Thursday, June 22, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 50

Eisenhelm, the ultra-secret Nazi Moon-Fortress had been occupied since 1943. And now, in the year 2036, it was being eviscerated by two titanic struggles. First was the ripping apart of the precarious social structure that held the three dominant factions in check for some ninty-three years.  The second was the unleashing of the Robot Army for the execution of the ultimate in Final Solutions. 

For nine decades Eisenhelm had managed to maintain a delicate equilibrium, each faction hating and distrusting the others, but none able to gain dominance. The three factions were The Military, The Scientists, and the Technicians. Above them all were two great Commanders who were equal in power, and each  controlled one half of each faction. Admiral  Luddendorf was the Master of the UFO Fleet. The other was General Von Hertling, Lord Commander of the Robot Force. Beneath each of them were thousands of military men, scientists, and technicians, all devoted to the "Master Plan" of one or the other of their great leaders. 

In 1944, upon arriving at Eisenhelm, Ludendorf announced that the UFO Fleet would not only subdue the Earth, but would also carry the Reich out into space to colonize other worlds, and so conquer the Galaxy. Hertling was convinced that such ideas were pipe-dreams, and absurdities. He denied the premise that the Earth could be conquered by the UFO fleet because they were so expensive and difficult to build that they would only be able to produce a relative handful.  He was convinced that the moon would not avail them enough red mercury to power more than twenty of those awesome machines. And while each UFO individually was indeed a spectacular device, it made no difference when compared with forces arrayed against them on Earth.  And should their ultra-secret base be discovered by the Americans, they would be destroyed by nuclear bombardment. On the other hand, his plan, as he announced to his own people, was to build a Giant Robot Army that would house nuclear weapons of such destructive power that they could destroy all the capital cities of Earth, and with them, they could blackmail the entire planet into ceding them ultimate power. Both Generals were devoted men, utterly loyal to their Furor, and had made their plans on his behalf. However, neither of them knew which Master Plan Hitler actually favored, as the Furor did not say. He simply smiled as each one laid out his ideas before him, and said, "Very impressive. You are the capstone of the Reich. From Eisenhelm we shall rule the world forever - or destroy it completely."

Through their telescopes and via received radio transmissions, the Moon-Nazi Scientists, perfectly silent and completely hidden from observation, observed that the Great War of the Thousand-Year Reich had finally resulted in the defeat of Germany, and the Axis powers were utterly overthrown. They were in shock and disbelief. But they persevered in their determination to remain "the capstone of the Reich", and so they dwelled on the moon since then, concealed and ever watchful.  And they continued to build their forces in the expectation that some day they would gain dominion over the Earth.  

What none of the Moon-Nazis knew was that they were being impeded by another unknown and even more secretive and powerful force that also resided on the moon, and had done so for eons before humans created the first cities.  These were the Modroni, an alien species from a planetary system in Tau Ceti.  The Modroni had the distinction of being the most secretive species in the entire Galaxy, within which there are no shortage of highly secretive intelligent species upon numerous worlds scattered throughout.  The Modroni had been watching a patch of sky that intersected the edge of the galaxy from the moon for a very long time, waiting for some event that only they comprehended.  Once in while they would observe the evolution of Earth and take notes, but Earth was not their primary concern at all.  They were there for the moon, which has a special position and properties that made it something of an ideal observation post for their research on the Galactic Rim.  The Modroni were Scientists Supreme of the kind that humanity could only dream of.  

Every once in a while the Modroni had the habit, for scientific reasons, of traveling in one of the few Ultra-Stealth spaceships they possessed, to Earth and taking up a human for a closer inspection.  They fed and housed these specimens in a tiny complex in the Aristarchus Crater, in a shadow that was never touched by sunlight, and so was utterly invisible from Earth.  These individuals were selected based on their intelligence as well as their physical condition.  Because the specimens could never return to Earth again, due to their strict rules of secrecy, the Modroni only chose those who were very soon to pass away from natural causes.  They would appear in disguise as beautiful humans and offer a longer lease on life as their guests on the moon, in exchange for their hospitality and scientific education. Those who chose not to go had the meeting erased completely from their minds.  Those who elected to go were treated humanely, and learned a great deal about the cosmos.  Generally, they had an amazing time.  When they passed away after a few decades during which the Modroni learned a great deal about them, they were buried in a hidden mausoleum on the other side of the Aristarchus crater.  However, when the humans started sending rockets to the moon, the Modroni decided that their presence there would be jeopardized, and so their leader laid plans for them to move to another star system where they would continue their celestial observation of the rim of the Milky Way.  

One thing the Modroni decided immediately was that they did not like the cold-souled Nazis.  And when the Nazis arrived in their stealthy Red-Mercury Plasma Vortex UFOs and began building, the Modroni decided to secretly hamper them.  They used mental force to project dreadful and fearsome visions of "Terrors in the Darkness" into their minds, and also buffeted their scientists with "Mental Disarray" so that they were prohibited from creating any new form of weapon that they had not arrived with knowledge of from Earth.  The Modroni are always extremely cautious when interacting with other intelligent species and try to leave as few traces of their presence as possible.  So their interference was strictly on the mental plane.  As it happened they drove a few of the scientists utterly mad, and the Nazi Command had to imprison or execute them.  Meanwhile the Nazi base beneath Mare Frigoris grew, and finally in 1944 they completed the Fortress of Eisenhelm.  The Modroni kept their presence a secret, of course, and the Nazis were unable to expand further due to the interference of the aliens, and as a result the Eisenhelm slowly stagnated and declined.  Every decade their organization deteriorated, and their population decreased in size.  

Meanwhile, in the process of making arrangements for the Big Move, the Modroni Leader perished in a freak accident on the celestial body known as The Goblin.  This precipitated a crisis among the Modroni that lead to where we find things in 2036.  It seems that the Modroni are organized such that they have a single leader who makes decisions for the entire group, setting priorities and schedules and handling all administrative tasks.  Without this leader the Modroni, although superior scientists, tend to drift off target and eventually wander down so many rabbit holes of their own scientific interests that any project assigned to the team flounders.  They were at that state when the Silver Eye I mission arrived.  The survivors of the crash, Ling Brisbane and Vallnam Vestum, were taken in by the Modroni on the condition that they agree to live in the Aristarchus crater and abandon all hope of going home to Earth.  They agreed.  After a time Ling became convinced that there was something wrong with the Modroni as they had already lost considerable focus and let things slip. She discretely used her Mentarian powers and ascertained what the problem was, and offered to become their leader.  They agreed on a temporary basis until the new leader should arrive from Tau Ceti, and this is how Ling became Moon Princess.  But I digress.

The Military Faction believed that after the war Hitler had retreated to a secret base beneath the South Pole and was still alive and well, waiting in secret until a time when his vengeance would be unleashed upon the world. The Scientists, however, took the more pragmatic view that he had died in the war, but that from Eisenhelm they could nevertheless still bring the Reich into fruition and achieve Hitler's goals, although it would take much longer, and the plan would have to be executed with great firmness, finesse and skill.  It was a feat suited for scientific reasoning and careful planning, not stupid and foolish brute force. 

The third Faction of Technicians didn't believe either view, but understood that they were all trapped on the moon nevertheless, and under the rule of two leaders who were clearly insane. However, they didn't care because there was nothing they could do about any of it. They had been bred and programmed to obedience, and their life-long conditioning was such that even holding a weapon in their hands caused them nausea and fainting.  The technicians were there to serve.  And yet, despite this, they had great power as a group.  After all, without them Eisenhelm would quickly fall apart.  The moon, as they say, is a harsh mistress.  It takes a great deal of continuous effort to maintain a presence there.  And the technicians were the ones who kept everything running, the air flowing, the food growing.  Without them every Nazi on the moon would die.  

And then, out of the blue, the two heroes of Earth, Jacob Grant and Vallnam Vestum, slyly used their Mentarian powers to ignite a civil war within Eisenhelm from the temporary safety of their stolen UFO, now destroyed.  And so insidious and effective was their Mentarian trickery, their soul-piercing taunts caused a certain seething Nazi Captain Helmund to trigger the ultimate attack: Plan Delta-Z! 

Having triggered it, both Earth and Eisenhelm were now utterly doomed. Hitler had given the Scientists strict instructions regarding Plan Delta-Z. It was to be Omnicide and nothing less - the ruthless murder of the entire human race all at once. Because, as he said at the time, "If I can not not rule the world, then there must be no world!"  It was the ultimate in Final Solutions.

And so Eisenhelm at that point was a raging inferno of violence and destruction. The various Factions instantly went to war with one another, while at the same time ten Giant Nuclear Missile Robots, "The Squadron of Obliteration", had been released from their secret containment chambers and were stalking through the tunnels beneath Eisenhelm, systematically destroying everything in their path, and knocking out the foundations upon which the fortress had been firmly rooted.  Soon the entire complex would collapse into the subterranean nuclear-magma chamber that had been Eisenhelm's energy source for nine decades.  And that, as they say, would be that.

Meanwhile, sailing through space on their way to destroy what remained of Earth civilization, was "The Phalanx"; fifty Giant Nuclear Missile Robots, each one containing a massive 500 Megaton Thermonuclear Cobalt Bomb, powerful enough to not only completely destroy the city beneath it, but also designed to spread a cloud of lethal radiation sufficient to poison the entire surface of the planet. Within a year, no living creature would survive. Though slow, perhaps, they were quite unstoppable, for each one was protected by Duridium plating welded over its entire surface. Nothing could penetrate that incredible metallic fabric. Neither bullets, nor missiles, nor beam weapons, nor even nuclear detonations. They were for all intents and purposes utterly indestructible. Their targets were the locations of fifty of the Earth's once greatest cities, now almost entirely in ruins.  But Hitler expected to eviscerate the capitals and industrial centers of every nation and afterward, he expected that the radiation of the fifty cobalt bombs would spell the doom of all living things on Earth.  His final revenge made manifest.  Except it wouldn't go the way he imagined because the fools of Earth had destroyed civilization completely on their own, without any help from Hitler at all.  Nevertheless, it was the case that The Phallanx would put the final nail in the coffin of humanity, and very plausibly all life on Earth.

And so the Ultimate Doom was heading towards Earth, and the only person that could possibly stop it was Ling Brisbane. Inside her beautiful head was the self-destruct sequence for the entire Robot Army, given to her by the never-to-be-remembered-again Modroni, along with a visualization of the computer panel into which the code would have to be submitted into.  They had beamed this information into her mind before she left their tiny base in the Aristarchus Crater several hours ago. And now she was outside the very control room, C3-DZ-A1, in which that computer sat busily humming. At the moment it was being operated by a Nazi Scientist, and guarded by more than one Nazi soldier.  Getting to that panel would not be easy. 

