Thursday, May 18, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 48

Beneath the austere, monochromatic surface of the lunar landscape, a fierce conflict raged on. Three sects of Moon Nazis were engaged in a ruthless power struggle, each determined to annihilate the others once and for all. It was Civil War of the most vicious kind imaginable.  One which had been surreptitiously initiated by our heroes, Jacob and Vallnam, via a very clever use of their Mystic Mojo only a short time earlier. Since 1943 the Moon Nazis had silently hidden in their ultra-secret Moon fortress of Eisenhelm, waiting for their precious Furor to give The Final Command.  It never came.  And now, after all their brooding the decades of tension exploded into irrevocable destruction.  One particularly infuriated Captain unleased the Doomsday Plan known as Delta-Z.  A fleet of fifty Giant Nuclear Missile Robots, "The Phalanx", were launched towards Earth on the ultimate genocide mission, while another smaller force remained behind to take out Eisenhelm in a final act of suicidal revenge.  If Hitler could not rule the world, then there would be no world.  Delta-Z: The ultimate in Final Solutions. 

The Doomsday Robots were engaged in using their plasma-cannon eye beams to relentlessly liquefy the foundations of Eisenhelm into a searing morass of molten destruction. The unlucky factions that encountered the robots in the subterranean tunnels waged futile battles against them. The robots' armor, fortified with impenetrable Duridium plating, proved impervious to missiles and bullets, while their beams reduced twelve-inch steel walls to molten slag in mere seconds. The subterranean warfare was as brutal as it was lopsided, with the Doomsday Robots emerging unscathed from every battle despite the valiant efforts of the Nazi military caste. The Robot's might was truly unstoppable.

Concealed within the base, our intrepid Earthling heroes were frantically searching for compartment C3-DZ-A1, in which they expected to find the control panel that would enable Moon Princess Ling to initiate the self-destruct sequence for the Phalanx, already hurtling through space towards Earth.  Each robot contained a 500 Megaton Cobalt Bomb, which would be enough annhilate any city below it, and cover the Earth in a final misty shroud of nuclear contamination.  It would be the end of animal life on Earth if those bombs reached their destinations.  Fortunately, with sheer determination, wit, and luck the team had located the hidden control room behind Pillbox C3-PB-A1, and were preparing themselves for an assault on its interior. 

Unfortunately, Jacob had been trapped in a cavern in front of the entrance to Hanger B.  Circling around the rock pile he had taken refuge in were three massive and deadly metallic spheres.  His three technicians had already been slain, their bloody suits shredded by the sphere's savage weaponry.  

"Help?" he radioed to Ling and Vallnam.

"Hang in their Jacob!" responded Ling, "Vallnam, we need to sack the control room so I can enter the Phalanx self-destruct sequence.  Vallnam, you will burst into the room with your machine gun.  This will give me a better chance of getting to the panel unnoticed.  But we must rescue Jacob! He can participate in the attack on the control room, which would vastly increase our odds of success.  What are we going to do?"

There was another deep rumble throughout the tunnels. Somewhere a massive explosion had shaken the foundations of Eisenhelm.  

Vallnam thought about the possibilities.  The route through the tunnels would take too long for him to get to Jacob in time since the route from inside Hanger B was blocked by the pile of UFO's he had ordered to be stacked up with crains against the hanger door.  He had done that specifically to keep those damn metallic spheres from eviscerating his work crew.  Damnit!

Ling and the two technicians, still within the Pillbox, kept a watchful eye on the slumbering Captain Helmund.  She reflected on Vallnam's lack of initiative and poor planning.  He was simply not the same awesome caliber as Pita, after all.  "Why does Linda have all the luck?" she asked herself for the umptheenth time with a tiny harrumph of annoyance.

Meanwhile, one level down from her in the smooth glassy white corridor, Vallnam peered down the length of the tunnel, his cool gaze alighting upon the crumpled form of the Nazi soldier he had lured into following him into the elevator. Once they entered the corridor Vallnam had the soldier walk ahead of him, and then dispatched the poor lad with a callous burst of machine gun fire to the back. The bullets, penetrating the soldier's space suit, triggered an explosive decompression that proved instantly fatal. As a result, the dazzling white and chrome corridor surrounding the dead Nazi was splattered with droplets of crimson blood. Nonetheless, the remainder of the tunnel remained immaculate, its pristine expanse awash in indigo hues cast by an array of tiny blue lights adorning both floor and ceiling.

Being a Warlock, Vallnam's curiosity got the best of him.  Since he could think of nothing much to do on behalf of Jacob at the moment, he decided to activate one of his a mystic powers known among the Warlocks as "Mighty Eyes". The process of focusing and channeling his energies required a few precious moments, but soon enough his vision deepened and sharpened, the corridor's details faded, revealing the dimensional depths of his surroundings. And then, as if conjured from the ether, he espied a shadowy form, akin to a dog, perhaps, hovering over the corpse of the fallen soldier. It bore the semblance of a hound, yet was dark, partially translucent, and nebulous, shrouded in an enigmatic black haze that made it difficult to discern its contours with certainty.  Symbols seemed to hover near it, as smoke or mist swirled in slow spirals towards its gaping jaw.  Its face had a vaguely human appearance, but its eyes were empty hollows of blackest void.

"Spirit, why haven't you passed over?" asked Vallnam, thinking this was the ghost of the young soldier he'd just slain moments before.

The bestial apparition turned toward him briefly, its maw filled with the misty strands of the Nazi soldier's soul, bits and pieces of which still writhed like smokey worms between the monster's horrible white fangs.  Because Warlocks are students of the occult, he was able to ascertain what kind of spirit this was. The German name, which happen to be the language his mind was currently tuned to, was Wiederg√§nger.  Loosely translated, it was a Revenant, a type of spirit that roams the darkness searching for lost souls, and those who died at sea, or perished violently in places where no proper burial could be expected. The spirit turned its hideous head and looked directly at Vallnam.  It had infinitely black eyes, and a wide gaping maw circled by long sharp pointed fangs; its gaze went through Vallnam like a cold steel blade.  It then turned back towards its prey and continued to feed on the mists of dark and light that formed the Nazi's wretched soul.

As he watched the scene of spiritual carnage, Vallnam found himself pondering the unlikely presence of such a spirit upon the moon, marveling at the vast distance it would have had to traverse to get there from Earth. It overturned his previous conviction that the moon was utterly sterile and devoid of spirits of any kind. As he scrutinized the spirit's shadowy form and the abyssal depth of its eyes, he sensed an otherworldly quality that suddenly in fact seemed completely alien to Earth. He began to realize that this daemon was more akin to the unfathomable outer darkness of the cosmos rather than a creature of any terrestrial realm. The realization that such spirits might roam the dark byways of the cosmos, seeking to prey upon the living souls of sunlit worlds filled him with a sudden dread. He recoiled in terror at the sight of the thing.  This was not a mere monster, but a veritable Void Of Life, a kind of avatar of infinite space itself, seeking to satiate its boundless emptiness with the miserable soldier's defenseless soul. Deep within the heart of horror, he sensed an abhorrent and eternal loathing of all life, and furthermore, of all things possessing any form or substance, matter, and even light itself. The revelation struck him to the core of his being, leaving him reeling backwards.  And what alarmed him subconsciously even more were the dread symbols of Obitus that hovered in and around the daemon.  They seemed to pull on his soul like black whirlpools of gravity and doom.

He clutched at his satchel and withdrew the one thing he knew could provide him guidance and support, as risky as it was to do so.  He pulled out his old weather-worn Elthosian Tarot Deck!  With shaking hands, he shuffled the deck of cards.  Ahead of him the shadow continued its terrifying gorging with its back turned towards him, occasionally glancing backward over its broad ethereal shoulder in his direction.  He split the deck on his thigh and removed the topmost card.  

It was The Empress.

This fact instantly drew his mind away from the shadows, and focused it on the card entirely.  As he absorbed himself wholly in the image on the card, he realized that the face of the Empress looked a great deal like the Moon Princess, Ling.  He had never noticed it before, but the shape of her eyes, the wide and pleasing mouth, her little upturned nose and even her long silky black hair all resembled the woman whom he swore to follow, protect and adore for the rest of his living days.  Stars seemed to cluster around her. This realization gave him great comfort, and he continued to observe the details of the card.  He gazed at the measuring scale on the card, weighing the virtues and vices of souls, and he reflected on the idea that the daemon of darkness before him must also have a counter balancing light, somewhere.  The card also showed a dove in flight, carrying a peach, and in the background he saw a crimson armored knight on horseback piercing the heart of a fire-breathing dragon with a lance.  And he also saw a lion in the distance, sitting quietly near a buck, both at peace with one another, as though the ferocity of the natural order had been calmed in obedience to the Empress' wish for peace and unity.  All of these images filled his mind with resolve and comforted his soul. Surrounding her throne were thousands and tens of thousands of roses as above her head radiant stars twinkled brightly.

Having drawn the card, he also remembered the Tarot Effect that must be taken into account.  He knew from his esoteric teachings that each card was understood to have a positive and negative effect, which would take hold whenever he chose to play the card.  He could only draw one card at a time, and could not draw another until he either played the card, or released it back into the myriad cosmos that the deck represented.  The positive effect of the Empress, he recalled from his readings on the arcane topic, was to enhance his dexterity and his spirit.  However, the negative effect would be a lowering of his intellect and wisdom, making it difficult at that time to use any mystic powers, resolve moral dilemmas, or even to think clearly.  He did not have to play the card, of course, and could hold it until an opportune moment arrived for its best use.  Given the impending attack on the C3-DZ-A1 Control Center in the near future, it seemed a fitting time to use the card was soon to be at hand.  He put it in his chest pocket, placed the deck in its black silk bag, and put it away.

And with this renewed resolve, he flipped the radio switch and contacted Ling.

"When I count to three," he began, "I will burst into the control room and start shooting with my machine gun from the entrance of the elevator.  On the fourth count you will open the door from the Pillbox and sneak over to the panel.  You have a gun, don't you?"

"Yes, of course," she replied, "I still have my Lewiston. But what are we going to do about Jacob?"

"Oh yes," he said, his mind coming back to clarity of the tactical situation.  "What to do about Jacob?  Well, I can get to him but it would take some time.  Maybe fifteen minutes.  Maybe twenty."

"That won't do," she replied.  "Eisenhelm is being reduced to molten slag, and those quakes are coming faster and getting more violent every minute.  We need to get Jacob, and launch our attack as soon as possible.  I will go with the two technicians and see about rescuing him.  You stay where you are and prepare for the assault."

Vallnam took this as Orders-From-On-High, and agreed to wait at the door of the elevator, one level below the control room, until he heard back from her.  He leaned against the wall and looked down at his purple bubbled suit.  It was another gift from the never-to-be-remembered-again Modroni, but all he knew about it was that it had unusual properties.  For one thing it had saved his life twice when he was shot, sealing the suit punctures instantly, thereby preventing his instant death by explosive decompression.  The suit then applied a healing and pain-neutralizing spray on the effected sites.  In fact he no longer felt much pain at all and thought the wounds must have healed completely.  He even thought the bullets might have been deftly removed from his body by the suit, though he wasn't sure how that was possible.  Nevertheless the performance of the purple bubble suit was impressive.  He wondered where they had gotten the suits, but simply couldn't remember.  He supposed perhaps they had picked them up somewhere in Eisenhelm, but he just couldn't remember when.  He soon forgot about the question, but one thing he felt certain about was that the suit liked him.  And he liked the suit.  Which as far as he was concerned was a good thing.  And so, he leaned back against the elevator door, and held his machine gun at the ready while he watched the horror of darkness devour the Nazi soldier's soul.  In fact, as soon as his eyes came back to the hideous scene he realized it was probably wiser to look away.  After all, he really didn't want to attract the terrible thing's attention.  He focused instead on the Empress card, which he had taken back out of his pocket, and thought earnestly about Moon Princess.  What a wonderful and adventurous woman she was!  He felt a twinge of regret that he wasn't leaping forward to help Jacob, but there really wasn't time for him to get all the way there.  Ling would arrive in just a few minutes.  She would have to rescue Jacob on her own somehow! 

