After her hot bath in the pirates' private chambers, Siu-Ling suits up in her new, blue civilian skeinsuit and examines her standard issue laser rifle, taking inventory of her ammo. Still somewhat attached to her twin pistols, she keeps them holstered while she finds a suitable leather band to use as a rifle sling. Figuring the Armory as the best place to find one, Siu-Ling meets up with Borovski who has begun dispensing supplies now that an inventory has been completed.
"Where is that sonic knife the leader was carrying?" Raid rummages around through the confiscated weapons in the armory under Borovski's watchful eyespots, until he finds it. He rolls it over in the palm of his hand and briefly activates it, listening to the acoustic whine of the invisible blade. "I'm keeping this as a personal trophy. He gave me the wound in my shoulder with this, you know. It's just one of those little things in life that gives you a special sense of satisfaction, reminding you of what you have survived and overcome." Raid smiles slyly at the Quartermaster, then clips the sonic knife to his belt. He also grabs a stunstick to augment his personal defenses, along with his share of the powerclips and a few grenades. He keeps only one of the two gyrojet pistols he had captured and also keeps two full clips, throwing the other pistol back into the group's weapon pool. The sense of satisfaction Raid feels from having survived the battle renews his confidence in his abilities, and is only dampened by the knowledge that the team has lost one of their own.
xZot clambers into a fresh skeinsuit and acquires a laser rifle and power backpack. Checking out the stunstick closely, he grabs one, leaving his nightstick in the armory along with a brace of laser pistols he longer required. OMAC, preferring his military skiensuit over the civilian version from the pirate, offers the last skiensuit to Con in place of his damaged albedo suit but the huge human trooper hands the suit to X'anthe instead. OMAC shrugs, showing no outward emotion, then after much deliberation finally decides that he definitely prefers the Recoilless Rifle over the remaining Needler Rifle. He dumps his Bow and arrows, Auto Pistol and Power Backpack on the floor of the Armory as he hefts the monstrous rifle then proceeds to jam half a dozen extra shells into his pack.
Soon after, GleepGlooup arrives at the Armory to obtain a Power Backpack for his rifle, a pair of each variety of grenade and five clips for his gyrojet pistol. Crisbel takes the same selection of grenades, a stunstick, one of the civilian skiensuits and swaps his Beltpack for a Backpack.
X'anthe wanders around the armory looking at the equipment. She grabs a laser pistol but puts it down on seeing the laser rifles deciding on taking one of these instead. Now for ammo she thinks lets see I'll need some SEU clips, 6 should do for now and one of these power backpacks for the rifle. Maybe a few doze grenades. She stands back and surveys her pile. "Gee that seems like a lot" with that thought she adds her spears to the armory stocks and takes up her newly acquired arsenal.
Sni'ktl finishes tidying the Sick Bay and replenishes his and OMAC's medkits from the sick bay stocks. Each medic takes half he extra drugs for their respective Medkits and a fully stocked medkit is packed into the baggage compartment of the Jetcopter. GleepGlooup drops by the Sick Bay to drop off the extra Medkit sans drugs he had been carrying. Stepping outside to get some fresh air into his pores he surveys the carnage.
"Hmm we could do with getting that maintenance bot sent up from the outpost to clean this lot up." Seeing Borovski organizing the captured weapons, Sni'ktl takes an interest in a needler rifle. He has heard of these weapons and his mind considers the permutations of drugs that could be administered to an unwitting patient at range. "No need to worry about bedside manner with one of these babies" thinks Sni'ktl. The Vrusk Medical Officer is disappointed to learn later under OMAC's tutelage, that the only needle clips available are the standard issue projectiles, not the knockout variety.
Siu-Ling turns to the matter of Brother Bruce, hoping to properly express to his mother the conditions under which the Human gave his life. She sits on the ochre, Volturnian soil, on the periphery of the former Slave City One and considers suggesting to xZot that they rename the ruined city Mawsonburg.
Remembering a brief conversation with the Lieutenant Commander, she recalls that he was a polytheist, like a good number of upper class Humans in Gran Quivera, the city of his birth and had little reverence for the way of the Ul-Mor. Thus, she must neglect her spiritual compass and keep the letter as inoffensive as possible. She also is aware of how Bruce felt about her, and although she does not condone polygamy, she too, felt an awkward affinity for her conspecific. Having borrowed a datapad from Sni'ktl, she inhales deeply, sighing with the inspiration of The One before commencing her composition. Aware of his family's struggle to overcome the loss of their fortune, she recalls that most of his family are well educated and have impeccable etiquette and finesse. She therefore selects the datapad grammar setting most appropriate to their desired syntax, dictating a letter that eventually gets translated and added into the subspace message.
Sni'ktl is pleased to lend Siu Ling a Notepad (TM). He is also moved to pen some words of his own as a supplementary to Siu-Ling's excellent letter. xZot also pauses momentarily to reflect on Bruce's passing to his races higher state. All three notes are compiled and added to the data package being prepared for Gleep to transmit to their employer.
"Sni'ktl, will you prepare Bruce's body for its return home?" He requests, recognizing that returning his body to Bruce's family will be an important part of their grieving. Sni'ktl is able to convert part of the Sick Bay into a morgue and put the X-O's body on ice indefinitely, or at least until the expected relief ship arrives.
"I didn't even get to know the X-O personally," Raid sighs with regret as the various team members put their thoughts down in electrons to be sent home with the subspace message. After making sure all of his new weapons are fully loaded and his beltpack recharged, Raid asks xZot for permission to form a small group and attempt to track the strange creature that was seen carrying Jameson.
"I won't go any farther than you advise xZot. That creature looked intelligent, and not unfriendly, just reclusive. Making non-violent contact should be our top priority. We may have lost Mawson, but Jameson could still be alive out there. We have to keep our spirits up, and our hopes."
Acknowledging Raid's eagerness and Sni'ktl's intention to leave a legacy of Bruce's sacrifice, xZot cannot help reflecting the more immediate need of the Gang.
"It looks like we are going to have to find Lieutenant Colonel Louis V. Jameson now that we know that he is alive." states xZot, referring to the strange creature seen earlier. "This means that there is a need for some field promotions. Sp'ock, you will take over Bruce's role as X-O and OMAC, you will step up into the role of Chief Security Officer." A smirk briefly flashes across his face "Oh and OMAC, this recent spate of missing the target is unlike you? Siu-Ling is actually getting to you, isn't she? Maybe you need a little more practice, with the pistol." Turning back to Sp'ock and in a more serious tone
"Maybe you should take out a team on the Explorer that is in the garage. Patrol the immediate area and see if you can find that solitary figure that was surveying the town earlier while I check out the Computer again." Sp'ock nods in agreement and organizes a quick patrol of the surroundings. Raid joins Sp'ock and Con in a sweep of the perimeter with Gleep at the wheel of the Explorer. All four occupants of the Explorer appreciating the mechanized form of transport after weeks of walking across sand dunes, crawling through caves and climbing through trees in the wild landscapes of Volturnus. As Raid had silently suspected, they lost sign of the tracks after several kilometers but not before confirming the general southerly direction taken by the creature and Jameson.
In the days following the liberation of Brucebane, Sni'ktl is busy looking after the remaining survivors of the previous mission. Several of the original team members were still unaccounted for. While their physical health is recovering Sni'ktl counsels them individually to help them overcome their recent traumas.
"Trailblazer Team" survivors. Patient summaries. Detailed reports attached.
Professor Geeko-sur-Mang Yazirian, Geophysicist. Status and location unknown.
Doctor Itklikdil Cartographer. Status and location unknown. Grod, technician and author, was found dead upon our arrival in Brucebane. John, James, Jack, Gil, Jeremiah, Jikijiki, Jubalub and Jooploop Doe. Five humans a Vrusk and two Dralasites are currently suffering severe trauma and are not in any condition for interview. I have prescribed rest and food for these poor souls. While the advanced skills of these personnel would be of immense help to our efforts they are not currently fit for duty. Perhaps after a week or two of rest some of them will want to return to the distraction of work. Light duties such as maintaining the Brucebane and Outpost facilities would be appropriate. Commander Louis Jameson is yet to be recovered from the "Messenger of the Gods" seen setting off with his body. We do not know if he lives or where he is. I have named this creature a "Loperoo Elongatis" based on initial observations of appearance. We believe it has taken the Commander to a Ruined City, somewhere near the Pool of Pure Water and we will be mounting an expedition to recover him.
End Medical Log
Sni'ktl recommends to xZot that the rescued people be looked after during their recovery.
"If you need me and OMAC doing other things we need to move McKillin back to Brucebane to look after them. And I'd like to send a second message if I may. When I was doing stand up on the mining colonies I hitched around on ore freighters. There's this cooperative of owner operators with a diverse fleet that could help us offload all this ore and the second hand security systems. They pay cash on uplift to value of goods, minus transport costs minus ten to twenty percent depending on the value of the shipment. Most importantly, they won't be likely to go through the Truane's Star and Pan Galactic Corporation routes that would draw unwelcome attention. And one more thing. With your permission, I would like to interview the Star Devil Captain and his senior officers. I'll try to find out more about their operation and the ship they have in the system. If I can hypnotize one of them, they could order it to land and disembark. I should at least be able to extract their landing protocols and try impersonating them."
xZot smiles grimly at his Medical Officers' suggestion. The Vrusk must have missed seeing the Edestekai carry off the pirate Captain along with all the other pirate prisoners. Then OMAC pipes up.
"Well they shouldn't be to hard to impersonate now. They're all dead!"
Given xZot's permission, Sni'ktl waits his turn on the Subspace to contact his truckin' buddies from the good 'ol days.
"Must ask them to bring a kilo of vermillion wild weed, a dozen barrels of Yazirian grog and some nice farewell goodies for the Edestekai, Kurabanda and Ul-Mor. When they see the goodies their bringing in they'll be queuing just to make the welcome party." He fills out the environmental report for renaming the pirate city and goes to get some kip.
After returning from the patrol, Raid goes to the Star Devil's personal quarters and picks up the novels that where found there, planning to read through all of them during his leisure time over the next few days. It appears the Star Devil is a Harry Harrison fan, the famous human Sci-Fi novelist, as there is an almost complete collection of the Stainless Steel Rat books, worth rather more for their novelty value (real paper books) than for their less than cerebral nature.
"You've got to know the mind of your enemy," he explains to Sni'ktl who sees him reading the books. The lightweight reading keeps Raid's mind occupied, and hopefully from dwelling on his own past.
After getting the equipment squared away and seeing off the last of their Edestekai allies, the Black Hand Gang congregate in the Galley and sit down to their first relatively civilized meal in almost three months. xZot, ever keen to practice his culinary skills, is overjoyed to find the fully decked out kitchen facilities in the Galley and sets to work, glad to have the distraction after a night spent in front of a computer monitor.
Frontier Date 63.013Pf +87
As the sun comes up and the group enjoys xZot's feast of fresh breakfast delights he begins an informal debriefing and assessment of the current situation.
"Given the amount of equipment we now have I think maybe the Gang should form its own Salvage Company to take advantage of the assets now in our control. A city, an outpost, two Jetcopters, an Explorer, 250,000 credits worth of ore, plus the strategic information. It's quite a haul we have here now. Our 'job' was only to gather information and establish the fate of the previous team, and the way I see it everything else we obtain should be ours." There is a general murmur of agreement around the table as GleepGlooup points out that according to standard salvage laws, they are indeed entitled to whatever they can salvage legally planetside, or even in orbit for that matter. xZot nods as he continues.
"I understand that the search for Lieutenant Colonel Louis V. Jameson and the Ruined City will take us in the direction of the Outpost. I propose the following logistical plan. First flight to the outpost, myself, Gloo, Raid and OMAC. I will return with Jag and McKilin, the medics will be needed to look after the freed prisoners. Second trip Sp'ock, Sui-Ling and Borovski are the passengers. Third trip Sni'ktl and X'anthe. Gloo will start up the generators upon arrival and supervise the replenishment of the parabatteries then stay to oversee the Outpost until our return.
Later, xZot runs his eyes over the computer screen again and again, madly bashing away at the keypad and scowling at the system's response. Finally he cracks the code and accesses the operating system of the machine, another six hours later he has managed to defeat the security protocols and goes to work trying to access the applications. He manages to successfully list all the applications and is able to access all the programs except for the Analysis and Commerce programs. xZot is interrupted eventually by GleepGlooup who informs his commander that they are ready to send the subspace message. xZot scans over his hastily prepared message.
