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.