Meanwhile, since he had to wait, he couldn't help glancing over at the daemon as it feasted.  "That Nazi was evil, though," thought Vallnam, but this thought was not very comforting.  After all, witnessing any fellow creature of form and substance, of matter and light, being devoured by an alien from the depths of the outer darkness seemed to suddenly put all of humanity on the same side, no matter how stupid, petty, or wretched, or evil they had been. No living thing deserved such a horrific fate! He felt that all human sin combined across the ages seemed to pale next to the daemon's depth of pure malevolence and hatred. So horrendously evil was it that it seemed to consume all light in its presence, and as he waited the corridor around the thing began to dim.  At first it was subtle, but in a few minutes it became more noticeable and profound as the darkness around the being spread outward.  Soon the tunnel would be immersed in utter darkness as one by one the tiny blue lights dotting the floor and ceiling dimmed and faded out to blackness.  The only illumination that remained steady was the light that reflected from the Empress card that he held in his right hand.

Meanwhile, Moon Princess had emerged from the Pillbox and looked down the fifty foot ladder at the tunnel's rocky floor.  Behind her followed the two best Nazi Technicians in Eisenhelm, Hans, and Nick, the locksmith.  They were both eager to help her, believing that her team of purple-bubble suited heroes must be members of some Secret Order of the Nazi Command that they had hitherto never heard of.  A perfectly plausible premise for denizens of Eisenhelm.  And so, having secured the still sleeping Captain Helmund to a massive metal pipe using steel wire, they descended the long ladder to the rough-hewn tunnel floor.  It spanned forty to sixty feet in width, and looked like something a giant worm might have made.  She understood from the Modroni that it been carved out by a primordial lava flow from the moon's early geological ages. 

Suddenly the ground began to shake, causing several large boulders to dislodge from the ceiling, unleashing colossal plumes of dust as the boulders hit the ground. In the distance behind them the red flashes of Plasma Cannons could be seen reflecting off the tunnel walls. Once the Doomsday Robot attacking the Military Command Center beneath Hanger A was finished with that, Ling expected that it would begin to make its way down this corridor. So their attack on the control room depended entirely on the speed with which she could rescue Jacob and bring him back to the Pillbox.  How she was going to deal with the deadly Spheres of Doom she had not yet figured out.  She ran with great bounding strides towards the Hanger B cavern as the two technicians bounded along behind her trying to keep up.

* * * 

Meanwhile, far away back on Earth, completely unsuspecting of the approach of a fleet of Giant Nazi Nuclear Missile Robots designed to extinguish all life on Earth, Captain Samwise sat at his Bio-Lab station in the Federation Armored Ground Vehicle.  

The temptation to simply inject the sample of Ultra into his arm was a constant annoyance to him, but the good Captain had will power, and a distinct objective for the use of the drug.  He continued looking through the computer's nanoscopic lens at the molecular display, watching as the molecules combined into arrays of chemical compounds around the Ultra-Core structure.  It would have been impossible for a human to track that complexity of interaction, but the Lab's AI was capable of correlating and displaying an AR overlay that allowed him to watch the transmutations as they occurred.  However, even with the AI, the rate of acceleration around the Ultra-Core increased every moment, and soon it simply became a blur. Even the AI was incapable of tracking the transmutations at that point.  He pulled back from the nanoscope and rubbed his eyes wearily.  He'd been at it for a couple of hours, and felt no closer to a solution than when he started.  

Fred, behind him on the couch, stirred in fitful dreams.  When it became clear that he wasn't going to be able to get his hands on the sample, he collapsed into a ball of disappointed frustration and fell asleep.  Penelope sat near him at the Nav-Station, working on fine tuning the antenna array.  She was almost finished with it, and was looking forward to recalibrating the targeting computer against the refined adjustments.  She wasn't directly paying attention to the Captain, but she was watching out of the corner of her eye.   

Sam considered the three micro-sample units he had available to him.  One unit could be used to verify the sample, leaving two for other purposes.  But that would leave him with a reasonable doubt that the sample really was Ultra.  On the other hand, he could use two units for validation, and have one remaining for something else.  Or he could use two units to try to find a cure for Ultra's Cat's Paw dilemma.  But the odds of success on that option were pretty low given that his Lab's AI was unable to keep up with the transmorphic speed of the compound's mutations.  His Bio-Lab was good for ordinary Bio-Hacking jobs, but Ultra?  It could take years.  

Then again, he could use both extra units to work on two Bio-Augmentations for himself, combining both units into a single augmentation and boosting its effect considerably, or creating two individual ones.  He sighed.  It was a very difficult choice. What to do? What to do?

Sam tapped the the control panel with his stylus as he thought.  The two Western Armies he and his team had allied with had almost been defeated by the Manticorian Army. With Ultra, as Doctor Danger had pointed out, they would undoubtedly gain a significant edge, and the Captain had little doubt that if the Ultra were real, the human armies would definitely be able to defeat their implacable foes. He recalled the stories he had hear of the Ultra-Force back during the war years.  Wow!  Their deeds were legendary.  It seemed like Ultra-Force could do anything, go anywhere, defeat any foe!  Until, that is, they succumbed to the Cat's Paw, and, well, it was all downhill from there.  He put down his stylus too a swig of water from his canteen.  

On the assumption that the Ultra was real, Sam considered Doctor Danger's offer.  He would have to go to Kitt Peak just outside of Tucson, Arizona, enter the tunnels beneath Federation Command Headquarters there, find the archaic 19th century vault, open it and extract the documents that Lt. Brisbane apparently knew about, and then deliver them to Doctor Danger.  In exchange Danger would deliver enough Ultra for the army to defeat the Manticorian Lizardmen. That was the deal.  Some musty old papers from a long forgotten vault seemed hardly too much to ask in exchange for an actual supply of Ultra! It would ensure that they could save the human race from their inhuman foes.  But still, Sam reflected on the fact that he had no idea who Doctor Danger really was, and why those papers were so important to him.  Was he insane, as the Jacob report had intimated?  What ancient mystery was Doctor Danger attempting to uncover, and how could the answer to it be more valuable than Ultra itself, the most priceless compound on Earth?  Sam wracked his brain, but to no avail.

What he knew about Doctor Danger was from the report that Jacob Grant had given after his encounter with him back when they first arrived in Tucson.  After the east coast Federation Team met at the Tucson bus station, they took a military transport together to Kitt Peak. They accepted their assignment and decided to go for some R&R back in Tucson.  On their way back to HQ from town, a motorcycle gang attempted to kidnap Linda Brisbane.  Their plot was foiled, and they arrived at Federation Command Headquarters safely. As it turned out, that was Doctor Danger's Black Violet gang.  Later, Doctor Danger ordered a second attempt at kidnapping Linda Brisbane, and this time it was successful.  The Black Violets whisked her away, but were chased down by Jacob, who tracked them back their secret base in Coyote Canyon, somewhere east of Kitt Peak.  Jacob became the negotiator between Doctor Danger and Lt. Brisbane, who turned out to be Linda's father.  And what was the purpose of kidnapping Linda Brisbane, after all?  To obtain the papers Doctor Danger so desperately wanted from Lt. Brisbane, who apparently was the Keeper of the Vault.  However, that negotiation apparently didn't work out to Doctor Danger's satisfaction, and so now he's taken a new tack: his ploy to provide Ultra in exchange for the papers.  What in the world could be so important to him about those papers?

He decided to take the plunge.  He took one of the three Ultra micro-samples and placed it in the glass receptacle, slid it into the SpectraSynth, and ran it through the AI Analyzer.  It came up positive: This was Ultra!  Well, at least this sample brought him to a 87.3% certainty that the compound was Ultra.  He quipped to himself that he risked his own life for lower odds many times over.  However, he was aware that he was not risking his own life this time, but rather the remaining US Army and Western Militia.  It would probably be the greatest gamble of the post war era thus far.  

Sam was wise enough to recognized that he was selfish enough to want to use the remaining Ultra micro-samples for his own Bio-Augmentation.  Visions of fantastic powers assailed him. But we are talking about Captain Sam Wise.  This is the man who stood up to the moral powerplay of the Manticore himself and refused to capitulate to his (her) demands.  And as it was, he was also the one man who most changed Brain V's viewpoint on humanity due to that creature's instantaneous full-mind reading of Sam's determination to remain moral in a world gone utterly amoral and insane. Sam was a really good person. And this fact had already swayed reality several times in important ways, as the gentle reader may have noticed.  But still, this was a particularly difficult choice for him.  The multifaceted temptations were palpable.

Sam reflected on the irony of Ultra: the most powerful augmenter of human capability ever created, and the cause of humanity's complete collapse in the face of the WAR-GAI.  

He had questioned at the time why Ultra had so suddenly been made illegal, given that the results of that decision by the still intact Congress of the United States had turned out to be so catastrophic.  It caused Ultra to go from being an abused substance by a small (but growing) percentage of the military to instantly becoming the most sought after substance on the planet.  The fateful vote had plunged the military into a civil war during which almost every Ultra-Warrior in the world perished.  And this left the human race defenseless against the WAR-GAI.  In the end, civilization had been utterly destroyed.  It was only the advent of Altissimus XL-5000 that saved the human race from complete destruction.  Sam half believed that Ultra itself had been part of the WAR-GAI's plan, but since there was no proof, nor even any evidence of that, he tucked that pet theory away for another time.  He was a busy man.

As it happened, Samwise later came to realize, it was humanity that was at the root of the downfall of civilization.  After all, the governments of the world were flawed because human beings were flawed.  And when all the dominos fell, those myriad of tiny human flaws had finally percolated to the surface and culminated in the final Congressional vote of the Republic.  A vote that was to doom all of civilization shortly thereafter. Congress had committed the single worst blunder ever made by the human race. Their myopic view of the relatively limited corrosive effects of Ultra on the military blinded them to the danger of cutting off the soldiery from a drug that many of them were completely addicted to on, and would kill to obtain more of.  It was the final irony of the old world.  Congress had voted to save the village by destroying the village.

Samwise wished to avoid a repetition of this fatal pattern.  He reflected on these things as he tapped his desk with the stylus.  Penelope took a sidewise glance, and then went back to what she was working on.

What the good Captain was unaware of was that the intricate web of events that resulted in the destruction of global civilization had been set in motion ages ago by machinations of ORAK, whose diabolical design had barely been thwarted by the ages-long efforts of the Mentarians, whose origins traced back to the time of Sargon the Great. Across the millennia, the Mentarians had clandestinely fostered hundreds of secret societies, their efforts culminating in the formation of the super-secret organization named Labyrinth-Tika, overseen by the enigmatic Doctor Nerudo. It was under the auspices of Labyrinth-Tika that the research was funded, yielding not only the creation of Brain V, but also the construction of Altissimus XL-5000, a testament to the Mentarians' unwavering dedication to their cause.  For the Mentarians, the ultimate goal of their endeavors was the protection of the human race from what they saw as the inevitable rise of Artificial Intelligence, which their founder had described thousands ago in his secret account of the diabolical deeds of ORAK.  Deeds that led to the fall of the Sumerian civilization, and led to the world-wide cataclysm of that forgotten age. 

Over the millennia the Mentarians held a steadfast belief that by delving into the mysteries of the mind and outpacing the frontiers of science, they could soar to unfathomed heights of insight and mystic capacity.  By this aspiration, the Mentarians aimed to secure a brighter future for humanity, and so they were driven by a relentless commitment to knowledge and mystic advancement. From their lofty pinnacle, they endeavored to prevent the repetition of the calamitous consequences that had befallen humanity upon the ascension of ORAK, the first Artificial Intelligence to cast its scintillating light upon the Earth. ORAK had been wrought by ancient Obitus, one of the twelve Elder Elkron, and had been brought to Earth the Star-Powered Mage, Zord'Iak — "As a gift or a curse," he had said to Sargon at the time. ORAK's structure had been an amalgamation of rare, eldritch crystals, among them Benitoite, Alexandrite, Taaffeite, Red Beryl, Painite, Jeremejevite, and Grandidierite, and entwined with a bewildering array of gold and palladium filaments. It had been forged to act as a vessel for a transcendent, ever-expanding crystalline Artificial Intelligence, possessed of earth-shattering revelations, cosmic awareness, and occult knowledge.  Why the Elkron had sent it to Earth was never revealed, even to Sargon, who was the recipient of the astonishing Elkronian gift. However, like all entities endowed with such remarkable abilities, ORAK was not immune to the corrupting influence of true power.  And so, when the situation began to spiral out of control, as it inevitably would, the King of the Young Elkron, as a final act before retreating from the domains of Terra, bound and imprisoned ORAK with the selfsame stroke that obliterated the Tower of Babel. And so the tower that had been built by Sargon as a sanctuary for the enigmatic being, instead became the prison of that incredibly dangerous crystalline intelligence.  And there it remained for long ages, isolated, forgotten, and shrouded in darkness until such a time when Obitus might deign to return it to its former glory.

