On their way back to the jetcopter, Siu-Ling comments to Sni'ktl, within earshot of xZot,
"I've been thinking of taking a spirit journey with Nounouche to the forests of the kurabanda, and maybe as far as the Place of True Warriors." Still a bit light-headed from the heat flash in the heart of the mechanon hive, she checks herself, "No, wait, maybe that's... no, but what if on their way to the edestekai, the chopper drops us off near the forest? We could have Nounouche sniff out their village."
Unable to read the expression on Sni'ktl's silent visage, she continues, "Then they could pick us up on the way back and we could head out to the painted deserts of the west and convene with Athru on this sathar business." Her stride a bit more confident now, she chews on a rations bar as her blood sugar level stabilizes.
"Ah the Kurabanda, the forests, the Ul-Mor, the One. Real cultures, with morays, quirks and eyes" replies Sni'ktl. The hums and whirr's and incessant logic of the Mechanons had been droll enough (not too far from some of the more authoritarian Vrusk regimes) but the lack of eyes had really gotten to Sni'ktl. "I must say, rallying the jolly natives through bush and across plains does ring a note of appeal somewhat more dulcet than the prospect of organizing medical supplies at HQ. And I'd be keen to see what indigenous knowledge and technology could be brought to bear in the showdown with the Sathar. Some of the landscape artefacts on the map look they might have strategic advantage and I bet the locals know a few stories about potential battlefields that could strengthen our home team advantage." Raising his voice, "What say you xZot? Mind if we go see what our not so GE-free pals are up to in this defence of the home world thingy. I'm sure McKilin, OMAC and the Eorna medics can finish up the sick bay and first aid logistics."
Raid collects his wits and his tools, then heads back with the team toward the copters. He does a thorough walk around pre-flight inspection of the vehicles to make sure they haven't been tampered with by the locals, then re stows the techkit and robcomkit, exchanging them for his old power backpack.
"Well, that went better than I thought it would. Humility goes a long way, I guess." Con asks the technologically capable. "How long would it take you guys to set up one of our robots with the Mechanon protocols?"
Sni'ktl asks for Gleep's help with the Mechanon comm's protocols.
"There's all these grovelling slave subroutines before you get in but then its short sharp logic to deal with the meat of any communiqué. I think your tech skills will be better suited than my flowery words in dealing with this mob, especially if you mechanize it as much as possible."
"I will surely offer my humble skills to aid Mr Sni'ktl in his search for answers" Gleep smiles up to the Chief Science Officer working busily at his datapad on the Mechanon communications protocols. "At least no one will have to shoot at me." The dralasite tech grins
"They seem happy with any non biological format, so maybe polyvox output, machine code or a comms bot would do it." Sni'ktl continues. In a more collected state, Siu-Ling makes an effort to apologize to the group for her unprofessional behaviour earlier that day.
"Didn't mean to snap at the leader guy," she manages to say. "He just wasn't being very hospitable." Con the enforcer turns to Siu-Ling,
"It's all right kid, I think we have succeeded in dealing with our mechanized friends. How are you feelin'?"
"Ah, sweet Sui, even the best of us can lose it at times." GleepGlooup adds "You have shown yourself more than capable in most situations. Just don't date a robot."
"If it hadn't been for the trapped door, this trip would have been painless." Raid rubs his shoulder where one of the beams hit. "A well done piece of diplomatic work. I have a feeling we will all be glad that the mechanons are fighting on our side in this battle. They are definitely equipped with the necessary weaponry, and it looks as though they know how to use it."
"Where to first?" asks the woman, looking down at one of the group's maps. "Kurabanda realms are a closer shot. Can't think of any reason not to go there first. We can give Nounouche some happy hunting time."