The team had come up with a plan, however. Vallnam would enter in through another doorway and shoot his machine gun at the guards, while Ling would sneak in through the alternate entrance from Pillbox C3-PB-A1. While the Nazis were being distracted by the firefight, she would sneak to the computer and enter the code.  After that, well, they had not thought far ahead in detail, but the plan was to flee the base.  Vallham had ushered a team of Nazi Technicians to Hanger B to try to repair as many of the derelict UFOs as they could.  If everything went just right, they might all escape the moon before the end.  Such was the plan as it stood at that point.  How sensible this plan actually was still remained to be seen. 

Ling felt that their chances of success would be vastly improved if Jacob could join Vallnam in the assault on the control room. Regrettably, he happened to be trapped in Cavern 8, just outside the Hanger B bay door. He was desperately defending himself against three Doom Spheres that had dropped out of the bottom of the Science Center when Vallnam had infiltrated the cavern originally.  The three dreadful machines had already killed all three of the technicians who had come with Jacob, and now they had him trapped in a pile of rubble.  They were silently circling his refuge waiting for him to try to make a run for it. He had attempted to destroy one with his New Model Combat Rifle, but the bullets ricocheted off without so much as a nick on its polished black surface. He had also tried his Lewiston Beam Pistol, but it scarcely made the surface glow a dim red, and otherwise did no visible damage to the thing at all. Duridium.  It was a Nazi thing. Very effective. He was trapped.

At the same time, Vallnam stood in one of the dazzling white tunnels below Control Room C3-DZ-A1.  He had activated one of his Mentarian Powers, known as "Mighty Eyes" and was witness to the devouring of a Nazi soldier's soul by what he believed to be a monstrous spirit from the blackness of the outer cosmos.  He tried to think of something to do to save Jacob, or help in the situation, but in his terror he drew a blank.  So he simply stood there with his mouth gaping as the monstrosity ate the poor lad's soul.  He had the distinct sense that the creature, if it might even be called that, had taken notice of him, but was currently too busy dining on its victim to bother with him just then.  He backed away slowly to the wall, and had then, thinking there was nothing else he could do, he had drawn a Tarot Card from his deck.  It was the Empress, and this gave him a great deal of comfort and revived his sense of strength.  For a moment his mind was released from its morbid fixation on the horror before him, and he braced himself against the wall as the corridor grew dim, and then dark, and then black as night around him.

Ling, meanwhile, was determined to rescue Jacob before they made the attack  She decided to take two of Eisenhelm's finest technicians, Hans and Nick, and go to Jacob's rescue.  Having tied the sleeping Captain Helmund with steel wire to a metal column inside the Pillbox, they were bounding in long leaps down the tunnel towards Cavern 8.

"Be careful, Ling!" said Jacob into his radio mic.

"What's the plan?" she called back as she took another leap down the corridor.

"Hans! What are these things?" demanded Jacob.

"We don't know!" replied Hans, also on the same frequency.  "The scientists create these monstrosities every once in a while.  They test them on hapless technicians who have failed to comply with orders, but we never see what they are capable of.  Everything is kept a strict secret, of course.  Can you tell us what their behavior is?"

"There are three metallic black spheres rolling in a circle around my location. I can barely see them. They appear to be made of some sort of dark metal that my bullets and beams bounce off of.  I don't see any surface features, but they already killed the three technicians that came with me, and I'm hiding in a rock pile near the center of the cavern. They're circling around me at about thirty feet from my refuge, and they seem intelligent and capable of coordinating their attacks."

"Maybe we should take a look in the military base and see if we can dig up any abandoned weapons that you could use against them, Madam," suggested Nick.

"No, I don't think we have time for an exploration," she said.  "We must assault the control room as soon as possible.  Time is of the essence!"  Indeed, at that moment, as if to emphasize her point, a series of red flashes reflected off the walls around them, and then there was a deep rumble through the ground as rocks and dust fell from the ceiling. These were the effects of the raging battle in Cavern 7 behind them.  They bounded along as quickly as they could.  

"Mistress Ling," said Hans, "there are two primary structures in Cavern 8.  The military facility has been abandoned for a long time and we have no idea what is inside of it, if anything.  There's also a Science Center, very definitely occupied, within which monstrosities are doubtlessly lurking.  There's a good chance the metallic spheres came from the Science Center, and so there's a fair chance they are being controlled from there."

At this point Jacob grabbed a loose rock and tried throwing it in the air over the spheres to see if that might distract them.  It landed on the ground outside the tread circle the spheres had ground into the cavern floor, but they appeared to take no notice of it at all.  They continued circling at the same steady pace, about as fast as a person could run.  

Inside his radio headset, Jacob heard a woman's voice. "Achtung!"

"Hello?" asked Jacob hesitantly.

"Achtung!" he heard again.  He glanced around the cavern from within the rockpile and saw flashlights in the distance.  There were figures in the distance near the Science Center.  He saw nine or ten people in spacesuits making their way across the cavern floor.  Three separated from the main group and were heading in the direction of Hanger B, while the rest were approaching his location.

"Achtung!" came the voice again, harshly.

"Jawohl, comrade?" asked Jacob.

"Who is this?!" demanded the voice in a strict and elegant form of High German.  

"Special Agent, Otto," replied Jacob.  "Um... who is this?"

"This is Hanna Schiller!" she stated.  "You recognize zee name, no doubt?" she asked after Jacob paused without answering.

Jacob recalled that Hans had mentioned this name after they had encountered, and immediately killed, the top ranking Test Pilot of Eisenhelm, Mellita Reitsch, in one of the white tunnels beneath the Administrative Center of Cavern 4.  Hanna Schiller was, he thought he recalled, the second ranking Test Pilot, after Mellita.

"Oh Ja.  You must be the famous test pilot. Where are you?" he asked.

"I am coming to you now," she said.

"Um uh, that's not a good idea!" he replied. Several flashlights were shining in his direction as soldiers in dark green spacesuits came marching up.  "There are serious hazards around here," he said.  "You should keep your distance."

"I know about that," she said.

"Well, I supposed you know that there are deadly spheres circling my position, then, eh?" he inquired, pretending to be completely ordinary, and perhaps even a bit dim.

"Yes, I am completely aware of them, of course," she answered stiffly as the soldiers made their way closer and circled his position.

"What do you call them?" he asked casually, as if barely interested.

"Zee Spheres of Doom!" she said with a peculiar relish on the last word.

"Don't you think that's a little ostentatious?" he asked with a slightly raised eyebrow.

"Not for their purpose," she replied smugly.  As they were speaking the soldiers surrounded the rock pile and pointed their machine guns at Jacob.  The Doom Spheres took no action against the soldiers, but instead widened the diameter of their circle to a range of sixty feet.

"Until I know your identity, you are to be my prisoner.  You vill, of course, comply immediately. Throw your weapons out on zee ground where I can see them and step out from zee rocks," she commanded.

"You mean step down from the rocks," Jacob quibbled.

"Ja, step down from zee rocks," she ordered.

"You really think this is the most prudent course of action right now?" asked Jacob.

"I do," she stated without emotion.  "Now comply with my demands or you vill be shot.  I am not jesting."

"You do know the moon is exploding right now, don't you?" he asked.

"I do," she replied.  "Now, please step down from zee rock pile."

He tried to peer into her helmet, but with the tinted green glass at that distance and in the dim lighting, he could not make out her face.  She sounded cute, but this did not impress him.  Even women with buck teeth, hook-noses and pimples could sound cute.  He strained his eyes, but to no avail. She was simply too far away.

"Are you the one right in front of me?" he asked as he prepared to come down.

"Come down," she said. "I vill not repeat myself again," she added, raising one hand menacingly. 

He took a quick glance around and finding a small crack in one of the boulders, he slid his Lewiston Beam Pistol into it while pretending to be looking for a way to exit from his rocky refuge.  He then clambered up the side of the rock pile, and when he got to a point where he could peer over the top he made a brief study of the circumstances around him.  The Doom Spheres had stopped moving.  The soldiers were positioned in a circle around him at thirty feet, with machine guns leveled on him.  He could, should he have chosen, leapt back down into the rocky enclosure, from which he might possibly have been able to pick off one or two of the soldiers, but he calculated that the remaining four would eliminate his advantage within a few moments.  He felt reasonably certain he would be killed if he tried it.  He was not feeling lucky enough to take that chance.  

"You vill throw your weapons to zee ground," she ordered, this time with an fierce edge to her pretty voice.

He slowly stood up with his hands raised.   

"You see?  That was not so difficult, vas it?  Now, zee weapons," she said pointing to his rifle.

"You want me to thrown it on the ground?" he asked.

"Ja," she stated flatly.

"Ok, but I will have to put my hands on it," he said.

"That is expected. If you should point it at anyone, of course you vill be shot," she pointed out.

"Okay, understood," he replied as he slowly, very slowly, withdrew his combat rifle and placed it on the rock pile.  He then climbed down and when he got to level ground, he raised his hands over his head.  Hanna Schiller walked up to him with her Lugar aimed at his heart.  

As she came in range he could see into her helmet, and lo, she was not merely cute, but quite beautiful.

"Vhat Unit are you vith?" she asked him.

"I am with, well, um, Frau Hanna," he said, hoping his humor would suffice, but from the look on her face it did not.  "I'm with Special Operations Unit 009."

"Don't talk nonsense," she commanded sternly. "Who is your commanding Officer!"

Jacob paused to think.

"Hurry up! Your commanding Officer! Now!" she barked lifting her Luger slightly.

"My Unit answers directly to Admiral Ludendorff," he replied, hoping this was not the wrong answer that would get him killed in the next second.

She seemed to relax.  There was a short pause as she studied him carefully.  "What kind of space suit is that?" she asked, leaning in a little closer to examine the purple bubbled suit he was wearing.  He was well aware that she would never have seen anything like it.

"Special Operations. An experimental model," he replied coolly.  She seemed impressed.  

"I've never seen anything like it," she said admiringly.

"Of course not," he replied.

At this point Ling, Hans and Nick had made their way to the entrance of Cavern 8.  Since they had been listening in on the radio communications between Jacob and Hanna, they had a good idea of what the situation was.  Ling peered around the edge of the cavern entrance to take a look.  Sure enough Jacob was surrounded by armed soldiers who had their machine guns leveled at him, and Hanna stood in front of him, peering at him closely.