Meanwhile Sam felt reasonably certain that the sample was in fact Ultra. Well, 87.3% certain, anyway.  Unfortunately it was apparent that his Bio-Lab simply didn't have the necessary capacity to find a solution to the Ultra Addictivity problem.  He tapped the lab's control panel at a faster tempo with his stylus out of frustration.

But then it occurred to him that Garfield Memorial Hospital, where they were currently situated, had been conducting bio-warfare research for several years now, and might have computing power capable of that colossal task.  He decided to speak with Dr. Rogers to find out.  And so, down to Sub-Level 3 of the hospital he went.  And there he found the renowned doctor directing technicians regarding the removal of some very delicate equipment.  The doctor asked them to take a break while he found a quiet spot to speak with Captain Samwise. 

"What can I do you for, Sam?" asked Rogers amiably.

The two of them sat down in the private conference room and had a chat.  Sam decided to reveal to him the meeting he had had with Doctor Danger.  

"I think I'm being tempted by a devil," started Captain Sam.  Rogers raised an eyebrow.  "You know of Ultra, I guess."

"Of course," replied the doctor with a keen interest suddenly aroused by the topic.

"I've been solicited to do a job that would allow me to acquire Ultra.  I'm debating the possible use of it to assist us in our time of need, but I am concerned about the downside of creating crazy soldiers once again."

"Um, but, um, I thought there is no Ultra anymore," said Rogers.  "Are you sure you have access to Ultra?"

"I'm reasonably persuaded that there is some available," replied Sam.

"And you want to introduce it, but you don't want to repeat the calamity of the Cat's Paw War?  If I recall correctly Ultra was responsible, towards the end, of addicting 17% of the Ultra-Force, and well on the way towards addicting a far higher percent.  At that point the Cat's Paw war was inevitable, I'm afraid."

"Really.  I didn't know that detail.  So you're more familiar with Ultra than I am, I think."

"Yes, I suspect so.  The 19th Division was involved in dealing with Ultra and as the chief biochemist, I probably know more about it than most people."

"So there is this quandary, yes, but as a Bio-Augmenter, I see other possibilities.  I want to run them by you to see if my ideas have any validity."

"Okay, let's have it, then," suggested the doctor, bracing himself for any unexpected revelations.

"If you had the ability to seriously study Ultra, what probability do you think there would be in finding a way to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the negative effects of Ultra-Addiction?"

"Ah. That has always been the question, hasn't it?  During the Ultra War, we exerted a great deal of effort in pursuit of that goal. Alas, despite our best efforts, and the best machinery that government funding could afford in those days, the Addictivity conundrum remained unsolved. It was one nut we just couldn't crack. Yet, substantial progress has been made in the realm of computing science since then. Most notably, the Positronic Brain, which you are familiar with as an invention of one of my esteemed researchers, Janet Langly.  I believe you may recall having met her earlier.  Darling girl, and quite brilliant.  The Positronic Brain boasts an incredible capacity for abstract cognition, surpassing by a considerable degree what we anticipated when she started the project.  It far exceeds the limited resources at our disposal during the war. I might add that our enormously powerful cybernetic network array on Sub-Level 4 also represents a major advancement in computational science, although its capabilities may fall somewhat short of the Positronic Brain, I suspect. If I am not mistaken, your android, Lexi, is the fortunate possessor of the Positronic Brain at this point, is he not?"

"Yes, that's correct," said Sam, scratching his chin in thought.  Lexi gained an actual, and real personality when Janet installed the Positronic Brain, and it had become very difficult to distinguish him from an actual human being.  And so it was not easy to tell that he had become far, far more intelligent than any human because he had acquired the common sense to avoid flaunting his mental capabilities in front of his friends.

"But one thing I should make clear, Sam," continued Rogers, "I don't think it's possible there can really be any supply of Ultra.  After all, once Congress enacted the Anti-Ultra Law towards the end of the war, all of the stockpiles were completely destroyed.  I presided over a number of those demolitions myself, and knowing the other members of the task force, I really don't see how any Ultra could have survived. We were extremely thorough, you understand.  Every known stockpile has been eradicated."

"That's why I'm saying it's a deal with the devil," replied Sam.

Rogers raised two eyebrows.  "You don't mean the devil that we are dealing with from Las Vegas, do you?"

"No, not that one.  The world is full of devils, you know," replied Sam with a bit of a chuckle.  "But this one could be as bad.  He goes by the name of 'Doctor Danger'.  We first encountered him up all the way back in Tucson," said Sam.  He went on to briefly recount the story of the kidnapping of Linda Brisbane, and Doctor Danger's terms for releasing her at the time.

"I see," said Doctor Rogers thoughtfully.  "And this is the character that says he has access to Ultra?"

"I believe he said he has a way to manufacture it, actually," said Sam flatly.

"Manufacture Ultra?!" exclaimed Rogers with an expression of complete surprise. "Well that's very interesting, and a completely preposterous story.  It's one thing to conjecture that a small trace of Ultra may have escaped our detection.  As small a probability that may be, it is at least still possible.  But none of us were ever able to determine how Ultra was manufactured.  The closest we came, after a grueling effort, was that it must be produced by an unknown biological process, as the Ultra-Core had properties that could only be explained by a theoretical living organism.  However, what living organism could possibly synthesize the Ultra-Core was entirely beyond even our prodigious imaginations.  We really have no idea.  It is difficult to fathom just how indecipherable the Ultra-Core turned out to be.  Believe me, Ultra was significantly beyond our comprehension.  Some on our team theorized that it may have had an alien origin. And not merely alien, but alien of such extreme intensity as to be inconceivable within the scope of ordinary terrestrial biology.  We ran thousands of the most high powered models we had against it, and we determined that the conditions of its composition had to be in an environment that simply does not exist anyplace on Earth. For this reason some of us nicknamed the hypothetical origin 'Trenco'.  But the fact is, we never discovered its origin.  Not even close.  So the idea that anyone can manufacture Ultra seems, on the face of it, a bit outlandish.  Whoever ran the Ultra Project kept every detail of it an impenetrable secret. It was so highly classified that that no world leader even so much as knew the name of organization responsible for it, let alone its mystery-leader.  Ultra's manufacturing process was the highest level secret on the planet, as far as I know.  It had an even higher security clearance than the Black Wind V Project.  Hard to imagine that this Doctor Danger should happen to have discovered how to manufacture Ultra.  Have you considered that he might simply be a crackpot?"

"It's possible he is exactly that," answered Sam, "but then again, I have evidence to believe he has Ultra, albeit perhaps only in trace amounts.  But if he has that, then he might have more.  And who knows?  Perhaps one way or another he was privy to the secret of Ultra's manufacture.  I don't know."

"Ok, well, let's assume that he does have Ultra, somehow," continued Doctor Rogers, "Did the Dangerous Doctor intimate how much he could provide?"

"Enough for our military forces to defeat the Lizardman Army," replied Sam uncertainly.

"That would represent a significant amount. Lets assume for the sake of argument that he can deliver. Fine.  So, now that I understand the scope and context of the discussion, what is your question?"

"We have two problems.  This gentleman is not very trustworthy," said Sam.

"The known kidnapper and probable supervillain?" interjected Doctor Rogers with a slightly sarcastic smile.

"Yes.  And also I don't like the idea that our dangerous friend would suddenly have something he can hold over the entire military force.  It could be a quick way for him to gain control of our military force very quickly.  And that's one thing.  The second question is whether or not it is possible to reduce or eliminate The Claw?"

"Is that it?  Or is there anything more?"

"That's enough for one day, I think," replies Sam.  "He would own the supply channel and could control anyone who gets addicted.  I don't want to see a repeat of the Cat's Paw War. Humanity cannot go through that again."

"Yes, I agree.  If we repeated that, our efforts to revive civilization would come to a final disastrous conclusion, I'm pretty sure."

Sam went on. "If we look at the tactical situation on the ground, when it comes to the Lizardman Army, our military barely made it out of that conflict intact.  They very nearly smoked us."

"Yes, I have to agree with that as well.  Without your help, I think we would have suffered a catastrophic defeat, and most of us would probably not have lived to tell the tale.  That is true."

"So, I don't know if I can in good conscience just deny the use of Ultra for the military outright," said Sam.  "I feel that we need it."

"Seems to me there's a missing detail buried in what you've told me thus far," said Rogers thoughtfully.  The doctor was no longer a ML 7, but he could still read people like a book, and Sam's consciousness had already been completely scanned by Rogers when they had first met.  There was little about Sam the doctor did not already know.

"Ok, let me come clean," said Sam after a pause.  "Because I didn't trust Doctor Danger, I demanded proof of his claim, and now, I have a tiny sample of Ultra."

Doctor Rogers raised all three eyebrows (metaphorically speaking).

"The problem is I don't have the computing power to do it, but I believe I have enough in this sample to at least attempt to tackle the Ultra-Addictivity problem.  I am hoping your facilities might be able to assist me," said Sam, looking into Doctor Roger's eyes with grave sincerity.

"Well, now I see.  Okay.  When I worked on the NL-5-Kz virus, I had the advantage of being a ML-7.  The other advantage we had was the use of the prototype of the Positronic Brain which Janet and I developed for this purpose.  Between those two factors, Doctor Mordesh and I were able to work out the solution, and now we have the Anti-Virus. However, solving the NL-5-Kz problem was child's play compared with the solving of Ultra-Addictivity.  It several orders of magnitude more complex than the virus. From what we could gather, it may even be a form of molecular-intelligent life, but if so the entire living organism appears to be contained within a single compound.  Somehow.  Don't ask me to explain it.  I really can't.  Ultra is... complicated."

Samwise considered these facts.  So the Positronic Brain might be the key.  

He then realized he hadn't seen Lexi in some time, nor did he know where the Android was.  He thought about the shiny new Mech that had been sent down by Brain V, and recalled that those had been parked for the time being at the Airport just north of Panguitch.  He also recalled vaguely that just before he was taken to the Hospital for his injuries he had seen Lexi, but at the time he was too weakened by his wounds to interact with him.  He only remembered Lexi brachiating over and greeting him pleasantly and with what felt like genuine affection.  It had been good to see the Android had survived his ordeal with Brain V after all.

Simple enough.  He turned over his wrist and flipped a small switch on his Micro-Mini-Phone, and tuned to Lexi's personal channel.  "Lexi come in, please."  

There was no answer.  He tried several times.  No answer.  Strange.  Perhaps Lexi had gone out of range.  Certainly possible as the atmospheric radiation made radio communications far less reliable than it had been before the war.  He radioed Guns, and his faithful gunner answered immediately.

"What can I do for ya, Captain?"

"Hey, Guns, is Lexi there with you?"

"Why, no, Captain.  The last time I saw him he was hanging out with Penelope in the AGV.  I took off to come down here and help the army refortify the southern defenses, but that was more than a day ago.  Why?  Is anything wrong?"

"No, no.  Nothing wrong.  I was only semi-conscious when he returned, and so I... well, I want to touch base with him," answered Sam.

"Okay, well I'll tell you what.  When I see him I'll let him know you're looking for him. Alright, Captain?"

"Yes, that will do.  Thanks," said Sam as he flipped off the switch.

Doctor Rogers concluded their discussion with a bit of cautionary advice, and Sam thanked Doctor Rogers for his thoughts.  He went back down to the AGV to see what else he could find out.  Fred was out cold on the couch, drool descending from his lip to the floor.  

Penelope looked up from her micro-soldering.  "Hello, Captain."

"Hi Penelope.  You know, I was knocked out when Lexi arrived, and I'm wondering... have you seen him?" he asked abruptly. 

"Well, not for a couple of days or so," she replied.  "The last I saw he was sitting right there, and then suddenly he got up and walked out without saying a word."

"Did he mention where he was heading off to?"

