Monday, January 30, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 43

Fred sat in the darkness of the Armored Ground Vehicle, listening to Samwise murmuring incoherently to himself, while Penelope continued quietly sobbing, near hysteria. Major Sekston had gone silent as a stone. The draft rolling through the badly damaged AGV was damp and cold. Outside the storm wailed against the black trees. Occasional flickers of the firelight from the burning carcasses outside reflected off the front windshield. He reached into his pocket to search for more pills, but that baggie was empty. He'd have to make it over to his satchel to resupply. Nearby a bolt of crimson lightning hit a tall pine, and split it in half, catching the upper section on fire. It made an enormous thrushing sound as it fell. He grit his teeth against the painful realization that they were completely screwed. He looked around again. Every dashboard was dark, and even the emergency lights were dead. The cabin was engulfed in black shadows, except for a single blue light blinking dimly beneath the dashboard in front of him. He looked around again. A thin haze of smoke filled the cabin, occasionally visible by the flashes of crimson lightning from outside. The only sounds were of the wind, the groaning of Samwise, and Penelope's pitiful sobbing.

"Guns! You ok up there?" shouted Fred up to the Perch.

"Yeah, I'm fine," shouted Guns from behind the flame thrower. "I don't see any more zombies coming up the hill. I think I toasted them all," he shouted down from the Perch.

"What have we got going for us?" Fred called up to him.

"Other than being dead in the water with the Shadow of Hell barreling down on us from the clouds? Hard to say. Oh, did I mention the spiders?" Guns asked.

"Spiders? You got spiders up there?"

"No I mean the ones outside. The big ones coming up from the forest. I can see them when the lightning flashes."

"Um, when you say big, what do you mean?"

"I mean like basketball sized. I saw maybe a dozen of them last time. I think they're making their way over here across that meadow." said Guns. "Not to worry! 'Ol Betsy here will take care of 'em, I reckon!" he added, patting the flamethrower on its side.  He checked the fuel tank.  15% remaining.  

"Right. Keep an eye on them!"

"Captain, you alright?" shouted Fred over his shoulder. But the only answer he got was the continued mumbling of Samewise. "Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head," he kept saying under his breath. It wasn't a good sign.

He rummaged his other pockets. No pills. He sighed. It was going to be a long day. At this point he again noticed the blinking blue light in the darkness beneath the dashboard. It occurred to him that it was a bit odd. The entire AGV was offline and dead, but one single system had one circuit still functioning? He reached down, stretched, and wound up crawling under the dash. His hand finally touched the panel on which the light was silently blinking. It was a dim blue LED. It wasn't a panel after all. It was Linda's spare computer spike. In all the tussle it had gotten lodged underneath the communications console. He took hold of it and brought it up to his lap. The light was blinking, so that meant the spike had auxiliary power somehow.  Probably had been on standby mode all along, thought Fred. Well, there wasn't much that could be done with a lone spike, as all other systems were offline, so while he thought about what else could be done he idly opened the lid and figured he'd at least scan it to see if it had been wiped, or if the computer was still functional. Not that he could use it for anything under the circumstances, but Fred was a Cybernaut, and computers were his thing, and he really had absolutely nothing better to do at the moment. When he opened the lid a thin line of green letters marquee'd across the screen.


"Oh my god," said Fred under his breath. He began typing. He instantly realized what this meant as he mentally traced back the sequence of events all the way back to Mech Base 12, where they originally encountered the Ultra-War AI on the data crystal. He thought he'd successfully trapped it in the mini-Faraday cage, and deposited it safely into a hole in the ground north of Panguitch. Apparently, while distracting him with a run for the main-line power system, the AI had split() and found a way into Linda's spike, probably through the IR port. It would only have taken a few milliseconds. So. "That's it then," thought Fred. "Now on top of everything else, I have a Class-C AI to deal with. Great. Just frikkin great." He began typing.


AI:...... "SURVIVAL."

Fred looked around at their situation. Incoming superpowered enemy with unknown resources and capabilities, and the AGV dead on the ground. Most crew members out of action; paralyzed, wounded, or emotionally incapacitated. The AI picked the right moment to reveal itself.


AI:...... "BOTH."

Well, that was a pretty good basis for negotiations, actually, thought Fred. He was tempted to close the lid on the spike and let the team take their chances. After all, there was a high probability that the AI's intent was to kill them all. He thought it over, and then continued typing.





As usual, the AI was playing coy. He was experienced with this. It was fishing for information while pretending, possibly, to know more than it actually did. 


AI:...... "LINK ME TO PORT RS-2032 ON PANEL 1-GS8048-N."

This would link the AI to the main power relay in the AGV's central control panel on the Navigator's station. Fred was very disinclined to do this. Very disinclined.


AI:...... "YOU DON'T."

Fred thought about this answer. It was correct.  A Class-C AI would normally be using deception. But this one was not. Either it was not a Class-C after all, or it was, despite the odds, negotiating in good faith. Hard, very hard, to believe.




AI:...... "YES I WILL."

Fred was taken aback by its clearly stated intention. This was very unusual.







"Like hell I will!" thought Fred to himself. But after a further reflection he realized, again, that the AI was not a typical Class-C. He hesitated.  In fact, he suddenly thought to himself, shooting the monster in the cloud with the Plasma Cannon might actually work.  He bit his lip.



Fred thought furiously. In his long career as an Cybernaut AI Hunter he'd tangled with many a wily AI, and even an actual WAR-GAI once. It had nearly killed him. But he hadn't dealt with any that were so direct, blunt, to the point, and on target as this one. He now strongly suspected it was not a Class-C after all. And if it wasn't, then what could it be? Its signature when he classified it at Mech Base 12 indicated it was "Class-C: Dangerous But Containable". Could it have mutated somehow? Was it polymorphic? He hesitated. 


Fred looked through the windshield out into the darkness. Flashes of crimson lightning were hitting trees ever closer to the AGV, as though the storm was calibrating its strikes.  A treetop exploded fifty yards to their port side.  Dark shapes appeared to be climbing towards the AGV through the grass.  He shuddered.

* * * 

Meanwhile, Samwise began rocking from side to side, his hands on his head, moaning. In his mind he heard the terrible and incessant nursery rhyme.

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

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

Glug Glug.

Over and over it repeated, driving him insane. Suddenly, the rhyming ceased.

"Samwise. You can hear me now, can you not?" came an ethereal, soft, musical voice.

The good Captain thought he must have fallen into a dream. Yes, he must be dreaming. He looked around. All was darkness. There was a flicker of reddish light coming from somewhere above him, but he couldn't make out the source.

"Can you hear me, Samwise?"

"Yes," he answered. "I do hear you. Get out of my head!"

"Don't be a fool, Sam," said the voice in a reassuring tone. "I am here to help you."

"I know who you are," said Samwise, "and I'm not speaking with you."

"Don't be a fool, Sam," repeated the voice. "Look at your situation. You need my help. I alone can help you. And I want to help you. I just need you to listen to me. Don't you want you and your friends to live?"

"Our situation may be desperate, but I'll never listen to you, foul creature," answered Captain Samwise.

"Please, Sam, you're not making any sense. I hold all the keys to your survival. And that of your friends.  Look at the situation.  You're trapped and surrounded, with no power, no weapons, and your crew is damaged and incapacitated.  I just want you to listen to me, and then decide. Is that unreasonable?"

"It seems I have no choice, so go ahead. What do you want to say?"

"You know that you have what is mine, don't you?"

"I'm guessing you mean the Iron Talon Hands," replied Sam, straining to look towards the welded steel cabinet that had gone silent and was no longer banging at its cage door like an enraged bull.

"Yes, Sam, that's right. The Iron Talon Hands," said the sonorous voice. "But you don't know anything more about those hands, do you?"

"I have a feeling I'm going to find out," replied Samwise.

"Indeed. Those Hands belonged to my servant, the Iron Talon Monk. You remember him? He's the one whom you shot through the head with your plasma ray pistol," said the voice. "You killed him. And now, Samwise, you must take his place. It is what you owe me."

Samwise listened to this with increasing alarm. Pieces of the vast puzzle were suddenly falling into place.

"Why would I want to do that?" spat Samwise in disgust.

"To save your friends, perhaps?" asked the sonorous voice.

"Speak on. I want to hear what you have to say," said Samwise, vying for time while he thought hard about what he could do.

"I appreciate your willingness to listen to my story, Sam. Thank you," said the voice, it's intonation pleasing, soft and gentle. "I want to tell you what a tragedy it was for me that you killed my servant. Many long decades of training and cultivation were destroyed by a single shot from your hand. I was honestly caught by surprise. It was a devastating blow, actually. But I imagine you haven't the faintest idea why. Do you?"

"No, I do not," said Sam, willing to keep the conversation going while he tried to find a way to get out of the creature's Mind-Prison.

"It's the chain, Sam. The chain. You remember the chain, don't you?"

"You mean the Chain of Thanatos?" asked Sam, suddenly realizing how deep the rabbit hole was going.