"This is the government exploration team to Volturnus calling for planetary evacuation. The "Serena Dawn" was destroyed enroute by local hostile forces. Hostile forces have been subdued and the ship's survivors have completed the exploration mission, locating the whereabouts of several of the crew from the previous mission. Biological and Geological data collected. Repeat, Volturnus exploration team calling for planetary evacuation"
"I suggest the following additions to the call for evac." Chirps Sni'ktl over his Commander's shoulder. "I assume we can download data files with the message?"
"...locating the whereabouts of several of the crew from the previous mission (see attached medical report). The local hostiles were working with infiltrators amongst Truane's Star's mining officials (refer the downloaded conversations attached). Biological, Geological and Cultural data has been collected showing at least three peaceful cultures effectively managing rich local resources (see attached reports). Security should be established to prevent future attempts to ravage the planetary resources of these races. Repeat, Volturnus exploration team calling for planetary evacuation." With no other input forthcoming from the rest of the team, Commander xZot approves the message and all attached files for transmission.
The morning after the assault on the compound finds xZot donning his equipment to check the packing and realizes that the bulk will inhibit flexibility and his reaction times. Frowning briefly he removes the Power Backpack and stores it near the Pilot seat in the Jetcopter for later access. Familiarizing himself with the undamaged Jetcopter momentarily xZot makes has way to the armory to collect a couple more SEU clips. He loads one directly into the laser rifle and sets the weapon to 5 while stashing the other in a pocket on the newly acquired skein suit. Siu-Ling and Raid are exiting the armory as xZot approaches, each with another half dozen extra SEU clips. Borovski flatly refused to hand over the 50 clips Siu-Ling brazenly requested and sent the pair away to attend the morning briefing.
Sni'ktl dropped by the armory as well, taking six spare SEU clips, deciding to keep his laser pistol for now. He also picked up a stunstick in exchange for his nightstick and claimed the Vrusk Civilian Skein Suit, discarding his own tattered suit. He also took up three tangler grenades and three doze grenades and stowed his lifejacket in the explorer. On his way to the briefing with OMAC he turned to the newly promoted Security Chief
"Thanks for the offer of training with the needler rifle OMAC. However I think its a bit heavy for me, so I think I'll use my pistol instead," says Sni'ktl to OMAC. "It's a shame there's no doze clips." Sni'ktl muses.
Before closing up shop in the Armory, the Quartermaster equips himself with a Power Backpack instead of his Beltpack, takes five of each grenade type and adds a Laser Rifle and a Stunstick to his already formidable personal arsenal. He also discards his once favored pair of Shock Gloves. Sp'ock joins the daily gathering in briefing room, fresh from the armory where he armed himself with an assortment of grenades, he hears Commander xZot's plans for moving to the Outpost
"First Commander, may I submit the name Mawson's Rest as a more familiar title for the outpost." Sp'ock glances at the others to gauge their response to his suggestion. "Secondly it is perhaps unwise to rely to heavily on your stamina in moving personnel by jetcopter. A quick calculation will show that you would be airborne in excess of twenty one hours. Perhaps unwise." Sp'ock scritches and bobs his head in a Vr'usk show of embarrassment at correcting ones superiors. "I would suggest an alternative. GleepGlooup driving the explorer with myself, and the rest of the team to travel. The explorer can travel as fast as the copter at cruising speed, and with both travelling together we have numbers and air support. This way only one trip is required to the outpost." Sp'ock maintains perfect stillness as he waits his Commanders response.
"I see merit in your idea Sp'ock but I have looked at the map and there is some less than favorable terrain that you will need to cross. I'd have thought that travelling on the ground was more dangerous as well. Is there a track that the Pirates used? I prefer the idea of ferrying people in the jetcopter but if the explorer is viable, it will expand our arsenal and allow us to carry extra equipment and weaponry." Sni'ktl speaks up,
"xZot, perhaps we should take the explorer with us on our excursion. With Siu-Ling's Tomar's horse, the explorer and the 'copter we should be able to make faster and more comfortable headway. The explorer probably has a decent radio as well and we can relay messages via the outpost to Brucebane. I think Jag and the patients in better condition would be able to look after the outpost to stop inquisitive Kurabanda taking souvenirs away. I think we would all benefit from more rest but we don't want to leave the Commander to an uncertain future for too long. Perhaps those who need to recover most, that's Borovski, Gleep, Gloo, Crisbel and X'anthe, could rest up while the explorer goes to the outpost and they can be flown in by jetcopter to continue the journey." OMAC nods silently in agreement with Sp'ock's plan as the Vrusk X-O sketches a flight plan heading southwest from Brucebane to cross the narrowest stretch of Forest before turning due west toward the as yet un-named Outpost.
"For the time being we all could use some rest and recuperation. There are some here who need bed rest for a day or so?" Sp'ock looks a question at Sni'ktl. Turning to xZot. "Maybe Sir, you would prefer to do the first run down to pick up our team members from the outpost and drop off Gloo? As for the prisoners there, failing you convening a military tribunal to try them, we should hand them over to the Kurabanda for local justice."
"That might be a good idea. I can take Gloo to the Outpost as soon as he has been treated by Sni'ktl and is given the all clear to travel. This should give Gloo plenty of time to get everything up and running with the generators. I can bring Jag and McKilin back with me when I return. They can take over the health requirements of the freed prisoners. Gleep, have you worked out the radios? The Dralasite radio operator nods. Can you call the Outpost and let the others know our status, tell them to expect some company soon."
"Sure thing boss, consider it done."
"Sui-Ling, maybe you would like to come on the advance trip? We might need additional firepower if we are attacked enroute, and I'm sure you'd be keen to catch up with Nounouche. With the prisoners at the Outpost, I agree that we should just hand them over to the Kurabanda for punishment."
"To more mundane matters. Mr Borovski if you could see to provisioning both vehicles. I would suggest a spare power pack for each. A week's worth of food for each soldier and two weeks water. And find a place to put this thing." He slings the Robcom kit to the ground gently, then polishes the spot on his carapace where the kit had dug in and scratched it.
"I would like to make a suggestion," Raid says after hearing xZot's ideas for shipping away the salvaged ore. "The Edestekai here may have little use for the ore in their primitive economy, but it was mined by their slave labor and won in a battle that claimed the lives of a number of their people. We should make a promise that part of our profit from selling this ore should be returned in some way to the natives." Raid looks around for approval. He briefly makes eye contact with X'anthe, having noticed her impassioned interest in the freedom of the locals. "These Edestekai are intelligent. If they see us carry away all that ore, they may think little better of us than the pirates when all is said and done. We can't erase the damage that Star Devil has done here, but we can try to make amends. Today we write our own history. Let's write a good chapter." Raid's upper class academic background unconsciously affects his choice of words here. Sni'ktl is moved by Raid's concern for the indigenous peoples of Volturnus.
"I think Raid's idea of doing something for the Edestekai and the other races that have helped us here on Volturnus is absolutely vrindick. Of course we are honour bound not to interfere with their cultures. Research has shown that even simple gifts can result in unpredictable impacts on primitive cultures such as Prenglar's cargo cult phenomena in their second millennium. I would suggest a large crystal formation for the Edestekai, assorted nick knacks and jewelry for the Kurabanda (too much would insult them) and a few thousand quality ruck sacks for the Ul-Mor.
"I am not suggesting that we "rip off" the Edestekai but merely that we have certain rights to a salvage claim. I think that we should offer the Edestekai fair compensation for their labors, and particularly for their contribution to the overpowering of the pirates and our taking of Brucebane. Sni'ktl, maybe you could meet with the Edestekai to establish their feelings in this area. You understand that this is a sensitive issue, whilst employing these people may change our perceived status, it will afford the locals recognition for their toils. There maybe ongoing business opportunities for us on this planet and we need to encourage mutually beneficial partnerships where we can."
Raid makes another suggestion to xZot.
"If the Star Devil returns here while we're away, he may have some type of heavy spaceship weaponry available and could make short work of the Edestekai town if he is in a vengeful mood. We should explain this to the Edestekai and recommend that they have some sort of evacuation plan prepared so they can disappear into the hills on short notice. Also, they need to be able to recognize our own evac mission when it arrives."
"You are right Raid there is a high chance of reprisal from the Pirates. Sni'ktl can you discuss these issues with the Edestekai as well? I'm sure that it will help us defend the City from further Pirate activity if we can count on the local to keep us informed of the comings and goings in the area."
"Sergeant Corp!" Mr Sp'ock calls out to OMAC "Front and center!" Sp'ock irritably taps three feet as the human tears himself away from a forlorn examination of his Recoilless. "I was able to wander from one part of this compound to the other and at no time did I even suspect that there was any security here at all. You will set sentries both static and mobile and report back to me within ten time units." He clicks excitedly, his fighting mandibles clash briefly. "Until I can get the robots up and running for us we are wide open. All personnel can check the duty rosters via chronocom at this frequency..."
"Aye aye" the Security Chief answers, heading off to oversee the X-O's duty roster. Sp'ock heads off to the robots workshop to get to work reprogramming the combat robots to attack anybody wearing a star devil insignia, or tattoo. Before Gleep transmits the subspace message Sp'ock hands him a Notepad (TM) with a letter to home.
"Family. Subclan Mann'Tiss. This is to notify you of a recent occurrence: To wit my recent field promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, requires assumption of the clan name. This is to facilitate human military protocols."
Mann'Tiss Sp'ock out.
Later, after the group discussion in the Galley, Borovski approaches his commander and Sni'ktl
"So what's with this Interstellar Truckin' Company thing?" he says "I've heard about those sheisters! This solar system one week, another solar system the next! I'm not having my valuables loaded on a freighter to a black hole in the middle of nowhere!"
"Regarding the freight options, I am happy if Mr Borovski would like to seek alternative quotes for haulage" says Sni'ktl. "We live in a free market and it can only benefit us to have a range of options. However, we need to be careful to avoid the Truane's Star system in our dealings since we know the Star Devils are working with some faction their. I'm afraid my knowledge of business and trading law is very limited and I have been unable to research these subjects to be able to speak from any level of assurance on these issues."
Everyone is expressing their grief at Mr Mawson's passing in their own way. Fortunately the distraction of a new mission prevents anyone from dwelling too much on the past and all team members are fit for duty. The rescued prisoners are in the capable care of McKilin and Jag and all are showing good signs of recovery.
End Medical Log
Frontier Date 63.011Pf +89
Over the course of two days, Sni'ktl sees Gloo twice to tend his wounds with first aid and Crisbel, GleepGlooup and Borovski once
"I know it's slower than surgery, but we have the time and we don't want to waste any biocort."
After reading the first of the Star Devil's favourite books, 'The Stainless Steel Rat', Raid surmises what the man's personality could be like.
"He will probably surround himself with idiots that he can feel superior to and easily command at the same time. A very self-centred, amoral, and power hungry individual. Watch out for his girlfriend though, if he has one." Raid shares his findings with Sni'ktl, the team's psychologist.
"Having seen Raid's summary of the books the Star Devil was reading I agree we need to be very cautious of his girlfriend." confirms Sni'ktl. After a brief rest xZot begins work on repairing the partially disabled jetcopter while he awaits further information as to when all is in order for the journey to the Outpost.
During the days of rest, Sni'ktl takes an interest in the Star Devil Captain. His fictional hero was always one for using hi tech gimmicks. Remembering Raid's description of how he reacted to doze gas Sni'ktl suspects he may have implants. He considers exhuming the remains of his corpse to scan and dissect it, looking for any bionics, however one look at the Edestekai's ritual execution pit and the Quickdeath's contained therein convinces Sni'ktl there is very little left to dissect. He does take the pirates shield to the lab and runs the geoscanner over it to see if it has any interesting properties. He also looks out for any technical devices and takes it to a technician for further investigation but the shield turns out to be nothing more than what it looks like.
