Friday, November 11, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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