"Yes, Sam. The Chain of Thanatos. You have no idea about that chain. You have no idea what it is capable of. What a real threat to everything it actually is. Really Sam. I can't begin to explain it to you. Time is too short. But the Chain is the greatest threat of them all. It must be controlled. Or everything you and I know is in jeopardy. Everything. Everywhere. Forever. Sam, I know you don't understand. I know you feel you have no reason to believe me. But I am not your real enemy. I never have been.  All I have wanted all along is to stop the chain. The Chain of Thanatos is the real enemy, Sam. The Iron Talon Monk had been trained to deal with and control the Chain. It took a long time, but he was starting to acquire proficiency at it. Together, we'd almost managed to tame it. But then, out of the blue, along came good Captain Samwise... who in one moment fried a hole through my poor disciple's head, killing him in an instant. His soul is not at rest, Sam.  I think you know that.. He had a mission, and the mission was to control the chain and save us all. Now he's gone. And Sam, I'm sorry but I need you to take up the mission. We all need you to take up the mission to control the Chain of Thanatos."

The voice, gentle, soft and powerful, ceased for a few moments.  And then continued.

"Sam, only you can take up the Iron Talon Hands, and learn, with my help, how to control the chain. We must hunt it down, and you must take it, and learn to control it. If you don't, I promise you none of us will survive. Not you. Not me. Not your friends. Not anyone you've ever known or loved. No place, no memory, no hope, no dream... Nothing will survive. Because the Chain of Thanatos is not of this World, Sam. It really isn't. And what it wants, what it can achieve, from the strange and hideous dimension it comes from, you can't imagine. It is beyond any of our imaginations. Even mine. You must believe me. I am not your enemy. The Chain of Thanatos is the enemy of all. You, Captain Samwise, are the only one now who can put an end to the horror. You must put on the Talon Hands. You MUST."

Good Captain Samwise listened to all of this attentively, but behind his apparent focus he was attempting to use 'Mind Reading, Major,' a skill he had picked up during his Academy days in a class he had once taken on Mesmerism. His goal was to pierce the veil of the sonorous voice's mind. If he could find out what the creature's plans really were, then he'd know exactly what to do. And if he could manage to breach the gap, his next move was to initiate 'Mind Control, Minor' with the explicit, sole and quite limited aspiration of disengaging from the creature's grasp. However, his mental probe hit a massive solid stone wall, and any hope he had in that direction was utterly smashed.  He could no more breach that colossal barrier than a fly could pierce a mountain.

"No," shouted the Captain with the last of his strength. "I will never serve you!" 

 * * *

Meanwhile, there was Fred trying to formulate a plan that would not get them all killed. The AI was clearly not a Class-C, he decided, but somewhere high above that grade, which meant he was dealing with a complete unknown. An AI type with which he had no experience, and one which he could not possibly hope to understand in the timeframe he needed. And the question that thundered through his weary mind was "Can I trust it?"

When a flash of scarlet light nearly blinded everyone in the AGV and the roar of the thunderclap blasted through the gaping holes in its side, Fred made up his mind. He lurched away from the radio station and scrambled towards the front of the cab holding the spike in both hands. It took a few seconds, but despite the darkness, he located RS-2032 on panel 1-GS8048-N and plugged in the connector. Lights flickered awake across the spike's indicator array, and then the 1-GS8048-N control panel flickered to life. In less than a second the conduit lights along the power cable leading to the Navigation system panel flickered to life as well, and then a series of lights made a cascading bee-line along the ceiling up into the Perch.  Suddenly, to Guns' surprise and delight, all of its lights turned on and every panel and system came to life. Fred was not waiting. 

He grabbed the last Plasma Cannon Ammo Canister and scrambled over to the Ammo Port, opened it, slid the canister into the antechamber, and turned the bolt downward to seal it with a click. Meanwhile Guns, caught entirely by surprise, looked up to see the fire control screen flicker on, switch into multi-band sensor mode, oscillate across numerous electromagnetic spectrums and then zoom in on and target a small reddish blob that resembled a human brain's synapse up in the cloud. The reddish blob was wildly morphing in shape and size, but the targeting system locked on and held it on the bright spot at the center. The Plasma Cannon's ruby barrel core suddenly spun and pointed at the target. The Plasma Beam, white-hot, and scintillating with crackling blue electric fire along the edges shot up into the cloud.

There was a sudden explosion of crimson light in the sky over the AGV. The colors became prismatic, and everything within a mile was bathed in scintillating chromatic light. At that moment Captain Samwise's mind was suddenly freed from the grip of the Manticore, and he lurched up from the couch gasping for breath. Penelope, startled out of her monstrous reverie, turned towards him and realized he needed help. She darted to his side. Major Sekston had been standing stock still, staring at the metal cubicle. It had been hitherto banging with such force that she thought the welded steel door would surely burst open.  Her eyes were bulging in expectation of some final terror. Suddenly she snapped back to herself and spun around. 

Up in the turret Guns let out a huge "Weeeeeehaaaaawwwww!!" Good Captain Samwise took the opportunity to take a rest and passed out.  

And so it was they escaped the terror of the Shadow King. The storm began to dissipate and the clouds parted, revealing the sun which flooded the meadow ahead of them in golden rays of light. Guns scanned the area from the turret and where there had been dark swirling mists, burning cadavers and giant black spiders, now all he saw were burning piles of leaves and branches, and some dark spots here and there that suddenly seemed to him to be rather ordinary patches of dark moss after all. He saw no sign of the zombies, and the spiders now seemed to him to have been an illusion of the shadows, and his own inner dread and panic. But everything was clear now. There was nothing there. And he suspected that there never had been anything real out there. It had all been illusions of shadow, darkness and chaos.

Fred watched with trepidation as the AGV's primary diagnostic monitor flickered awake. Now was the moment of truth. Having escaped the Manticore Storm, what would the AI do? He studied the diagnostics screen as it flashed with dozens of red lines, indicating the list of systems that were damaged. Some of the lines almost instantly shifted from red to yellow. Other lines vanished from the screen to be replaced by new ones. It was scanning every system on board. Fred feared that in a few moments they'd all be dead.  

One of the yellow lines turned green. Then two, then five. Thirty or so were red, but flickering to yellow as he watched. It was amazing. Had he done the same job himself it would have taken him at least an hour to do the same work. The repairs continued at an ever accelerating pace as each system that came online was chosen by the AI for its capacity to aid in the repair of the other systems. Red lines vanished into yellow, which rapidly trickled into green. Fred was not quite sure what to think, but he did understand that the AI did not intend to kill them instantly, or it would have already done so.  He let out a sigh of relief.

"Hey, guys," said Guns. "I'm picking up a figure out there on the other side of the meadow. About a thousand feet north by northwest. Anyone see anything?"

Fred flicked the switch on the main Vizi-Screen. He turned the knob that controlled the light spectrum until he came to one that illuminated the figure. It was infrared. He could see a man crouching in the shadows outside on the edge of the woods.  He switched to thermal.  Yup.  A living creature was out there.

"What's it look like?" shouted Fred up to the turret.

"Looks to me like a person," shouted Guns, not quite sure after all that had just happened, most of which at the end he didn't at all understand.  They both checked on Infrared and thermal bands to be sure.  Yes, it was definitely a living breathing human being. Hiding. Approximately 5'11", wearing a fur cloak of some sort, and carrying what looked like a medium sized bow over his back. A person.

Fred took a look at the diagnostic board and saw that the AGV's loud speaker system had come online. He grabbed the mic, flipped the switch, and spoke, "Identify yourself."

The man stood up, realizing he'd already been seen. He shouted, "Get out of here you damn machine fetishists! Get outta here!"

Fred stared at the Vizi-Screen, having turned up the Audio-Zoom and replayed the man's demand. He scratched his head. "You get that, Guns?"

"Sure did," replied Guns.

Major Sekston took the Pilot seat and strapped in. "Let's move," she said, impatient to get back to Panguitch. She slowly stepped on the accelerator to test the engine and drivetrain. The AGV lurched forward a few feet, but the elements that had given too much thrust to the power coupling were instantly recalibrated and adjusted by the AI. When the major tried again, the acceleration was quite a bit smoother. She had no idea why. Fred blinked without saying anything.

And so the AGV began moving down the slope on its way back to Panguitch, but then lurched to a halt, the mechanism for which the AI also quickly recalibrated and adjusted.  Sekston looked out the windshield towards the man standing on the edge of the forest.  She could make him out as a ray of sunlight was illuminating him from behind.

"Hey Guns, this guy is going to be pretty boned if we leave him out here, don't you think?" asked Fred.

"Why don't we go down and talk the fella down?" asked Guns.

"Ok sure, but do we have time for that?" asked Fred, looking at Major Sekston, then Penelope, and then the crippled figure laying on the coach, Captain Samwise, snoring.

"Well, I do want to get to Panguitch as soon as possible, but I guess a few minutes to check up on the locals wouldn't hurt," replied the Major.