Hans and Nick knew her by reputation.  She was the second best Pilot in the UFO Fleet, and a few people whispered that she was actually the best.  However, saying this in the wrong company could become a serious problem, so very few people ever suggested it in private.  Hans was one. 

"Ah, this complicates things badly," said Ling on a side channel to Hans.  "This is going to take too much time.  The most important thing we have to do is get that code into the computer, or planet Earth is toast.  I better go back and prepare for the attack, with or without Jacob.  So, you two are going to stay here and try to help him get out of this mess however you can. In exactly fifteen minutes Vallnam is going to attack via the elevator, and I'm going to slide in using Ludendorff's Master Key.  You have that much time to meet me back there with Jacob," she ordered, and then with a cheerful "Good luck!" she spun around on her heels and went bounding back up the tunnel towards Pillbox C3-PB-A1.   She hoped that when she got back she would find Captain Helmund still inside, sleeping, and securely bound to the post where she had left him.  She got her Lewiston ready, just in case.

"Yes, Frauline, ve vill do vatever ve can!" said Hans.   He took a quick look around and assessed the situation.  Being the best technician in Eisenhelm, he instantly knew exactly what was going on with a single glance.  He could tell by their insignia that two soldiers and one scientist were moving into the Power Coupling Station.  Fortunately, he thought to himself, the scientists were not technicians. That meant instead of two minutes it would take them ten minutes at least to switch the power couplings, and there was a not insubstantial chance the scientist would get them killed.  If not, power would be rediverted back from Hanger B into the Science Center.  All of the technicians who had gone with Vallnam to repair whatever UFOs they could salvage, would be stranded, and none of the UFOs would be able to get out of the Hanger.  Worse yet, the lights in Cavern 8 would turn back on and the seven story Science Center would be reactivated.  As it was now, everyone in Cavern 8 was in the dark, and that was an advantage.  In addition the green light on seventh floor of the Science Center him that a single emergency generator had kicked into gear inside and this in turn meant that any containment fields they had in place before the electricity went out had been turned off... and that meant that anything could have been let loose inside the those dread green walls.  He shuddered to think what monstrosities might be roaming free inside that building.  It made him very curious.  This was Hans's personality.  He had no fear in him at all.  Only curiosity.

"Nick, Nick, Nick, I think we need to get into the Science Center.  From there maybe we can distract her when she gets the Hanger B bay doors open.  Let's go along the cavern wall and stay out of sight until we get to the other side of the Science Center on the north.  Then the center will be between us and Schiller and we can get into the building from there.  We better hurry.  We only have ten minutes before they switch the power coupling, and after that we'll be in a bad position.  C'mon!"

And so Hans and Nick crept through the darkness using the night-sight settings in their helmets to make their way.  Fortunately there was now plenty of ambient lighting from all the flashlights, and so traversing the cavern along the west wall was no problem.  They simply had to remain unseen for long enough.

Click-Click-Click--Click--Click-Click, came over Vallnam's and Jacob's radio headsets.  He knew immediately that it was Federation Command click-code.  Ling's message informed him of her decision to return to the Pillbox, and that she left Hans and Nick to help if they can, as well as the fifteen minute countdown for the attack, as well as instructions to switch to Click-Communications going forward since it was now clear that Eisenhelm had found their frequencies.

"Things have gone to hell recently, haven't they?" inquired Jacob of Hanna.

"Yes, and very quickly.  A decade goes by and absolutely nothing exciting happens, then all of a sudden there's civil war and Captain Helmund activates Plan Delta-Z.  Now all hell is breaking loose," she commented.  

"Have you heard anything from Admiral Ludendorff?" asked Jacob.

"No, not a word," she said pensively.  "I don't know where he is.  Have you?"

"Not recently, but last I heard he was trying to reach, um, Frau Mellita," he said hesitantly, giving her the side-eyes.

"They must be planning to take Shadow Hawk.  I bet their plan is to escape," she said bitterly.

"Together, of course.  Such indiscretion.  Such impropriety," commented Jacob dryly.

"What's your plan?" she asked.

"To get out, of course," he said plainly.

"It's no secret that there are UFOs inside Hanger B," he said.

"But they're all derelict.  Not one of them can fly," she said. 

"It's worth a shot," answered Jacob.

"I don't see how we have time to fix anything," she said.  "But then again, the scientists in the center told me that a group of technicians were seen entering Hanger B after they diverted the power supply into the Hanger.  They then sealed the door shut."

"Why do you think they did that?" asked Jacob, fishing for what she knew, but she didn't reply.  "You think they are trying to fix the UFOs?" he prodded.

"It's hard to believe, but it is possible.  I can't think of any other reason," she said, fishing for what he knew.

"If you think it's pointless to try to fix the UFOs then why are you trying to get in there?" asked Jacob deceptively assigning an objective that he knew she had not mentioned.

"I want to know what they're up to, those those damn technicians.  Always sneaking around, lurking in the shadows.  You never know what they're plotting," she said.  "I'm sure they don't know about Shadow Hawk, but I want to make sure they never find out."

"Shadow Hawk, hmm?  That sounds good," he said.

"You don't know what Shadow Hawk is, do you?" she asked.

"We were kept on a strict need to know basis," he improvised.

"So you don't know what it is," she answered for him.

"Yes," he said trying to maintain ambiguity.

"That's fine," she said.   

"Yeah, I don't know what it is.  I accept my place," he said winking.

She smiled slightly, for the first time.  In fact, she had a rather surprisingly radiant smile.  

At that moment another moonquake began to shake the cavern.  The two of them stumbled into each other for a moment.  He did this purposely, and so did she.  Both of them were trying to manipulate the other.  It was working.  For both of them.  Rocks and dust fell from the ceiling.

As the moonquake began, Hans and Nick had made their way along the cavern wall to the northwest corner.  From there they could continue to the north spot on the wall, but instead Hans decided that they could use the distraction of the quake to make a run for the Science Center.  They ran.  Luck was with them and they made it there without being spotted by any of the guards.  

The Science Center has a wide cylindrical base about 200 feet in diameter, and fifteen feet over their heads was the bottom of the first floor of a square building seven stories high.  The square building had green tinted windows separated by chrome-rimmed gray panels.  The square portion of the building was held up by four large steel pillars at each corner.  Hans knew that there would be four trap doors along the floor of each of the four corners.  He had long known that it was possible to sneak into the building through them, if they could manage to open one and gain entrance.  As chief technician on Level C3, he knew the first floor would be the mechanical and electronics level on which contained the machinery that ran the Science Center.  Above that was an administrative level, and then above that were the Science levels, with the top level being on the seventh floor.  It was there that the scientists held their most secret and dangerous experiments.  Hans wanted to get up to the seventh floor and have a poke around, finally after all these years.  He was curious. What were the scientists hiding up there, he wanted to know?  And this was his chance to find out.

He also knew that there was a normal elevator and stairwell inside the cylindrical portion of the building and that was the entrance that all technicians would normally take.  Through there he would have to present his identification key, and the triple-signed authorization that attended any technical endeavor in Eisenhelm.  Without these they would be arrested, and more than likely either shot as Faction Spies, or given to the Scientists as human lab rats for experimentation purposes. No one returned from those experiments the way they went in, and most were crippled in bizarre and disgusting ways for the rest of their lives.  Many never returned at all.

And so going through the main entrance was out of the question.  Even though the electricity had been cut off there was a good chance that there were still guards with machine guns at the entrance.  Not a viable route.  And so Hans hoisted Nick up on his knee, and with a heave he hurled him upward.  Since the moon has far lower gravity it was not difficult for him to launch Nick up the fifteen feet.  Nick flailed his arms and legs, but managed at the last moment to catch hold of the rail that was next to the trap door.  He had the most tenuous grasp possible.  Hans tried to leap up to give him a push up, but that was futile, and he felt lucky he didn't actually knock his partner off the bar.  

Meanwhile, in the glossy white corridor just below the Control Room C3-DZ-A1, Vallnam was still watching the horror from interstellar space finishing up its meal of the poor miserable Nazi soldier's soul.  Poor kid.  His life was indeed poor, brutish and short, but his death was far, far worse than that.  At this point the corridor had filled up with a cold emptiness that caused the lights to dim out, and he was standing in absolute inky darkness.  He was trying to keep his mind from losing its grip and falling away into the swirling whirlpool of infinite madness that the creature seemed to be exuding.  He had broken out in a cold sweat.  He reached into his satchel and pulled out his 2600 Lumen Flashlight, and pressed the 'On' button.  Nothing happened.  He considered running screaming like a little girl, but tried to think of something better to do. He considered using The Knack to fix the flashlight, but it would cost him nearly all of the last of his mystic energy, and so he decided against it.  He felt, rather than saw, the being turning towards him with eyes blacker than the darkness around him. He felt the maw gaping as the thing turned towards him.  He felt it approaching.

Vallnam tried asking his purple bubble body suit for help. He let himself go, and let the suit take control.  Interestingly, the suit, which was in fact a highly intelligent organism that was slowly forming a symbiotic relationship with Vallnam, reacted by guiding him to shimmy along the wall until he came to the elevator door.  The suit lifted his arm and moved his finger so that the button was pressed.  The elevator door slid open and emitted a bright light from within.  The darkness seemed to momentarily recoil, and then began to surge forward again.  Vallnam by that time had already slipped backwards into the elevator and the door closed with an internal swish. Never before had Vallnam felt so happy to see light. He stood there blinking at the door.  He wondered if the darkness would be satisfied to stay on the other side for long.  He looked at the button panel.  There were two buttons.  He was at the bottom, and so the only place to go was up.  He thought about pressing the up button to get further away, but this would bring him back up to the C3-DZ-A1 Control Room.  He did not want to go there yet.  He still had nine minutes before the attack. The sweat dripped down his back. 

"Ling, if you can hear me, I am in position in the elevator.  Just let me know when it's time for the attack," he said into his helmet microphone.  There was some clicking in his headset, and then he remembered that he was supposed to use the Federation Click Code.  So he repeated the message in Clicks. 

"Stay where you are," clicked through his headphone in rapid-fire staccato, along with a few sharply coded expletives.  He clicked "ok" sheepishly back.

Meanwhile, Jacob was listening in on the messages back and forth between Vallnam and Ling, and he couldn't help but roll his eyes when Vallnam announced both his position and the plan.  He sighed.

Hanna, who was observing him carefully, said, "I know you are not alone here."  There was a short pause.  "Who are your accomplices?  Vhere are they?  And vhat are they doing?"