Rallying everyone around the Jetcopters for the next leg of their diplomatic mission xZot discusses the group's options "I don't see any real problem with splitting the group into two teams." Acknowledging Siu-Ling's suggestion xZot continues "It should speed up the formation of a single planetary response to any Sathar attack. I just hope the Ul-Mor don't want us to battle anymore of those Quickdeaths to convince them." an uneasy smile cracks across xZot's lips "We really don't need the risk of death before the Sathar get here." Even before xZot finishes his sentence he knows that convincing the other local races will be far from easy but with the reclusive Mechanons on-side xZot's optimism is evident "What does everyone else think?"
Gloo gathers at the jetcopters with the others and listens in on the plans for the next trips.
"Raid! xZot! Check your power levels in the helos. If this team is going to separate, with one group going to the Kurabanda where we know where to find them and the other going to the Ul-Mor, who we know are nomadic and could quite literally be anywhere in this desert, it would be nice to know the power levels of the helos in case one team needs to mount a rescue" The dralasite opines to his fellows "But in any case when the teams are done we'll have to meet up again at Mawsons Rest to recharge the batteries."
Then the practical little Quarter Master starts checking off items on his inventory.
"If you people use any power packs make sure you mark it so I can recharge it later. The power clips don't matter as they can't be recharged".
"The next question will be how we divide the group and still maintain our effectiveness." Commander xZot continues "Raid and I will have to pilot the jetcopters so there is a start. Which way do you want to head Raid?"
"I'm thinking that we can go to the Edestekai last since we'll probably have to stop by Brucebane for supplies later anyway." Raid clears his throat in the dusty air. "Send me to the Ul-mor with a good diplomat. Maybe Siu-Ling could come. She has learned their customs quite well and lived with them for a time. They may be more likely to listen to her." Raid is guessing that Siu-Ling would agree. Raid is also thinking that xZot will have an easier time dealing with the Kurabanda, but he is afraid to tell his superior that he looks like a monkey.
Sni'ktl agrees with everyone.
"Yes Siu-Ling would be an excellent emissary to the Ul-Mor. Perhaps I should come with you xZot to visit the Kurabanda. I recall they need just as much coaxing as the Ul-Mor and we should split our environmental resources between the missions." Silently Sni'ktl thinks "it will give me a chance to catch up with the acting troop. Their impersonations of xZot really were quite remarkable."
Siu-Ling's dry lips part. Sni'ktl's eye clusters stare at the human as she asks Raid,
"Can you ride a loper, there, Mr. Raid Array?"
"I was able to ride those native horses, but didn't do so well on the lopers. I think it was the steep saddle angle that bothered me. It couldn't hurt to give it another go." Raid replies
In her more informal human dialect, she then asks him, "What kind of name is Raid Array? I mean, how'd you get it? It's not the kind of name you get for being born. It's not a regular name, like... Sni'ktl or Siu-Ling..."
"Raid Array...uh" Raid hesitates. "I'll admit it wasn't what my parents named me, but it suits me fine for now. I'll tell you the story behind it sometime." He then changes the subject by addressing Gloo. "Mawson's Rest is on the way to Ul-Mor country, so we should be able to do a quick stop and recharge parabatteries."
Siu-Ling blanks out for a second, then cups her two remaining doze grenades, shakes her head, and continues.
"What was I saying? Oh, yeah, the lopers. If you guys want to try to learn how to ride those things, we can take an afternoon and try to master it. I can take Nounouche, and you guys take the bigger mounts. I'll have slightly more mobility, but less endurance in the long run, so don't outrun me."
Sni'ktl can't help but notice the pallor in her gaze lately. Looking into her eyes, he thinks he sees the pattern of Athru's Desert Oasis reflected in her irises. She then utters a final sentence before trailing off again, "It'll give Nounouche and the lopers a chance to wander among their old stomping grounds."
"Agreed." xZot adds "If you're with me we'll need to assign another Medic to accompany Raid's team. When we get back to Mawson's Rest I think we'll need to see McKilin or OMAC and see who's up for a trip." Pausing xZot remembers the tall forests around the Kurabanda village "I must admit, the thought of getting some wind under these flaps is appealing."