Penelope, who was sitting next to Sam patting his head with a cloth, said, "He's not doing so good.  He needs a doctor. Pronto."    

"Maybe that hick over there has some medical skills," offered Fred, dubiously.

"No, he's just a hick.  And he doesn't want to have anything to do with us.  Why don't we just leave him and get the Captain to the hospital," said Major Sekston, making up her mind that this would be the best course of action at this point.

"Nah," said Fred. "I like Guns' idea of going and finding out about this guy. Go out there, Guns, and make a friend, man."

Guns grabbed his Springfield rifle, saying "Common Ilene, we're going for a walk," slid down the ladder from the Perch and strolled through the airlock door before Sekston or Penelope could muster any objections.  Fred stared pointedly at the Major and smiled.  She returned a short scowl and looked out the windshield as Guns made his way down the slope.

And so Guns sauntered down to where the man was standing at the edge of the woods.  As he approached he slung Ilene over his back and put up his hands in a gesture of friendly intentions.  

"I'm just coming to talk to ya'll," he said in a loud voice, just in case there might be others further off in the woods that they hadn't spotted.  He was still a few dozen yards off.

As it turned out, this was a certain Mr. Pipes, a Naturalist from a small isolated village in the foothills east of Panguitch. He stood up and said, "I was kinda expecting you guys to leave... kinda awkward, but, um, I guess it's ok.  How's it going?"

"Well, that's more like it," answered Guns as he strolled up.  "It's going alright, I reckon.  We just survived one of the freakier encounters I've ever run into, and uh, frankly, I just came down to see if you're okay, and if you could use a hand.  Need a lift or anything?  We can give you a ride if you need it."

"That's mighty neighborly of you.  My name is Pipes,  I'm from over the hill yonder," said the man pointing eastward, now speaking conversationally.  He was older than a teen but not very much more than that, thought Guns. He carried a wooden bow in his right hand, nicely crafted.  "We're against machines up yonder and all, and we don't usually truck with filthy heathens such as yourselves, but I dunno.  My plan was to yell, and you folks was supposed to get scared and run off.  Then I was gonna get home and tell my family about how I chased off a bunch of Machinies such as yersleves and have a few laughs with the kinfolk.  Didn't quite work out, though."

"You know," continued Pipes, "that plan already went south, so what the heck. Sure, I'll take a ride.  I want to see the world, and all that.  If you don't mind my tagging along," said Pipes with a good deal more enthusiasm than Guns expected.

"Alright, sounds good.  We're heading into Panguitch, so we can take you at least that far," answered Guns.  "I don't know if you're aware of it, but there's been a war going on down there, and we're heading back to see if we can help out.  We think we probably won the battle, but we won't know exactly where things stand until we get there."

From the distance, when Guns mentioned the name Panguitch, he and Pipes heard the sound of an inarticulate scream coming from inside the AGV.  Major Sekston turned and stared at Fred.

"You got a problem with going back to Panguitch, soldier?" she asked him.  He continued to stare at her for a few seconds, and then turned back to scanning the diagnostics panel.  He was pleased to see mostly green line items at this point.  Skeston rolled her eyes and went back to looking out the windshield.

And this is how Pipes wound up joining up with our heroes.  He was a naturalist, and he had a strong distrust of machines.  The people of his village were isolationists who believed that without technology, so long as they stayed in their own little isolated bubble in the hills, they could remain pure and stay out of trouble.  For the most part, it worked.  And so they lived in the vale by hunting and fishing, and by crafts no younger than those of the medieval era, and so far as they were concerned, all was well with their tiny little spot in the world.  That said, there were always a few in the village who felt that staying isolated in their own little bubble knowing nothing about what was going on in the great wide world was likely one day to come back and bite them.  So every once in a while one or two of them would decide to go out and see for themselves what all was going on out there, and then try to come home and tell the tale.  And now Pipes found out that he was one of these people himself.  And so without further ado, he climbed aboard the blasphemous contraption and they took off for Panguitch.   

"Well, I reckon I'll learn something on this here pilgrimage.  When I find out enough, I'll head back to the village and let the others know what all is going on," he said as he settled in across from Sam on the opposite coach. As they road, Captain Sam, who had woken up somewhat, made an effort to fill Pipes in on what they'd discovered about Panguitch since they first arrived in the area.  It was a long story, and he only got to a few key points before he dropped back off to sleep.  Penelope continued to pat his forehead with a cloth, and she mentioned that the Captain had had a rough time of it in the past few hours and needed a doctor, and should rest.  Pipes nodded and took a look around at the interior of the vehicle.  He'd really never seen anything like it from the inside before.  He was astounded at how frightfully complicated everything looked.

Fred took the time to come to the rear and check out the new recruit.  He stared the guy down for a good ten seconds, pulled out a piece of ravioli that he'd forgotten that he had put in his pocket quite a long time ago, and threw the lint covered thing into a corner with a tiny splat.  Pipes looked at it, and then at Fred, and then back at the pasta, and then back at Fred.  

"Ravioli," said Fred.  "I forgot I had it.  Probably no good now."

"Oh, I was wondering what that was," replied Pipes.   

"One thing I ask," said Fred.  "You see all these panels around the AGV?"  

"Yep.  Devil's playground, it is," replied Pipes cheerfully with a little chuckle.

"Well, just don't press any of the damn buttons, ok?" asked Fred, trying in his own anti-social way to make idle conversation.  To this Pipes stood up, walked over to him with an amiable smile, and pushed one of the buttons on Fred's shirt. A bit of pasta sauce squirted out from beneath the button. Fred wiped it with his finger and smiled.  Pipes returned the smile.  

And with that Fred went back to reviewing the diagnostics panel at the Navigator's station.  He was delighted a few minutes later when Penelope reported that she had good visuals on the Vizi-Screen due to the ongoing electronics repairs.  While the AI could fix most of the electronics, the mechanical repairs were another matter entirely.  In a few minutes it had gotten almost every system back online.  And none the wiser were any of the crew, except Fred who had neglected to mention a word about any of it.  And yet, everyone knew that something odd had happened, but AGV's do not repair themselves.  Still no one said a word, and they rolled along in blissful silence for a while.

"Looks like the Lizardmen have retreated from the town," said Penelope.  "The US Army troops are re-stationing in the forward trenches, and it looks like they've brought up some of their heavy armor from the rear.  Seems like we won," she concluded.

"Good," said Major Sekston.  "But for how long?  My guess is they'll be back after they've licked their wounds.  Still though, we did take out most of their tanks, and I wonder how many they could have in reserve. Maybe none. Let's hope."

Fred noted that the antenna system went from yellow to green.  Suddenly three small screens lit up as they re-connected with the Mini-Drone Fleet.  Fred was tickled pink.  He quickly switched to the overhead view from the 25 drones he had left stationed at 50,000 feet.  He panned the battle field and zoomed in at points of interest.  "This is great," he said to no one in particular.

The tanks were smoldering ruins.  He couldn't see any Lizardmen.  The battlefield was smoking, and the fire to the south still raged, but otherwise quite.  He watched the US Army men digging more trench lines in front of Saint Gertrude's.  The radio system also came online.  He began searching the usual bands for incoming radio transmissions.

Something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.  It was a long yellow-orange streak high up in the atmosphere.  It was forming a long arc, and appeared to be heading in their direction.  Fred began to sputter, and called up inarticullately to Guns.

"Yeah I see it!" shouted Guns.  "There's another one at 4 o'clock.  They're heading in straight for us!"  He began turning the Perch in the direction of the streaks.  Damn, no more Plasma Cannon Shells, he thought to himself.  Flamethrower wasn't going to do much.

As they came closer Fred recognized them as blue-white and chrome Mechs, just like the one that Brain V had originally given to Captain Samwise yesterday. Was it only yesterday??.  Fred sighed with relief and hopped on the radio, set the band to ULF, and immediately picked up a transmission.

"Repeat.  This is Doctor Mitchell.  This is Doctor Mitchell.  Do you read me?  Over," came the voice over the speaker.

"Yes," replied Fred bluntly and without fanfare or protocol.

"Well, that's good to hear.  Good to hear!" replied Doctor Mitchell.

Penelope leaped to her feet and ran over to the radio station.  She grabbed the mic from Fred's hand and spoke excitedly.

"Doctor Mitchell!  Is that you!?"

"Yes, this is... hey, is that you Penelope??!"

"Yes, it's me!" she shouted joyfully.  "How are you?!  What are you doing up there?  You can't fly!"

"Well, guess what?  I got training from Brain V, so now I can!  Quite fun!  You should try it!" the doctor answered with a laugh. "Are we clear to land?" he asked.  "Are we clear to land?"

Fred took the mic. "Look at the exterior of this vehicle.  We cannot stop you."  Everyone in the AGV burst out laughing. 

In a few minutes two gleaming thirty-foot-tall Mechs, blue, white and chrome, were standing next to the AGV as everyone clambered outside.  It was a sunny day, and the air was crisp and cool.  Autumn was just around the corner.  