Sp'ock is able to reprogram the Mark Four Combat Robot and add it to the security roster at Brucebane but not without some hiccups. The job takes him almost three days before he is satisfied that the robot will perform as per his new specs. Sni'ktl spends quite a bit of his time with the Edestekai Priests after Jag and McKilin rejoin the team, freeing Sni'ktl up from most of the medical duties. By the time xZot is ready to head off to the Outpost about the only thing Sni'ktl is sure of is that he isn't getting his message across effectively to the Edestekai. The Edestekai don't yet seem capable of grasping the concept of Capitalism, their entire culture being so steeped in religious tradition. Undeterred the Vrusk is determined to continue at his efforts as soon as the team arrives back from scouting the Ruined City.
Three days after the capture of Brucebane, xZot gives the order to move out. Raid and OMAC pile into the Jetcopter with xZot once again at the helm having already transferred Gloo to the Outpost and returning Jag and McKilin to Brucebane. xZot's brief side trip to the Kurabanda village with the pirate prisoners from the outpost was very well received and took all of xZot's limited diplomatic skills to extricate himself from another round of feasts.
The Explorer with GleepGlooup at the wheel, Sp'ock in the cabin beside him and Siu-Ling, X'anthe, Borovski and Sni'ktl pull out of the compound first then xZot takes to the skies, using his vantage point to direct the explorer around obvious obstacles or along roller paths over the grass shard plains. Navigating the forests is little bit trickier but certainly much easier with the overhead directions. Even so it's tough going with a bit of backtracking and ends up taking almost 10 hours to drive from Brucebane to the Outpost. During the flight, xZot spotted another of the floating masses of vines and judiciously avoided crossing it's flight path, directing the Explorer around as well.
From the ground, the squad in the Explorer spy several different species of small mammals and birds but nothing that could be considered dangerous and the patrol arrives at the Outpost without incident. Sp'ock sets about a quick check up of the Combat robot at the outpost while Gloo and xZot see to recharging the Jetcopter. The rest of the team hit the kitchen and bunks respectively in preparation for the journey down the Canal to the Ruined City in search of a Pool of Pure Water.
"Hmm Pool of Pure Water hey?" Borovski exclaims "I've been carrying this fuckin' Life Jacket through the desert for the last three months..." he mutters, shaking his head "Bet your ass it's only ankle deep! Aah well you can still drown someone in a teaspoon of water if you really want to."
Frontier Date 63.010Pf +90
The next morning the team are heading off once more into the desert of Volturnus, only this time they are well stocked with food, water, weapons and ammunition as they continue their search for the Messengers of the Gods. The drive from the Outpost along the edge of the canal takes about four hours with the Jetcopter frequently ranging out in front, scouting the terrain ahead and Siu-Ling once again mounted on her beloved Nounouche.
As the vehicles approach the Ruined City, xZot does a quick circuit around less damaged structures looking for the Pool of Pure Water. He soon spies a precinct near the center of the amazing ruins that fits the Edestekai description before deciding which way to approach from.
Sick of looking at the scoured mark on Sp'ock carapace, Borovski fossicks around in the bottom of his pack and liberates a parcel of body wax that he had acquired months ago on the "Serena Dawn"".
"Here, have this" he says as he hands the lump of wax to the new X-O. "Hmmm, better put this on as well" he says to himself as he pulls out the Military Skiensuit he had packed into the bottom of his pack. Sp'ock accepts the body wax with a near orgasmic smile. To most species this can be a very off putting sight.
"Your consideration stands you in good stead. It is desired that I have the chance to repay in kind." Sp'ock bows formally in acknowledgement of this gift. Then at the first opportunity, gives his carapace a thorough clean up. After ensuring such a job can be done with half of the wax he offers the other half to Sni'ktl. "I know that you have suffered repeated scratch marks from tusks etc. Perhaps this may in some way assist?"
Bumping along in the explorer, Sni'ktl sets aside his Notepad having caught up on his paperwork. He had noted the slight green flush in Sp'ock's carapace that indicated irritation at his suggested renaming of the outpost not being immediately acted on. Sni'ktl finally got round to updating the environmental record to name the place "Mawson's Rest".
As the squad in the explorer close on the city from the desert to the north east, Borovski leans forward from the passenger compartment elongating his upper body into the forward compartment of the vehicle.
"Take us into the drive thru" he smiles, pointing towards the Pyramid like building "I'm hangin' out for a cheeseburger flavored nutrient bar." As the explorer approaches the ruins Sni'ktl exclaims
"My word! The architecture reminds me of those tetra models we used to use to test spatial skills amongst young drones. I wouldn't mind a peek in one of those buildings and a chance to sample the construction materials." Sni'ktl scritches several times as he ponders glimpses of the pool from a distance. "Tk tk tk, for a deserted place it is highly irregular that the pool water be as clear as that. Natural processes should result in eutrophication and major algal growth. What do you think X'anthe, an ecological conundrum?"
Sp'ock's attention is briefly distracted from his survey of the ruins. The similarity to the children's models slides home smoothly. Once again Sp'ock is impressed by the CMO's observation skills. By touch he confirms the laser rifles setting at extreme overkill.
"Your desire to explore these constructs will be met in their time." Sp'ock makes a sharp gesture towards the buildings, "For now we need your eyes to regard possible threats, and your mind to be focused." As they draw abreast the first building Sp'ock indicates that Borovski should stop, then toggles open a channel to xZot saying, "I believe we should check every building leading up to the pool, unless you would prefer a more thorough search done? Either way we should begin here."
With his face glued to the explorer's window, Sni'ktl begins a coarse analysis of the ecosystems around the ruins to establish if they are conducive with natural regeneration or if there are signs of active intervention in vegetation and water management.
"I wonder if this place is being reclaimed by nature or is there a gardener in the house?" muses Sni'ktl.
Circling the ruins xZot marvels at what once must have been a spectacular sight. He sets the jetcopter down in an open area and, with his passengers, makes his way to where the Explorer has parked.
"I'll scout out ahead anywhere you need xZot. This holoscreen can drain a lot of SEU fast if it gets left on continuously, so I'll just use it in short spurts of around 2-5 minutes each as needed." Raid makes sure the screen is plugged into his power backpack to be ready when needed. He double-checks his envirokit, hoping that a chance to do some research will arise, then makes sure a full power clip is loaded into each energy powered weapon he has. His right hand grasps the machete. It should prove useful in clearing paths in any vegetation that may have grown up around the ruins.
Once approval is received Sp'ock will indicate Sni'ktl, X'anthe, and Borovski should accompany him.
"Siu Ling, if you would stay with GleepGlooup and safeguard the vehicle. We will limit our time in this building to one hour, we will check in every ten minutes. Sni'ktl, X'anthe, what gear do you need?"
"I carry all I need, noble Mann'Tiss" replies Sni'ktl, using formal honorific by way of thanking Sp'ock for the wax that has brought out the vermilion in Sni'ktl's carapace. The Vrusk briefly scans the entranceway to the building for tracks or signs of habitation. He nervously clicks his laser pistol setting to 10 and holds a tangler grenade ready in his left hand.
Borovski dismounts from the Explorer, laser rifle at the ready and scans the surrounding ruins for any sign of trouble while he waits for the Jetcopter to land.
"Are we shooting people today?" he asks no one in particular.
xZot listens to the now well oiled group preparing to enter the ruins and signals agreement with Sp'ock plans. Taking up his position xZot unslings his rifle and checks the setting, then activating his albedo screen he gives the signal to move in. With the two scientists ready Sp'ock waves Borovski forward, following close on his psuedoheels, rifle at ready.
"This could be the shoot things bit Borovski. Aim straight, shoot to inconvenience with extreme prejudice." Sp'ock thinks to himself that this ancient Dralasite battle cry while lacking in dramatic punch, does have a very definite Dralasite feel.
Raid completes a quick circuit of the pyramid shaped building then reports back to xZot and Sp'ock, unable to find an entrance the team turns their attention to the crystalline structure west of the roadway their explorer is parked on. Raid, under cover of his Holoscreen approaches the western entrance to the vine covered building. Peering cautiously into the gloom, the human scout enters the building with Borovski and Sp'ock covering his approach, Sni'ktl and X'anthe not far behind.
Seconds after disappearing through the doorway a startled cry emerges from the building followed by the sound of something thrashing around in undergrowth. Sp'ock and Borovski rush to the doorway to see a cluster of ivy like vines writhing around what can only be the Holoscreened form of Raid. As the scout stepped through the doorway the vines suddenly burst to life, entangling the hapless human and quickly scratching exposed skin with several sharp thorns. Before he can even shout a warning, Raid succumbs to the sudden drowsy feeling overcoming him..
"Damn." Sp'ock fires at the vines around Raid, not those directly wrapped round him, but not far off either. "Sni'ktl see if a doze grenade will affect this thing." Sp'ock calls after assessing the usefulness of the initial laser fire. "Belay that order! Get in there and wake up our intrepid adventurer!" The new X-O continues when he realizes that the blast from his laser rifle has succeeded in releasing the team's scout. "Time to trim the rose bush." He mutters to himself as Sni'ktl runs to the vines enveloping Raid, Sni'ktl calls out
"Follow Raid's route in and attack the main stems leading to Raid, and do try and desist from using gaussian shock weapons. I don't like my fried veggies contaminated by sautéed Raid." Wishing he had a machete Sni'ktl stops a meter from the vines on Raid's left. Seeing one thick vine straining at an angle to remain attached to its root node Sni'ktl positions himself then spying Raid's machete lying nearby crouches and hacks the primary stem before applying a hypo of Stimdose to revive the unconscious Human.
xZot chuckles briefly when he hears Sni'ktl's 'fried veggies' quip. Then, recalling a couple of his classic Vine Leaf special dishes, he remembers that vine product can be a very useful culinary component. Concern for Raid's well being, and as well as his culinary curiosity, spurs xZot into action. Determined to get a closer look he moves toward the ruins
"I don't think Doze will be that effective against this if it is a plant type creature. The ol' hack and slash, or a good herbicide, are probably the only things that are going to do any good" he calls into his Com "Watch out for Raid though, one slip with the machete and instead of fried veggies we might have fillet o'Raid!" Muttering to himself "Even the vines have attitude on this planet" xZot moves closer to the action.
"Shoot! We can't all fit in there! Maybe the vines root system is outside, vines tend to climb." With this thought firmly in mind, X'anthe checks carefully around the outside of the building checking for a similar vine or root structure on the outside of the building being, careful not to become another victim. Most of the buildings are covered with vines. X'anthe quickly concludes that the species of vine that attacked Raid has most likely evolved from the more common and apparently harmless species of vines seen on the other buildings.
Sni'ktl quickly points out that the vines around Raid bear a distinctly unique fruit shape and colouring. The Environmentalists quickly harvest several samples of the fruit as well as a length of vine with the hollow thorn that injected Raid with the knock out poison for later study. As the Environmental Officers ply their trade Commander xZot wonders out loud
"Maybe the Geoscanners will reveal if there is anything inside the pyramid that warrants our attention?"
OMAC has meanwhile moved up to a position at the crossroads near Siu-Ling from where he can cover team members with the Recoilless Rifle. He also orders Gleep to move the Explorer into the desert to cover the Jetcopter and landing area in any event of trouble. Borovski remains outside the first building covering the doorway as Raid, followed by Sp'ock then Sni'ktl, X'anthe and xZot enter the building to conduct a thorough search.
No sooner do they enter the structure, when a swarm of angry, 10 centimeter long, flying insect come buzzing out of the vines above the doorway attacking the search team. X'anthe is the first to react, instinctively drawing her pistol and firing twice. The second shot tears off the wing of her attacker and sending it to the floor. Raid, Sni'ktl and xZot all manage to avoid being stung but Sp'ock takes barb at the base of his antennae, it's only a light scratch but the poison stings (6 points). Mr Sp'ock swats at the insect, knocking it off it's perch as Raids chops one in half with his machete, Sni'ktl zaps one with his stunstick and xZot flails uselessly with his.
Before the insect can swoop again at xZot, Raid dispatches it with his machete and the Environmental Officers swoop on the injured insects with specimen bags.
Stumbling around the interior of the building, still swearing to himself about yet another aspect of Volturnus that likes to eat tourists, xZot kicks aside a matting of dead vegetation on the floor and stops cold.
"Well looky here boys" the Commander smiles to himself "Right under our noses!" There below the camouflaged floor a rough stairway descends in the darkness. X'anthe, Sni'ktl and Raid all study the area surrounding the subterranean entrance then Sni'ktl confirms their bosses suspicion.