"Jameson," pausing momentarily "yep we better report back to him and inform him of the outcomes here." Whilst acknowledging the chain-of-command xZot has become used to not having to report to a superior officer and is not looking forward to this part of returning to the regimented life of an employee of PGC. "He may also have further information for us that could be useful in our negotiations."
"Skipper, if Raid's group is going in mounted, it would be better if I went with them." Con points out "I have ridden in the past, and some extra fire power wouldn't hurt in case they run into trouble." GleepGlooup casts his lot in with Raid as well
"I believe I should accompany Raid to provide comm support." Gleep says "I would like to try to boost the range of the comm equipment."
"'Raid's Group! Raid's Group,' now it's all about 'Raid's Group'," complains Siu-Ling. "And here I thought Nounouche and I might get an afternoon to ourselves." She mumbles a few more ramblings in her human tongue before kicking a few rocks out of her path as she heads for the nearest bush. "OK, so let me know when we're ready to go on Raid's Trip," she is sure to stress the last two syllables.
xZot turns sharply toward Siu-Ling and speaks in a measured tone but leaving no one in doubt of his displeasure "Soldier! Stop right there, Chief Science Officer Raid would be the most senior officer in that team, as well as the pilot.
"Oh, shit!" thinks Siu-Ling right about that moment. "That's right!" Her eyes betray the realization as she listens to the senior yazirian
I shouldn't need to explain to you the need for a proper chain of command. I haven't needed to resort to enforcing a order that has been given but, I expect, no demand, that you fall into line and accept Raid's leadership if that is my decision." xZot would have stared Siu-Ling down had she made eye contact. Her remorseful gaze hints at the struggle to fight back a tear. The yazirian commander turns back to the remainder of the team who, by the looks on their faces, are obviously taken back. xZot makes a mental note to talk to Sni'ktl about Siu-Ling's recent behaviour. He had heard about the problems with the biological cycles of human females but wasn't about to let this break up the Gang's ability to function as a very effective team when the need calls for it.
xZot strides back to the jetcopter and rummages around in the cargo hold. Pulling out the planetary maps that they had obtained some time ago he opens them for all to see.
"We are over here at the moment" pointing near the Sathar artefact "and Mawson's Rest is over here. I realize that we will be flying over Ul-Mor country and will be very close the to Kurabanda during our return flight but we need to get back to Mawson's Rest first to recharge the parabatteries, take on fresh supplies and organize the teams before we tackle anymore diplomatic missions." pausing as he casts a glance toward Siu-Ling "This will also enable us to reunite with Nounouche and the other mounts. Don't forget that we have an operational Explorer in the garage there as well. After rethinking our options I don't think it will be necessary for Raid to take the Jetcopter if some of the team is mounted as it will be easier to just take the Explorer out, it can carry more supplies and can accommodate more passengers than a Jetcopter." Running his finger over the map to illustrate the flight route "If we fly back this way we may catch sight of the Ul-Mor on the way and this will reduce the time that team will take finding the tribe when they head out. As we know, time is of the essence people." xZot looks around the group to make sure everyone is following him and then continues.
"Apart from Nounouche I think Borovski's Loper is the only other mount at Mawson's. I'd be betting that Borovski would be keen to stretch his, and his loper's legs after being cooped up while we've been out here. I think the team to go out to the Ul-Mor should consist of Raid driving the Explorer with Con, and probably Jag for medical support, as passengers, with Siu-Ling and Borovski on mounts."
Recognizing the look on Gleep's face xZot ploughs ahead "Meanwhile I can take a Jetcopter with the second team to see the Kurabanda. Gleep, I have a few jobs for you. I will need you to retrofit a radio from Mawson's into the Explorer and train someone, probably Borovski, to use it. This will allow us to maintain radio contact regardless of the distance between the two teams. I'll need you to also fit and operate a radio in my Jetcopter and come with me to the Kurabanda. My team will consist of Sni'ktl, Gleep and Gloo since this is all that will fit into the Jetcopter. I'd like to take Crisbel as well but the only way I can see that being possible is if someone rides in the cargo hold. I think it would have to be a Dral given the space limitation but I couldn't ask any of you to do this so it looks like Crisbell, you might have to wait at Mawson's for our return. Depending on how fast everything happens my team may have time to fly down to Volkos to bring Jameson up to speed and get back before Raid's team returns. We can all then re-group at Mawson's and head back to Brucebane before contacting the Edestekai. Any questions?".