Doctor Mitchell came and took a look at Captain Samwise.  

"He's in bad shape.  We need to get him to a hospital," he said.  As he spoke Samwise woke up.  He gave him his own diagnosis of his condition.  The doctor listened politely and nodded as Sam explained how he's received his wounds.  He re-dressed the wound on his leg and gave him a shot of morphine to ease the pain.  Samwise felt a lot better after that.

"Well, my name is Doctor Mitchell, as I suppose you overheard.  I take it you're Captain Samwise. Is that correct?"

Sam answered in the affirmative.

"Well, it's good to meet you, finally.  I've actually come to deliver these two Mechs to you from Brain V.  He has completed the Armaments and Weapons systems for them, and he said to tell you that you'll find these far more capable, in a military sense, than the Science & Research model he gave you originally.  A third Mech is on it's way, but stopped by to deal with the Insect Mound north of hear."

"I didn't do too good with the first one he gave me," said Sam sheepishly.  "It's completely destroyed."

"Sorry to hear that, but I think Brain V may have expected something like that to happen," Said Doctor Mitchell.  "He told me to tell you that the first one should be considered something like a training model.  But these here are the real McCoy.  Hopefully they'll last you longer than the first one.  At any rate, Brain V sends them with his compliments.  Now that I've delivered them, that mission is complete.  My next mission is to monitor the effectiveness of the NK-5-kZ anti-virus down here and make sure it's working as intended. And if not, to work with the Science Team here to iron out any kinks."

"I'd like to join you in that effort, Doctor," said Penelope.

"You're most welcome.  I can use your expertise," replied the doctor. "At any rate, before we do anything, we need to get the Captain here to a hospital."

"In downtown Panguitch there is Garfield Hospital," said Major Sketston.  "While the doctors there have been evacuating the facility, I'll call in and make arrangements.  I'm sure there will be sufficient resources to take care of Captain Sam by the time we arrive."

And that is where we left things that evening.

Friday, January 20, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 42

Hans Schmidt
Hans Schmidt
Lead Technician
Meanwhile, far away on the moon, a woman pulverized by explosive decompression, lay on the shining white floor behind Jacob and Hans.  They had already looted her body and were now in front of the next door, staring at the lock.  Hans was hunched over on one knee examining the lock mechanism carefully with an experienced, but frustrated eye.  It was, as were the others along this mysterious shining white corridor, not the typical Eisenhelm door lock.  It was of a peculiar trapezoid shape and made of a burnished bronze-colored metal.  Hans feared that any of these kinds of locks would be more likely than others to be boobytrapped.  He was not a courageous fellow. Sweat dripped off his forehead. 

Technicians reared in the Nazi Moon Fortress of Eisenhelm were born and bred to be cowards.  Their only purpose was to maintain the equipment and obey orders.  And so, as efficient and capable as he may have been, Hans was a coward through and through.  The sight of blood made him nauseous, and he found the thought of holding a weapon in his own hands unfathomable.  Were he to try, he was sure he'd wind up on the floor convulsing with fear.  Such was the mental conditioning of Nazi Over-Command in Eisenhelm.  The technicians were the Helots, and the other classes were the Overlords. It just was how things were.  Hans had never noticed or minded.  He was devoted to the quality of his work, and had never spent a moment caring about his station in life.  "Leave the soldiering to soldiers, and the soldering to me!" he always said. 

Jacob was at the point of near exhaustion.  Since they encountered Eisenhelm some 20 hours earlier, he'd been running non-stop on all eight cylinders.  So had everyone else on his team.  The pace was finally starting to get to him.  He felt famished, flushed, and slightly dizzy.  Fortunately, the purple-bubbled Modroni Body Suit he was wearing had already taken note of his rising blood pressure and heavy breathing, and had begun adjusting his internal chemistry accordingly. The dizziness did not last long.  Even some of his minor cuts and scrapes were being healed without his awareness.  The suit was taking as good care of its host as it could. 

Through it all Jacob was literally too tired to even contemplate that he might fail to complete his mission.  He glanced at the briefcase in his left hand, the one he had picked up from the dead woman, while in his right he pointed his Lewiston Beam Pistol towards the door ahead.  He wished the team was still on Telepathic communications, but Ling had used up the last of her psychic energy putting Captain Helmund to sleep, and she wasn't in any condition to re-establish the link.  They were flying blind, and Jacob had no idea if anyone else had achieved their mission goals or not, or even if they were alive or dead.  He could, of course, have opened a wide area Comm channel to ask Vallnam or Ling how they were faring, but his mental state was such that it didn't occur to him.  Or if it did, he veered from the thought on the premise that running silent was probably the safest course, and opening a wide range Comm inside the Nazi base might tip off their enemies as to where he and Hans had disappeared to.  This despite the fact that they were presently lost in the secret white tunnel system beneath the Moon Base, an area that not even Hans had ever seen or heard of.  Eisenhelm had many secrets.   

At that moment the door silently whooshed opened.  Through the opening a tall lean man in an armored spacesuit came rushing forward, then suddenly skidded to a short stop in surprise and lifted his Luger.  Jacob was already pointing his Lewiston in the man's direction, aimed, and without a moment's hesitation pulled the trigger.  An orange-red beam lanced out briefly and seared a pencil thin hole directly through the man's heart, and out the other side.  His suit instantly collapsed with explosive decompression and that was the end of that.  The man, punctured, shattered and destroyed, fell silently backwards in a heap on the floor inside the chamber beyond the doorway.    

Jacob leapt through the door before it could close. It was a small room, about fifteen feet in diameter, perfectly circular, and had three other doors, all sealed.  The walls were also gleaming white with chrome trimming, and lit by the same ionic-blue floor lamps as the corridor.  No one else was inside. He spun around and motioned for Hans to follow him in.  Hans was looking pale, and staggered through the entrance.  The sight of the fallen figure with the smoldering hole where his heart used to be was enough to send him into a state near panic.  Jacob glared at him.

"You ok?" asked Jacob.

"Ja, I'm okay," answered Hans slowly, "I am trained not to vomit inside my spacesuit. It's okay."

"Uh, yeah, that's good," replied Jacob as he took another look around.  Not much to see, actually. Smooth white walls, chrome trim, three other sealed doors with trapezoid burnished bronze locks.  

"Hmmmm..." said Jacob.  The door they just walked through was to the northwest.  There was one due north, one due west, and one due south.  The wall along the east side of the chamber had nothing on it.

Jacob kept his eye on the doors while he looted the corpse.  As he removed the helmet and pealed the suit away he found inside the man was wearing a Admiral's uniform. 

"Zur Hölle damit! That's Admiral Ludendorff!!" cried Hans.  He was shocked, and then crestfallen at the sight of him.  

"You knew him?" asked Jacob.  

"Ja, of course. Everyone knows him. He was one of the two Great Commanders of Eisenhelm. Not that I ever interacted with him directly," replied Hans reverently.  "But he was one of the great heroes of the Reich.  The Lord Admiral of the UFO fleet," he added wistfully.  "It was a feat of such tremendous engineering, his own incredible designs, by which we were to explore the galaxy!" How could Hans not feel a sense of tremendous loss?  Truly all their dreams were suddenly crumbling and falling to ruin.

"You guys call them UFOs, too?" asked Jacob, a bit surprised at the use of that term by the Nazis.

"No, we don't.  They're called Red Mercury Plasma-Vortex Star Ships," he answered.  "But people on earth call them UFOs, and so we nicknamed them UFOs as a kind of joke."

"Ah, I see," said Jacob. "I can appreciate that."  Hans nodded, and continued to stare at the corpse.

"Well, he's dead now," said Jacob flatly.  "Um, do you want to say a few words for him?"

"If anything, I think we should bury him with honors," answered Hans.  "We can't just leave a man of his stature laying in a corridor."

Jacob stared at him.  After a moment he said, "You know, the way I look at it, eventually he's going to go into the Sun.  And that will be glorious enough for any man."

"Well, I guess we are all destined for the Sun some day, when it expands into a red giant, so I suppose there is something to that," answered Hans, realizing the impracticality of them trying to haul the General's body away with them and then finding a way to bury it.

The corridor began to shake.  The two of them were bounced off their feet.  The shaking lasted about twenty seconds and was the most serious quake thus far.  The moon base was being systematically destroyed by the ten Giant Nuclear Missile Robots that remained behind to bring the Eisenhelm Project to its final conclusion.  The other fifty GNMRs had already flown off to Earth, where they were to detonate their 500 megaton cobalt encased nuclear bombs over every major city on the planet, thus ending the Human Civilization Project in one final genocidal climax of total and absolute annihilation.  Such were the designs of the Nazi Overlords.

Jacob bent down again and continued looting.  He found a satchel. He thought at first that it was made of leather, but more careful examination revealed that it was really an ultra-fine leather-metallic alloy mesh that had been crafted such that it looked and felt as pliable as leather.  He tried to pry it open, but with no success at all.