"Yes, yes! Looks like I have the tracks of a large biped with a tail over here. See the telltale swish of the tail?" Sni'ktl points out to his companions as he scritches excitedly.
Commander xZot turns toward Raid who is already flicking the switch on his Holoscreen. Raid flicks on the flashlight in his left hand and with his trusty machete in his right, descends into the underground complex as xZot ponders his troop deployments.
"...and medical and psychological follow up indicates that Raid shows no long term side effects of the poisons and Sp'ock's poison was effectively neutralized with Antitox."
"...SNI'KTL, SHUT IT..."
"End medical log."
As he entered the underground passageways, Raid noted that they appear to be old and decaying, with lichen and fungus growing on the walls.
Bizarre abstract crystal sculptures are scattered through the corridor. After walking a short distance, Raid comes to a large dilapidated room filled with strange crystals. Some of the crystals are fused or joined together in some way he does not immediately understand.
The room is 30 meters square and here are two doorways exiting the room, one in the center of the south wall, the other in the west wall.
Raid walks softly back into the passageway and cautiously keeps his distance from the crystals.
"I'm observing large crystalline growths down here along with minor lichen and fungal activity." His whispered voice transmits crisply via chronocom. "There is a large room at the end of the passage with two more exits. Right now I'm about to analyze some samples. It should be safe to come down." Raid deactivates the holoscreen and pulls out his envirokit. He runs small samples of the lichens and fungus, scraped off with the tip of his machete, through the bioscanner first. Next he finds the smallest crystal formation in the passage, a small chunk of crystal that is already broken off and examines it with the geoscanner. He sets the flashlight on the ground during these procedures. Finally, he examines a sample of the stone floor of the passageway itself. Raid reports all his findings. None of the results are particularly surprising the lichens and fungi appear benign and the granite and quartz are also quickly classified with his geoscanner.
Sp'ock listens as the group spreads out from the entrance into the building proper. The chatter of the environmentalists' washes over him ignored in the needs of the now. No sound other that Raid's almost manic delight over the anomalous crystal formations. Sp'ock wonders how the crystal grew here? Further concern is given to the energy requirements of a plant as mobile as the creeper that had attacked in the door? Questions for later.
xZot listens intently to Raid's observations as he makes his way down the corridor with the others. He briefly marvels at the crystal structures but moves aside to allow the Environmentalist room to continue his scans. Moving to the south door first then the west, xZot listens intently, straining to hear any noises from the other side that may be audible. He checks for any sign the either door has been opened recently and if there are any types of locking mechanisms or alarms present. Removing his goggles xZot scans the roof of the room for any nasties that may be lurking above. The commander satisfies himself that there is no immediate danger as the other team members file into the room and xZot takes his position, indicating to his Security Chief to try to open the west door first.
Sni'ktl tries to pick up the trail of the Loperoo's tail (that's also a tongue twister in Vrusk) to see which exit it headed for but there is no trace of any clues. As people gather to consider options Sni'ktl looks over the fused joints in the crystalline structure and Raid's geoscan findings to see if he can make any sense of the crystalline alien sculpture, or is it something more?
"X'anthe what do you make of this..." Some of the crystals appear to grow out of the floor others are merely setting on the surface of the floor. On closer examination the walls and floor appear cut from the bedrock. Several of the crystals are opaque whilst others are transparent when light from a torch is shined through them.
Tension and anticipation sit heavily in the room as everyone waits for the inevitable hostile response that has become synonymous with this planet. After motioning to the others to get into position and preparing for the west door's opening, xZot gives the signal and peers through the doorway as the door is moved.
"They get ever so excited opening doors and it usually ends up with someone getting hurt" muses Sni'ktl as he hurries to complete his investigation of the crystalline structure. Sni'ktl remains in the place OMAC would refer to as the "Safe Zone" examining crystals. He had never got the hang of this military speak and body talk and wondered how much of it is military efficiency and how much is part of a butch pose. As the door opens Sni'ktl's hand reaches for his med-kit in what has become a Pavlovian response for the CMO.
In the Vr'usk fashion Sp'ock lets all of his voluntary muscles fall into a relaxed state. Thus prepared he is ready to move in any direction without the inevitable fright response noticeable in humans, or the inevitable head butt response of the Yazirians. Best not to even think of what a Dralasite does when surprised.
The motioning of xZot's hand towards the west door sends Sp'ock there so fast that a casual observer would have thought it was his idea in the first place. Although most observers thus far encountered have been anything but casual. Once Borovski and Raid arrive in position Sp'ock will wave them through, following and clearing the doorway as soon as possible.
Beyond the doorway a corridor extends into the darkness at least 30 metres ahead but before the team can head down the corridor Sni'ktl begins to notice unusual behaviour from several team members.
"Something's not right here," he says "I sense an unusual vibration..." The Chief Medical Officer's Vrusk mind is working overtime as events unfold around him.
Commander xZot flicks on his chronocom and hails OMAC
"Keeping you, Siu-Ling and Gloo up to date will become increasingly difficult as the Com signal will be affected by the ground and buildings around us as we move deeper into this passage. I don't think we need that much security at the Explorer anyway. We should all be down here together. If you concur will you arrange this?"
Up on the surface Siu-Ling turns to OMAC and Gleep, fidgeting with the SEU setting on her Star Devil issued laser rifle. With her left foot etching a human alphabetical character on the red, silty, Volturnus earth, she tilts her head, squints her eyes beyond their natural squint, and shyly asks,
"Hey, listen, guys, do you mind if I go in there and back them up? I have the slightest tingle telling me they might need an extra two shots of laser wrath every six seconds or so."
OMAC nods silently, his eyes scanning the area around the vehicles for the slightest hint of trouble.
"I think the sarge and I will be alright Siu-Ling, you go right ahead" answers GleepGlooup. The Dralasite Tech watches OMAC as Siu-Ling heads toward the entrance to the underground complex. The sergeants eyes following Siu-Ling's lithe form as she leaves bring a spicy scent of humor from the Dralasites pores but the effect is lost on the human male.
"Are any of those lichens, you think, edible by Tomar's horses?" Siu-Ling asks Raid via chronocom. "Maybe we could bring Nounouche back some treats. Hmm! My baby!"
Realizing that Gleep had been watching him, OMAC grunts at the Tech
"Cover the vehicles, I'm going to join the search team." He hefts his Recoilless Rifle and struggles along with his load in Siu-Ling's wake.
Several meters below the surface, the situation takes an unexpected turn.
"Sni'ktl, are you sure there were no long term side effects from that vine's knockout defence toxin? I'm suddenly feeling a little bit under the weather." Raid puts his hand on his abdomen and groans. "Or maybe it's just those pirate rations we've been eating."
Sni'ktl goes back over Raid's medical readouts but cannot find anything out of the ordinary. He toys with the hypothesis that the poison from the vines has somehow reacted in Raid's body making it more resistant to antitox than the poison in Sp'ock's Vrusk system. There is also the possibility that the fungus Raid mentioned may have infected him during handling or by spores in the air. This would fit with his nagging intuition that other members of the team are behaving a bit oddly. Never one to take risks, Sni'ktl calls Raid over for a follow up examination and checks him for toxins, diseases or infections.
The door is opened and xZot peers down the passage briefly. Recognizing a slight difference is a couple of his lead team members composure, xZot quickly motions for everyone to hold there position. He turns to his chief medical officer for his input but in true Vrusk fashion, he is already working on it with a whirring and clicking that are indicative of Sni'ktl's mental mumblings.
"I suspect we may be encountering some environmental risks in this area. Until we know what's going on here, I suggest everyone with gas masks put them on" Sni'ktl reports into his chronocom. "X'anthe, any ideas on what could be causing this?" X'anthe slowly looks around.
"What do I think of what? Oh the crystals" X'anthe slowly wonders over to take a closer inspection. "X'anthe this, X'anthe that. Its always something for me to do why can't they just do it themselves!" she mumbles to herself morosely but just loud enough to be heard. "I probably won't be able to f'ing well tell anything you cant f'ing well figure out for yourselves any f'ing way"
Borovski is also becoming quite agitated, fingering the trigger of his laser rifle and eyeing Sp'ock's back.
"Unusual vibration, hmm? Well, I've been accused of a lot of things, but never that," Siu-Ling calls out as she emerges from the shadow of the doorway, holding her hands up as soon as a few of her startled team mates reflexively draw their weapons on the suspected intruder during this tense moment.
"Sorry, is this a bad time?" she whispers. "Are we in the deep doo-doos already?" she cringes. OMAC arrives at Siu-Ling's side about to complain about the delay putting his scout back in the field when Sni'ktl shows him the results.
"Can you make any more sense of this than me? I'm not buying that Raid ate something funny last night."
"Stay away from me!" Borovski's raised voice calls out to Sp'ock. Whirling around at the inflection in Borovski's voice, xZot sees Borovski leveling his laser rifle at the Security Chief. "I saw your holo screen shimmer!" he continues, pointing an accusing pseudo digit at the Vrusk officer. "You're a spy! Worse, you're a worm!"
xZot, and the rest of the team are caught off guard by the sudden change in demeanor of their comrade. Borovski seems to be rapidly verging on hysteria, waving his weapon around dangerously.
"We should kill him," Borovski yells "He's Sathar!"
Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Sp'ock suddenly reacts with lightning reflexes, waiting until Borovski has his laser rifle pointed toward the roof of the chamber Sp'ock dashes forward. Borovski glances away for a split second, just long enough for Sp'ock to apply an extremely effective nerve pinch that sends the Dralasite crumpling unconscious to the floor.
"OK what is going on here?" xZot asks his medical team as they immediately get to work checking all of Borovski's vital signs as well as Raid and the increasingly difficult X'anthe. Both OMAC and Sni'ktl conclude that none of the team are suffering from any unusual physical effects, all their readings are consistent with baseline recordings and well within racial tolerances.
"Well if we've ruled out the physical..." OMAC leaves the question hanging as he turns to the squads' chief surgeon.
Sni'ktl begins a detailed comparison of Borovski's brain waves with the Medscanner. He clicks quickly to himself then compares both Raid and X'anthe's brain scans.
"Well the results are different for each individual but they are all being affected by something, that's certain. Give me a few minutes with each of them alone and let me see what we can do to treat this here and now." After the expected begrudging comments are dealt with from the security officers Sni'ktl takes aside first X'anthe.
Several minutes later the ebony skinned female rejoins the team with Sni'ktl's blessing as he takes aside Raid. Shortly after Sni'ktl uses a dose of Stimdose to revive Borovski, now restrained to prevent him from harming any one else and the Vrusk performs his magic once more before reporting back to Commander xZot.
"I'm confident that both X'anthe and Borovski should both be able to continue the mission. My Psycho-Pathology treatment has restored their normal brain wave patterns although I will keep them under close observation for several days. Raid I'm not so sure about, I haven't been able to restore normal brain wave activity however his symptoms do appear debilitating although they appear to cause him some discomfort. Physically however there is nothing wrong with." The physician gives typically Vrusk shrug and returns to his notes, clicking and scritching away to himself. "I recommend that Raid be moved back in the marching order just in case."
The Commander nods as he receives Sni'ktl's report then signals to Sp'ock that he is ready to continue. Reforming into position to proceed through the open door, xZot checks that Sp'ock concurs with the arrangements.
"Raid your up front, Boro and Sp'ock next, Siu-Ling and OMAC, then X'anthe and myself, Sni'ktl brings up the rear." xZot counts off as he indicates the positions. Giving the signal to proceed, he reactivates his Albedo screen but grabs his Stunstick as he shoulders his rifle.
Trying to fight the strange nausea that has stricken him, Raid moves toward the passage. His flashlight beam cuts through the darkness as he searches for any security systems that may lie in wait ahead. Raid steadies himself against the wall momentarily during a dizzy spell before proceeding further. Still grumbling about pains in his stomach, Raid eases through the doorway and heads as quietly as possible down the corridor running west behind the doorway. In the light of his torch he pushes westward fifty meters before the passageway turns south for another forty meters and ends in a doorway. Cautiously approaching the portal, Raid listens for signs of activity and quickly scans the area for security devices before gently pushing open the old swinging door and entering the room beyond. This 20 meter by 30 meter chamber contains a large number of weirdly shaped crystals.
