Thursday, May 18, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 48

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

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

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

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

"Help?" he radioed to Ling and Vallnam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was The Empress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Rogers raised all three eyebrows (metaphorically speaking).

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What can I do for ya, Captain?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you see where he went?"

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

"Straight up?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Fred's computer spike?" Sam asked.

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

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



And that is where we left things that night.

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