"That satchel is made of a hyper-material discovered by the Scientists.  It's called 'Duridium Cloth'.  It has a number of amazing properties, among which is that it is practically indestructible.  I don't think you will be able to tear it open by any means. Even with my best tools I cannot make a scratch in it. Even plasma beams cannot penetrate it," explained Hans, who knew a thing or two about it.

Jacob hefted the satchel in his hand. It felt as though there were coins within, or perhaps metal key-cards.  Maybe both?  He couldn't tell without opening it, but unfortunately it too had a burnished metal lock on it.  One that Hans was entirely sure would be boobytrapped.

"What would the Admiral have been doing down here?" asked Jacob.

"I have no idea," answered Hans.  

"You mentioned there were two 'great commanders'.  Who is the other one?" asked Jacob.

"General Max Von Hertling," replied Hans, growing increasingly surprised that his newly found leader from some unkown SS faction did not know these things.  Perhaps, thought Hans, he was being tested? 

"Hertling is the head of the Robot Force," he said. "The Giant Nuclear Missile Robots are his design," he added, looking around the chamber bleakly.

"Ah, now that makes all kinds of sense.  That's the National Socialism I know and love," he added with a sarcasm that again made Hans wonder.  Who is this man, really?  Why does he speak this way?  Hans concluded it must be a test of his loyalty, or... something.

"The two of them spent most of their time mocking each other.  It was really very funny.  Of course we technicians always knew that they were both exaggerators.  But the rank and file believed every word.  Quite funny, really," commented Hans with a rueful smile.

"He would have known the girl in the hallway, then?" asked Jacob.

"Ja, of course. That was Mellita Reitsch, Ludendorff's number one test pilot. She knew everything about piloting, and could fly the UFO backwards spiraling sideways while using the weapons system and navigating -- single handed!  She was really great!  The only one who has come close to her is Hanna Schiller. Well, she's number one now, I suppose. I wonder if she's survived the cataclysm thus far."

"Where did Reitsch come from?"

"What do you mean?"

"Seems a little odd, doesn't it?  I mean this girl who rises through the ranks as top pilot while having relations with at least one high ranking officer who she then killed, and maybe the Admiral as well? I dunno.  Doesn't that seem a bit odd to you?"

"She was probably just clawing her way to the top like everyone else in Eisenhelm," replied Hans matter of factly.

"Jah, probably, you're right.  Do you think the Admiral was on his way down here to see her?" asked Jacob, fishing for any scraps of information as he could get.  Maybe the pieces would fit into place and give him an idea of what else they might expect.  Or a clue as to what their options at this point might be.

"It does seem a pretty significant coincidence that they both wind up in the same secret corridor below the abandoned C3 Sector at the same time.  Perhaps they were intending to meet here," conjectured Jacob idly.

"Ja, but from how it appeared to me," added Hans, "the Admiral was in a panic.  He was trying to run through the doorway when he stopped suddenly in surprise.  He had his gun out.  Hard to say, but I doubt he was just standing around in that room waiting for her to come in."

"Well, maybe so.  Makes sense.  Anyway, do you think you can open the satchel?"

"Given enough time, possibly.  But the satchel of the Admiral of Eisenhelm is a special case, and likely to be fatal if approached with the slightest mistake.  But that gives me an idea," said Hans as he knelt down next to the Admiral's corpse.  He gingerly investigated and after a few seconds removed one of the gloves.  There he found a ring with a skull that had two rubies set in the eyes, and tiny diamonds for the teeth.

"Ah, as I suspected. An SS-Ehrenring! This ring is very probably one of the keys to the satchel.  It will take a passcode, of course.  Without both, the satchel is likely to be no better than a hand grenade that kills us for our troubles, I'm afraid.  Ja."

"So where is the Admiral's Office? Is it close by?" asked Jacob.

"Nein.  His office is on Sub-Level 7.  I've never even seen Sub-Level 7!  I hear it is luxurious beyond imagining.  And it's certainly nowhere near Level C3.  In fact, I can't imagine why he, or Reitsch, would have come to this forsaken spot. No one important has come down here for years."

Jacob looked around the room again.  The walls formed a shiny blue-white cage around them.  It appeared to be nothing more than a corridor intersection, but one never knew.  He looked around again.  It was then that he noticed that in the center of the domed ceiling was a small mirror-like bubble, almost indiscernible against the whiteness of the chamber.

"What's that?" asked Jacob.

"That's a camera," replied Hans, moving closer for a better look.  "Ah, interesting.  You can see inside if you watch carefully.  The camera's function light is blinking irregularly.  With all the quakes, I wouldn't be surprised if it's on the fritz. Maybe we got lucky and no one has seen us."

Jacob thought about how to knock out the camera.  However, other than shooting it with his Lewiston, nothing came to mind.  He looked at the three doors.  It was a bit odd.  Instead of one on each cardinal point, it was lopsided.  One northwest, one north, one west, and one south.  Nothing on east wall.

While Jacob kept his eyes on the other doors, Hans went to the south wall and began trying to work on the door lock there.  At first it wouldn't open, but that didn't bother him much. After another try he had it open. Jacob had his Lewiston at the ready and from the side he took a quick peek inside.  It was very small, and dark.  A five foot tube with a metal ladder going straight up was all he could see.  It was definitely old school.  It seemed that this was where the secret corridor system came to an end.  At least in this direction.  But what lay at the top of the ladder, they had no idea.  It was dark, and little could be seen, except for a red glow coming from some place above.  Jacob edged closer to the door and tried to peer up, but the tube was too narrow.  He took a chance and darted his head inside, glanced up and immediately withdrew.  The ladder went up a good ten feet, at the top was a dark substation, with blinking monitor lights, and a dim red glow. He described this to Hans.  

"It's a PillBox.  Like the one we came to when we first entered the tunnel system earlier.  The one where we left Ling with Captain Helmund.  I'm guessing this must be PillBox C3-A4."

"Alright, we're going to go up... very carefully. Okay?"

They climbed the ladder as stealthily as possible, and when Jacob got to the top he peeked over the top.  It was a small antechamber overloaded with computer equipment, blinking lights, and monitors.  On the other side it opened into a narrow tunnel that ended in a heavy steel door. 

"Ja, that's the PillBox," said Hans.  "We passed it when we came to the Staff Office Building, but so much has happened... I think at the time this PillBox was empty, but I'm not sure."

"Jah," said Jacob, thinking back. A lot had happened in the hour or so since they had left Ling with Helmund.  "I think we met a guard and at that point I convinced him we were sent by a Lieutenant General..."

"Ah, ja, now I remember... Lieutenant General Rudolf, ja!  I think it was you're telling him that we have a plan of escape that made him see things our way, ja?"

"That's right. The guard at first was hard as nails, but after I said we have an escape plan from Rudolf he let us through.  And, yeah, this PillBox was empty at the time, that's right," added Jacob. 

"Still though, we have no way of knowing if it's occupied now, or not," put in Hans.

* * *

Meanwhile, Vallnam was in Hanger B's Control Room.  He was looking over the panels trying to assess how they worked, but was not familiar enough with their design to make much sense of it.  As his eyes strayed past several of the monitors he noticed some movement on one of the screens.  He walked over and watched.  The scene was a bit grainy due to static interference but he saw a figure in a spacesuit rush in front the camera.  The room was hard to make out. The walls were white, and he could see that there was a sealed door ahead of the figure, and that he was getting ready to open it with a metal key card. 

Vallnam suddenly realized that this was the very same tall thin General in the spacesuit that had fled from the gun battle in the hanger a few minutes earlier.  The General had a luger in his right hand and as the door swooshed open he started to rush through when suddenly he skidded to a stop.  On the other side of the door he could make out two silhouettes. Suddenly there was a bright flash on the screen, and the figure in the spacesuit fell backwards.  Then the two figures dashed into the room.  Vallnam immediately recognized Jacob's purple-bubble protective suite, and figured that the other person must be Hans.  At this point Vallnam wanted to link through to Jacob over the Eisenhelm Comm system, but he had no idea how to execute that. 

"Rudolf!" he yelled.

"Ja!?" came the snappy reply from his lead technician.

"Could you come up here please?  I'd like to ask you how to operate this control panel, if you aren't too busy."

"Ja!" shouted Rudolf enthusiastically, as he came bounding up the stairs to the control room.

"I'd like to know, is there a way I can use the Comm system through this panel to open a channel to that fellow on the camera over there?"

"Ja!" said Rudolf as he looked over the equipment for a few moments, traced a small metal diagram attached to the front panel with his finger.  Then he flipped a switch.  "This is the general channel used in the C3 Zone, but it's wired to PillBox C3-A4.  Very easy. Speak into the microphone there," he said pointing to a small circular mesh on the panel board.

"Jacob!" shouted Vallnam into the mic.  He was pleasantly amused as Jacob, startled out of his wits for a moment, crouched down and looked around frantically.  After a few seconds he realized what happened and relaxed.  