"We're trying to get off the moon," he said.  "Just like you."

"Trying to get off zee moon," she repeated.

"Aren't you trying to get off the moon?" he asked quietly.

"Ja, I certainly am," she answered in a near whisper.  "I am actually hoping ve can live through this somehow..."

"Together," added Jacob.  Out of the corner of his eye he could see Nick dangling from the bottom of the first floor of the Science Center, but fortunately it was very dark over there, and she happened to be positioned so that he was not in her line of sight. He simply continued to stare into her icy blue eyes, and gave no indication that he was observing anything unusual at all.  He wasn't worried about her soldiers noticing as they had their machine guns pointing at him and they seemed quite focused.  

"I'm not eager to die," she went on, ignoring his interjection.

"Who is?" he asked, rhetorically.

"Vell, many of my fellow officers happen to be.  But I am not," she said tossing her head to the side slightly.  

"We could avoid a great deal of hassle if we can come to an accord," he said. 

"I like zee sound of that," she said in a way that made him think she was warming up to him.

"Well, you know... you don't have to have your men pointing their guns at me," said Jacob.  She didn't say anything.

"The choice is yours," he said.

"Escape from zee moon sounds very attractive at this point.  I would never have imagined saying so, but ve have no choice except to abandon Eisenhelm."

"I agree," said Jacob.

"But I still need to know, how many people are vith you, and vhere are they?" she asked again.

"Three fewer than there were a few minutes ago, because time progression is weird," he answered.

"Vhat?" she asked.  

"Look," he pointed to the ground nearby where one of his three technicians lay crumpled in a bloody pile.  "They could have gotten the ships repaired faster... maybe."

"So you're zee one who sent the technicians into Hanger B, then?" she asked, her eyes giving away the underlying intensity of her purpose.

"Well, no, I merely commandeered them," he said.

"Vhere are zee other members of your team?"

"We operate in the dark to maintain operational integrity," he replied.

"Is now zee time to exercise operational integrity?" she asked, raising her voice in surprise.  "Zee entire base is being destroyed."

"No, I mean I don't know!  I really don't know!  But I trust they will pull through for all of us.  And I will pull through for you," he answered, evasively.  He understood that there was a fair chance that she was being friendly simply to find out detailed information so that she could hunt down his team members and eradicate them all.  At the same time, he also sensed that she was sincere in her desire to get off the moon.  And putting two and two together, he figured she was testing him to see which way the dice would fall.  He only had a few moments to convince and persuade her to trust him.  He decided to take a gambler's chance.  

"Obviously, they're around, somewhere.  We'd be pretty doomed if they weren't, don't you think?"
 
"Vell, one of them discreetly mentioned he's in zee elevator, didn't he?" she asked.  "Vhich elevator?" 

"Yeah, well he's a bit of a dunce, isn't he?"

"Apparently.  So this is your team?" she asked raising an eyebrow.

"Woe unto me," he replied with a shrug.

"I know zee feeling," she said.  It was Jacob's turn to raise an eyebrow.  He looked around at her men standing around them.  

"Perhaps, you're talking about others, not here," he commented, to which she nodded.

"You didn't like her, eh?" he asked.

"Ve had our... differences," she replied looking away.

"Did you know?" he asked, seeking information, and a potential avenue of manipulation. She stared searching into his eyes intensely without saying anything.

Meanwhile, Nick at this point was still dangling from the bottom of the Science Center.  Hans watched with growing consternation and tried to think of something to do to help Nick gain entry before they were spotted.  He could sneak around and try to find a rope or pole that might help.  Or he could take the long hike over to the abandoned Military Complex on the south side of the cavern, but that would take too long, and the benefits of doing so entirely uncertain.  He considered trying to access the tunnel system which he knew was beneath them, but that also would take too long, given that he had less than a dozen minutes to get back to the Pillbox with Jacob in time for the assault.  He searched his bag for anything useful, but he'd used up most of his supplies already. He decided to wait and see whether or not Nick could make it up on his own.  

"Ja, I knew," she said with a mix of disappointment and repressed hostility.  

Jacob's plan to disarm her emotionally and psychologically was working.  His goal was to manipulate her into a position where he could gain her trust.  It was a very personal form of diplomacy, but he was a skilled practitioner.  He carefully inched forward, and he was well aware that she may well have been playing him in exactly the same way.  Fortunately, under the circumstances their objectives aligned.  They both wanted to get off the moon, and it seemed that they could help each other do so. He decided to focus on her weak spot, jealousy, and combine this with a sympathy play.  It was a roll of the dice, but he guessed, correctly, that the odds were stacked in his favor.

At the Science Center, after a few tries Nick managed to swing himself up and caught hold of the trapdoor's outer bar.  Now he would just need to pick the lock and open it.  For Nick this was child's play.  He was known as 'The Locksmith' for a reason.  Hans was hiding behind the pillar, and hoping no one noticed Nick dangling in the air.  So far so good.  Everyone in Hanna's group was focused on Jacob, or already inside the Power Coupling Station.

As this was taking place, Vallnam's entrance into the C3-DZ-A1 elevator with its smooth white walls, chrome trimming, and indigo lighting came as a tremendous relief.  He still had some time before the attack.  He began a Mentarian Meditation known as "Mystic Healing".  He murmured under his breath, asking his living environmental suit for its assistance.  He had the sense that the suit liked him, and would help him when he was in need.  It would take about ten minutes of uninterrupted meditation for him to gain any mystic energy back, so he sat down on the floor in a lotus position and emptied his mind.  

Hanna Schiller stared at Jacob wondering if she should trust him or not.  His slightly sardonic personality and self confidence appealed to her.  He was clearly not an ordinary man.  She was sure that under any other circumstance his breaking all of the normal Eisenhelm Protocols would have forced her to shoot him in the forehead and be done with it.  The only reason he would have lived this long is so that she could extract information about his team members so that she could hunt them down and kill them as well.  Yet, when he reached out to her on a personal level about Mellita, asking her if she knew about the secret affair she had had with Lieutenant Wagner, she felt a sense of sincerity on his part.  He might be lying about everything else, but she felt that he had a good heart, somehow.  And as it happened, he too wished to escape the doom of Eisenhelm.  She decided to trust him, foolish as that may be.

"Vhat are ve going to do?" she asked.  There was another moonquake, and dust and rocks fell from the ceiling again.  No on was injured, but she could tell her men were starting to get rattled.  The end would come soon.  

"Well," he said, "we're going to be cool.  We are going to get onto the other side of this hanger door, and we're going to get a ship for you and your people, and a ship for me and my people, and we're going to get the hell out of here."  

He heard some clicking in his headphone.  It was Ling telling him he's being an idiot.  She needed him on the attack, not fooling around in a UFO with some Nazi bimbo!  "Time is ticking!" she clicked furiously as she climbed up the ladder to the Pillbox C3-PB-A1, hoping to find Captain Helmund still tied to the pole where she left him.

"Well, right now, though, I have something important to do.  Do you trust me?" he asked Hanna.

"Something more important than escaping Eisenhelm?"  she asked incredulously.  "Vhat could possibly be more important than this?"

"If you let me go, you might not even have to run away from the moon," he said.

"Vhat do you mean?" she asked, completely baffled by this comment.

"What if we could self-destruct the robots?" 

"You have a way to do this?  I thought that is impossible!" she said excitedly. "If you can do it, then there's a chance ve could quell zee civil war and save Eisenhelm!" 

"That's the idea," he said.  "But I have to go. Now."

"Vhy don't I go vith you?"

"Do you trust me?" he asked again.

"Ja, I do," she said slowly, now firmly convinced she'd made the right decision gambling on this man, whatever his name really was.  "Don't you trust me?"

"Honestly, I trust you to be our backup," he said.  "If I fail, you have to make sure the UFOs are ready to go," he said.

"That's logical," she said unhappily.  "But preparing ships is something for my men to do.  I don't need to be there for this kind of thing."

"Well, are you prepared to do what is necessary?" he asked as he reached down slowly to pick up his rifle.  It was another psychological ploy.  He kept his eyes steadily on hers.  Her six Nazi soldiers, an elite troop, lifted their weapons to eye level and targeted him for point blank range termination.  She waved her hand and they lowered their weapons.

"Are you ready to go?" he asked.

"Vhere are vee going?" she replied with a question.  

"That way," he said pointing out of Cavern 8 towards Pillbox C3-PB-A1.  

From behind the pillar below the Science Center Hans observed Jacob and Hanna carefully.  He watched as they negotiated and noted that the soldiers had lowered their weapons.  He had also been listening in on the conversations which were broadcasting over the narrow band of frequencies Hanna had established between her and Jacob.  He looked up.  Nick had picked the lock and opened the circular trapped door.  He was shimmying up into the vertical tube.  Nick reached down with one arm, and Hans leaped up and caught his hand.  Nick pulled him up, and they made their way into the airlock.  Hans punched a few buttons and hooked a line to the power line.  A panel of buttons lit up.  He pushed a few more buttons, air filled the room with a whoosh.  He took off his helmet for a few moments, and then put it back on.  Who knew if the Scientists had been playing around with poison gas, or never agents?  Better to be safe than sorry, he thought. 

They then opened a door and exited into a narrow machine corridor.  It was jet black inside, but they had taken out their mini-flashlights and adjusted them to green-light beams, the least intrusive.  There was a lot of machinery laying dormant without power.  Fortunately, there were no guards.  Hans knew that with the electricity off, all of the containment units would have been disabled.  They made their way to a stairwell, and began climbing up to the seventh floor.  He was deeply curious as to what the scientists had been cooking up there.  There was a good chance there would be no guards left in the center, as all hell was breaking loose everywhere, and he guessed that every guard available was probably down in the cavern below with Hanna.  They came to a hatch, and Nick quickly unlocked it.  He had the magic touch.  They made their way another flight of metal stairs.  They came to a hatch above Nick's head.  This one had a special lock, but Nick was a grand master.  In a few seconds it was open, and they crawled through.  They were now on level seven.  Ah, what mysteries would they discover here, wondered Hans.  For his part, Nick thought the idea of going up there was crazy, but Hans was his superior, and he never asked questions regarding orders.  He just followed, and hoped for the best.  

Around a corner they heard voices.  Hans made his way to the corner and peered around it carefully.  Ahead was a long corridor, and at the middle, about a hundred and fifty feet away, there was a side corridor illuminated by a dim green light.  The voices sounded harsh and cold.  

"Vhat zee hell is she doing?" said one.

"Shut up and wait to see," said the other.