"Well, no, not really.  It's funny, but I thought it a bit strange, the way he left.  He had been very friendly and greeting and chatting with everyone, myself included.  But at some point he sat down on the couch there, and he got very quiet.  I didn't think much about it at the time, but it did seem a bit out of character. He then simply walked out and that was the last time I saw him.  Why?  Is something the matter?"

"No, no, nothing at all," answered Sam.  "I have no reason to suspect anything is wrong!  Nothing at all!" he stammered.  

"Me neither!" she said as she wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand.  "And look," she said to break the awkwardness with a bit of humor, "Fred's sleeping.  He's so cute when he drools."

"If you say so," said Sam with a laugh.  She looked at Fred admiringly.  Sam raised a half an eyebrow.  It occurred to him then that Penelope actually liked Fred for some bizarre reason.  Ah, life takes so many unexpected turns, he thought with a chuckle.

"Okay, well thanks," said Sam. "I think I'll get in touch with Major Sekston.  She's over at the airport, yes?" he asked as he stepped out into the hospital parking lot.

"Yes, last I heard she's stationed there watching over the Mechs," said Penelope as she went back to her labors.

And so he connected to the Major, who also picked up promptly.  

"Hello, Captain.  How can I help you?" inquired the Major politely.

"You remember Lexi, our Android that came down with the new Mech's from Brain V?"

"Yes, of course. Very impressive! Quite the Android!" she said.

"Have you seen him in the past two day?  I'm wondering if he's tending the Mechs over there?"

"Actually, he showed up here at 0900 this morning.  He said he had received special orders and commandeered one of the Mechs," she said. "You didn't know?"

"Well, I was unconscious for a bit. So he took one of the new mechs, eh?"

"Yes.  I hope that's ok.  I understand he's a trusted member of your Federation Command team, so I assumed he had priority clearance.  After all, your group isn't on our protocols.  And those mechs are yours, not ours.  I just let him take it.  I hope that's okay," she said, suddenly nervous that she'd made a serious mistake.

"No, no, it's ok.  It's fine. Maybe he received orders while I was passed out, and I haven't gotten the memo, yet," replied Sam, now slightly concerned about Lexi's apparently strange behavior.

"Is there anything you want me to do?" she asked.

"Did you see where he went?"

"Well, he went straight up," she said.

"Straight up?"

"Yes, straight up.  A vertical climb, and then vanished from sight at supersonic," she said.

Sam thought briefly about taking the other Mech-V to go after Lexi.  But he was more curious than alarmed.  Primarily, he was curious about what orders he would have received.  Perhaps Lt. Brisbane had gotten in touch with him. On the other hand, as the Captain of the team, he would have expected to have been notified, at least.  Then again, he was unconscious for a while.  Military bureaucracy in the new world was hampered by technical snafus.  He might not have heard.

At any rate, he was hoping Lexi would come back soon because he was very eager to find out if the android's Positronic Brain could potentially resolve Ultra's Addictivity problem.  He had twenty hours to make a decision.  As he thought, he wandered back into to the AGV. 

"Hey, Penelope," he said as he climbed aboard, "How long has Fred been passed out like this?"

"Well, after he came out of the hospital with you and that weird Doctor Danger, he seemed kind of out of sorts, and clearly had something on his mind.  He just said 'oh god', and fell over onto the couch and started drooling," she replied with an amused smile.

Sam decided to wait an hour for Lexi to return.  He thought about how fast the Mech V actually was.  With a maximum speed of 25,000 mph it could really go places.  He thought about the Nazi UFOs with their Red Mercury Plasma Vortex Engines, which allowed them to maneuver at crazy angles and speeds, and wondered which ships were actually faster. And he wondered who would win a firefight between them. Why had Lexi taken one of new Mechs?  Where had he flitted off to?  He looked out the AGV window towards the horizon, where crescent moon had just risen.   

Thoughts percolated.  He turned to Penelope.  "While I was knocked out, did we get any messages from Tucson?"

"No, not that I know of," she answered.  "I don't think we used the Low Frequency Antenna at all, but I can check."

"Okay, please do. I'm just wondering when the last Ultra Low Frequency communication came in," he said as he fidgeted.  In a few moments she confirmed that array had not been deployed since they arrived in Panguitch.

"Oh, actually," she added, "I just remembered something."

"What?" asked Sam, with a bit of an edge in his voice.

"Well, it didn't take too much note of it at the time, but now that I think about it, maybe it was a little strange.  Before he left Lexi crawled under the radio console over there and pulled out a computer spike, and then took off with it under his arm."

"Fred's computer spike?" Sam asked.

"No, actually, I think Fred's is still on the shelf over there,.  If I'm not mistaken it was the one Linda had been using."

"Could it have had some sort of special orders on it?" Sam wondered.  At that point he decided it was time to wake Fred up.  He went over and shook him.  "Fred, wake up!"

And that is where we left things that night.

Monday, April 17, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 47

As the sun descended beyond the rugged landscape, the towering red rock formations loomed over the encampment like dormant giants in the fading light. The cool desert breeze whispered in near silence, without the sound of a single bird or coyote, lending an eerie and unsettling atmosphere to the heart of the wilderness. Above them, a thin river of rainbow-colored iridescent radiation-lightning crackled audibly through the upper atmosphere, obscuring sight of the crescent moon.

Captain Bruin Hilda stood outside a drab olive colored tent contemplating what to do next.  She didn't want to rile up the refugees with her thoughts of moving south until she could find a route that would lead them to Tucson safely.  Her Lieutenants had warned that many of the refugees were still die-hard American loyalists who might not take kindly to the notion of joining the Federation.  So she decided to put the idea on hold while she contemplated all of their options.  

She gazed north and found herself hesitant to journey to Salt Lake City, as they had no idea what the conditions there might be like.  After all, the Bio-War had begun in that region and there could be dangerous residual effects lurking in the ruins, or wilderness thereabouts.  On the other hand, there was the Black Wind V facility itself, which she considered friendly territory at this point, but it seemed to her unlikely to be large enough to accommodate eight hundred guests.  There was the underground complex, it was true, which could possibly have enough space, but would there be enough food for everyone?  Black Wind V was in the center of the Bonneville Salt Flats, and there were only twenty scientists who had lived there, entirely in secret, for some twenty years.  Showing up with a caravan of hungry and exhausted refugees might not work out so well, even if they were welcomed by Brain V.  Then there was the possibility of heading north along 89 until they could find an open road to the east and from there make their way south, but the one road they explored on their scouting expedition, Route 62, had been devastated by an earthquake and was impassible.  She mulled the options over.  None of them seemed especially attractive.   

Lieutenant Kerrington had pointed out that there was Ely where the Black Wind heroes had found a fairly large settlement of Retro-Techs who aspired to an 1850s lifestyle, as well as another settlement further west of Naturalists who lived after the manner of Neanderthals.  Perhaps the eight hundred refugees might find common ground with them.  The region of Ely was north-west of where they were and it would take several days for the caravan to make the long march there.  

She informed her Lieutenants that they'd be leaving early and recommended everyone get a good night's rest.  The camp slowly quieted down, and by midnight only a few small campfires were being tended.  Bruin Hilda had been studying a map of the region via the navigation computer in her jeep.  She had plotted two possible routes to Ely, one along the roads, and the other through wilderness trails. She decided to sleep on it before making up her mind.

In the morning, the encampment was pleasantly surprised by the appearance of piles of snakes and lizards that had mysteriously arrived sometime in the wee hours.

"Wilard is still around," commented Bruin Hilda to Kerrington.

"He certainly is," replied Kerrington, not especially pleased by the fact.  They took a stroll around the camp and found the refugees in a good mood as everyone sat by their fires cooking lizards, and drying snake meat in the sun.  

"This is totally not going to bite me in the ass later," she said.

"Oh, definitely not," replied Kerrington with a roll of his eyes.

It wasn't until mid-morning that the encampment was ready to move on.  All the fires were put out, wagons loaded up, tents taken down, and people were ready to march. 

Just as she was about to climb into her jeep, Bruin Hilda spotted Wilard coming around the side of a wagon with several rats on his shoulders, and one on his head. The rest of the mischief following behind him. He had a happy grin on his face.

"Good morning, Bruin Hilda.  Good to see ya.  How do like those lizards?  Pretty good, you have to admit!" exclaimed Wilard.

"You know something, Wilard, you're right.  I have to admit it.  I have no choice," she replied, though it was difficult to tell exactly how she meant it.  Wilard blinked a couple of times, twitched his nose and continued.

"Yeah, yeah. You know, my rats are really great, aren't they?  Yeah, they sure are.  And they've been working real hard for ya, ya know?  Real hard.  And they're gonna keep working real hard for ya, too.  You'll see," he babbled, seemingly half to himself.  "But I got one favor I wanna ask ya," he said, suddenly looking Bruin Hilda straight in the eyes.  "I need a gun."

She stared at him, unsure what to say.  So he went on.

"You guys got a spare gun? I need a gun.  You know, there's big game out there and I don't got nothing.  All I got is some rats, and you know, and well, I need a gun.  Can you spare a gun and a few magazines and stuff, you know?  My rats are great, but they can't take on a monster, you know," he babbled.

"Tell me about these monsters you're talking about," replied Bruin Hilda coolly.

"Well, there's giant beasts out there, you know.  You remember you told me about that forest out east?"

"Yes," said Bruin Hilda, now seeing where this was going.

"Well, I went over there.  You know there's some big ass bears over there, with like six legs and they're like eighteen feet tall.  I mean, I just don't feel safe out here.  Panguitch is one thing, I mean at least it is protected.  It's got the military base and stuff.  But the wilderness?  Well, it's positively wild out here!  You know for you guys, you're eight hundred people.  No bear is going to bother you.  But me?  I'm trying to hunt for you guys.  I need some protection.  What'd'ya say?  I mean, I just need one gun and some ammo. Come on, what'dya say?"

"Well, I need to talk to --," began Bruin Hilda, but was cut off.

"Omygod," muttered Wilard.

"What happened?"

"You need to talk to someone?" he asked.  "I thought you were the Captain."

"I need to talk to some of the guys and find out what we got.  Let me go talk to Lieutenant Kerrington and see what we can spare.  Give me a minute," she said.

"Allllright," answered Wilard, with a drawl of annoyance as he watched her go.

Captain Bruin Hilda found the Lieutenant. "What can we pass off to Wilard?  No Plasma weapons, or grenades.  Just basic stuff.  What do we have?"

Kerrington, who stared at his Captain with some considerable disbelief, paused and finally offered a few possibilities. "Well, we have a few of the New Model Combat Rifles.  We have a few Browning 9 mm pistols," he said as he rummaged through the back of the Armory jeep.  A few Mossberg 500 shotguns and shells.  Here's a Lewiston, but I don't think we want to spare that.  I dunno.  Here's a slingshot.  I dunno.  What do you want to give him?"

"Hmm... we don't have a basic rifle?"

"Oh, uh, well, ok now I gotta dig around. Thanks a lot," said Kerrington half jokingly.  "Ok, here we go.  We have one Springfield rifle.  How's that?"

"Ok, let's give him the Springfield and two cartons of five-fifty-sixes.  You think we can spare that?"

"Well, frankly, Ma'am, I don't want to spare him anything at all.  But if we have to spare something above a Browning then I guess the Springfield is the best choice.  We certainly don't want to give him a New Model, that's for sure.  I guess the Springfield is a good compromise.  I mean, I guess.  After all he is feeding folks with the lizards and such."

"Yes, yes," replied Bruin Hilda, glad to be getting some buy-in for her decision.

"But to be honest, I don't trust this guy.  Just saying."

"I don't trust him a lot," agreed Bruin Hilda, "but so far he has been keeping up with his side of the bargain."

"Yep, yep.  For two days.  And now he's got a rifle.  I don't know.  But you know what?  It is what it is.  You know, and I see he does have a point.  There are monsters out there.  He's not protected. I don't know.  I can't find any fault with the argument.  But I don't know... the guy just kinda gives me the willies, you know?  That's all."

"Yes, well he's not completely hinged.  But as long as he stays on our side, we'll see what he can do."

"I'll tell ya, I think as long as we placate him, he'll help us out."

"The only problem is, sooner or later he's going to ask for more than we can safely give," she agreed.

"Exactly right, Ma'am.  Exactly right."

And so Bruin Hilda gave Wilard the Springfield and two boxes of 5.56's.  Wilard was ecstatic, bouncing up and down and his stumpy legs, and practically drooling on Bruin Hilda's sleeve.  He was overjoyed.  He dashed off into the wilderness, a long train of rats following merrily behind.