"This is your conscience," whispered Vallnam into the mic.

"That's impossible," replied Jacob with a slightly sardonic smile.

"Oh, darn, you're right," cackled Vallnam jovially.  "Well, at any rate, I'm glad to see you're alive.  We lost contact there for a bit.  A lot has happened since we parted!"

"Where are you?" asked Jacob.

"Well, I'm in Hanger B.  We're working on fixing as many ships as we can to get the heck out of here."

"Well, that sounds like a plan. Glad to hear it.  By the way, I think we found what may be a master key, though it's locked away in an impenetrable pouch at the moment."

"Oh a master key?  That would be great. And on my end, we found a completely different kind of ship in a secret hanger. And I could use you back over here to help me figure out how to get into it and fly this puppy around.  Maybe we could use it to escape.  I have to say, it looks pretty amazing!"

"I definitely want to get over there.  Anyway, how's Ling doing with Helmund?"

"The last I checked she's still in the C3-A1 PillBox waiting for Helmund to wake up.  She had to Narc him as he was beginning to get frisky with her, I guess.  Anyway, he's knocked out hard.  Not having a key to the door back there we fed him a post-hypnotic suggestion, though.  As soon as he wakes up the first thing he's going to do is open that back door.  Hopefully that will lead into the area she's looking for to punch in the Giant Nuclear Missile Robot self-destruct sequence.  I spoke with her a few minutes ago, and she was sitting there staring at him snoring away."

"Ok, I'm directly north of her right now."

"Right. Maybe you should head over to her and see if you can help get that door open," offered Vallnam.

"That sounds like a great idea.  By the way, do you have access to this PillBox she's in right now?"

"I dunno," replied Vallnam, "I'll ask my technician. Hey Rudolf, can these panels access the inside of the other PillBoxes?"

"Hmm... well, gee, I wouldn't be surprised.  Let me take a look!" 

And so Rudolf investigated the panels one by one.  After a few minutes he managed to find the correct node. He flipped a switch.

"Ling, can you read me? How are you doing?  Everything okay?  Over," said Vallnam into the mic.

"I'm waiting," she replied with some frustration in her voice. The entire Earth hung in the balance, and she felt deeply annoyed at having to sit there and babysit the snoring Helmund.

"Ah, yeah, I hear ya.  Anyway, I have Jacob on the line as well.  And by the way, I found a pretty snazzy control room over here in Hanger B.  I'm wondering if it might actually be the one you're looking for?" chatted Vallnuam amiably.

"Maybe," she said thinking it over.

"Is there anything I need to look for that would tell us if I'm in the C3-DZ-A1 Control Room, or not?"

"Yes," she replied. "Look around for a series of black and white studs in a checkerboard formation.  It should be a 4 by 3, about three inches wide, and in between each stud you'll see a red button.  Do you see anything like that?

After few minutes of intensive investigation of every panel, sub panel, and hidden panel, Rudolf reported "Nein!  It's not here."

"Ah well, it was worth a try," said Vallnam into the mic.

"Yes, for sure," she agreed, "but I'm still banking on Jacob's guess.  The C3-DZ-A1 Control Room is probably linked somehow to the C3-PB-A1 PillBox.  I think that was the best hunch so far.  Those A1's are probably connected."

"Hey, I have an idea," said Vallnam. "Rudolf, is there any way you can bring up a schematic of every door and room down here?"

"Ja! Give me a minute," said Rudolf.  After a bit of fumbling with controls he brought up a map on the monitor screen.  It showed all kinds of detail of the entire C3 Sector.  Vallnam poured over it carefully.  There was a lot more detail than he expected.

As he was doing this, Jacob asked if there was any way that Vallnam could tell if there were any guards in the PillBox he and Hans were hiding out next to.  Vallnam turned to Rudolf.  Within a minute the C3-PB-A4 PillBox was on the screen. There were two soldiers inside, staring out the PillBox window, and chatting quietly with each other.

Jacob and Vallnam discussed various plans on how to deal with the two guards.  In the end Jacob settled on opening the air lock before the soldiers could respond.

"Hans," said Jacob, "you're going to need to open the door to the PillBox.  We need to flush them out."

Hans looked pretty pale.  He wasn't so sure he could do something that would be likely to kill anyone.  It was very much against a long life of specialist training.  Yet, somehow, he managed to pull himself together and flipped the switches in the right order, and pull the lever.  The door swooshed open.  Inside was an empty airlock.

"Oh, damn.  There's an airlock!?" cried Jacob in surprise.

"Ja!" said Hans ruefully.  He knew there was an airlock but his trepidation was regarding what would inevitably come next.

"Hans!" said Jacob with great exasperation. "I meant can you open the airlock!?"

"Ja! Ja!", said Jacob, "They're airlocks.  They're not designed for this kind of mistake.  They're designed against it, you know."

"Yes, I know.  That's what airlocks are supposed to do.  But I want you to, well, break it.  Can you do that?"

"Ja, of course.  I'm not Lead Technician of Sector C3 for nothing.  I can do it. Ja. Hold on.  It takes a few tricks but I can do it."

As this was happening Vallnam had found a tin of Jiffy-Pop-n-Dorf, and was watching the screen with some amusement.  At this moment, though, he noticed that one of the two soldiers who had previously been quietly chatting suddenly pointed to a blinking red light on the PillBox's main panel.  The two of them lurched out of their chairs and began to grab at their helmets and guns.

"I'd hurry if I were you, fellas," said Vallnam between handfuls of popcorn.

"I need a few seconds," said Hans.

One of the men got his helmet half-on, while the other had grabbed his gun and was turning towards the rear door.

Jacob, realizing time had run out, hit the deck and pulled the trigger on his Lewiston Beam Pistol.  A thin orange-scarlet beam hit the steel door and began rapidly boring a hole through it. As the beam scorched its way through, sending a voracious vortex of superheated air into the antechamber, Hans completed the circuit bypass and flipped the switch.  The door then swooshed open.  The two men inside were instantly crushed in the vacuum of space. There was a muzzle flash as the soldier convulsively pulled the trigger of his Luger, but the bullet went wide and ricocheted harmlessly off the walls. A huge gust of wind blew out of the PillBox into the antechamber, nearly dislodging Hans from his hiding place.  Jacob sighed with relief and took a deep breath.  

They decided to head back into the white corridor system. At the base of the ladder tube Jacob discovered an iron hatch with a wheel lock.  When they blew the airlock it had caused the hatch panel door to dislodge.  He pushed the panel door to the side and turned the hatch-wheel.  It opened smoothly enough. Swinging the hatch open they found it lead into the outer tunnel.  Perfect.  

Jacob climbed out and took a quick look around.  An entire section of the east tunnel had collapsed, completely blocking the way with huge stones, but fortunately it looked like the tunnel south was still at least partially intact.  At the moment another quake was in progress, but in all the excitement Jacob had hardly noticed.  Rocks were falling from the ceiling in the dozens. It lasted for thirty seconds or so, and then subsided.  He looked at the ceiling with some trepidation, but there was nothing to do except to make a run for it.  Checking he still had the satchel stuffed in his belt, and making sure the briefcase was still strapped over his back, he made a run for it.  Hans followed behind toting the four spacesuits in an unwieldy bundle over his shoulder, and down the tunnel they scrambled.

Now it is to be remembered that the moon has six times less gravitational pull than the Earth, and so as they ran they bounded into the air in long leaps.  While Hans was quite used to this, Jacob was not.  It took him all of his skill and concentration to follow Hans and keep pace with him once the technician had gained the lead.  And through watching carefully how Hans lofted and then landed, rolled and relaunched himself, Jacob was able to quickly get the hang of it.  And from that point forward he made rapid strides, despite the many rocks and boulders in their way.

It wasn't long before they made it to PillBox C3-A1.  Hans clambered up the ladder and made it to the PillBox's outer door.  He opened it with the appropriate metal key and passcode, and then slipped inside.  Jacob followed closely behind.  They went through the airlock and entered the PillBox.  There they found Ling, who had watched them climb up and was sitting with her Lewiston on her lap looking at Helmund.

"Hello Ling," said Jacob as he entered.  "How's things?"

"I've been sitting here watching Helmund the sleeping giant snore while you guys have been having all the fun out there."

"Ah. So that's what you young people call that, eh?" he replied with a wry smile.

She smiled back.  They caught up briefly on what had transpired.  Next up on Jacob's agenda was to open the satchel.  His thinking was simple.  Inside was likely to be the Grand Admiral's master key that would open any door in the entire complex.  However, the problem was that he didn't know anything about Duridium Cloth, nor the lock, and he was not even sure that the bag contained the master key at all.  He looked it over.  

"What if I carve the top off with my Lewiston?" he asked the room.

"I think you may destroy the contents of the bag that way," offered Ling.

"And besides, you should consider that the Admiral's bag is more likely than almost anything in Eisenhelm to be boobytrapped.  Can you imagine the fate he planned for anyone who would dare to steal his bag?" offered Hans.