Hans turned to Nick and motioned for them to move back along the corridor away from the voices.  They used their flashlights, covering the head with their fingers so that only the slightest of beams provided enough light for them to find their way.  They came to a door on the right.  It had a window on the door, but a blind was over the glass on the inside.  Nick's flashlight was shaking.  

"Ah, Nick," said Hans, "unlock this door for me."

"Are you sure you want to do this?" asked Nick, finally after so many years breaking his protocol.  He was absolutely scared out of his wits.  Of all the horrors of Eisenhelm, none were ever so terrifying as those that took place inside the Science Centers.  And Level 7 was where the worst of all horrors took place, so far as he had ever been told.  

Nick, with trembling hands, managed to pick the lock.  The door swung open.  Inside was an inky darkness, and the room was filled with a fine mist.  

Meanwhile, down below, Jacob was saying, "Frau Hanna, I think your men should stay here. They should try to help get the UFOs prepared."

"My men are diverting power from Hanger B to the Science Center," she replied.

Jacob foresaw complications.  For one thing, the technicians needed the power to finish repairing the UFOs.  In addition, he knew that Vallnam had piled up derelict UFOs onto the hanger door in order to keep any attackers from getting inside in via Cavern 8.  

"If the ships are going to be repaired, you can't cut the power," he said.

"So, your technicians are inside zee Hanger repairing UFOs.  I see.  Except the UFOs in Hanger B are all useless.  They've been laying there for years. Can the technicians really repair them in time?"

"What better for them to work on?" he asked.

"Vhat you don't know is that inside the Science Center all of the containment mechanisms have been shut down.  Zee scientists assure me that there are experiments that are going to go vildly wrong very soon if zee power is not turned back on.  Zee experiments are likely to come pouring out in a cascade of horrors.  Ve will probably not survive," she explained.  "Leaving the power off for more than ten minutes would be catastrophic for everyone in Eisenhelm, they say.  The worst hell you can possibly imagine."

"Can you supply both?"

"No, the couplings were broken during the Battle of the Wolf's Brigade," she said.  "Hanger B vas designated for derelict UFOs, and no power vas required for it.  So the Scientists never had zee station repaired."

Jacob considered the options.  

"We need the ships.  Without them there is no escape from the moon. So how about this?  Keep the power on in the Hanger, and whatever comes out of the Science Center, your men will stand their ground here and kill it."

"I think that whatever comes out of that hellish place, my men won't stand a chance against it," she replied gravely.

Meanwhile, high above them on Level 7, Hans peered into the darkness of room 7-Z1.  He pointed his green-light around the laboratory. It had white tiled floors and walls, and the sliver of his flashlight beam crossed over a large white cylindrical tub in the center of the room.  There was bluish-green liquid inside of it. Every few moments bubbles broke the surface. Since he had put his helmet back on, he did not smell the horror.  Mist was coming off the surface of the liquid and rolling over the edges onto the ground, and spreading out like a thick greenish cloud.  Nick shuddered as he looked over Hans' shoulder into the room from the doorway.


And that is where we left things this game.

Friday, June 09, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 49

Captain Samwise squatted down next to Fred and peered at him intently. A long strand of drool was distended from Fred's lip to the floor. This was not unusual.  Fred, having ascertained that he was not going to get his grubby paws on the tiny three-part sample of the Ultra drug after all, went to the couch and with a little "oh god", fell over sideways and passed out. In the meantime, Sam had gone on several fact finding errands and had finally returned to the AGV. It was time, he thought, to wake Fred up and get the pertinent information from his Cybernaut. Penelope sat across from Sam at the Communications Console watching him out of the corner of her eye as she worked. Sam reached over and shook Fred. "Fred, wake up!"

"Whuh?!" barked Fred suddenly snapping back from fitful dreams to consciousness. With a suddenly convulsion he fell off the couch and landed face-first on the floor.

"Fred!" barked Sam in response.

"Whatup?!" inquired the downed Cybernaut through squished lips from the floor, one foot still on couch. He did not attempt to move.

"You've been knocked out for while now. What have you been taking?" asked the Captain.

"Nothing," replied Fred with annoyance. "That's why I'm so out of it."

"I could barely wake you up."

"It's been a hard working day, lad," replied Fred, still unmoved.

"Well, head's up. I can't find Lexi," said Sam, dispensing with the small talk and getting down to business. "Have you heard anything from him?"

At this Fred pulled himself up into a slouching position on the couch. "What?"

"Lexi. He came back with the Mechs. He was helping you guys fix up the AGV? With Penelope? You, Penelope, him..."

Fred recalled Lexi's arrival with the new and improved Black Wind V Mechs a couple of days ago. Sam had been severely wounded during the Battle of the Crimson Lightning Storm, and had been brought to Garfield Memorial Hospital, so he had missed Lexi's triumphant return from the dead (can androids die?).  Lexi spent the next couple of days chatting excitedly with the members of the team, overjoyed to be back with his Federation Command compatriots, and did his best to help whereever he could with whatever needed getting done. His Positronic Brain had been sparkling with enthusiasm, his new fully integrated personality was on full display with vigor and charm. As a Utility-Class Proximatics Industrial Android he had originally been a bit dim in the personality department, however, the Positronic Brain really did make him seem human. So much so that, had he not had a glass dome with scintillating blue-white flashes of light for a skull, most people would have simply believed he was as human as anyone else. He had been having a nice time, and had come over to the AGV to see if he could help with the repairs. At any rate, the last time Fred saw Lexi was early that morning when he'd stopped by with some spare parts for Penelope. At that point Fred had gone to get some tools from the garage and when he returned Lexi was already gone.  He thought nothing of it.

Penelope repeated for Fred's edification that she been sitting with Lexi after he'd gone to get the tools, when suddenly the Android stopped his incessant chatter, and after a few minutes of staring blankly into space, got up, reached under the Communications Console, took Linda's Computer Spike, put it under his arm and left without a word.  She didn't think too much about it, other than it seemed a bit odd.  But Positronic Brains, she figured, are a bit odd and assumed it was a quirk of his adjusting to it.  Such things are known to happen with complex systems.  At any rate she didn't think the matter merited her attention and didn't think more of it.

"Yeah," added Sam, "that seems a bit strange. I took a walk around while you were sleeping but he's not at the hospital, and he's not with Guns.  Then I got in touch with Major Sekston, and she said that he commandeered one of the Mechs this morning at 09:00 hours and launched with a sonic boom into space. He told her he had received 'special orders', whatever that means. So now I'm here, talking with you. What do you know, Fred?"

"Good to know that she wouldn't interfere," replied Fred with a sarcastic drawl.

"Well, actually," answered Sam, "she was worried that she might have let something slip, but she said, quite rightly, that Lexi is a member of the Federation Command team, which is not linked to the Western Militia or the US Army, and that the Mechs are not her property, but ours. So she let him take the Mech because he's a trusted member of the our team, and she had no protocols by which to question it. She hoped it wasn't mistake, and I'm hoping so, too."

"So what are you asking me?" inquired Fred, now completely awake.

"Well, he took Linda's computer spike. Do you know why he might have taken it?"

"Are you asking me if the computer spike was important?" asked Fred evasively.

"Well, you're the computer guy," relied the Captain.

"That's right. I am," snipped Fred.

"Do you know something that I don't?" asked the Captain, staring at him with growing irritation.

"I don't think I... know anything... that you don't... know," replied Fred carefully.

"Alright," said Sam, very unconvinced.

"I mean I think that... um... oh no,"

"'Oh no'?!" asked Sam, "What 'oh no'?!"

"Uhh... let's say, um, hypothetically, that what was on that spike --"

"Go on."

"... was something we don't want getting in the hands of... any superintelligences of dubious morality...?"

"Of dubious morality, sure," replied Sam, "But it's Lexi, right?"

"Well, yeah, but--"

"He's been signed off by Federation Command. He's part of our team--" stated Sam.

"Yep!" snapped Fred. "He is that. Those are true statements," said Fred. "I think."

"So yeah," Sam went on, "So nothing to worry about, right?"

"Well, what if he's not under Federation Command?" asked Fred.

"Nahhh, c'mon," replied Sam, "We were sent off with him."

"Are you being sarcastic?" asked Fred.

"No, not at all," answered Sam, surprised by the question.

"I told you I have a flaming tank, man."

"What does that mean?"

"It means don't fuck around with me," snapped Fred.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like that," said Sam.

"Like are you ok right now?"

"Well you know, I just got out of the hospital."

"I know you just got out of the hospital. I crawled through a forest fire to save your life."

"True," said Sam, "Look, I no longer question your bravery."

"Yeah, I'm not trying to hold this over you. I'm just saying, like look, man, you don't have to bullshit me," stated Fred emphatically.

"No bullshit, man, no bullshit."

"I'm more confused right now than anything," said Fred.

"Confused?"

"Yeah, like I mean this is like potentially very serious," replied Fred with a sudden sense of gravity.

"Whuh? I... I... I fail to understand.  What's serious? I mean as long as the spike is in good hands..."

"Well, yeah, like normally I would trust a robot that doesn't have free will," said Fred, "but not when it's potentially being controlled by... I mean he was in the Black Wind V base with Brain V for like, it feels like over a year... I mean if Lexi is being... well, fuck it. Even if he's not being influenced by the giant brain... even if he's being influenced by Dr. Rogers--"

"Oh so you think he's receiving orders from Brain V, but not from the Federation. Okay!" concluded Sam, putting the pieces together finally. "Now I follow you."

When they had originally received Lexi as a team member, he was an ordinary Android. Nothing special, and frankly, while intelligent, not that smart, and certainly kind of dumb when it came to social interactions. Recently, however, he received a Positronic Brain from Janet Langley, one of Doctor Roger's researchers who invented it and gave it to him to help with the Black Wind V mission. Then, as if that wasn't enough, when he was captured at the Black Wind V facility, Lexi was vivisected by Brain V, down to the nano scale, and rebuilt, including the Positronic Brain. And when he returned, Lexi had mentioned that Brain V had embedded in him complete specifications for the new Mech Vs, so that he could repair them, and operate them.  Which begged the question:  what else did Brain V implant in him upon reconstruction?

"Ok, so this is kind of bad. There's three or four potential things. Or five. So let me outline them," said Fred. "One, Doctor Rogers took control of Lexi and absconded with that... that computer spike -- which may or may not be innocuous. If it is not innocuous then absconding with it is definitely a problem. And then again Brain V, er, Brian, could have taken it. Or Lexi could have gone rogue somehow and absconded with the computer spike. Or Lexi is getting orders from Federation Command, and that would be very worrying because it means we've been locked out of the loop. Or, we're just dumb. Not me, of course," argued Fred without stopping for breath.

