I can live just fine without Elthos. I don't need it existentially. It is simply a project I have worked on in order to bide my time and occupy my mind while the world collapses. I also wanted to leave a game system as my legacy to this world, and a print copy of the Elthos Rules would probably suffice after the apocalypse, so I think I have achieved that goal already. Mythos Machine, on the other hand, wouldn't survive a civilization collapse unless the Microsoft OS survived. And I suspect the rampaging hordes of Angry Techs will ensure that does not happen once the Great Collapse begins. Just a hunch on that one. But the Elthos RPG rules and one six-sided die is compact enough and simple enough to survive the dark age. I hope it does. The lesson I learned being: Do not be too attached the things of this world. They will not last. Pretty sure. 

Ok, those are my valuable life lessons that I learned from my experience. It's been a good experience.


Monday, July 27, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's his name?" asked Pita.

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

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

"Where is this Maloy?" asked Samwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who is Kachina?" asked Samwise.

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

"Did you see that, Pita?"

"No, sir," replied Pita.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's where we left things.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 8

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

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

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

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

The Unexpected Visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring the Base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, something alarming was happening in the AGV.

Dangerous Rattling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Help! Help!", he cried plaintively.

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

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

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

Inside The Data-Vault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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