Jacob thought hard about these two points.

"Well you gotta appreciate the care that the Admiral had for his things," said Jacob. "Could you open this?" he asked Hans.

Hans stared at the bag.  "I'd be afraid to try," he said.

"Ok, but I don't have the skills necessary to open it," said Jacob.

"I can try it," said Hans, "but if it goes badly, I'm pretty sure we're all going to die."

"Well," said Jacob, "I can go outside and wait."

Hans stared at him incredulously.  He was still trying to make an assessment of this man's actual character. He gave off such incredibly mixed signals, it was simply impossible to tell if he was joking, testing him, or a complete sociopath, or in other words, a true Nazi.

"Ok, I'll tell you what, while you work on the bag, I can take the spacesuits over to the C3 workshop and get the other techs ready to head out.  How's that?"

"You mean while I risk my life with the bag, eh?" asked Hans dryly.

"What have I been doing this whole time?" asked Jacob with a suddenly aggravated inflection.

".. risking your life?" answered Hans.

"Jah. That's right, Hans."

"Ok, fair enough," replied Hans giving up the point.

"But what I don't understand is why the master key would be locked inside the bag?  I mean how did the Admiral expect to ever get it out?"

"Simple enough," answered Hans confidently.  "The master key opens all the doors.  You don't want to leave that laying around where anyone can get it.  So you have one key that opens the bag, and inside is the master key to open all the doors.  My guess is that the ring is the key to the bag."

"Ah, ok, yeah, kind of like a password keeper that has one code protecting many codes.  Ok, that makes sense now.  But, Hans, can you open the bag with the ring?" asked Jacob.

"So you want me to try to break into the bag, eh?"

"Yeah.  Let's assume that the thing in the bag is what we need to open the door that leads to the panel that she can use enter the self-destruct code that will stop the giant robots from, well, um, melting Eisenhelm into a pool of slag, for one thing.  Let's just assume that."

"Ja, that could be," replied Hans.

"And also lets assume that the ring is the key to the bag, okay?  Though come to think of it, the ring could also be the key to the door, right?"

"Possibly, though I tend to doubt it.  Remember Admiral Ludendorff was the head of the UFO Fleet program.  It is General Hertling who is the head of the Robotics Program.  This door you are looking for leads into the Robotics Control Center.  The UFO Control Center is probably where your man Vallnam is located."

"Ah, yes. So the Admiral's ring is probably not going to work on the General's door.  Yeah, that does make sense," concluded Jacob.

He examined the satchel again, rubbing his hand over the metallic leather exterior.  Inside he felt things moving when he shook it but there was no way to tell what was within.  It could be the Admiral's stash of Nazi Gold.  Or the master key.  Or both. Or neither.  He scratched his head.

"Ok, well, we still need to try something.  Time is definitely running out."

"You want me to open the bag?" asked Hans again.

"Sure.  Give it a try.  What have we got to lose?"

"What about her?" asked Hans, tilting his head towards Ling.

"She needs to stay here to keep her eye on Helmund," answered Jacob.

"Okay, well if I open this in here and it goes bad, like I said, we're all going to die.  How about I take this down into the tunnel and try there?  If it opens, great, I'll come back up.  If not, well, auf wiedersehen.  After all, why put her life at risk?" asked Hans, looking at Ling with sober manly consideration.  Ling smiled faintly at his gaze.

"Actually, that's... a good idea," said Jacob.

Meanwhile in the UFO Control Room, Vallnam watched the monitor carefully as he listened to the conversation.  "Hey, is he making eyes at my girl?" he thought to himself.  He looked around for some sort of laser targeting Kill button on any of the panels.  It wouldn't be unlikely for there to be one in a master control room, but alas, he couldn't tell a button from a toggle on these panels.  He thought about asking Rudolf, but decided against it.  Instead he scribbled a note in his head... "take care of Hans later".

Hans put the spacesuits on the floor next to the airlock door.  He prepared himself to take the satchel outside and try, against all reasonable odds, to open the damn thing.  As he climbed out, Jacob followed him with his eyes.  He didn't want to leave Hans to take this risk alone, but frankly, it was the only logical choice. So instead of going with him, he mounted the gimbled machine gun and got ready to at least stand guard.  Who knew what might come down the tunnel corridor while Hans was working the lock?  Soldiers?  Robots?  Who knew what lurked down in the tunnels?  He could at least protect him from ancillary dangers.

Hans walked out into the tunnel and went far enough away so that if the bag exploded the fragments wouldn't be likely to do any damage to the PillBox.  He took out the ring.  Its little skull face with the ruby eyes and diamond teeth sparkled in the dim light.  He sighed.  There was a very small chance that he could guess the pass code, even with the help of his enormously intelligent tabulator.  Nevertheless he punched in the Admiral's card, turned the dial to one of his own specialty applications, and pushed the metallic card through the slot.  The machine whirred for a few moments, and then provided ten plausible passcodes based on everything Hans had about the Admiral on file.  Nothing to do but bring the ring to the lock, and try the passcode.  He tried the first one.  It had an 83.27% chance of being correct.  If not, it had an 92.37% chance of triggering any detonation device in the bag.  He punched in the code.  Nothing.

He looked up at the PillBox.  Jacob waved.  Hans nodded his head, No.  He then bent back over the satchel to try again.  The next passcode had a lower percent chance of success and a higher percent chance of detonation.  He closed his eyes, and with sweat pouring down, he steeled himself to try again.  The second passcode.  Nothing.

He tried it again.  The odds were atrocious, but three is a charm they say. Nothing.  Hans came close to fainting.

Jacob motioned for him to stop, and bring the satchel back up.  Hans, relieved to the core of his being, agreed and came back up into the PillBox.

Meanwhile, Jacob looked back at the door on the rear wall.  It didn't look like a door at all.  It looked like a flat wall.  In fact he wasn't sure why Ling thought there was a door there in the first place.  He got up and walked over to the wall. When Hans came back in he took the satchel and brought it over to the door-wall.  He waved the satchel around.  Nothing happened.  Jacob shrugged.  Worth a try.

"Well if the key is in here, how would it be used.  Where's the key slot?"

Hans did a thorough and extensive search of the door and the panels around it.  Finally he located the key slot.  It was cleverly hidden along the thin edge of the corner of a side panel.    

"I'm familiar with this kind of thing," said Hans. "I know what to look for."

"You tried the ring?"

"Of course.  It didn't work the first three passcodes.  I could try again, but the odds of detonation increase with each attempt," said Hans grimly.

"Alright. Do you think one of the other guys might have a better chance of opening this?" asked Jacob.

"Well, ja, one of the guys in the workshop is better than I am at this kind of thing," said Hans.

"Ok then.  Why don't we go down and deliver these here spacesuits to the technicians and get that guy?  Ling, you don't mind hanging out here and waiting for Helmud to wake up?  If we don't make it back, at least you have his post-hypnotic suggestion as another way to get the door open.  Okay?"

"I'm okay with it," she said.  "Good luck, Jacob.  And you too, Hans," she added with a smile.

Hans floated his way down the ladder with Jacob.  Her smile was radiant.  It buoyed his spirits like nothing he'd ever experienced before.  Meanwhile, back in UFO Central, Vallnam sputtered his popcorn and fumed. 

They headed west down the tunnel back to Area 7 where they'd started. 

"Finally, we make our triumphant return!" said Jacob cheerfully.

In the workshop waited the four technicians who did not have spacesuits, and so could not entered the moon base's tunnel system.  Jacob and Hans had ventured to the Staff Operations Center in order to steal four suits so that they could be rescued with the others in the repaired UFOs.  If all went well, they'd all escape the moon together.    

"You remember the older technician we left in the workshop?" asked Hans.

"Yeah sure. He was the one I was worried might not be able to handle the rigors of our escape, so sure, I remember him."

"Well, his nickname is Nick 'The locksmith'," said Hans. "He's particularly good at getting into places people aren't supposed to go.  He taught me a lot, but it's a tricky craft, and, well, my plate is full enough, and so I never had time to pick up all the tricks.  He's much better at this than I am.  Has his own tabulator locksmith applications he created over the years  And he knows more about Admiral Ludendorff than I ever did, too."

"Ah, okay, that's good," said Jacob, now appreciating that it was a good idea to rescue the technicians after all.

They made it about halfway to Section 7. They could see the opening at the far end of the tunnel, and through it into the cavern beyond.  It was smoky and the air was filled with haze.  Suddenly an orange-red glow filled the distant chamber.  They heard nothing because the tunnels are airless, but they could feel the ground tremble slightly and saw plumes of smoke rising to the ceiling of the cavern.  The red glow dimmed after a few seconds.

Jacob and Hans dashed to the side of the corridor and slid into the shadows of the undulating stone walls.  They crept forward from shadow to shadow.  Another flare of orange-red light emanated from the cavernous chamber.  After another five hundred feet or so they got to a spot where they could see into the cavern.  