Behind Raid, further up the corridor Siu-Ling nervously fingers her laser rifle trigger as she chats quietly to herself
"Yeah, I remember when I had my first Prenglar ale," Siu-Ling comments, perplexed, but not surprised by the typically Dralasite unpredictability of Borovski's behavior. "The idster's losin' it," Siu-Ling's soft voice is barely heard over the Dralasite's accusation. "How long's id been like that? Maybe it's one of those mind control juju doodads that the Sathar use on decent folks." Ms. Siu-Ling d'Avignon demolitionist and markswoman, looks at her surroundings, searching for any technology that could be identified as such.
Making his way up the passage xZot reminds his team that, in confined spaces like these, undisciplined laser fire could be more dangerous to us than our foe
"Glad you could join us OMAC. Since you insist on hauling that huge rifle around I thought maybe you might like to step up into the front row? I'm not one to tell you how to do your job, but I am glad I'm standing behind you! Only kidding, but remember where the rest of us are standing if you discharge that thing. Raid has got enough to concentrate on without worrying about being shot by the rest of us."
"Since OMAC and I are going in the middle, I suggest all other duck when shooting. I should say, if shooting at anything. That'll give us better clearance and greater offensive capacity in case we need to eradicate anything before it gets too close," the human wielding the laser rifle suggests, looking mostly at xZot for approval.
As the jagged crystals create a kaleidoscope of refractions from the flickering flashlight beams, Sni'ktl cannot keep from musing on their origins. Are they natural growths post dating the civilization that lived here or are they an integral part of the structure that the Black Hand Gang are now exploring and if so what was their original purpose. Perhaps they are some form of security system. Given previous experiences on Volturnus, Sni'ktl would not be surprised if the crystals were a kind of neuro-synaptic amplifier that invades the minds of intruders as those intruders invade the space of the crystals' creators.
"I may not feel great, but I can still do my job." Raid turns off his flashlight, relying on the light from the rest of the group, and makes sure the holoscreen is activated. "I'll do a quick recon around the room," he whispers. "So keep your lights shining. And don't forget that we want to make non-violent contact a priority, watch those itchy trigger fingers." Raid moves silently around and between the crystals, exploring the edges of the room, then returns with his findings. He is careful to not disturb anything he sees. Upon rejoining the others, he deactivates the holoscreen to conserve energy.
As the team stops to explore the cavern, Sni'ktl takes a moment to center his thoughts and attune his inner senses. He clears his aureoles with a loud belch before using self hypnosis to quickly settle into the Vrusk meditative state. Exploring the mental landscape he recalls from mind contact with the Ul-Mor he notes some interesting ego boundaries that have developed since he was last here, notably his concept of "One" has become significantly more selfish. He tentatively explores the adjacent mental spaces looking for any signs of an external psychic signal that could explain the behavioral anomalies of his team mates. He returns to the external reality of the cavern surprisingly refreshed and with a sense of deja vu as the team ponders the uncertainties of where they are and where they are going.
Once the area is declared safe, Raid begins analyzing more crystal samples with the geoscanner along with floor and also takes some wall samples. He fights back against his nausea with trained concentration and a steady hand. As the samples from the room are being studied xZot approaches Sni'ktl
"Is there anything you can do for Raid? He's not looking too good. A bit of hypnosis or something? Apart from being the scout he needs to be able to concentrate on the environmental scans." xZot's concern is quickly disguised in a typically rough Yazirian way. He continues "Do you think the crystals are causing this? Maybe some strange harmonic resonance somehow channeled or amplified through the crystals? Or, hang on a minute, you didn't treat him with any of your mushies did you?!" flashing a grin "I know you've got some stashed there somewhere."
As Raid is examining one of the crystalline shapes a high pitched blast of sound suddenly tears through his body. His torso aches as though he has been blasted by a Sonic Disruptor at point blank range. The force of the attack knocks Raid to the ground and he cries out in pain (29 points). Across the room OMAC is taken by a similar sonic blast from another direction (36 points) and is hurled against the wall.
xZot reacts instinctively, lashing out with his stunstick at the crystal formation Raid had been studying. Not entirely sure how he knew where the blast came from, xZot could only smile smugly as his blow landed but produced very little tangible effect (10 points).
"The crystal's! Go for the crystals!" xZot calls out to his troops.
Following his commander's lead, Mr Sp'ock jam's his blaster rifle into his shoulder and fires a 10 SEU blast into the same formation (32 points) and is rewarded with the shattering of one of the crystal branches. Sni'ktl dashes forward to lend assistance to Raid as Siu-Ling and Borovski lay down covering fire for OMAC. Borovski punches a hole through the second crystal formation (30 points) with his second laser beam and Siu-Ling scores a hit as well (18 points). Wounded though he is, OMAC raises himself up and fires a shell from his Recoilless at his attacker but the round goes high and wide, failing to even arm at such short range and the shell is buried harmlessly in the roof. X'anthe lends some fire support to Raid, squeezing off a couple of quick shots with her pistol and chipping the first crystal structure (6 points). Shaking off the shock of the unexpected attack, Raid draws his blaster and fires through the haze of pain at the alien crystal. His second beam tears away another chunk of crystal (22 points) but at such close proximity to the crystal there is no mistaking the build up of a high pitched whine as the crystals charge up for a second blast...
Siu-Ling's mind automatically switches to tactical mode, a sign her training has been paying off. Keeping the SEU settings on her laser rifle and focusing on one target at a time, Siu-Ling fires two more beams of supercharged light into the crystal sentry chipping off several smaller fragments (23 points). Borovski adds his firepower to Siu-Ling's defensive fire screen, blowing a sizeable chunk out of the wall before he blasts another piece from Siu-Ling's target (27 points).
Raid jumps up and limps painfully back out through the doorway, reactivating the holoscreen as fast as his fingers can find the switch. Raid's evasive maneuver almost certainly saved his life as a second sonic blast is discharged by the crystal at the area he so recently vacated. Sni'ktl stops himself in mid dash and waits for Raid to exit just outside the doorway and out of Siu-Ling and Borovski's line of fire. Seeing that Raid needs free hands, Sni'ktl relieves him of his geoscanner before he drops it. As Raid becomes a blur of holo-light Sni'ktl steps up to the wall beside the door and begins analyzing the readings Raid had been taking as he was attacked. In particular Sni'ktl seeks confirmation of his suspicions about the best means of fighting these crystalline sentinels.
"Keep a safe distance!" Raid yells as he retreats at his fastest limping sprint, holstering his laser pistol. "I think these things are deadlier at close ranges! Almost blew my eardrums!" X'anthe squeezes off a couple of quick shots in the general direction of the chaos before moving back up the passageway to make room for her retreating comrades.
After firing of the reflexive burst from his laser rifle Sp'ock grabs the shoulder of the disorientated OMAC and assists him from the room. Cursing silently to himself, the wounded warrior flicks the switch on his Sonic Screen after thinking that particular horse has already bolted. It hadn't, another sonic blast directed at the human soldier is negated by the effect of his hush screen. Shrugging off the Security Chief's helping claws, OMAC takes up a position in the corridor out of the firing line and ignoring his wounds, sets about reloading his Recoilless Rifle.
"Oh, sheesh, the recoilless rifle," mumbles Siu-Ling as she methodically takes shots at crystal after crystal, reprimanding herself during the occasional miss. "You think SEU clips grow on shrubs?" her superego asks her rhetorically as she steadies her aim and squeezes, her defined tendons gripping the laser rifle with notable familiarity. Watching OMAC out of the corner of her eye, she catches a peripheral glance at the handsome projectile weapon as she covers her secretly coveted partner with laser blasts at their closest targets.
With half his team injured or caring for them, xZot decides that discretion is definitely the better part of valor and moves to join his team back in the corridor. Upon reaching a good firing position behind Siu-Ling and Borovski, Raid draws his gyrojet pistol and sends a stream of miniature rockets toward his attacker but his injuries are definitely impairing his aim and none of the shells find their target.
As gyrojet fire whizzes out of apparently empty space through the doorway, Sni'ktl is pleased to see that his fellow enviro-scout is already making more immediate tests of his hypotheses.
"Raid looks, erm correction, seems OK to me boss" reports Sni'ktl. "Raid's examination of the crystals suggests that energy weapons are inefficient, I suggest you try percussive weapons and keep a good distance."
"Clear the room. We can deal with these things with a fragmentation grenade!" Once clear of the crystals, Sp'ock scritches with annoyance. "We have underestimated the defence capacity of the builders again. With no active power source and no discernible detection devices, we still run into active organic and crystalline defences. Our own overconfidence in our technology has almost got some of us killed." He primes a grenade and throws it into the empty room. "We would be advised to proceed with more caution." Sp'ock's grenade is pitched too long and to the left exploding harmlessly at the back of the room as the rest of the team dive for cover from the shrapnel. Pulling a second grenade from his belt Sp'ock says,
"Wait here. I will see how effective this has been." Sp'ock crosses himself in the Vr'usk fashion, which in human society is likely to get your face slapped, so rarely seen by humans. He steps to the corner of the corridor and lobs the second grenade directly at the crystal shot by Raid, Siu-Ling and Borovski. The grenade explodes, tearing away more pieces from the crystal structure (36 points) but the offensive capability is obviously still operational as a third sonic blast is fired, this time at Sp'ock but he manages to avoid the attack. As the Vrusk officer skitters back through the doorway Siu-Ling and Borovski both see the second crystal fire at Sp'ock, only this time they actually see the attack, it's a laser beam not a sonic blast.
The laser beam misses Sp'ock, cutting into the wall near his head but the sudden change of attack mode seems to rattle Siu-Ling as both her return blasts miss. Borovski, on the other pseudo-hand, seems to have become more focused and aggressive. His first blast smashes the remainder of the grenade blasted crystal into tiny slivers (24 points) then swinging around to the second crystal, he slices off another chunk with his rifle still set on maximum power (26 points).
Angry at having let himself get ambushed by a lump of rock, OMAC shoulders his way through the doorway, swings his Recoilless Rifle around to bear on his attacker and pulls the trigger. The resulting blast (54 points) completely destroys his target and fills the room with a cloud of smoke and pulverized rocks and crystal.
Raid and OMAC both slump to the ground when the adrenaline rush from the attack quickly wears off. xZot gazes around almost glassy eyed at his companions then realizes he is still clutching his stunstick. Sni'ktl is busily taking readings from Raid's geoscanner while X'anthe takes her own readings to compare and contrast with the other environmentalists during their regular science briefings. Sp'ock, Siu-Ling and Borovski move into the room once more to inspect their handiwork and check for other threats.
Having reloaded her rifle with a fresh clip, Siu-Ling curiously sifts through the crystalline rubble, a quartzite proto-flesh now rendered lifeless by OMAC and company.
"What a rush, eh, brothers?" she urges her teammates to emerge from their cover, eyeing Borovski with a obvious caution. "You think those crystals are making us go crazy like?" she asks Sni'ktl, the psychosocial specialist. "I propose we stop for a few and gather our wits. Some of us are losin' it, and you know how contagious insanity is among my kind," she gestures to the other humans in the group before pointing at herself again and raising her eyebrow at Sni'ktl.
While OMAC completes First Aid on himself Sni'ktl attends similar duties with Raid. After stabilizing both patients Sni'ktl then performs minor surgery on OMAC quite successfully then OMAC works on Raid's injuries with Sni'ktl assisting. After both procedures are complete OMAC begrudgingly relinquishes half his precious biocort supplies to the Chief Medical Officer. Sni'ktl then makes a somewhat pointed report to xZot expressing his concern over the lack of medical supplies.
Commander xZot acknowledges his Medical Officers' situation but points out there is very little alternative at the moment but to push onward. After completing a security check of the doorway, xZot orders Raid forward as the team cracks open the door. Beyond a corridor heads west approximately 15 meters before it becomes a stairway down and turns in a north west direction. After another 10 meters of stairs the corridor continues north west another 30 meters before ending in another doorway. Raid checks again for security devices and when xZot arrives with the rest of the team he opens the door under Sp'ock's watchful eye.