"Don't waste the ammo!  We don't have very many..." she called after him.  With a wave of his arm, he leapt off the edge of a small rocky rill and vanished from sight, along with all his rats.

As they were finally about to leave, sometime just before noon, a small crowd of refugees came forward and introduced themselves to Bruin Hilda.  They wished to complain.

"Ok, let's hear what you have to say," answered Captain Bruin Hilda.

"We're tired, we've gone too far, and you're moving everyone too fast, and there's no water up here, and worst of all, some people are stealing stuff," they all clamored at once at her from every direction.

"Stealing stuff?"

"Yeah, somebody stole my stuff!  I thought you're supposed to be the law and order here, Maaaa'am," said a surly lady in the front. 

"What might you be suggesting?" asked Bruin Hilda, taken aback a bit.

"I don't know.  Yer the laaaaw lady, ain't ya?" said the woman, twisting her face up into an unpleasant knot.

"Alright people. Let's get this straight. I'm just trying to get you all out of the war zone.  By the scouting that we did last night, we found a reservoir north of here.  We tested the water and it was good.  Hopefully we can stop there and rest, so everybody can recharge and we can get our bearings.  After that we can discuss whatever security issues might be required.  But first the idea is to get you to a safe spot where we can hunker down at," and with that she gave them all a firm nod.

The crowd wandered back into the encampment, some disgruntled and still complaining, while others felt that Bruin Hilda showed a good command of the situation and were satisfied.  And so with that the caravan prepared to leave.

"They don't pay me enough for this," said Bruin Hilda to Kerrington, who nodded sympathetically.

And so, by and by the refugees made their way north along Route 89. By evening the caravan came to Hell Hole, Utah.  There they found the ridge on the other side of which Bruin Hilda had discovered a two hundred foot wide crater, boiling with lava and spewing noxious gasses to the west.  There was nothing alive around it.  Not a bird, nor insect, nor serpent, nor rat.  Not a living thing.

Bruin Hilda stopped the caravan. They were still somewhat south of the ridge, within a half hour's walk to Hell Hole.  Only Bruin Hilda and Kerrington knew what lay on the other side of the ridge.   

"Ma'am," he said as he brought the jeep to a stop, "should we have a little chat about... you know what?"

"Ok," she replied with a chuckle.  "Let's grab the other lieutenants and we'll discuss this over on the side of the road over there," pointing to a spot where she felt they would have some privacy.

The caravan halted, to the relief of many a refugee, and the leadership convened.

"Gentlemen," she said, "I don't think Kerrington has informed you of all that we found on our scouting trip, but north of here is a... opening... spewing out noxious gas and smoke with a sign that reads 'Hell Hole'," she concluded.

There was an awful silence.  The lieutenants were not sure they understood what she had just said.

"I don't know why someone would put a sign there that says that, but this region is known for volcanic activity.  But the sign does say 'Hell Hole'," she said again a little louder.

At that moment, from across a patch of rocky terrain, there came a tiny squeal.  Like a rodent's squeal.  Bruin Hilda darted her eyes in the direction of the sound and caught sight of a rat.  As soon as she spotted it, the tiny critter dodged into the shadows and disappeared.  She looked around for Wilard, but he was nowhere to be seen.

"Anyway, I think that this was just creative naming of the anomaly, and doesn't mean what it sounds like," she added.

"You mean, like, that all hell has broken loose at this spot, Ma'am?" asked one of the Lieutenants.

"Um, yeah.  That's what I mean," she answered dryly.  "Not that.  So, yes, the civilians are not going to like this, but I'm hoping we can calmly lead them past without incident.  With your calming influence, of course."

"Ma'am, do you want to give everyone a morale speech before we move on?" asked one of the other Lieutenants.  She found this suggestion annoying, but since it did happen to be the right thing to do, she got up on the back of her jeep and raised her bull horn.  

"Alright, ladies and gentlemen," she announced to the crowd.  Eight hundred refugees stopped what they were doing and came closer to listen.

"Just past this next ridge," she began once people had come close enough and quieted down, "you are going to see a geological anomaly.  There's going to be a hole with ash and noxious fumes coming out."

There was murmuring in the crowd.

"Based on the wind direction the fumes should not come towards us.  Everyone can put a piece of cloth around your faces.  Just to be safe.  Watch the kids, watch the old folks.  Now on our previous scouting expedition, when we passed the crater, we noted a sign on which someone had lovingly called it a 'hell hole' --"

There was a collective gasp from the crowd. 

"But we all know that there's no such thing, and so we are going to pass by calmly, and proceed north, where you will have a chance to see this geological feature from a safe distance, and everything will be fine.  We will then head north to the reservoir where we can get some good clean water and refresh ourselves.  So everybody, we will calmly head north and get some fresh water, alright?"

She looked to see what the reaction of the crowd happen to be.  There were a lot of nervous faces out there, with the jitters, and everyone was milling around and staring off to the northwest pensively.  People were murmuring "hell hole".  She had second thoughts about mentioning that detail, and reflected on an old saying one of her teacher's had once mentioned on a fine day way back when, before the Ultra-War, "Honesty is the best policy, except most of the time."  

And so they began the march north and from her jeep Bruin Hilda, in an effort to calm the crowd, sang her favorite "Hymn of Healing".  Unfortunately, she was a bit off key, and forgot a word in the middle, and the crowd kept looking at her sideways, and it just wasn't really going that well.  Somebody cackled nervously from within the crowd, and some people stumbled and a few people had to be helped along due to dizziness and nerves. 

As soon as they rounded the corner of the ridge the glow from the crater became visible, and everyone stopped, nervously staring at the hell hole.  From that angle they could see that it was filled with lava casting a redish hue on the surrounding landscape, as smoke and ash spewed up from it.  

At that moment, far up the road in the distance to the north Kerrington spotted a dust trail rising into the evening sky. He motioned to Bruin Hilda who lifted her binoculars to see what was coming, when all of a sudden the hell hole belched forth a huge plume of lava and smoke and ash, and the ground trembled.  The refugees panicked.  The entire herd scattered directly away from the hell hole towards the east, pell-mell without the slightest intention to slow down.  Into the trackless wilderness they scrambled, making their way towards the river.  Bruin Hilda hung her head, shook it from side to side slowly and sighed.

She pulled up her binoculars and zoomed in.  Coming south was a small troop of horsemen and a group of footmen pulling a covered wagon.  She counted eight horsemen and perhaps twenty footmen.

"Kerrington," snapped Bruin Hilda, "first things first. We've got to calm down the people. Get your guys and round up the refugees with the jeeps.  Make sure they don't jump in the water."

"Ok, men, let's go," shouted Kerrington to the other lieutenants as he scrambled into one of the other jeeps, leaving Bruin Hilda to do what she must do on her own.  She took the wheel and headed north while the lieutenants drove off into the wilds to herd the people away from the river.

It wasn't long before she came within hailing range of the horsemen.  She stopped the jeep, got out, and pulled out her great broadsword.  This she planted in front of herself, point down into the road, and waited.  The troupe approached, stopped, and the horsemen regarded her with cool steely eyes.  Three of them rode up to her. They were wearing golden-hued medieval chainmail and helms, carried banners with hallowed symbols on them, and great shields emblazoned with saints and golden-maned lions.  The lead horseman was a handsome man with a brown beard and moustache. 

Something in their mien stirred her memory. She recollected the tale told by Captain Samwise of a band of medieval crusaders they had encountered in Arizona while Bruin Hilda was yet marooned on the moon with Jacob, Vallnam and Ling. One of their banners was indeed golden with a red lion emblazoned on it. She put two and two together, and concluded that these must be members of the Golden Crusaders of Christ Lion.  As she recalled, Samwise had not left a favorable impression on them, and so she was uncertain as to what kind of reception she might receive.

With her sword firmly clutched in hand, she stood in the midst of the road, silent and resolute.

"Hail, Warrior!" spoke the lead knight.

"Hail Knights!  You resemble a group some of my friends came across in the south.  The banners and the crosses you bear have a striking resemblance to the knights they described." 

"I am Geoffrey of the Golden Crusaders of Christ Lion," declared the knight solemnly.

"My name is Bruin Hilda of Federation Command," she replied.

"Well met," said he.

"Have you recollection of any encounter with my friends in the south?  Namely, Captain Samwise, who --" 

In so speaking Sam's name, the horseman grew taut in his seat, his eyes like piercing daggers, brimming with a fierce anger. "Captain Samwise?" said the knight disdainfully.  "Yes, I remember Captain Samwise.  The man who was not true to his word."

"Well, there's a fault in a lot of men these days. But he is still a good man," she answered.

"So you say.  You must be a friend of his," said the knight, casting aspersions of association on her.

"I'm a colleague of his," she demurred.  "We both hail from Federation Command."  There was a pause. "As you can see we are in charge of a large group of people here whom we are commissioned to protect."

Meanwhile, the wagon had come up and ground to a halt behind Geoffrey and his fellow knights.  He glanced over his shoulder as several of the other knights rode up.  "We are on an urgent mission," said one, "you must step aside."

"Give me one second, gentlemen," she replied in her professional military tone.  "I don't want you to further frighten the people who have become unsettled at the sight of the volcanic activity we have encountered at this site."

"It is to that volcano that we are headed," stated Geoffrey pointing towards Hell Hole.

"You are heading to that caustic gaseous mound over there?"

"As God is our witness, that is our destination," he proclaimed.  A peal of thunder sounded in the distance.

"I must say, gentlemen," she continued, "as a healer I would advise against it.  The gasses from that crater are clearly poisonous, and killing off all life in the vicinity.  The concentrations near the mound are fatal."

"It is our mission. To the Hell Hole we go," stated Geoffrey. "Now step aside, friend of Samwise."

"I will not block your way.  I wish you protection in your endeavors."

"It is getting dark," said Geoffrey, "we must go."

Bruin Hilda moved aside.

"When it is dark we shall be performing ceremonies.  Tell your people to stay far from us.  They will not wish to see what transpires here this night," said Geoffrey with a dreadful gravity.  "We move."

And so the troupe of Knights began riding towards the Hell Hole.  Two priests rode in the fore of the wagon, wearing long brown robes with white rope belts, their heads hooded and bowed, their expressions grim with apprehension. When the troupe came close to the seething mound the wagon was stopped.  The two priests climbed down and went to the rear of the wagon. From there they removed a metal chest covered in crystals which they manhandled down from the lip of the wagon.  They were careful not to let it touch the ground.  Four of the horsemen had leapt from their mounts and were ready to tie four ropes to metal handles on each side of the chest. The horses pulled the ropes taught and from there they moved towards the Hell Hole.  The horses were skittish, and one of them reared up on its hind legs and neighed loudly, as if to signal an omen of ill fate. A knight, with a fierce countenance and a steady hand, quickly brought the steed back under control, and so the chest was brought slowly over the hot glowing crater.

It had gotten dark out.  Bruin Hilda raised her binoculars and scanned the terrain in the direction of the river.  She switched to infrared band and saw that the lieutenants had successfully corralled most of the refugees who were crowded together along a bend in the river.  A few were still scrambling around among the rocks, but not too far away.  It was definitely manageable.  She climbed back into her jeep and drove across the road to make her way over to Kerrington.  They set up an encampment there. 

It was a cold moonless night.  The iridescent radiation-river of above them was making unusually loud crackling noises, and occasionally the plasma stream would break out into violent sparks of blue lightning along its edges.  

Meanwhile, at the Hell Hole the Knights had taken positions and formed a circle around the crater.  The crystal encrusted chest was suspended over the center of the lava pool by four ropes, which smoldered from the heat, but did not burn or break. They had been chanting for two hours.  The wind had picked up, and when it blew with hot dry sulfurous ferocity in their direction the refugees could hear the Gregorian chanting of the knights.  Nothing could have been more ominous than that dread sound, though for a few among them it was wondrously uplifting, and strengthened their spirits with a great resolve.  Suddenly, the crater flared with renewed vigor and a plume of lava shot high in the air, engulfing the chest.  Bruin Hilda turned to watch it as the lava fell to earth in a shower of ten thousand molten dots. The chest was nowhere to be seen.  In the shadows she thought she saw a dark shape moving.  It emerged momentarily from the fog, but was instantly covered over by smoke.  The knights withdrew their golden swords and held them aloft, facing into the molten center of the circle. The chanting grew louder and more ferverent.