"Of course," said Sam.

"Or the thing I'm really worried about. That the computer spike got control of Lexi, um, somehow, and is trying to run away," concluded Fred's rapid-fire staccato.

Sam paused to think about all of this. He scratched his head... "What thing on the spike?"

"The AI! The AI that's on the computer spike!" 

"There's an AI on the computer spike?"

"Yeah-there's-an-AI-on-the-computer-spike-yeah!" spit out Fred so fast it was hard to make out what he had said.

"Um... why is there an AI on the computer spike?" interrogated Captain Sam.

"Presumably because it didn't want to stay on the AGV anymore?" 

"I thought we got rid of the--"

"Well, we also thought we got rid of the chain, too, didn't we? But we didn't. Metaphorically speaking. Right?" Fred blurted, trying to deflect the implication of his having hidden this information all along.

"So are you saying there is a possibility that a dangerous AI has taken control of Lexi, and now is in possession of his Positronic Brain?"

"No, I'm saying it's one of the five possibilities I can think of. Of course there's a sixth, which is that a faction we don't know about took control of Lexi and used him to grab the AI on the computer spike and run off with it... like the Manticore somehow did it. But like do you want to accuse everyone of trying to take control of Lexi? We need to focus on the most likely possibilities."

"I did not know I had to worry about people taking control of Lexi," stated Sam dowerly.

"I-didn't-know-we-have-to-worry-about-people-taking-control-of-Lexi-either-but-apparently-that's-where-we-are," snapped Fred.

"Alright," said Sam and then paused. "Let's start narrowing down the number of scenarios, then, shall we?"

They ruled out Dr. Rogers on the grounds that he was still working with them, and showed no sign of wishing to do anything any differently than before. They felt they knew him quite well, and it seemed farfetched to their minds that he would betray them in any way. However, they didn't rule out Brain V at all (failing to take into account that Dr. Rogers was very much in league with Brain V, as was Penelope, both of whom had returned from Black Wind V on the new Mechs together with glowing reports about Brain V's excellence). Although the great brain had revealed a surprising change of heart towards the human race, they still did not trust him. Well, at least Sam and Fred did not. Guns on the other hand had instantly believed that Brain V was above reproach, and the greatest being on Earth by far. 

They came to the subject of the AI itself, and Sam wished to hear what Fred knew about it, and so the tale was told. Fred explained that the AI revealed itself during the Battle of the Crimson Lightning Storm, and was in fact responsible for the plasma cannon shot that wounded the Manticore in the cloud and caused it to retreat. He also said that the AI was far more intelligent than any he had encountered during the Ultra-War. He presented the possibility that it might be some sort of quasi-organic super-intelligence, but he had not had time to determine its actual nature and properties. After the battle it seemed to have vanished without a trace.  He completely skirted past the fact that he had not mentioned any of this to Captain Samwise until then. And Sam, being affable and good natured as he was, intuited as much, and let it slide. After all, Fred was a very odd bird, high strung and temperamental. Getting use out of him required a deft touch, and antagonizing him, even when justified, was apt to become counter-productive in short order. So they moved on to the next possibility. As Fred began to touch on the possibility that the AI itself had taken over Lexi, the Cybernaut stopped mid-sentence.

"Captain, do you mind if I hustle you out of the AGV, over this way," said Fred as he pushed Samwise towards the exit. "I need to talk with you - alone. If you get my meaning, he added as he gave nod towards the communications console (where Penelope was still quietly working).

When he got Sam outside, he nodded again towards the AGV. "It may still be there, I just realized," he whispered.  "We better talk out here."

"Ah. Can you check?"

"I can," replied Fred. He went back into the AGV and made his way to the communications console. He flicked a few switches, and brought up a maintenance screen which slid silently up from the dashboard. He typed rapidly into the keyboard. "Hello? Are you there?"

Now, granted, he knew this was a long shot. After all, he had originally communicated with it via Linda's computer spike. And in addition, if it had wanted to be known, it probably would have already communicated with him by now. After all it had been over two days since the battle, and Fred had been alone in the AGV plenty since then. And sure enough, the query came up blank. No answer. He kicked off a system scan to see if he could spot any anomalies. Nothing showed. His gut told him that the AI was still on the computer spike with Lexi. He went with it.

Something occurred to him. Penelope was an absolutely top notch technician. While he was an expert in AI, he was not nearly as good at Sys-Admin as she was. It was entirely plausible that she would know where in all of the AGV's circuitry a super stealthy AI might hide. She was extremely good.

"Penelope, can you check the sub-systems of the AGV to see if you find anything... unusual?"

"Sure," she said, as she cracked her knuckles and went to work. About fifteen minutes later she finished.  "Nada. Clean as a whistle."

"Ok, so let's assume we're safe, for now," concluded Fred. "You can come back in, Cap. I don't see anything. My guess is that it's not here."

Sam came back in and Fred launched into his ideas.

"Look, someone is controlling Lexi. Or he's gone nuts, which is also a problem, alright? But that's far less of a problem than the other option."

"Yes," said Sam, waiting to hear where Fred was going with this.

"Or, the computer spike is controlling him, which would be a little weird - I think. Or Brain V is controlling him, which probably makes the most sense. Or maybe he's acting on Federation Command orders, but I find that very doubtful. I mean Federation Command wouldn't hide anything from us, right? Which means that somebody is fucking around with Penelope - I mean Lexi!"

She looked up from her work and stared at him with a tiny hint of amusement.  

"Since he acquired the Positronic Brain, Lexi has a real personality," offered Penelope from her workstation. "Not a mimic personality like other androids. The Positronic Brain gives him an actual objective personality. For better or worse, he thinks for himself."

"I'm not ruling out that Lexi went rogue," replied Fred thoughtfully.

"So Lexi went rogue, or he's being controlled by an unknown AI... perhaps the Manticore took him over?" offered Sam.

"Well that's possible, but the Manticore doesn't seem like it would be up on AI stuff, you know?" suggested Fred.

"Yeah, he seemed like he is more in tune with spirt and magic than technology," replied Sam, "so I think we can rule that one out. Based on how his personality changed when he came into the AGV, I think the strongest case can be made for his having been taken over by the AI."

"I think it's either that or he's been subverted by Brain V. Either of those seem the most likely. Fucking Brian. Can't trust a brain with that kind of name."

"So is there any way to track the spike, or Lexi, or the Mech?" enquired Sam.

"There has to be something..." said Fred, scratching his chin.

Penelope spoke without raising her eyes from the circuit board under her nano-scope. "The Mechs communicate through high frequency radio. But only within a certain range due to atmospheric interference. It depends on how high up in the atmosphere they are. The higher they get the further their radio communications range.  Surface-side they have about 200 miles.  Obviously better than line of sight, but still, not great."

"Are the Mechs as fast as the Nazi UFOs?" asked Sam. He recalled that when they confronted the Mechs with the UFO they had hijacked from the moon, the Mechs were quite a bit faster, but the UFO was far more maneuverable. It took the UFO eight hours to get from the moon to Earth. He thought it over, but it was still hard to compare. Atmospheric flight speeds would be completely different than speeds obtainable in space, which depended exclusively on mass and propulsive energy. He was trying to figure out if they could communicate with the Mech by radio, but since it left in the morning at 09:00, then that gave it three hours of flight time. Since it seemed to be moving at maximum speed based on Sektson's observation, he conjectured it could be as far as seventy-five thousand miles away by then. So it seemed that simply hopping on the radio and trying to hail Lexi was not likely to work. If Lexi was in space, the Earth's atmosphere would block their radio signals for sure.  Especially the debris field, and the radioactive river.  So there seemed little hope in that.

"We have access to two Mechs at the airport. We can flit over to Black Wind and perhaps find more information there?" thought Fred out loud. 

"If Brain V is not behind this, then we could ask him, sure," said Sam. "But we don't know if he's still there. Remember, Dr. Rogers told us that Brain V is planning to leave Earth on an exploratory journey out into the galaxy, and whether or not he's there depends on how quickly he is building his spaceship."

"That's good. I'm happy for him. But he could be absconding with a dangerous WAR-GAI, and a Positronic Brain. Granted the Positronic Brain may not be the most important thing in the world, but seriously, having the most powerful WAR-GAI I've ever encountered - that's a problem," stated Fred.

Samwise mentioned what Doctor Rogers had said about the Positronic Brain. That it had exceeded by far Dr. Langley's original expectations, and was arguably the most powerful computer known to science at that point in time.

"Are you telling me that the Positronic Brain inside Lexi's head is more powerful than Brain V?" asked Fred incredulously.

"No, that's not what he meant. What he meant was that Lexi is smarter than the Cyber-Net Super-Computer in Sub-Level 4 of Garfield Hospital, probably the most powerful computer system the US Army had at that point."

"Ah. Okay, well that is impressive," agreed Fred. If that were true, then it put the Positronic Brain in a different light. It suggested the possibility that the Positronic Brain might be able to rival Alt-X.  Although that seemed a bit far fetched, it was nevertheless possible. "Good to know," said Fred to himself. "Good to know." 

Fred then thought about the fact that the computer spike had extremely low processing power, with one CPU and that one was no great shakes. Which implied that the AI on it was either tethered to something with far greater processing power, somehow, or it was so efficient that even with the limitations of the spikes CPU, it was nevertheless able to outwit them all, including the Manticore. That level of efficiency would be beyond incredible.  But he had to consider it because the AI on the spike needed him to link it to a communications port for it to gain access to the AGV's internal network... which implied that no such external processing power had been available to it at that point. He marveled silently at the implications of an AI that could run on a single spike CPU and perform as well as, in fact better, than those which had access to massive 2000GB GPUs like those he fought during the Ultra-War. It was utterly fantastic.  And yet, such efficiency was theoretically possible.  He had studied Dr. Hugo de Garis in Graduate School, and understood the implications of pico-scale processing.  Given that it had hidden itself on the spike and only revealed itself when the opportunity was perfect for it to do so, and negotiated its release perfectly, suggested not only enormous intelligence, but also the ability to sense and fully analyze its surroundings. It could do so from the spike using its infrared comm ports, if it were clever enough to read the incoming signals. Which it very clearly was. Yes, this was no ordinary AI at all. This was something special. Very fucking special. And it was on its way to God-knows-where with Lexi, the only Positronic Brain on the planet. Damnit. The two of them together... what couldn't they do? He wondered if the combination could rival Alt-X... and Brain V.