The 50 meter by 30 meter room beyond is devoid of furnishings, life and crystal. Scans by the science officers confirm the visual reports and with no other option, the Black Hand Gang exit the room via it's only other exit, a door in the southern wall. Proceeding south for another 40 meters the passageway turns back to the east for another 400 meters before ending in yet another door. After completing the standard security checks, Raid once again cracks open the door and proceeds through.
Beyond is a 30m by 30m room. Along the left wall are large numbers of shaped crystals that are pulsing with light and perhaps some other forms of energy. Raid, xZot, Sp'ock and Borovski are continuing into the room and walking around the perimeter of the room, apparently ignoring the crystals or anything about the room. There are two more doors both in the south wall, one door near each corner.
"Why would someone put a door right in the middle of the passageway, as a barrier to liquids or gases maybe, or something else?" Raid studies the door carefully, checking it for security systems and attempting to discern its purpose. With xZot's permission, Raid runs a geoscan on the door and frame. He wants to know what materials make up the door and if it was originally designed with an airtight seal.
xZot reaches the doorway and peers through. While Raid and Sni'ktl confer over the doors purpose xZot also briefly considers why a door would be in the middle of a corridor, he strains his ungoggled Yazirian eyes to look as far down the passage ahead as his he can. See nothing more unusual than anything else, and not one to criticize alien architecture, xZot indicates to Raid to proceed ahead once the team has finished their scans.
"I guess there's no accounting for taste" replies Sni'ktl. "I know humans have their idea of Feng Shui that would abhor putting a door in the middle of the passage, however our hosts clearly have many bizarre ideas about architecture just as their use of crystals clearly outstrips current cultural uses of them in the frontier. While I can understand the Dralasite vibrating crystal oozing slides, it fits their sense of humor if not their physiology, I still have problems with this human 'Reiki'.
Seeing that no one is listening to him Sni'ktl continues his conversation with the rocks. "Hey crystal things can you understand me, we come in peace. Please flash twice if you understand." As Raid reclaims his Geoscanner to use on the door, Sni'ktl seeks another machine to test out some of his hypotheses.
"X'anthe what sort readings are you getting off these crystals? I wonder if that pulsing light is some kind of scan. What do your instruments say?" Sni'ktl's antennae jangle like deeley boppers over X'anthe's shoulder and he tags along with the science officer's investigation of the crystals.
xZot, Sp'ock and Borovski continue walking around the perimeter of the room apparently not seeing the crystal formations or indeed acknowledging that they are actually in a room.
OMAC, Siu-Ling, X'anthe and Sni'ktl watch on as Raid rushes to join up with xZot, Sp'ock and Boro as the four continue walking laps around the room. After about four circuits of the room they stop and look back over their shoulder waiting for the others to join them.
Sni'ktl spends the time working with X'anthe to try and learn as much as possible about the crystalline entities but under such circumstances in such a short period of time he is unable to determine if they are self controlled entities or an externally controlled security system. Keeping an eye on the crystals he indicates for xZot and the others to wait where they are. X'anthe shakes her head unable to make sense of the readings she has from her scanning equipment.
Annoyed at the delay from the group behind him xZot leads Boro, Sp'ock and Raid back to the others seeking an explanation for the delay...
Sni'ktl scritches incessantly as he considers the possibility that X'anthe, OMAC, Siu-Ling and himself have been hypnotized to believe that they are in a room while the team is, in fact, going along a corridor. He compares this with the alternative existential hypothesis that the rest of the team are the hypnotized ones. His Vrusk logic cuts like a laser to isolate the "determining perspective anomaly". Only in his own group's reality does a likely hypno-ray source seem to exist. Placing his faith in logic, and parallel universe interpretation theory, he roots all eight feet firmly in Reality Central and invokes his powers as Chief Medical Officer.
"OMAC, I have determined that xZot, Sp'ock, Raid and Borovski are decidedly "nutso". Could you and Siu-Ling please make the area safe, and get some cover from the crystals. If I end up like them," he indicates Commander xZot's party, "begin blasting those crystals, they seem to be emitting an advanced form of hypno-ray. X'anthe, please find out as much as you can about how these crystals are acting not as sensors but as emitters. I will deal with our curcumnambulatory Commander." The female environmental officer nods in acknowledgement and continues monitoring and analyzing the readings gathered by the team's scanners.
Not having been spoken to directly, Siu-Ling stands quietly until OMAC moves, then follows him with rifle at the ready, set to 5 SEU. Her chestnut irises dart from left to right within their almond shaped eye folds as she chews on a Volturnus munjanberry that she produces from her vest pocket. Though collected just after the fall of Slave City One, these bush borne berries have kept well, and leave a tingling sensation on her tongue when chewed.
When away from the others, Siu-Ling pokes OMAC in the arm and points to the far door near the eastern wall. She pulls the handle, kicks the door open, pointing into the southward corridor, and calls
"Clear," when she establishes that there are no hostiles about. OMAC pokes his head through the door and reports that the corridor beyond disappears down a stairway only a couple of meters beyond the doorway.
"Sni'ktl to Commander xZot, we have a medical emergency and you are all needed back here immediately." Sni'ktl tries not giggle too much as the advance party commence doing laps of the room to return "down the corridor."
When xZot enquires about the emergency Sni'ktl replies by way of demonstration. He hypnotizes Raid to believe that he is in the room with pulsing crystals and has Raid demonstrate this to xZot, Borovski and Sp'ock.
"We may be in for a long hike," Raid says, coming back to the group. "This passage could go on for a few kilometres. I can only guess it's purpose...um...what did you say Sni'ktl?" Still feeling a little nauseous, Raid tries to make sense of what the Vrusk is talking about.
"I trust you all can see and accept the fact that it is possible for well balanced team members to be made to believe they are in a very different environment to that which they actually inhabit. And 'So what?' you say. Well I say to you that in fact Raid is now back in the real world, give or take a few parallels, while you three are not.
"What? I don't understand? If I concentrate any longer I'm going to crap in my suit!" xZot blurts out. "It looks like a fairly long passage, the sooner we get started the sooner we'll see what's at the end!" frustration is clearly evident in xZot's voice.
Seeing that Sp'ock is following the logic and Borovski is also succumbing to Sni'ktl's Empathic abilities while xZot is clearly still lost. Sni'ktl proposes a further demonstration.
"OK! Sp'ock and Borovski if you would stand either side of the passageway, now xZot you must think its pretty unreal when I just walk through the wall behind Sp'ock like this. Go on Sp'ock, Boro take a step back each and see what happens." As Sp'ock and Borovski literally back their way into reality Sni'ktl's voice addresses xZot from mid air. Come on xZot you must be pretty lonely in that tunnel, come and join us, run through the wall." Sni'ktl realises he has failed with his last patient as xZot bounces back holding his head and swearing curses on his Chief Medical Officer.
Being utterly confused by listening to Sni'ktl isn't that unusual xZot thinks to himself but this time it's actually hurting his head. Resisting the urge to pout his lips and flick his finger across them in a "bebebebe" fashion, xZot tries to concentrate on what Sni'ktl is saying.
"Oh well, I tried" mutters Sni'ktl. "I formally hand command to you Sp'ock until such time as xZot joins us in reality." Sni'ktl returns to see if X'anthe has any data on the hypno-ray. "It would be rather fortuitous if we could emulate the hypno-ray signals from these crystals".
"What do you mean Sp'ock is taking command?! This just looks like a normal passage, Raid concurs, why do we need Sp'ock to lead the way?! Are you serious?!" After accepting that Sni'ktl is making an executive medical decision xZot, his head low, wanders toward the rear of the group looking for a nice cool wall to rest his forehead against "My brain hurts." he murmurs.
Although Raid may not have bought into Sni'ktl's logic the medical officer is hopeful that counter hypnosis will keep him behaving as though he isn't being affected by the crystalline hypno-ray. xZot on the other hand is a harder nut to crack. Sni'ktl joins him at the back of the group and tries to work out what it is about the Commander's psyche that keeps him firmly rooted in a false reality.
"So xZot, you seem to like it in this tunnel. Tell me do you know if your birth was particularly slow. Perhaps this tunnel reminds you in, some obscure way, of the comfort you seek from, you know, sexual relations."
Lifting his head off the nice cool wall, xZot turns toward Sni'ktl giving him a particularly blank look. In utter disbelief at the current line of questioning he turns his face back to the wall and begins banging his head rhythmically.
"Passage, room, whatever..." he mutters, punctuating his words with the subtle, almost hollow 'knock' of his forehead resounding off the wall.
"xZot, xZot, xZot..." Sni'ktl misinterprets xZot's nodding head to indicate that he has finally overcome the hypno-ray. "Its good to have you back with us. I suggest you rest up for a bit before resuming the responsibilities of command."
Raid's hypno treatment not only restores his perception of his surroundings but he is now also free of the nagging belly ache he had been experiencing since entering the complex. Feeling much better he flicks on his Holoscreen again and proceeds a short way down the corridor beyond the door opened by Siu-Ling and OMAC. Sp'ock and Borovski move to the other doorway in the southern wall and after the standard security checks, they push this door open as well. Beyond is another passageway heading south and another stair going down.
After moving cautiously down the eastern stairs, Raid reaches a bend in the passage turning east. Poking his head around the corner he sees the corridor heading east and back up another set of stairs. Guessing that 'up' is probably not the way the team wants to go he returns to the room and informs xZot of the immediate layout before he moves to scout out the other passage.
Uncomfortable with the prospect of leaving unexplored corridors behind the team, OMAC suggests that X'anthe remains here to continue her examinations of the crystals.
"Either myself or Borovski will also stand guard on this doorway and maintain a communications link between the lead team and the vehicles."
Sp'ock nods his approval and indicates that Raid can resume his scouting roles. The human Science Officer once again moves carefully forward and down the stairs casting his eyes about in search of alarms or security systems. About 10 meters down the passage the corridor turns west and following the path Raid reaches a door at the end. After checking again for security systems, he carefully pries the door open to be greeted by a most unusual sight.
As Raid enters this chamber he sees two strange devices that look like combinations of crystal and metal moving slowly toward the doorway. There are blinking lights of all colours of the rainbow shining from the front of these devices. Unsure as to whether he has been detected, Raid carefully backs out of the room and back around the corner to report his discovery.
Upon Raid's return, Siu-Ling makes an inquiry of his findings and reports, "Stairs going up, eh? Does anyone want to back me up as I go check that out?"
"Of course you're medically fit." Sni'ktl informs Siu-Ling as the team prepares to leave the room and I'm sure OMAC will cover your rear if you go that way." As Siu-Ling sets off on her side trip Sni'ktl krikk's after her "Of course you do know that I'm not in charge at all, in any way, in fact, liable or otherwise." With Sni'ktl's blessing, she heads down the flight of southbound stairs, and back up the eastbound flight with her rifle pointed directly forward, and her eyes scanning for movement not only along the floor, but along the ceiling as well. "Mustn't get mind-zapped by any more of those crystals," she reminds herself. Forty meters east of the top of the stairs Siu-Ling finds another doorway. Not wanting to press her luck with the rest of the team still considering their options quite some distance behind her and disappointed that OMAC had not 'covered her ass', Siu-Ling returns to the group to report her findings. In her absence Raid reports in a whisper.
"I don't know if I should trust my eyes after all the perceptual trickery that these crystals have been afflicting us with, but there appear to be two mechanical-crystaloid robots of some type in the room around the corner up ahead. They may be moving this way." He then pokes his holoscreened head back around the corner to see if he was pursued. His head still spinning xZot tries to comprehend what Raid is saying.
"Wha..? Crystal robots?" With his leadership challenged xZot turns toward Sp'ock for guidance "What do you think Sp'ock? Can you deal with these?"
"We have faced hostile entities, and friendly on this planet of all shapes. The stranger those shapes, the more likely to be friendly." Sp'ock scritches and shakes his head in the Vr'usk fashion. "We must not assume either hostile or friendly intent." Sp'ock activates his wristcom crisply issuing orders.
"Mr OMAC if you would report with Siu-Ling to our position please." Sp'ock turns to face the empty air at which he assumes Raid to still be. "Science Officer Raid. If these entities do not respond to your presence it would be wise to see if you can locate a terminal within the room. A possible source of control or communication with what I suspect to be an advanced robot."