"Alright then, let's move out!" Gleep says
"Sure boss, anything you want." He then saunters away and can be heard to mutter, "Pretty Mean Stuff, Power Mad Sycophant, People Making Scenes...."
Raid climbs into the pilots seat and warms up his engine. "So, do you think we can get back before Zebulon sets?"
Siu-Ling's mind had been wandering as of late, and she had been rather forgetful. On one occasion, she had an unexplainable fear that blood
would rush down the shower faucet if she turned it on. It took her almost a minute to reason her way through such a delusion and now this. As she moves to board the jetcopter she says
"I'm sorry, Sir." she sniffs "I, I don't know what came over me." She gives Raid a glance of remorse as well, though she abstains from speaking any further. Pallor returns to her face, as the tingling sensation of her blood pressure dropping returns. This is more than just the lunar cycle, she suspects. Speaking up to ease the tension of the moment Gloo pipes up
"Well boss, I can ride with the cargo no problem here," he grins "I should show people how to recharge the batteries and packs as well" He continues. Gloo then moves off to the jetcopter to make room.
The team board their jetcopters for the flight back to Mawson's rest. GleepGlooup takes a seat up front next to xZot watching his every move and asking pointed questions, obviously keen to add a pilots licence to his resume. As the team flies back across the desert surface toward Volturnus the conversation turns back to the leg of their mission. Gloo ponders for a moment over the thought of taking the explorer and mounts.
"I personally think taking the explorer and mounts is a bad idea," he begins "Just how far are the Ul-Mor from Mawson's rest? How long will it take the mounts to get there? They'll need to stop and rest long before the explorer, not to mention we will most likely have to take extra food and water just for them, and also wandering through the desert wasn't without meeting wonderful beasties trying to eat us. No offence against the beasties, but like you mentioned we do have a time constraint here, anyway that's just my thoughts on that."
xZot nods silently as he too considers their options. How can we transport Nounouche and Borovski's loper by jetcopter? He wonders to himself. Maybe a sling under the jetcopter might be achievable but it doesn't seem that practical and may even be dangerous for those creatures, especially if they panicked.
"Good point Gloo." Raid answers "Those funnel worms could get the explorer stuck if one caught us off guard, or worse yet bring down a rider and mount. And don't forget the sand-blasting we took from the dust storms either."
Eventually xZot answers their questions aloud
"I think we need to wait for input from Commander Jameson, hopefully he will shed some light on this problem."
Several hours later the teams jetcopters arrive back at Mawson's rest to be greeted by the other members of the Black Hand Gang, Commander Jameson and a delegation of Eorna. Jameson quickly debriefs the team before introducing the Eorna who have come with news of the other races. Several of their people have already approached the Ul-Mor relating a basic version of events involving the Sathar so far. This should give the saviours of Volturnus, as they are now beginning to refer to the Gang, an better chance of convincing these would be allies to join the alliance. The Eorna ambassadors say the Ul-Mor have decided that the Eorna are distant ancestors who have taken a new form of The One. In addition they are able to plot the location of Athru's tribe at a peak to the south west of Raid's Landing.
When the Eorna complete their report the X-O, Mr Sp'ock approaches Commander xZot
"I insist on returning to active duty." The Vrusk officer states "As Executive Officer I am needed in the field at my commander's side" he enthuses "With GleepGlooup's increased technical capability we can now field another pilot so we can take both jetcopters to the kurabanda village while Raid commands the Ul-Mor expedition. Attaching OMAC to Raid's team and McKilin to your team will also give us two medics in each team" he adds significantly "or an extra person for vehicle security if need be."
xZot carefully considers his 2 IC's recommendations before giving any final orders to his troops before they embark on the next leg of their journey.