"We need to find that android," concluded Fred out loud.

"Yes, we need to find Lexi," agreed Sam, "because I have about twenty hours to find out if the Positronic Brain can decipher Ultra, and determine if the Addictivity Problem can be solved, or not!"

This comment sent Fred's head into a tailspin. He had momentarily forgotten about Ultra in all the excitement. But now he suddenly gushed with thoughts about how vastly Ultra could improve his cognitive abilities, and began to drool again. Why it could make him practically super-human! But in the next moment Penelope's smirk yanked him back down to earth, and he snapped out of it. With a tremendous effort he wrestled his thoughts back to the job at hand.

"Okay," he said, "but Lexi could be anywhere. How are we even going to begin to find him?"

"Why not take one of the Mechs up into space?" suggested Penelope without looking up. Fred and Sam looked at each other.

"Well, yeah, I guess that's right. We could follow him above the atmosphere and then we'd have line of sight spotting, and long distance radio communications up there," replied Sam. Fred was paying no attention to her because she was a woman, and he had long since decided to be a jackass where women were concerned. However, her words rang true, and he was peevishly annoyed by it, but said nothing.

Sam responded. "Okay, so, yes, that's a good idea. We can go to the airport, grab one of the Mechs..."

A shadow appeared in the doorway. It was Guns. "Hi guys," he said as he walked in.

"Guns! Weren't you helping some people?"

"Yes, sir. I was helping the US Army guys fortify the southern rim of Panguitch for the past couple of days. Hard work, but I like that kind of thing. Anyway, when you called, Captain, it made me think something is going on, so I thought I'd swing by. What's up?"

"We got some tracking to do," barked Fred.

"Well, that's one of my specialties," replied Guns with a thumb's up. "Where to?"

"We got a rogue robot," added Fred.

"Don't tell me. Lexi's gone AWOL?"

"Yes," acknowledged Fred, "clean out into space!"

"What's the plan, Captain?" asked Guns.

"Well, Penelope came up with a good idea. We can go to the airport and grab one of the Mechs and launch into space to try to find Lexi using visual and radio methods. Another option is to head back to Black Wind V and see if we can get any information from Brian, on the assumption that he's not behind this and is actually an ally as he claims."

"Oh, well of course Brian would definitely help us if we ask him to," stated Guns with complete assurance.

There was some debate between them all as to whether or not Brian would or would not be inclined to steal Lexi and the AI, Fred taking the view that it is entirely possible that he would, while Guns was absolutely certain that Brian, no matter what he did, was both justified and almighty-great for doing it. Guns was Brain V's biggest fan.

"Boy I wish I could go with him on his space adventure," said Guns looking upward. "Whoowiee, that would be great."

Having decided on a course of action, they left for Panguitch Airport. They drove the few miles north in the AGV and found Major Sekston on the tarmac inspecting the Mechs. They were beautiful. Thirty feet tall, smooth and sleek, with graceful lines, and colored a vivid electric-blue and white, trimmed with bright glinting chrome.

"Major," said Sam in greeting as they exited the AGV. "We're going to take the Mechs out into space. We're concerned something might have happened to Lexi."

"Ah, I was afraid of that," she replied, her eyebrows furrowing.

"Yeah, we have indications that... something might have taken control of him, and we want to clear that up."

"Alright, well, do you want me to do anything in particular?"

"No, just keep a lookout and let us know if he shows up. Don't try to detain or control him. Just let me know if he gets in contact with you or shows up here, ok?"

"Certainly. Can do," she replied, and signaled to a Lieutenant to come over. He did and she transmitted the orders to him. "I wonder, Captain, if you might not be able to make use of a Pilot?"

"Actually, I'm glad you asked," answered Sam. "As it happens, our best Pilot happens to be off on a side quest, and we have come up a bit short. If you don't mind taking a hop into space--"

"Mind?!" she laughed, "I've been dying for a chance to fly one of these ever since they landed. I don't mind at all!"

And with that they climbed aboard the Mechs, entering in through the sliding doorways that opened up on their right legs.  Sekston, a Class-A Pilot, took the helm of one Mech, and Penelope, not as experienced but reasonably competent, took the Navigation and Sensor Array console on the other Mech. Penelope was a competent Pilot, but not much more than that.  

Sam went with her and took a position at the weapons station. On the other Mech Fred took a seat at the communications console, and Guns took the Weapons station. Penelope, who knew the technical specifications of the Mechs down to the T, since she actually helped design them, flipped a few switches and entered commands into the Control-Board to tether the two Mechs so that they would operate like one ship. Major Sekston would pilot them out into space, and from there they could untether if the need arose. 

The key to getting into space was in avoiding the vast radioactive debris field that blanketed the Earth after the violence of the Ultra-War. If any satellites survived that terrible conflict, it would have been a miracle. The way they managed it at Kit Peak Space Center was to use a massive Plasma Cannon to punch a hole through the debris field and fly their rockets through it. The Mech V team, however, didn't have that luxury. They would have to do it the old fashioned way. Expert piloting. Sam, thinking on this, rued the fact that Pita, their star pilot, had left on an expedition north with Linda Brisbane to find out something about some dream she had. He was miffed and commented "Too bad we don't have our fake hero to pilot, eh?" The team looked at him with raised eyebrows. After all, Pita did like to flash his shining teeth, and proclaim his heroic stature at every opportunity, but that didn't mean that he wasn't a good man, and maybe a hero, too. He was a bit of a braggart, perhaps, but he was brave, and did heroic deeds when necessary. Those who considered him a hero weren't necessarily wrong. But of course, only time can tell who is a real hero, and who is an imposter.  Still, though, Sam was miffed.

Buckled in and all systems checked, the enormously powerful plasma-jet engines of the Mech Vs roared to life, and up climbed the shining humanoid spaceships into the evening sky. As they approached the upper atmosphere the going got rough. Major Sekston cursed under her breath as she attempted to maneuver between two thick clouds of debris that were intersecting along their flight trajectory. The two fields were strewn with particles large and small, and at the their centers were the ruined remains of two destroyed satellites.  Each of their antenna's dishes happened to be colliding and Sekston watched them spark as they ground along each other's sides casting new clouds of debris to fly off in perpendicular directions from the main cloud. She gently nudged the Mechs to port and lowered her altitude to slide past, but they skimmed one of the fields and the ship vibrated as the particles collided with the hull at seventeen thousand mph. Flames erupted off the surface of the Mech, but fortunately she had matched trajectory and nearly matched speed so the damage was minimal, and they dove under the main cloud in a long graceful arc.

"Damage report?" asked Captain Samwise.

"Minimal," reported Penelope after a short pause as her system scan completed. "All systems intact but our port-side sensor array on Mech I is offline. I've sent the repair droids to work on it."

And with that Major Sekston pushed the thrusters up a notch and out into space they sailed on a long yellow-orange filament of plasma. The Earth shown with incredible beauty below them. Around them the stars shone bright and gleaming. It was an awe-inspiring sight.

Penelope scanned every light frequency to try to find Lexi's Mech.  If it was in line of sight she'd know it soon enough. Within a few moments she got a blip on her screen, and with a quick glance she spotted it outside the forward window. It wasn't difficult to see as it streamed small bursts of plasma behind itself as it adjusted its course.

"I got him!" she said.

"Really!" exclaimed Sam, surprised at how quickly she had managed to locate him. "And where is our Android?"

"He's heading straight for the moon, sir." she said pointing out the window at a thin yellow-orange line of plasma that ended in a bright metallic dot far ahead of them."

There was a moment of self-congratulation on board the Mechs as Sekston recalibrated their trajectory and aligned with Lexi's flight path.

"Captain," said Penelope, "I'm picking up an array of blips out there. Quite a few of them. The tally is, um, 50. They're far out in space, about three quarters of the way to the moon. We're too far for me to get a solid bead on them, but it looks like they are heading in our direction, and Lexi appears to be on an intercept course."

* * *

Meanwhile, far away, deep within the Earth's crust, Pita stood on the shores of the swirling black waters of the river Styx with Linda Brisbane in his arms. Behind them the handmaiden of the Queen of Lemuria, Talara, and her fiancé, Vilar, and the elder priest Amorathon stood at the head of the boat preparing to embark onto the shore. Looming in the shadowy mists not far off was an immense bridge of some kind, under the archway of which the river ambled silently away. The bridge appeared to have some sort of structure straddling the middle of the span. It looked like it could be a building. A house maybe. It was shaped like an old-fashioned Chinese mansion, perhaps. There were no lights, and all was silent, except for the sounds of burbling water, and the buzz of insects, and the occasional sound of twigs cracking in the marshy distance. The shadowy boatman stood on the shore staring off into the distance in the direction the river was flowing with its hollow back eyes, and soon it faded away in the swirling mists. When Pita glanced toward the boat, it too was gone.

Around them there was a marsh covered in tall spindly reeds with with dark green leaves. Large lazy toads sat in the mud along the shore, and insects could be heard buzzing and chirping not far away. Other than those sounds, there was an eerie silence. The mists were cold and swirled ominously around them. The enormous bridge loomed in the darkness nearby. It seemed that the steps of the bridge were each fifteen feet tall. No ordinary person could walk up those steps. Pita thought the bridge must have been built by giants. He tuned his Lemurian helm across the spectrum of light by which he could see best in the darkness.  While there was no light anywhere to be seen, somehow there was a slight ambient glow everywhere.  It was enough for the helm to pick up on and amplify.  He zoomed in on the bridge to see if he could make out any details. The bridge was covered with a lichen, and in some places he could see patterns covering the surface of the stones but they were difficult to make out; geometric designs, perhaps.

He then caught sight of movement in the marsh. A patch of reeds nearby swayed, and then stopped moving. He pulled his Lewiston Beam Pistol from its holster and stepped in front of the group to shield them from anything that might leap out from the darkness. Seeing this, Linda pulled out her Lewiston as well, and they both stood side by side facing the marsh.

Forty feet away, a creature slipped out of the reeds onto a low rocky outcropping. It was humanoid, but they sensed it was not human. It wore a leather cowl, and was wearing a weathered cloak and britches, and carrying a sack over its back. It stealthily made its way across the outcropping towards the bridge. Pita thought it had not seen them as it seemed to take no particular action in their regard. It moved hesitantly, stopping and looking around with birdlike alertness, and then moving forward a few steps and stopping again.  It made not a sound. Pita wondered if it was dangerous. It was difficult to say, but it was not enormous, so he estimated that it was likely not a mortal threat.