While sounding upbeat xZot tries to block out the incessant pounding in his head. Unfortunately the doubts in his mind bubble to the surface as he continues
"Are they figments of our imagination or are they real? Technology or geology, I'm confused?" Realizing that he is now mumbling xZot's voice trails off as he looks around the group for ideas. Unsure of what to do xZot grabs his rifle and readies it. Checking the setting is correct (5) he activates his Albedo screen and takes up a defensive position. After considering the chances that his cover maybe nothing more than another illusion, an uneasy xZot waits for directions from the acting commander before proceeding further.
As Raid and xZot question the relative reality of the moving crystals before them, Siu-Ling kneels on one knee and prepares to take aim, leaving the weapon pointed down. Once OMAC and Siu-Ling arrive Sp'ock outlines his plan.
"We will keep it simple. I will enter the room, you will cover me from out here. No sense in risking more lives than necessary." Sp'ock wonders if his adrenal levels are a tad high today, makes a mental note to pursue the subject once this current crisis with xZot has passed.
"10-4," Siu-Ling responds, making footsteps towards the Vrusk's left, rear leg and peering forward towards the moving crystals with her rifle at the ready and both pistols in their holsters, set to 3 SEU. "On your word, I fire," she informs Sp'ock. "I have a clear shot, brother," she looks at xZot and Sni'ktl, then back at the bizarre mounds of sparkling minerals. "Say the word, and they fall one by one," she surmises, hoping to avoid more bloodshed as the opportunity for inter specific diplomacy presents itself. "They may be intelligent, however, and we are trespassing. In either case, my trigger finger and larynx are equally at the team's disposal, should either of them be needed."
"We could try talking to them" suggests Sni'ktl. "They're bound to be a bit flinty with us for bashing our way in but their quartz might throb more rosily if we approach them person to quarry-thing.
Activating his albedo screen Sp'ock advances to the door, pausing only to set his laser rifle to it's max setting, before entering the room. Both of the crystalline robots halt their current actions and turn to him. Sp'ock tries verbal communication. 'We come in peace.' Springs into is mind with a nervous twitch thrown in, "Wow this Commander shit is more tense than I had previously thought." he chitters quietly to himself.
"We come as representatives of the Federation, we mean no harm to you or your builders." Siu-Ling hears him say instead, lowering the barrel of her weapon and lifting her gaze to meet the approaching life forms or contraptions.
Sni'ktl watches as Sp'ock strides into the room his antennae tensely alert for the first signs of reaction from the Rocktaterons. Having observed the architecture, artifacts and crystalline entities Sni'ktl tries to think himself into the latticed minds that would design such a curvilinear culture. He seeks a state of empathy with these beings to help him comprehend their immediate reactions to Sp'ock's entrance. Every mounting split second could mark the difference between successful first contact or a more sudden ending than anticipated to Sp'ock's leadership career.
Sp'ock clicks strangely and staggers slightly before giving Siu-Ling the "Contact" signal, then he suddenly swings his laser rifle up to fire at the closest construct. The first beam misses to the right of his target but a quick correction of aim and the second blast hits the crystalline robot square on knocking across the room (95 points). Siu-Ling fires two shots into the second robot (52 points) barely slowing down as it raises what appears to be a weapon to return fire.
Having already entered the room under the cover of his Holoscreen, Raid now curses to himself as the room erupts in a firefight. Drawing his pistol he squeezes off two shots at Siu-Ling's target but misses both times as he ducks, desperately trying to avoid fire from his own team. Sni'ktl dives for cover, considering tossing tangler grenades towards the vicinity of the gravel-bots and quickly reconsidering when he remembers that Raid is somewhere in the room as well.
Before the robot can bring it's weapon to bear, Siu-Ling manages to get off two more shots, hitting the robot again (26 points) but still not destroying it. Seeing Siu-Ling's target still standing, Sp'ock swings around a blazes away again at full power (57 points!) completely vaporizing the torso of the robot as the arms legs and head fly to all corners of the room. With Sp'ock's back to his initial target, nobody sees the badly mangled wreckage lift it's weapon and fire. Sp'ock staggers again (17 points) as a wave of sonic distortion racks his innards from the beam weapon. Raid is the quickest to react, pumping a laser beam into the expiring robot's head (32 points).
Shrugging off Sni'ktl's attempts at treatment, Sp'ock reports that the robots attempted to hypnotize him as soon as he spoke, hence his violent reaction and the signal to open fire. A quick examination of the weaponry indicates that both robots were equipped with what appear to be an alien Sonic Disruptor although the exact operating procedure is foreign enough to make both weapons useless to the team.
Sp'ock orders the usual scans and procedures before the team continues through the south east door. Raid takes point under cover of his trusty Holoscreen and follows the corridor beyond the door east for approximately 130 meters to yet another door. Through the door is a very long room about 20m wide. Like the other rooms you have seen so far, this one has a large amount of fungus growing on the walls, ceiling and floor. Raid immediately notices that the fungus here covers the entire surface of the room. There is nothing else noticeable about this chamber, except for the doorway at the other end of the room and in the southern corner of the west wall. The environmentalist aspect of Raid's nature forces him to take quick sample of the fungus and run it through his Bioscanner. Excited at the results Raid reappears from behind his Holoscreen to show Sni'ktl when the rest of the team enters the room.
"We should probably avoid any direct contact with this fungus." He states firmly "I'm not exactly sure what it will do but these readings indicate that this fungus has been genetically manufactured, it is not a naturally occurring organism!" Sni'ktl quickly concurs with Raid's observation and orders all personnel not to touch the fungus, particularly with bare flesh, before pressing the leadership for a direction exit the room.
A quick reconnaissance through both of the exits reveals a corridor running east 100 meters before reaching another door. The corridor running west, parallel to the corridor through which the team entered the fungus room, for about 140 meters where a stairway turns south for another 20 meters. 10 meters beyond the foot of the stairs is a door.
By this time xZot and all the other team members who had been exposed to the various mind altering defences of the complex have returned to their normal state of mind. Resuming command, xZot orders the team to head west and down the stairs to continue heading deeper into the complex. Raid once again opens the door under the Holoscreens invisibility, beyond he sees this 30m x 30m room is some sort of storage area. There are a large number of boxes and jars piled around the room, as well as some bolts of shimmering cloth and what appears to be strange cubical devices. The walls have a strange porous texture unlike the previous levels of the complex.
Sni'ktl carefully maneuvers around the bristling weapons of his comrades and checks out the bolts of cloth. He cuts off a length and attaches it in the fashion of a Ve'er'ercleeetch named after the unique and slightly painful method of fixing this Vruskian toga.
"Perhaps this is material for the local fashion houses" he muses as he balances a couple of loose rocks on his antennae. "Maybe I can pass for one of the locals" he suggests. His attempts to imitate Dralasite pathos end as tragically as they began when he slips on the shimmering sheen of eight, oddly banana shaped off cuts.
"I want to analyze these materials before anyone touches them." Starting with the porous wall, Raid works his way around the room collecting samples with his machete blade and running them through the appropriate scanning device. "What is this stuff anyway?"
"Be my guest, brother," Siu-Ling replies to Raid, gesturing for him to go at it. "I'll try to keep an eye on the perimeter," she then motions to xZot for approval, and patrols the periphery of the explored area.
Ah, would that Nounouche were here, always a friendly ear and an agreeing nod! How many nights has she been on this world that she has come to call home? How many hectares of red desert and green jungle have she and her mates covered by now? Sometimes, when the winds blow cold over this part of the planet, she sits alone and reminisces about a childhood spent in the outskirts of the Frontier, in the Truane's Star system.
Taking care not to come to close to the walls xZot enters the room and motions to Siu-Ling to commence a perimeter reconnaissance. Whilst not wanting to waste too much time searching the storeroom xZot wanders around looking at the items stored here.
"Maybe we can learn something of our hosts by the items that they keep" muses xZot as he signals the other to commence a cursory search of the room. xZot studies the cubical devices for any sign of their purpose. Recognizing that this maybe a 'honey pot' to lure us in, xZot confers with Raid, Sni'ktl and X'anthe as to what they have learned of the biological material on the walls. "Are we heading down the throat of some giant genetically modified organism?"
Trying to keep her mind focused on the situation at hand, the human sharpshooter slings her loaded rifle over her shoulder and draws both pistols from their holsters, preparing for short-range combat in the cramped, subterranean quarters, should any other crystalline meanies make themselves visible.
As Raid, xZot, Siu-Ling and Sni'ktl begin taking an inventory of the rooms contents or conducting their analyses both doors spring shut and an audible click is detected as both doors lock. Sp'ock, Borovski and OMAC, still in the corridor, rush to the door calling out to their friend and pounding on the door. Looking up in alarm Sni'ktl detects some strange air currents and asks for silence from the other rooms occupants. As soon as everyone calms down Sni'ktl and then Raid both quickly confirm that the new sound Sni'ktl detected is that of air being pumped out of the room.
The items discovered in the room in no particular order are...
Boxes of crystal bolts, electrical batteries, spools of plastic tape, boxes of crystal spheres, boxes of putty, jars of iron filings, jars of sulphur powder, large jars of water, boxes of protein cubes, boxes of rubber hoses, spools of insulated wire, boxes of crystal lights, boxes of plastic squares, jars of saltpetre, jars of powdered calcium, jars of powdered charcoal, jars of fermented fruit juice, bolts of shimmering cloth.
"Sulphur powder," comments the human as she scores a few jars full of the stuff. "This might come in handy in the way of explosives. Hoping to be able to use the combustible powder, she tests its consistency by rubbing the sandy mineral between her thumb and index finger. Deciding that the sulphur powder is adequate for her needs Siu-Ling quickly adds the two other ingredients for gunpowder to her pack, Charcoal powder and Saltpetre, being careful not to mix the ingredients just yet.
Sni'ktl circles the room tossing powdered calcium in the air and muttering like a shaman. He attempts to trace the air currents to identify the points in the walls, doors, floor and ceiling where air is being extracted with the view to tape plastic squares over them.
"Well that might slow down the air loss" he exclaims before realizing that the porous nature of the entire wall makes this task impossible. In frustration the Chief Medical Officer begins analyzing the fermented fruit juice while the more technical members of the team devise an exit from the room. "Hmm a palette as dry as noon in the Volturnus desert with an earthy aftertaste. Anyone else for a taster?"
As soon as it is determined how the air is being pumped out of the room, Raid pulls out his laser pistol and jumps to the locked door.
"Permission to blast open the door!" Raid looks nervously at xZot, the worry in his eyes is obvious. "If we don't open it soon, we may lose consciousness due to lack of oxygen!" Raid cranks his pistol to the highest setting and awaits xZot's reply.
Motioning to Raid to stand down for the moment xZot flicks the channel open on his Chronocom and tests to see if there is still contact with Sp'ock and the others. OMAC's gruff voice responds to xZot's enquiry immediately
"Just say the word boss and we'll have you out right away!" xZot turns back to Raid
"Save your ammo for whoever set this trap, I think this might be a job for that cannon that OMAC has been toting around." Indicating for everyone in the room to take cover as far away from the door as possible he calls for OMAC to blast the door. Closing the link and taking cover xZot mumbles "I can imagine the grin on OMAC's face now! Blasting things is one of his hobbies..."
Seconds later OMAC cuts loose with the Recoilless Rifle and the sound of pumping air is replaced by in explosion as his first shell tears several large holes in the door.
"Keep your heads down!" The security officer calls through the shattered door as he loads a second shell and finishes the job, blowing away the remains of the door sending deadly slivers of metal spraying through the room. After a quick check for casualties Sni'ktl returns to analysis whilst xZot and the rest of the team weigh the pro's and con's of giving the east door the 'OMAC treatment' as well.
"Well it's not like they don't know we are coming now." Offers Borovski as he cast his eyespots around at the destruction wrought by OMAC's weapon.
"I concur" adds Sp'ock as he orders everyone out of the room and into the corridor for cover. OMAC gladly loads another round and fires at the remaining door again tearing a large hole in the portal. As he begins loading his last round to finish the job, xZot taps him on the shoulder.
"Let's have look see before you use that last shell." The Commander turns and indicates to Raid who once again flicks on his Holoscreen and slips forward into the smoke and dust from the blast.
Through the shattered door to this room, Raid sees 10 two-legged creatures with huge tails, their bodies covered with fine fur. The creatures are draped over various pieces of weird furniture. Most of them appear to have been asleep, but three of them, let out loud screams, and run toward the destroyed doorway.