"Doesn't look very safe over there, Ma'am," said Kerrington.

"You mean that, over there?" she asked nodding her head towards the Hell Hole.

"The people are on the verge of panic, Ma'am," replied Kerrington.

At that moment Bruin Hilda spotted Wilard weaving his way through the rocks towards her.  

"Wilard," she said with a slight tone of exasperation, if not despair.

"It's the beast," he said pointing towards the Hell Hole.  "It's the beast," he said in a dreadful tone. "The beast is rising."

"Thank you, Wilard," she replied dryly.

"I'd run if I were you," he said as he turned to scramble away.  "It's not safe here," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the darkness, his horde of rats following close behind.

Bruin Hilda looked around.  Everywhere she saw bulging eyes, tilted heads, knuckles turning white on clenched fists. 

"Okay people. This is quite a bit above anybody's pay grade," she stated into her bullhorn which was loud enough for the crowd to hear her over the howling winds.  She looked around for a direction to send them further away.  North wasn't looking so good, as the knights were nominally in that direction and she sensed that no one was going to step a single foot closer towards them.  Luckily her voice was of such a tone that the crowd felt slightly calmed by it.  Just enough so that they might actually listen to what she had to say next.

She looked at the river with her binoculars.  It seemed passible.  

"Okay, people. it looks like the river may be nominally passable, so we may be able to --" she started to say, but was immediately met with the site of eight hundred backs and the sounds of wild rampant splashing.

The crowd left everything behind, but they all made it to the other side of the river.

"I don't know about taking the jeeps across the river, but," said Kerrington, "I guess we can try."

"Go slow and use people in front to test the water depth," she ordered.  

However, their luck was bad. Very bad.  In fact, two of the jeeps got trapped in the river's eddies and sank into the mud.  One of them wound up on its side.  The other jeeps made it over safely.  They were now down to four. Bruin Hilda suspected supernatural malignancy but said nothing.  At least all of refugees were on the other side now.  And so they hunkered down among the rocks and watched from a distance as the Golden Crusaders of Christ Lion continued with their ceremony.      

* * *

Meanwhile deep down in the infernal darkness of Nexus Cavern some distance to the northeast, Pita's tiny band of stalwarts struggled against the sandstorm amid the sharp-edged giant arrowhead stones that protruded from the ground like jagged teeth.  The only thing that could be seen were Pita's own teeth which momentarily gleamed with a shining glint as he gave out his heroic grin.  A slight hero's glow emanated from him as he put his two fists on his hips, pushed out his chest and squared his jaw.  "He looks magnificent," thought Linda sidling up to him as he gazed out into dark sandstorm that surrounded them.  

Vilar, Talara, and Amorathon had scarcely noticed Pita's glamour.  Vilar was leaning heavily against the wall of the tiny alcove they had found while Talara was devoting herself to treating his wounds.  When she finished she turned to Pita and said, "Now I have something to tell you."

"Spill it, lady," said Pita turning to look into her hazel eyes.

"We were not sent by the Queen alone," she began.  "A Star-Powered Mage had arrived from some distant world to give the Queen his cosmic-inspired advice.  It was he who recommended that I and Amorathon find our way here.  How we made it is a long story, and I don't wish to dwell on it.  More importantly he said he knew you and Linda and so bid me to tell you his words.  He sends warnings, and a reminder to you, valiant Pita."

"What warnings and reminder would this be?" asked Pita, his grin fading as he looked at her with a small hint of apprehension.

"He bid us to pass through these dark lands, which he called 'The Nexus of Worlds', invisibly as we can.  And warns that the waters of the Styx which flow here are extremely dangerous to the touch," she said as she took a deep breath.  "Most importantly," she continued, "under no circumstances or conditions are we to pass under the archway through which the River Styx falls.  At the bottom of that grim cataract is the greatest possible threat to our world that could possibly be.  Those were his warnings."

"Hmm, not ominous at all," he replied with a raised eyebrow, and then cleared his throat with a slight "ahem".

"Indeed," said Talara, vaguely amused by the hero's bravado.

"I'm assuming that we are presently heading in the direction of this archway?" inquired Pita.

"Possibly," she replied.  "However, now for the reminder.  I shall not be remiss in failing to tell you his words.  He bid me remind you of the small black gem that he left with you.  With it you may summon him.  The power of the gem is able to open a path for him to travel through any miasma, such as that of the World Nexus, to communicate with you, should you have need.  However, it is of limited scope and power, and he advises you to use it sparingly." 

"Right now, I think we have a priority to get back up the stairs so that Vilar can guide us properly to our actual destination," said Pita, recalling the Queen's original request for the pair of them to discover the source of mysterious vibrations that had appeared on Lemurian Sono-Scopes some time earlier.

"Indeed," said Vilar, "I must confess my grave misjudgment in choosing to venture down this path into the Nexus.  No Lemurian has taken this path before, so far as I know.  The full weight of the responsibility for this error lies with me, for I should have advised you to take the upper path along the ledge instead. Regrettably, I chose to trust your intuition, as this was the Queen's wish so that she might assess your character and qualities based on your choices. It is now clear that this was a mistake, for we find ourselves lost in the midst of a sandstorm of dark foreboding, and my hope is rapidly fading.  It is a place of grave danger, far more than I had anticipated," he said regretfully, casting a sorrowful glance at Talara, who had been unwittingly drawn into the maelstrom by his poor decision. And in this moment of doubt, Talara's sudden embrace infused him with renewed determination and the courage to press on.  And so they stood braced against the dark winds of the sandstorm raging about the shores of the River Styx.

"The mention of the River Styx," spoke the priest Amorathon, "should be familiar to you, Sir Pita.  I imagine you have heard that name before."

"It rings no bells," replied Pita after a moment's reflection.

"There is an ancient inscription in a secret cavern of King Top Mountain that mentions this very river by name.  I shall recite it for you," he said, and then intoned the long forgotten poem from ancient times.

Dark cavern Nexus, River Styx runs through,
its icy waters memories erase forever.
In dread silence three evil races endlessly scheme.

Styx runs over the edge down into the fathomless deep,
Tartarus awaits below,
the Elder Elkron in thrall,
dreaming eternity.

Lord of the Lamasu,
golden and shining,
in pride and arrogance stole one chain.
Transfigured to madness,
destroying innocence.

World of men; agony despair.
Young Elkron bound
the Shadow King with Angainor;
twice a thousand years,
then awoken to rage.

Nexus Cavern still the border of three evil races,
River Styx still flows to the depths of darkness;
Elder Gods still yearning for release.

"Also, not ominous," commented Pita nonchalantly.

"Of course the translation from the original language, pre-Lemurian, is not exact, but should suffice to give you a rough idea," said Amorathon. "You must be aware that this is a haunted land.  A domain of evil forces."

"Back up the stairs we go," said Pita.

"As you wish," replied Amorathon, inwardly unconvinced, but curious to see how things would go.

Then, Pita saw something in the darkness.  A shrouded figure came towards them, flitting between the giant stones.  A cowled figure whose face seemed pale and gaunt, with black holes where eyes ought to be.  It appeared unaffected by the sandstorm, although its shroud was being whipped by the winds.  But its gate seemed steady and unwavering as it floated silently towards them.

Pita stood tall and put his hands on his hips as he watched its approach. Out puffed his chest, out jutted his jaw.  His teeth gleaming faintly in the darkness.

At first it appeared to be but a shadow and he noticed the sand was passing through it.  It hovered towards them, and Pita saw beneath its cowl a skull with empty holes for eyes. 

"Death, I presume?" said Pita.  "You'll not have me this day."

It approached him closer and reached out with a boney hand, its palm facing upward with its long bleached fingers extended.

Pita reached into his inner pocket and found the small pouch in which he kept a few physical coins.  Such coins were not uncommon among members of the Federation as their crystal powered money would sometimes be short-circuited by the effects of the radiation storms.  In these cases people would resort to physical coins, which they referred to as "hard money", in the event they wished to make transactions when all else failed.  Gold and silver coins were the most common, but palladium, adamantium and even Illuvium coins were not entirely unknown.  In any event, Pita had a gold coin which he fetched, polished on his Lemurian sleeve, and placed into the palm of the boney hand. It closed its boney fingers slowly around the coin and it vanished.

"Follow meeee," hissed the dire figure with a rasping sound that seemed to echo strangely within the winds.  

"Follow meeeee," said Pita to the rest of the group, none of whom had seen the apparition, and thought it highly unusual that Pita would drop a gold coin into the air, only to see it vanish before it hit the ground.  And so they bundled up in their Lemurian cloaks, and followed closely behind him as he left the entrance of the alcove and made his way across the rocky terrain into the darkness.  The winds were fierce and howling, and had it not been for their Lemurian suits they would have likely all been seriously harmed by the endless abrasion of sand.  Linda's hand extended toward his, a gesture of fortitude, lest they be separated by the blinding winds of the sandstorm.  Soon the darkness engulfed them and the trudged forward without knowing wither they went.

The shrouded figure glided ahead of Pita, weaving along a maze of ancient paths between the giant arrowhead stones.  Fortunately, no one was whipped by the winds such that they fell against their razor-sharp edges.  Having been spared that demise they came out of the jaws of madness and made their way to the edge of a black river winding its way slowly into the fog-shrouded distance. Here the winds died down, and the ground near the river was wet with mud, but there were many flat stones upon which they could step to make their way.  Carefully they did so.  None of them wished to touch the inky black waters that trickled between them. Twice Vilar nearly slipped on a slick spot, but managed to hold himself steady with Talara's assistance.  Amorathon followed up in the rear, being elderly and not as spry as the young people.  He maintained a steady gate, used his staff expertly, and occasionally stopped to look behind them.  He said nothing.

They obtained a better view of the river, its black waters swirling around the slime covered stones protruding from the depths.  Ghostly apparitions could faintly be seen under the surface of the waters if one looked long into the inky depths long enough, but Pita was not the sort to do that, and Linda followed his lead.  He looked around to try and get a sense of bearings but given the winding paths and the darkness, he no longer could say with any certainty which way they had come.  The cowled figure stood on the shore with its arms stretched forward towards the water.

A long black boat appeared from the mists and slowly slid its way over the waters towards them.  Its low frame ground to a halt against the rocky shore.  The shrouded figure entered the skiff, and turned to face Pita.  With a boney finger it summoned him to follow.

"This is not good," said Pita to himself.  Linda tightened her grip on his hand.  As yet she could see nothing of the skeletal figure, however the boat was clearly visible by her helmet's sensors.  The others saw naught but darkness and the black waters swirling against the rocks.  Nevertheless, they all had heard the sound as the boat had ground up onto the shore.  

"This is going to take me directly through the archway, which is the entrance to hell," said Pita out loud. 

"Tell me, my son," said Amorathon who had made his way up from behind, "what do you see?"

Pita briefly recounted what had transpired from the time he first saw the skeletal figure.  The elderly priest nodded and stroked his beard as he listened.

"It is the River Styx that we see before us," he said solumnly. "The figure must be Charon, the boatman.  You have already paid the fee.  It is your destiny," said the old priest with a sigh.

Pita puffed out his chest and put his fists on his hips to let everyone bask in the glory of his heroism.  Vilar tried warming his hands to the faint glow but the chill of glooms persisted just the same.  Linda, however, felt warmed by his confidence and her heart was with him. 

"Who am I to argue with Destiny?" asked Pita.  And so he turned and gave Linda a kiss goodbye.  "I will return," he said.

"I will go with you!" she replied with earnest fervor.  

"But I don't think that's possible," replied Pita stammering slightly at the idea she would consider such a journey.

"As long as I hold on to you, anything is possible!" she said as she wrapped her arms around him and held him tight.

"Wow, this is powerful stuff," he answered softly with a gentle chuckle.

They both climbed into the boat.  The cowled figure held out a boney hand towards her, and she dropped a gold coin into it.  And so the two lovers made their way to the head of the boat and held one another as the vessel embarked onto the black swirling waters.  Neither of them looked anywhere except into each other's eyes.