"Have you ever seen a creature like this before?" he whispered as low as he could to Vilar.

"I'm not sure, but I don't think so," whispered Vilar in reply.  Pita was not sure if Vilar was proving to be the worst guide ever, but he began to suspect it at this point.

"You there!" announced Pita. The creature jerked his head in their direction and stopped moving.

Talara grabbed Pita by the shoulder, and motioned for him to remain quiet, as they were instructed by the Star Mage.

The creature suddenly turned and dashed into the reeds. It was gone.

Pita led the way as they tracked the creature through the marsh. Vilar was being helped along by Talara, while Amorathon took up the rear with wary glances in all directions.  Their Lemurian helmets allowed them to track the creature by tuning to the infrared spectrum, making its footprints clearly visible for a short time after its passing. They wound their way through the marsh, and at one point Vilar caught sight of a leather cowl in the reeds, presumably discarded to make better time.  This suggested the creature knew it was being followed.  Eventually they came to a dark village on a low hill with reed huts and stone wall which they could make out in the ultra-violet band.  There were several wooden towers. They spotted the creature approaching a gate in the wall, above which loomed one of the towers. It made signs with its hands, and the gate opened. It vanished silently inside.  Vilar took note of the hand signs, in case it should come in handy later.

Vilar was being helped along by his fiancĂ©, the wound on his shoulder having begun to bleed again.  When they stopped to observe he gave a little groan as Talara laid him against a rock.  Pita took the time to perform another mystic healing on his guide, and the effect was such that Vilar felt better in a few minutes, and the bleeding stopped.  He looked up and gave a little smile.

"Thank you, Pita," he whispered. "Something I want tell you, while I have the strength," he continued. "If we continue to follow the river, then we may arrive at a great wall. If so, we will know by the river's passing into an enormous cave and there will be a great cataract down which the river will fall. If we follow that wall away from the river then we may come to an iron-rung pole that leads upward along the side of the cliff to the ledge path we departed when we came this way.  Take that path to the left, and we may yet find our way out of these dismal caverns."

As Pita pondered these instructions, Talara tapped him on the shoulder and pointed towards the village. He turned to look and saw activity at the gate. They all crouched down deeper into the reeds and watched. Creatures emerged from the gate. They were naked except for loincloths, and were carrying spears, with jagged daggers in their belts, and moving stealthily but quickly. Based on their behavior, Pita didn't think they had been spotted, yet. He considered cutting them all down with his Lewiston. He imagined that the looting thereof, however, would probably not be all that rewarding. He rubbed his chin as he watched them approaching. Twenty creatures had emerged. One of them waved a claw-like hand and they followed behind him as they made their way across the marsh towards their position.

"I must destroy them," thought Pita to himself.

Instead, he stood up and said, "We come in peace!"

The creatures were definitely humanoid, about five feet tall, but had distinctly reptilian features. He also noticed at this point that they had folded up wings, like those of bats, which unfurled at this point, and their heads proved to be lizard-like.

"Little man-dragons," he thought to himself. "Things just keep getting worse as we go," he concluded ruefully. He guessed he should not have stood up until their nature and intentions had been better clarified.  But the hasty choice was the way of Pita, and he pushed his chin forward heroically despite his reservations.

At first the dragon-men stopped and flapped their wings slowly. Then they crouched down and began making rasping sounds as they approached on foot, their spears pointed forward. Pita considered what mystic abilities he might be able to use. Once again "Alter Weather" seemed like an attractive option, possibly because it was his most powerful ability. He considered the dark misty cavern, and thought about the sand storm they'd encountered on the other side of the river. It seemed to him that a change in the weather might throw the aggressors off. He also considered what tactical combat options he had, but under the circumstances, with the river far behind them now, and in the middle of a marsh of which he had no tactical knowledge, he put that idea aside. Their opponents had the tactical advantage, if for no other reason than they doubtlessly knew the terrain intimately, and also had the numerical advantage. On the other hand, spears and daggers were no match for a Lewiston Beam Pistol. Even twenty of them really wouldn't stand a chance. He considered trying to hypnotize the leader with his mesmeric power. After all due consideration, however, he pulled out his Browning 9mm pistol and raised it in the air preparing to shoot in an attempt to cow them into submission without killing them. Talara put her hand on his shoulder.

"Anything is better than making noise," she whispered. "The Star Mage told us to go as silently as possible."

"Ah, yes, ok.  You are right.  No noise. Fine. Let me think," he whispered.

After a moment he pulled out his Proximatic Industrial 2600 Lumen flashlight and set it to maximum power. He pointed it above their heads, and turned it on.  Instantly the entire cavern was illuminated! He kept it on for but a moment, and in that instant several things happened. The brightness of the beam caught the infernal darkness-dwelling creatures by complete surprise. Their wings fluttered wildly, they dropped their spears and raised their arms over their eyes, and they lofted themselves into the air and quickly vanishing into the mists. The light spread far out into the foggy cavern illuminating an enormous area.  Pita caught a glimpse of a tall round hillock in the distance, shrouded by the mists, where he could make out what looked like an evenly spaced row of dark pine trees along the top ridge. And just before he flicked the flashlight off at Talara's insistence, he could have sworn he saw the entire hill move, briefly. And then the light went out.

There grew a dreadful silence. Every insect and scurrying beast in the marsh had gone silent. Not even the air stirred. He thought it likely that the creatures of the cavern had never encountered a sudden brightness such as the Proximatic Industrial 2600 before. It probably scared them all out of their wits. He shrugged and put the flashlight back in his side pocket. "Now they've seen the light," he quipped to himself.

He used his helmet's vizor to zoom in on the hill, and in infrared he observed that what he had taken to be pine trees where actually more like giant shark's fins, perhaps. They formed a single line that crossed the top of the hill like a fence. 

"Oh great. It's Godzilla," he groaned to himself. "I guess this is why we were told to make no noise. Waking up Godzilla is never a good idea. We need a new plan," he whispered to the group.

From a deep pocket he removed the Black Star gem that he had received from the Star Mage and put it in the palm of his hand. It was a small gem the size of a nickel, that glowed with a strange black light. It had eight triangular sides, and gleamed along its edges with a faint purplish light. He tried reaching into it by focusing a portion of his mystic energy on it. 

He recalled the instructions that the Star Mage had transmitted to him via Talara, which was to pass through the 'Nexus of worlds' as invisibly as they could. He wasn't really that great at following instructions, however. Like many heroes, he tread his own path through life, often stomping on the flowers as he went because there was always something important to do just up ahead. And so, having once again failed to follow the advice of those who offered it, he made his attempt to contact the Star Mage. Unfortunately, the gem greedily devoured the mystic energy, quivered slightly in his hand, but nothing else happened. He had the impression that it was hungry. He put it away.

He began to connect the dots. He figured that the injunction to remain "as invisible as possible" was probably to mitigate the possibility of waking the sleeping monstrosity in the cavern. And his failure to follow advice might have also limited his ability to reach out to his benefactor, the Star Mage. He was chagrined by this realization, and thought he ought to learn a lesson or two from it. But lesson learning was not Pita's forte. He'd have to work on that, if he could. Brave to a fault, yes, he was. Caring and compassionate? Definitely. But he had an uncanny ability to completely forget good advice. It was a pity.

"Ah, so those little dragon people... must be the minions of the Big Dragon Person over there," he whispered. "We better try to circumnavigate this thing and see if we can make our way to the wall and find the iron-rung ladder going up."  He turned to Vilar, his guide.

"Which way to the wall?" he whispered.

Vilar pointed back behind them. Fortunately he had enough wherewithal to keep track of their passage and with his help they made it back to the river where the great stone bridge was. The river passed underneath it. On top of the bridge they saw the enormous mansion. Huge stone steps went up towards it. They arrived at the base of the bridge and passed quietly by its lichen covered stones. They moved past the bridge and followed the river on their right. 

They travelled for a ways without speaking, and came upon a pile of reeds that seemed to form a very large bird's nest. He could see the tops of blue eggs nestled inside. 

"Where there's eggs, there's big bird to guard them," whispered Pita, and so they moved past without going near it.  After a while they heard buzzing in the air ahead. Pita pulled out his insect repellent. He showed it to Talara to confirm that he could use it without getting into trouble. She gave him a thumb's up.

They came upon a cloud of large fist-sized mosquitoes. They were hovering in the air over the marsh along the side of the river. He sprayed the repellant into the air, and the mosquitoes moved away from the path. As the party moved through the tunnel that the mosquitoes had formed around them, Pita noticed that the creatures had eyes that pulsated with a strange green and red light. They all seemed to pulsate in unison with each other. His experience with mesmerism immediately alerted him to the hypnotic intent of the pulsations and he warned everyone, in a whisper, to shield their eyes from the creatures and move along as quickly as they could. Since the insect repellent was so strong, and their eyes were shielded, they passed through the cloud without incident.

Several times as they marched, Talara came up and and prevented Pita, and the others, from getting too close to the black swirling waters of the river. She reminded him that touching the water would cause them to completely lose their memories. After some time they passed a large stand of reeds that were covered with wide leaves that had serrated edges. Pita touched a leaf with a piece of leather and it easily cut through it. They stayed as far away from the reeds as they could.

After travelling in this fashion for some time, they rested for ten minutes on an outcropping of rocks. As they sat, Amorathon, the priest, pointed in the direction behind them. 

"We are being followed," he whispered. They climbed off the rocks and hid among the marsh's non-serrated flora, of which they found a good patch. Pita used his helmet to zoom in on the mists in the distance, and he spotted shapes in the air above the marsh. He tuned the helmet again, and saw that they were dragon-men flying in their direction. The mist made it difficult to see more than their silhouettes. They appeared to be tracking them from the air, but Pita had the impression they had not been spotted. He decided to keep moving.

Soon they came to a spot where rocks protruded into the river, and from there, in the distance ahead, they saw a huge black shape suspended over the river. It took some time for Pita to figure out that it was the mouth of an enormous cave into which the river was flowing.  There was a dull roar in the distance.  Mists made it seem as if the cave was a giant shape suspended in the air, but in fact it had a very solid foundation on the sides of the river.  Huge stones formed an archway that spanned the entire cave's mouth.

Pita looked to Vilar for guidance. Vilar in turn spoke quietly with Amorathon, who came forward.

"That is the mouth of Tartarus," whispered Amorathon gravely. They all looked at it with foreboding and dread.  It was not something they wished to be anywhere near.  But their path led past it.  They would have to go.

And that is where we left things that night.