Saturday, October 29, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 39

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes!" exclaimed Samwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bang! Bang!  - - Bang!Bang!Bang! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Aw crap," said Fred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yum Yum.

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

Glug Glug.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nein!" shouted Vallnam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was where we left things that night.

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