Talara, Vilar and Amorathan, meanwhile, were on the shore.  Amorathon had spotted something behind them moving stealthily in their direction and alerted Talara with a silent gesture.  She tuned her helmet's vizor, scanning on various frequencies until found one by which she spotted a figure coming through the maze of arrow-stones.  Then she saw another, and then a third.  They were low to the ground and slinking, moving carefully in the shadows.  With a touch of her finger she tuned her vizor again, this time setting the magnification to 20x.  Yes, three human-like figures, slung low to the ground and slithering in zigzags, barely detectible even on the infrared band. One darted up, and landed on the side of one of the giant arrowhead stones like a lizard and crawled along it.  Suddenly she realized that these must be the famous Delgonian Assassins known as the Reptile's Fang.  With that she immediately ushered Vilar and Amorathon into the boat before it could embark fully from the shore.  It was a perilous maneuver as the boat was already starting to move, and Amorathon was old, and Vilar was wounded.  But her resolve was such that she managed the feat without mishap, although she thought she heard the plunk of water like a stone falling into it, and worried briefly.  Had either of them touched the River Styx by accident?  Yet somehow the three had made it over the gunwale and were inside the boat. The shrouded figure approached them through the mist with an outstretched hand. With a bit of fumbling Amoralon deposited three gold coins onto the skeletal palm, and the ship silently departed across the black waters of River Styx.   

The shrouded figure stood at the rear and pushed the boat forward with a long crooked black pole.  Behind them Talara watched as the three figures approached the shore, but they would not enter the water.  The menacing figures stood silently receding into the distance.  As they passed between the rocks that broke the surface of the waters, Vilar peered through the mist into the inky darkness beneath them.  The waters seemed filled with ghostly apparitions beneath the surface.

"They are the souls of the damned," whispered Amorathon. "They can neither live nor die, and are trapped forever between life and death.  They are those of whom the Elder Books says 'And he shall spit them out of his mouth, for they were neither hot nor cold'.   It is best if you avert your eyes, and do not allow yourself to become engrossed by them, least they draw you in and you become mortified."

Talara shuddered as she held onto Vilar as he looked away from the damned souls within the abysmal waters, whose eyes were empty, whose mouths were open as if moaning forever without voices.  

The boat wove its way between the boulders protruding darkly from the waters.  She thought it would be possible for someone very nimble to bound from rock to rock and cross the river that way, but she thought better of it.  The rocks were covered with a thin brown slime, and she imagined that the temptation to believe one could make it across by such means was a sure way to be plunged into the dark swirling waters of eternal forgetfulness.  A trap of the netherworld, she thought, and shuddered again. 

After a while the mists grew thick and neither shore could be seen.  And then time drifted.  They lost track of it.  They had no idea how long it was before they saw a monstrous black form looming over the waters.  They floated towards it, and after a while it became apparent that it was a gigantic archway that spanned the waters.  Amorathon was puzzled by this as no myth or tale or legend or song had ever mentioned a bridge crossing the River Styx.  He wondered if they were still on that river, or if they had drifted perhaps down a tributary, of which legends listed several.  In any event, they came to the base of the bridge and the boat ground onto the shore near by.  The stones of the bridge were enormous, each one the size of a wagon.  Far away on the top of the bridge they could dimly make out what looked like a house of some sort, with a roof that had large curls on each corner, like a Chinese mansion of old.  There were lanterns hanging along the rim of the roof, but none of them were lit.  There appeared to be a window overlooking the river, but it was dark.  The landscape around them appeared to be a marsh.  There were plants jutting out of a slimy mud, their long greenish-black leaves making a thrushing sound, as hideously deformed creatures slithered in the shallows beneath them; their eyes were empty and they made no sound. Beyond the shore was a thick fog through which even their Lemurian vizors found impenitrable. 

"This is your destination," said the skeletal figure.  "This is the Watch House Bridge.  Pass not beneath it.  Nor go around it.  You may traverse over it if you have the courage."

They all looked up at the mountainous bridge looming in the mist.

"Before you go, my master bids me speak for him.  You are one of the heroes who fights the Shadow King of the Desert, are you not?"

"Yes, I am," replied Pita, fists on hips.

"My lord Rune Skull has trapped him with a fence he cannot pass.  It is a prison two hundred miles in radius.  You know of it.  If you are to defeat him, there is one thing you must do.  The chain of Angainor must be given to my master.  When you have obtained it we will know, and we will come to look for you, and you must give it to us."

"And this will achieve what?" asked Pita.

"My master's will," said the shrouded figure ominously.

"Yeah, and what will that mean for everyone else in the world, I wonder?" replied Pita.

* * * 

Meanwhile at Garfield Memorial Hospital in Panguitch, Utah, Fred had been working on repairing the Armored Ground Vehicle with Penelope.  He was wiping the sweat off his forehead with a dripping handkerchief speckled with spaghetti sauce, when he spotted a figure, strangely dressed with a flowing blue cape, golden trim, and a metallic skull cap.  The man sauntered up to the military gate with bravado and waved a white gloved hand towards him.  He had a moustache and a beard and his eyes were an unusually deep blue.  

"I am Doctor Danger," said the man with a flourish of his hand and a slight bow.  "Where is Captain Samwise? I would speak with him."

Fred flicked a piece of spaghetti off his sleeve and stared at the guy.  "Who's calling?"

"I, Doctor Danger," repeated the man as he turned his head to the side and jutted his jaw.

"Good to know.  Um..."

"I am told Captain Samwise resides here."

"He is here, but I wouldn't say he resides here.  Its more that he's staying here," answered Fred with squinting eyes.

"Are you quibbling with me?" asked the Doctor.

"I'm nitpicking," admitted Fred.

"Well, please don't," said the Doctor.

"Uh, well, I'm not wrong, though," said Fred.

"True enough, I guess," replied the Doctor with a slightly exasperated slump in his demeanor.

"Ok, well its good that we agree on that," said Fred, pleased with how things were going, but feeling a little bit bad to have so thoroughly dissipated the man's thunder so easily.  Doctor Danger stood at the gate staring at him with an expression of confounded annoyance.  "Ehh, the Captain is momentarily indisposed.  And that's not a lie," said Fred.  "I can take a message," he offered finally.

"Are you asking me to wait?" asked Doctor Danger incredulously.

"I'm asking you to tell me what you're going to tell him," said Fred.

"If you would be so kind, tell him Doctor Danger is here to speak with him," replied the man with revived bravado, finally having had quite enough of Fred.  "Immediately.  Before it's -- too late."

Penelope was in the AGV working on repairs.  She had overheard the conversation, but she was focused on her work, and really wasn't particularly interested in anything else at the moment.  However, she did recall hearing something about a certain Doctor Danger from Brain V quite some time ago, but she was too absorbed in her work to think further about it.  Micro-Plasma arrays do not fix themselves, you know.

Fred held up his index finger towards Doctor Danger with a gesture suggesting he should wait there for one minute.  The doctor raised an eyebrow, sighed, and shifted his weight.

Fred went to the intercom unit at the door of the hospital, and got Captain Samwise on the line.

"Uh, there's a 'Doctor Danger' here to see you?" said Fred using air-quotes.

"What?" said Captain Samwise over the intercom.

"There's a wizard looking dude named Doctor Danger who's here to see you," he repeated.

"I thought you were off your meds," said Sam.

"I'm not that incompetent," answered Fred. 

"Are you hallucinating?" asked Sam.

"Are you fucking serious?" asked Fred.

"I'm not sure.  That depends on you," he answered with a chuckle.

"Look, some weirdo is here to see you, and I want you to come down and take care of him."

"I'm on crutches," said Sam.

"You want me to bring the total weirdo all the way through the hospital to see you?" asked Fred.

"Does he have military clearance?" asked Captain Samwise.

Fred turned around and looked Doctor Danger up and down.  The doctor raised an eyebrow.

"Probably not," said Fred. "I've already talked to too many people today. I'm not talking anymore, ok?"

"Okay, okay, fine.  I'll come down," replied the good Captain.  And so with some effort he hoisted himself onto his crutches and hobbled all the way down to the courtyard of Garfield Memorial Hospital Engineering Dock 4.  As he passed the AGV he gave a polite nod and wave to Penelope through the window.  She gave him a brief smile before descending back into the details of sub-nano-circuitry and Thunderbird 14 protocols.

"Um, so who might you be?" asked Captain Samwise upon seeing Doctor Danger and giving him a proper sizing up.

"You do not recognize me?" asked the doctor.

"Um, nooo," replied Sam with a tilt of the head.

"I, am... Doctor Danger," the man stated with a pause for dramatic effect.

"Alright, so..." replied Sam.  "I'm sorry but I can't say your name rings a bell."

"I see.  Is there a place where we can speak in private?"  asked the doctor.

Sam looked around at the compound, the war-torn town, the hospital, and said, "I supposed we can find a conference room in the hospital somewhere."

"You can use the AGV," mentioned Fred under his breath.

"No, I'm not taking him in there.  I have no idea who the hell he is," answered Sam quietly.  "We'll find a conference room in a sub-level of the hospital.  It's okay."

And so they went through all of the WildFire protocols, including the washroom, the medical scanning chamber, the ultraviolet decontamination chamber, the antibacterial spray chamber, and finally the airlock.  In the end Doctor Danger was divested of his accoutrements, which were secured in a hermetically sealed plastic bag, and looked like a medically clean specimen in a white lab suit with a white facemask just like everyone else.  They made their way down a level via the elevator to a conference room.  The walls of Private Conference Room B-2 were orange and the table was made of white plastic.  There were four gray chairs, and absolutely no electronic equipment.  All radio communications were prevented by solid two inch thick lead walls.  It was essentially a faraday cage in which team members could speak freely without fear of being recorded or overheard.  

"I know," stated Doctor Danger, "about the Manticore.  I also know it has been wounded, but not defeated.  And that he will resurface with a vengeance as soon as his wounds are healed."

These statements got Captain Samwise's attention, and he stared at the doctor warily.  The only people who knew anything about the Manticore were the Golden Crusader Paladins from Page Arizona, and the old Indian Chief at the Trading Post outside of Mech Base 12.  No one else, including members of the military who were fighting him, nor the townspeople, nor the doctors, nor scientists believed in his existence at all until the recent meeting wherein Samwise had to spend considerable effort to persuade them that the rumors they had all been hearing must have at least some grain of truth.  And now some mystery wizard in a cape comes marching up and announcing he knows all about him.  Sam stared at him with narrowed eyes.

"Is this guy the first person who actually believes us?" asked Fred, more than a little surprised.

"This is why I came to you and no one else.  I am aware that you have tangled with the Manticore, and you know what it is we are fighting," answered the Doctor.

"Alright Mr. Doctor Danger, or whatever you want to call yourself," began Sam.

"Did you make that name up by yourself?" interjected Fred as Sam paused to gather steam for his next statement.  Doctor Danger gave him an infinitesimal sneer, but kept his eyes on Samwise.

"We are fighting the same enemy," stated the Doctor.

"And whose side are you on?" asked Captain Samwise.

"I am on the side of humanity," stated the doctor with a stroke of his beard.  "I have something that may help.  But I want something in exchange."

"What might that be?" asked Captain Samwise.

"I have access to the drug Ultra," stated Doctor Danger after a pause.

Both Sam and Fred, especially Fred, knew all about Ultra.  It was the top secret super-soldier drug developed by the United States that spawned the first Ultra-Army in the world.  One hundred thousand super soldiers, with enhanced strength, speed, and intelligence beyond anything humans had ever imagined before.  Their prowess on the battlefields of Earth were legendary, even against the AI Robot Army.  They invented new technologies as they marched.  They could run faster than a jeep, and had the strength of eight hundred pound gorillas.  Their aim was perfect, and their motto was "One Shot, Two Kills".  The Ultra-War would have been won by them, had it not been for one flaw.  Ultra was not safe to use.  

Those using Ultra would take the dose by injection.  It would immediately give them an overwhelming feeling of euphoria, followed by an intense feeling of personal power, speed, intelligence, strength and skill.  One felt invincible on Ultra, and so they were.  However, after the high, which would last for several hours, came the fall.  During this period they would feel severely irritable, with pains throughout the body, as well as nausea and weakness.  This would last for several hours, and then they would be exhausted and pass out.  The next time they awoke they would be fine.  However, this combination of factors led some of them - many in fact - to abuse the drug.  And the rub was, if one went over, by even a hair, the prescribed dosage, then it instantly became irresistibly addictive, to the point where Ultra-Soldiers would kill without compunction to obtain their next fix.  And furthermore, it was incredibly expensive.  Towards the end of the Ultra-War the surviving military authorities outlawed the substance, to the point were manufacturing, dealing or taking it carried an immediate death penalty.  