"In position, xZot." Siu-Ling stands at the ready, hesitating before firing. These unfamiliar beings bear the look of sentience upon their brows, and she eyes them carefully and even timidly as her Yazirian commander decides the group's next course of action. Raid steps to the side of the doorway out of the line of sight of the newly encountered creatures and flicks off the holoscreen.
"I don't want them to know I'm wearing one of these," he thinks to himself. "It might come in handy though if negotiations break down."
He then holsters his laser and tries to look as non threatening as possible.
"Eeeeek" exclaims Sni'ktl as the blind fury and aggressive tail postures of the Loperoos trigger his Vrusk instincts and primal fears. He rapidly takes up a strategic position at the rear of the party.
"It's pretty hard not to look threatening when we've just blasted their bedroom door to pieces." xZot thinks as he reaches for a Doze grenade. Dashing for the partially destroyed door he arms the grenade and tosses it through at the approaching creatures. The poorly aimed missile almost bounces back in his face before he manages to poke the grenade through the perforated door. Ducking for cover he awaits the blast and then he turns to the others when he sees the doze gas has no immediate effect
"We don't want to lose the cover the remnants of the door provide if we can help it. It may buy us enough time to get everyone into position. Raid, maybe you should get a tangler grenade ready, never know when you might need it." Seeing his commander opt for non lethal methods, Sp'ock also pulls out a dose grenade and pops it through the doorway, this time with better results as one of the furry, bipedal creatures slumps to the floor beyond the doorway.
The frame of the doorway creaks and shudders under the blows of the remaining two assailants allowing xZot and Sp'ock to drop another pair of dose grenades into the room beyond. Both grenades land at the feet of a second Loperoo and he also drops to the ground as the third bipedal monster tears away the remainder of the door and charges into the room at xZot. Raid times his throw perfectly and as the last attacker reaches the centre of the room, Raid's tangler grenade pops open right under his feet and ensnares the startled creature in the sticky fibers
Moving around to get into a better position himself, out of everyone else's line of fire, xZot grabs his rifle and cranks the setting up to 10. "If the nice way don't stop them, there's always Our way." He grumbles and smiles as he looks around at some of the firepower hanging off the other Gang members.
As Sni'ktl pockets a couple of bottles of Volturnian Moonshine he speculates that the quality of such beverages may well be proportional to the number of moons in orbit. Sni'ktl observes the irritated Loperoos angry at having their sleep disturbed.
"Perhaps we could try some keyhole negotiation?" he suggests as he attempts to make sense of their screams and the garbled noises coming out of his translator. xZot nods his permission and Sni'ktl moves forward cautiously to make contact with the remaining, more docile subjects in the room. This room is filled with cots and beds suitable for Loperoos who appear to sleep standing up, leaning a a comfortable angle (it would be impossible for them to sleep on their backs because of their tails). The walls of this room have the same porous texture as the walls of the previous room.
Nervous about X'anthe's distance away from the main team, Mr Sp'ock orders her to join them via chronocom and puts her at Sni'ktl's disposal in his studies of the Loperoo 'patients'. The X-O then orders Raid to continue scouting through the eastern door as he deploys the remaining troops around the room. OMAC and Borovski quickly restrain the three stunned Loperoos before they can recover consciousness while Siu-Ling keeps them covered.
Through the next door Raid finds a room that is very large, 40 meters x 40 meters, and is filled with a variety of structures made from both metals and crystals. There are also some pieces of furniture, similar to those in the previous room. The walls are made of the same porous tile seen throughout this level. xZot and Sp'ock soon join Raid and upon closer examination xZot identifies some of the crystalline machinery. On one wall is a holovision. A radio is on another wall. On a third wall is another device he cannot identify, all three devices are of the alien crystal variety of tech.
Raid heads through the eastern exit, down a short corridor to yet another door. Opening the door, he peers into what appears to be an empty room, 20 metres across and 30 metres long. There is a door in the northeast corner of the room, across from the door he has just opened. The walls are of the same construction as the other rooms on this level. After several minutes, Raid has not returned so Sp'ock, xZot and the remainder of the team proceed forward into the very same room.
Unbeknown to the rest of the team, as Raid reached the far side of the room a dose like gas was pumped into the room through the pourus walls. Raid collapsed unconscious to the floor near the far wall and still under the camouflage of the Holoscreen, remained unseen until Sp'ock almost tripped over him. At that very moment more dose gas is pumped into the room and xZot watches horrified as Sni'ktl, Sp'ock and Siu-Ling all suddenly collapse.
"Gas!" OMAC gasps as the opposite door is flung open and more than a dozen Loperoos burst into the room armed with alien weaponry. OMAC attempts to swing his Recoilless around for a final show of defiance when the Eorna, as the 'Loperoos' call themselves, fire a volley of darts at everyone still standing. The Black Hand Gang is quickly rendered unconscious and awaken some time later in another room unharmed but without their weapons.
You now see before you a truly huge chamber filled with a wide variety of crystal and metal gadgets, as well as numerous paintings and murals of a large number of different creatures. Some of the paintings and murals appear to be of dinosaurs, while others resemble the type of fur covered creatures you have encountered earlier in this area of the ruins.
"Well OMAC! I suppose you can say we've forfeited the element of surprise somewhat, but what's a Recoilless for?" Boro ponders over Sni'ktl's theory regarding "Moonshine" and wonders whether or not the consumption rate is directly related to the number of moons apparent to the consumer?
Before determining which weapon to use if necessary against rampaging Loperoo's, Boro recalls his previous encounter with a Loper on Volturnus as a method of transportation. He quickly tries to determine whether or not these two creatures are part of a related species and whether or not it appears these Loperoo's are equipped as means of transportation for something, or someone, we have not yet met.
Sni'ktl's attention to detail reaps it's rewards very quickly in the Eorna database as he accesses Eorna spoken language databases and quickly programs his Polyvox to interpret their records. The overwhelming amount of information is impossible for the Science Officer to assimilate but the gift of language instils him with much confidence as he crams as much knowledge about Eorna culture into his brain in the short time allotted by Commander xZot.
The pieces slot into place along with the murals, the statues and the emotions portrayed in this place. After spending some time acquainting themselves with the diverse contents of the room, xZot leads the team through the only exit into another chamber. This chamber appears to be in very good repair. There are several of the bizarre items of furniture noticed earlier scattered about, as well as a large number of shaped crystals. Four of the fur-covered animals with large tails are approaching you as you enter. These creatures have their front limbs extended in front of them with their palms turned up.
Sni'ktl hopes he has interpreted their culture correctly as the four Eorna approach in an apparent gesture of friendship. He informs the rest of the team of his suspicions.
"Don't judge them harshly because of the crystals that attacked us earlier. It may be that these Eorna had no control over them. They may even thank us for destroying them."
Turning her palms up in kind, Siu-Ling is careful to express much uncertainty with her human face. Hopefully, their captors are as peaceful as the Ul-Mor. She leans over to Raid and Sni'ktl, and mumbles,
"This must be how they greet each other."
"Yes Siu-Ling, that's right." Sni'ktl encourages Siu-Ling. He has noted the Eorna's interest in Siu-Ling. He sees their eyes appreciating the detail of Siu-Ling's tattoos, the grace that only comes from someone who devotes an almost spiritual effort to looking good. The eyes say it all. She blinks those eyes, whose irises have grown weary from the dim lighting of this subterranean complex.
"Here's hopin' you're right," she mumbles back to the Vrusk.
"They truly do adore beauty over all else" comments Sni'ktl. Privately he ponders whether beauty does indeed transcend all philosophic boundaries as was postulated by many a Human and Dralasite philosopher across the Frontier. Still the early humans in question, also had excellent fashion sense and some of those primitive Dralasite tattoos are truly inspiring. Sni'ktl adjusts his toga and buffs his carapace.
"I hope you don't mean me," the Human demolitionist replies with modesty. "I mean, look at me. No tail, hair everywhere," she tugs at the ebon mane that would drape over her eyes were it not for its oiliness and ability to stick behind her ears. "These guys can't possibly find a Human beautiful," she offers.
"I guess its time to try the "We come in peace" line again, hopefully without the same consequences." Sni'ktl thinks to himself
"They're friendly Commander. Meet the real indigenous people of Volturnus." reports Sni'ktl.
"Hmmm, real indigenous?" the Human questions Sni'ktl. "I'm no expert, but what keeps the Ul-Mor, Kurabanda, and Edestekai from being equally real or indigenous? Relative sentience? Planetary hegemony? The ability to control crystals?"
"They are an extremely civilized culture. In fact they read off the scale for alpha and beta meta-social indicators. They are very pleased to see us. The eyes say it all."
"But civilized how? Their culture resembles ours? Are we actually a metric for civilization?" asks the not so savvy kaboomite enthusiast as the Volturnians approach. "What'd you call 'em again? Yornae?"
"We've made contact with a technologically advanced alien race that is apparently benevolent in nature!" Raid whispers excitedly. "Some of my old classmates would have given anything to be standing here in my place! This is the dream of every scientist-explorer on the frontier!" Raid turns to Siu-Ling. "Please excuse me for calling them advanced, but I have an inherent bias when it comes to technology, and their crystals fascinate me. I have a need to understand how things work rather than just accept them." For the first time since arriving on Volturnus, Raid feels that the team's primary objective has switched from survival to the pursuit of knowledge.
"Think of what we could learn from each other! How do we know that this race is indigenous to this planet? Could they have any knowledge of pre-frontier history? Our own races don't even know where they originally came from. They may give us clues to our own past!" Raid considers the possibilities.
When it becomes clear that the Eorna can be communicated and reasoned with Boro maintains a non-threatening stance. Sni'ktl pulls out a bottle of the Eorna wine from under his toga and offers it around the Black Hand Gang's new found friends.
"So tell me, how did you know to come and help Commander Jameson when we besieged the Star Devils? I'll wager that thereby hangs a tail."
Mimicking the approaching creatures actions, xZot listens as Sni'ktl clicks and natters in his usual manner engaging our hosts in a diplomatic banter. Realising that there are no immediate hostile intentions here xZot allows himself to relax
"Well, this isn't quite what I expected." he murmurs as he looks at the wonders around him. Eager to hear news about Commander Jameson xZot presses closer to the hub of the discussion when Sni'ktl conveniently brings the topic up.
Sni'ktl quickly establishes the appropriate forms and protocols, successfully overcoming a definite accent to his 'Eorna', to conduct a meaningful exchange of ideas with the four Eorna spokesmen. After an initial introduction the Eorna provide medical attention, food, shelter and information. They tell Sni'ktl about the Day of Doom, the original Sathar attack which almost completely destroyed Eorna civilization. They explain their plan for evolving an intelligent life form to succeed themselves and oppose the Sathar, and many other aspects of Eorna history, culture or philosophy that regularly side track Sni'ktl in his insatiable thirst for knowledge.
This chamber is the first in a series of rooms that leads to the large underground Eorna complex. Included in the complex are the Eorna command center, central computer banks, information storage, cold storage, hospital and living areas. They also explain that the Eorna who attacked you previously in the complex were patients from what can only be explained, as their mental institution. The reduced gene pool as a result of the Sathar pogrom has had devastating effects on eorna breeding programs, particularly in the mental health area.
Later, without wanting to quash everyone's enthusiasm in learning about and from the Eorna, xZot reminds everyone that they don't have a great deal of time before the evacuation ship is due to arrive and we still have to return to Brucebane
"We've made it this far and we don't want to miss our rendezvous."
It is then that the Eorna deliver their most devastating news, the arrival of the pirates and other space travelers at Volturnus has seriously disrupted the Eorna plans. The Sathar left on Volturnus an artifact that would summon a Sathar battle fleet if space-traveling beings are detected within the Zebulon star system. Already, the Eorna fear, the artifact may have alerted the Sathar. There is a chance, however, that the device has not yet sent for the battle fleet. The Eorna will gladly show the party where the artifact is located if the party will attempt to prevent it from calling the Sathar fleet. The Eorna will not attack the artifact themselves because it is almost certain to have both internal and external defences. Excessive Eorna casualties would jeopardize the Great Mission should the attack on the artifact fail. A Sathar attack on the planet would almost certainly mean death to any living being on Volturnus, including the adventurers.
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