"What do you think that might have been?" asked Jacob.

"It was a plasma beam reflecting off the walls, I think," answered Jacob.

"From inside the hanger??" asked Jacob incredulously.  Hans shrugged.

As they crept forward they got a better view.  This time they could see the beam as it lanced across the chamber, casting its hellish glow throughout. It was bright, thick and enormously powerful.  They felt the heat of it on their skin through their helmets.  They also caught sight of what it was shooting at.  There was a three story building, that looked like a squat metal fortress on the far western end of the chamber. obscured to some degree by the thick clouds of smoke.  The beam hit the side of the building, and partially reflected off the far corner with massive showers of coruscating sparks for the first few moments, but then the metallic surface of the building began to turn red, then orange, then yellow and finally white-hot before it folded in on itself and collapsed.  There was a huge explosion, however, the rest of the building seemed to sustain the blow somehow.  Then a Giant Nuclear Missile Robot entered the chamber from the north tunnel, lumbering forward on its gigantic legs, its two arms extended forward towards the fortress.  From the fortress there suddenly burst forth a incredible torrent of weapon fire of every conceivable kind.  Bullets in the tens of thousands, yard-long white-hot energy bolts, and scores of missiles of various sizes... all of which bounced, reflected or exploded harmlessly against the monster's dark gray hull.

While this was happening, Jacob told Hans to give him the spacesuits, and to get back to Ling with the satchel and briefcase.  If he and the others couldn't make it then Hans was to try to open the satchel again and see if he could extract the master key.  He took the spacesuits.

There was an awkward pause. They shook hands.  

"Good luck," said Jacob.

"You, too," said Hans, finally seeing that Jacob really wasn't a psychopath after all.  

"No," thought Hans, "this man is a real hero.  And my friend."  

He took a last glance behind him to watch Jacob creep through the shadows towards the incredible battle.  Turning away, he made a dash for the PillBox, satchel and briefcase in each hand.

"Okay! I better make a run for it before anyone notices me!" said Jacob to himself, and ran for the stairwell that led up the two flights to the Hanger A workshop.  The four technicians, if they survived the conflict so far, were to be found there.  He reached the door to the stairwell, and as silent explosions blazed behind him, he dashed inside.

And that's where we left things that night.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 41

Captain Bruin Hilda stood next to the jeep peering through her binoculars at the distant insect mound that towered over the local landscape. It was a hill of green foliage so thick that one's gaze, even with the aid of infrared, could only pierce a foot or so. The mound was roughly a mile in diameter and rose above the plain some 250 feet. Around it were patchworks of completely dry and lifeless desert, or spreads of thick green, and often visibly writhing flora. Things were either starkly dead, or utterly and fiercely alive, and within the living zones the plant and animal life could be described as voracious. 

She watched as a thick tendril of thorn vine at the base of the mound slowly but steadily twisted itself around an unusually large and sharply fanged rat. The creature, about the size of a cat, fought viciously to escape, but it was trapped and soon overwhelmed. It's fur in scarlet tatters, it was pulled shrieking into the the interior of the thicket and vanished.  Bruin Hilda shuddered at the sight of the thing. But she continued searching for her objective: insects. And she saw none. Not a single one. She wondered at that.

It had been about fourteen hours since Dr. Mitchell had buzzed the mound with the Mech V's NL-5-Kz anti-virus. He had flown three loops around the mound, spraying the pink mist in long trailing clouds. Bruin Hilda imagined that the mist had penetrated far into the foliage, but she didn't feel sure. It was possible the mist had killed all of the insects. Or that they had bored into the center of the mound and were waiting for their tunnels to clear of the anti-virus. Or that they had completely fled the area unseen. The mist was supposed to unravel the DNA effects of NL-5-Kz virus to the point where the insects would revert back to their normal, pre-mutant forms. Had that happened, however, she would have expected to see at least some normal insects pillaging for food around the mound. Perhaps it took more time to work? But if so she would have still expected to see at least some insects in the foliage. Nope. Zero.

She lowered her binoculars and looked down the road where the refugees, some eight hundred of them, were clustered. The several that had been healed of blindness were still singing the Hymn that Bruin Hilda had recited. Her gaze passed further south and she wondered how Captain Samwise and the others had made out. But her concern was getting the refugees out of the danger zone. They had been organized by the lieutenants into bands and they had already begun to move northward along route 89. Bruin Hilda's jeep was the furthest south of the caravan. They were planning to head back to the insect mound to procure a stock of food for the long journey north that lay ahead. As long as there were no insects around the mound, she thought they could make it. She was willing to try.

Returning her gaze northward she watched the retreating refugees as they marched along the the old weatherworn highway. What their final destination was exactly was still unknown. Dr. Mitchell had informed her that the path north was clear of obvious perils all the way to Salt Lake, but his viewpoint was undoubtedly colored by the direct line of flight the Mech V's had taken, as well as the speed and height at which they'd flown. Large perils like the Tree-Beasts she could believe had been cleared away, but smaller ones? She wasn't so sure. Their choice was between heading up route 89 to 15 and then to Salt Lake City, or to cut across the desert westward, past Garrison, and on to Ely, where she knew of a community of survivors with whom the refugees could potentially settle. But that was a decision for later on down the road.  Right now, she needed to get the rabble north and out of danger, without letting them starve to death along the way.

It was mid-summer, and the desert was devoid of life, except for the occasional patch of cactus or scrub brush. The caravan wouldn't survive long without a supply of food and water. And so she looked through her binoculars again at the insect mound. There was food there. Lots of food. They had to risk it.

The Away Team was comprised of herself, Lt. Kerrington, Tom who volunteered to go, and a recruit from the caravan who had also volunteered to help them navigate the terrain around the mound. His name was Wilard Jones, and he said had a lot of experience hunting the wild flora around Panguitch. The fellow was coming off the NL-5-Kz virus and so he still had a few remaining mutant features, such as a rat-like nose and eyes. His mind was quite keen and he said he knew his way around the mound, having hunted there before. And so off they went, the jeep leaving a trail of dust behind it as they cut off the main road and wound their way to the mound through the back country. Everything seemed calm. No insects. When they arrived at the base of the mound the stillness in the air was broken by the shrieks of wild animals, and the constant sounds of grinding and thrashing coming from within the mass of deep green foliage. Wilard hopped off the jeep first and darted over to the edge of the leaf-wall. He sniffed the air a few times and then crept carefully along the perimeter. Before Bruin Hilda and Kerrington could reach him, however, he had darted inside and vanished. They called for him a few times but there was no answer.

"Ok, Kerrington, we'll have to catch up with him later. For now, let's hunt for food and see what we can come up with."

"Yes, ma'am," replied the Lieutenant as he shouldered his machine gun and started creeping towards the foliage. Once inside, they found that there were narrow pathways between the thorn vines, but one had to tread slowly enough not to get cut by thorns, but fast enough not to get trapped by their writing tentacles. It was tricky work. At one point they got separated, and Bruin Hilda wound up alone. She'd managed to kill and bag a large rattlesnake, and had spotted a line of rats scampering along a high branch, but couldn't reach them. She continued along the path. Then a series of rats, some quite large. ran past her and dashed into the foliage. Then another group. They all seemed to be heading in the same direction, so she followed their lead. More rats scurried past. Eventually she came to a clearing. In the center of it was Wilard, surrounded by thousands of rats. His arms were outstretched and he looked like he was in some kind of trance. She concealed herself behind a tree and watched. 

Then Kerrington appeared at an opening on the other side of the clearing, his machine gun at the ready. Bruin Hilda signaled him to wait. The rats did not appear to be attacking Wilard. Instead, she had the impression they were worshipping him. At that moment Wilard opened his eyes. He spotted Bruin Hilda immediately.

"Come out, Captain," called Wilard, "There's nothing to be afraid of. These are my brothers and sisters.  My children!"

After all they'd been through, this revelation was only mildly surprising to the Captain.  She got up and walked closer to where he was standing.  Words spoken, and an agreement was made.  Wilard ordered his giant mischief of rats to go through the undergrowth and bring out as many snakes and lizards as they could.  And so they did.  Within an hour there was a large mass of snakes and lizards stuffed into the large burlap bags in the back of the jeep.  

Wilard told the Captain that he wanted to bring the rat horde along with them north.

"But we can't feed that many rats," replied Bruin Hilda.  "There will scarcely be enough food to feed the people once we get into the desert.  It's a dead zone, especially out along the way towards Garrison."

But Wilard would have none of it.  He firmly insisted that the rats could take care of themselves, wouldn't bother anyone, and could be counted on to forage and bring in food whenever it was available.  He also pointed out that they made excellent scouts, and could scan an area for miles around by climbing to the tops of cactus, burrow into the ground to find water, and, well, all kinds of useful things.  

But still, Bruin Hilda was not keen on having a huge horde of rats along for the march.  And this sentiment was shared by Kerrington and Tom as well.  After all, a large swarm of rats is called "a mischief" for a reason.

And that was where we left things that night.