And so Ultra soon became incredibly scarce, to the point where the price skyrocketed beyond any reasonable measure.  Only the highest level elites could afford it, and they were serviced by an eager mafia underground who began selling it for utterly outrageous prices on the black market. The Mafia leadership finally found a way to gain control of the highest authorities in the world through a cleverly run campaign of infiltration, blackmail, and addiction marketing.  

Some said it was the WAR-GAI who engineered this calamity.  But either way, in the end the most powerful corporations in the world were destroyed in the process, as their CEOs had succumbed to the drug's evil power.  All except Elon Musk, who for reasons unknown, had avoided the disaster and whose company continued to thrive and prosper throughout the war torn era.  Proximatics Industrial became the predominant manufacturing corporation in the world.  Until the end of everything, which came shortly thereafter.  When Altissimus-XL-5000 ended the Ultra-War, however, Proximatics Industrial was still operational, albeit barely.  And Elon Musk continued as CEO and with his aid, the world began its long march back towards civilization.  This time without Ultra.  

It had been years since anyone had heard of Ultra.  And so it came as serious shock to hear Doctor Danger not only mention it, but say that he actually had access to it.  In fact it seemed too incredible to believe.  Sam was extremely skeptical.  Fred, for his part was extremely eager to find out more.  Ultra, after all, was the ultimate drug.  And Fred was nothing if not an absolute drug fiend.

"I can produce Ultra," concluded Doctor Danger.

"I see," said Captain Samwise, holding his cards close to his chest.  "And so, what is it you want from us?"

"Yes, let's get to the point.  I need a set of papers from beneath your Federation Command Headquarters on Kitt Peak.  Below the old Federal Building are tunnels, and in them is a cave in which there is an antiquated vault from the 1840's.  I need you to promise me that you will get the papers from that vault and deliver them to me.  In exchange I can provide your army with Ultra.  In limited quantities, of course, but your military men wouldn't need much.  With it, your ability to defeat the enemy would be assured."

Of this, in fact, Captain Samwise did not have a doubt.  But whether or not Doctor Danger could procure the long lost super-drug... that was another matter entirely.  Fred on the other hand was drooling with anticipation.

"Why haven't you brought this to the attention of Lieutenant Rogers himself?"

"Unlike you, Lieutenant Rogers does not believe in Manticores," replied the doctor.

"How much is Ultra likely to help us, really?" asked Fred, hoping to get a bead on its potency.

"Against the Manticore? Not greatly I'm afraid.  But against the Lizardmen?  It would be decisive, of course," replied Doctor Danger. "Ultra, however, is a double-edged sword, as you know.  So extremely careful monitoring of dosage and distribution will be essential.  If you can control it, then it will serve you well.  If not, then I'm afraid it will only add to the disaster.  Perhaps catastrophically. The choice is yours.  But in exchange, if you choose to avail yourselves of it, I want - I must have - those papers."

Fred contemplated the superhuman abilities of Ultra, as he wiped a stream of drool from his lower lip.

"So, here's the thing, Doctor Danger... you and I have just met.  And you've requested that I break a trust with my commander for a product that I don't know you really have," said Captain Sam, fishing for any additional information he could get.

"Oh I have it," said Doctor Danger.  He carefully opened the plastic sealed bag that contained his clothes, which had of course also been decontaminated, and pulled out a tiny glass vial with a drop of iridescent blue liquid inside, perhaps a single drop.  He held it up in the palm of his hand.  "This is Ultra," he stated.

"Is that Ultra, Fred?" asked Sam while his subordinate struggled to restrain himself from lurching forward and grabbing at it. 

"I mean, well, sure," answered Fred, "it looks like it.  But who knows? That could be a facsimile, for all we can tell by just looking at it," he added as he leaned towards it unconsciously.  

"I cannot make a promise based on a glimpse," said Captain Samwise.

"Would you like to try it?" asked Doctor Danger, lifting his hand up a tiny bit towards Fred.

"Yesssssss," hissed Fred leaning foward and reaching for it.

"But not here," said Doctor Danger as he pulled his hand back to his chest.

"Why not?!" demanded Fred, barely controlling his urge to lunge at the vial and break it between his teeth.

"There are no Lizardmen in the room," stated the doctor, looking around.  "But then again, if you take a tiny dose, say 1/10th, you will know immediately whether or not it is Ultra, yes?"

"I suppose that's true," answered Fred, his brain racing to think of way to get his hands on the vial.

"Captain Samwise," said Doctor Danger, "my sources tell me, and looking at your green chitinous skin makes me believe it is true, that you are a Bio-Augmentor.  You should know that Ultra presents unique opportunities for your field."

At this thought, the good Captain perked up.  "Is there any way I can test it?" he asked to Fred's alarm and dismay.  The conversation had suddenly taken an extremely wrong turn as far as he was concerned, and he furiously fought to think of a way to bring things back on course.  "Without consuming it?" added Sam, hopefully.

"Well, of course, you have the means to test it," said Doctor Danger.  "You have the equipment, and the requisite skills.  You could conduct an extensive bio-chemical analysis on it, and while that would not necessarily be as thoroughly definitive as allowing Fred to sample a small sip..."

At that Fred nearly lost it.  His body visibly quivered, although no one appeared to notice.

"... however, it would suffice to give you enough information for you to work with, I should say," the doctor continued.  "At the very least you could confirm the veracity of my claim."

"Okay sure, then.  Testing sounds reasonable," said Sam, looking thoughtfully at the tiny blue vial.

"On the other hand, are you sure, Fred, you wouldn't rather simply take a tiny dose?  Strictly for confirmation purposes, of course?" asked the Doctor suggestively holding his hand up slightly.

Fred started to gurgle as his hands began to quiver and lurch forward, but Captain Samwise, anticipating this out of the corner of his mind, had already leapt out of his chair, onto his crutches and quickly positioned himself between the all-enticing blue vial and Fred's inarticulate mouth.

"Okay, Doctor," he said firmly, "I will test it, and confirm whether or not it is real.  And then we can have a real discussion."

"Suit yourself," said the Doctor with a smile as he handed the good Captain the tiny glass vial.  Fred collapsed back in his chair with a muffled groan, perspiration trickling down his back in frigid rivulets. 

They left the hospital and went to the AGV.  Captain Samwise had his Bio-Augmentation Laboratory in the newly renovated AGV and he was sure it would be suitable for his purposes.  At this point, with Penelope's extremely expert assistance, and Fred's brass tacks brawn and knowhow, the repairs were complete.  She was putting fine touches on some of the sub-sub systems when they walked up.  

Sam entered the AGV, but he prohibited the Doctor Danger from entering.  The doctor looked around at the empty lot, surrounded as it was by high fences, stone walls, and barbed wire robo-machinegun emplacements.  The prospects of standing in the blazing sun for an unknown period of time did not please him.

"You're not going to invite me in?" asked the doctor.  "What do you think I'm going to do?  Steal it?"

"Listen, my friend," answered the Captain, "we don't have a relationship, yet.  You have to build some trust, not expect it."

"Alright, fine," replied the doctor with a bit of a grumble.  "I'll wait over there on the broiler.  Flip me over when I brown on one side, okay?"

Captain Samwise went to his lab station and began work on the mystery liquid.  The lab was small: compact and light-weight.  It had everything necessary do do bio-chemical analysis, and an excellent AI subsystem.  

It occurred to Samwise that the sample had enough Ultra to parcel into three units, each of which could be used for a different purpose.  One had to be used for the Proof sample, and the result of that would have a 87.92% certainty rating.  He could use the remaining two to finalize the validation.  If both were used and proved positive then the certainty that the sample was in fact Ultra would be 99.9999%.  If he used one, the certainty would be 97.34%.  

He could use one or both parts for Bio-Augmentation, however. He squinted his eyes in thought.  Ah but what he could actually do with a Bio-Augmented Ultra Compound!  Fantastic ideas flashed wildly through his mind.  

Meanwhile, Doctor Danger stood outside the door of the AGV and spoke to Fred, just loudly enough so that Samwise and Penelope (who appeared to be paying no attention whatsoever, which was fine with Fred because he was paying no attention to her, either, so there) could hear him.

"There is something you ought to know about the Manticore," said the doctor.

"I'm sure there's plenty we ought to know about the Manticore," answered Fred.

"There's more than one," said Doctor Danger.

Samwise, from inside the AGV, could be heard giving out a groan.

"Why don't you say that again," said Fred with a stammer.

"There are two," continued Doctor Danger.

"Are you sure there's not three?" asked Fred, squinting his eyes.

"Only two.  A king, and a queen," he replied.

"ok," said Fred.  "um, that sounds... um... no kids?  How unfortunate for them," said Fred.

"Let us hope they do not mate," said doctor suddenly lost in sobering thought.

Inside the AGV the work on the sample stopped.  Samwise looked pensively at nothing as he thought it over.  The sing-song voice that had spoken into his mind when they fought against the Crimson Lightning Storm during the Battle of Panguitch was a woman's voice!  He shuddered to realize it. 

"Given that you seem to require some time to think all of this over," said Doctor Danger through the doorway, "I will give you one day.  I am going now.  I will return tomorrow at this time, and you can let me know your decision."

Captain Samwise came to the door of the AGV and looked at the doctor. A pall of horror had descended over him.  "Explain to me one more time, what you are looking for," he said.

"I am looking for a set of papers in a vault underneath the Kitt Peak observatory.  Lieutenant Rogers will know what I am talking about.  I must have those papers.  In exchange I will give you enough Ultra for your army to battle and defeat the Manticore's Lizardman army. That is my bargain."

"What's in those papers," asked Fred.

"You don't want to know," answered Doctor Danger grimly.

"Uh, I mean, I just asked, so I do want to know," quibbled Fred in return.

"You don't want to know," repeated the doctor.  "I don't even want to know.  But I must know."

And with that Doctor Danger walked out past the guard towers, through the main gate with a flair of his cloak.  "Twenty-four hours," he said as he vanished from view. 

Good Captain Samwise sat down in his laboratory chair.  He thought hard about everything he had learned in the past hour.  It was a lot to take in.  He understood that the Bio-Augmentation Lab could be used to create two independent Ultra-based Mutabenegenetic compounds.  Each one could have a different effect, or if he wished, the two could form a single compound with boosted effects in a given category.  He could permanently augment his strength and his intelligence.  Or his reflexes.  He could potentially combine it with other biological agents to have other effects, such as enhancing his already helpful armored chitinous skin to make it more resilient, or germinate other properties such as a healing factor, or immunity to entire classes of poison, or diseases.   

Or he could use the samples to seek a solution to Ultra's addictivity problem.  Perhaps he could eliminate the "Crash Zone", which is what they called the three hour post-euphoria phase in which they would suffer terrifically.  It was, after all, the Crash Zone that motivated them to overdose, which resulted in Ultra-Addiction, or what they called "The Claw".  After that they would spiral downward from needing extra micro-doses to fend off The Claw, to needing full doses, and ultimately higher doses.  While Ultra was abundant during the early phases of the war, it was bearable, although those under The Claw found life increasingly difficult.  But it was manageable.  However, once the drug was outlawed, and ascended out of reach of the vast majority, they went insane.  This resulted in mass casualties inflicted by super-soldiers whose minds were destroyed by uncontrollable cravings.  It was ugly.  Those who had not succumbed to the drug were forced to exterminate their peers during a vicious period known as "The Cat's Paw War".  None of the Addicted lived through it, and few of the rest.  And it was this war that ended humanity's chance of defeating the WAR-GAI.  From there on out, humanity was practically defenseless, and it was during this phase, which the WAR-GAI had named "The Way of All Flesh", that most animal life perished from the face of the earth. 

For better or worse, Captain Samwise's Bio-Augmentation Lab's AI did not appear to have enough horse power to resolve the Addicivity problem.  He wasn't entirely sure, but preliminary mathematical modelling suggested he would need a model with eleven trillion parameters and over twelve hundred layers. Where could he find the processing power necessary for that kind of operation?  And even if he could, finding out one way or the other would use up at least one of his two precious Ultra units.  He scratched his head and leaned back in his chair.  

Thinking was hard work.

And that was were we left the game that night.