"It will take until tomorrow morning before the radios are fitted to the vehicles" Commander Jameson interjects "and it might not be a bad idea to let that crazy dralasite practice a couple of take off's and landings before you go." He smiles, jerking a thumb at GleepGlooup who is busy practising forming a jetcopter cargobay sized cube.
After some meditation Sni'ktl is pleased to have found a handle to Siu-Ling's condition within his own experience. He completes the foot-note describing Siu-Ling's recent symptoms as "Uno-psychosis" a possibly knew phenomena, the only known instance being induced by mental contact through the Ul-Mor with the One.
"I need a break," thinks Sni'ktl "all this analysing has raised static on my antennae." Picking up his all-weather blanket he walks out into the Volturnus desert towards the warmth of the human's campfire and the sound of merry laughter.
An informal briefing session has begun around the campfire with the recon team sharing their recent adventures with those who had remained at the ex-pirate outpost. The gaunt figure of Commander Jameson joins the group with the still injured Mr Sp'ock at his side, both deep in conversation.
"I will get right to work getting the radios properly installed." Gleep pipes up "I want to make sure they aren't going to fail on the way. After I get the radios in, I want to take a jetcopter a few clicks out to verify the gain over distance. I should be able to interpolate the expected maximum range and it will also give me some stick time."
Before setting out on the next mission, Raid spends several hours helping his tech buddies reprogram a robot to act as the team's mechanon interface. Raid feels a little uncomfortable with his designated rank and makes a conscious effort to not appear authoritative, especially around Siu-Ling after the recent incident.
"Remember, as soon as we make contact with the Ul-mor again, the ball is in your court. Science is my speciality. If any major decisions have to be made, I'll be listening to your advice." He pauses then adds as an afterthought "And we always have our radiophone if we need to contact xZot and the others."
"'Uno-psychosis'," Siu-Ling ponders after hearing Sni'ktl's diagnosis. "I think I just need a nap." Which elicits another round of laughter from those gathered around the fire.
"Oh great." The enforcer says to no one in particular. "Saviours. Deliver them from the wrath of the Sathar. No pressure there." What could pass as doubt soon gives way to inspiration and motivation to overcome the diabolical Sathar. "Then by all means, we must not let them down."
"Hey, what is this, a 'Let's Slot xZot' competition?" Siu-Ling asks her male and neuter colleagues as they bash the yaz in his absence. "I appreciate the support, but he was right, I was out of line. Even if he is a fuzzy air monkey!" she giggles.
Sni'ktl suppresses his laughing fit and decides that it is time to leave. The good humour of his comrades has left his antennae drained from all the keening (Vrusk laughter involves such rapid vibration of the antennae as to pass unnoticed to slower eyes and lower pitched auditory systems). All signs of stress static purged from his body, Sni'ktl arranges his blanket behind him, dons his sungoggles, shapes his antennae into ear points and scrunches up his mandibles in a surreal and pale/fair/striking (delete according to disguise skill role) imitation of xZot. As his finger hovers over his holstered laser pistol he says
"Time to go and get some air under these flaps", in an impersonation that bears a semblance of similarity for the xZot slotters with its amazing authenticity.
After deliberating over Sp'ock's recommendations xZot calls the gang back together to brief everyone on the next leg of their diplomatic missions. Commander Jameson's presence results in xZot addressing the group in a more formal tone than usual.
"I won't keep you long, time is running out while we stand here talking. Raid's team will be taking the Explorer to meet the Ul-Mor. It is fortuitous that Athru's camp is considerably closer that the last time we met them. Borovski and Siu-Ling, you will need to prepare your mounts for the journey. I realize they haven't had much work recently but we could do without any injuries from being thrown off before you even reach your destination. Some preparations for the long trek ahead will be essential to minimize injuries to both yourselves and the mounts. Jag, you and OMAC will be going with Raid in the Explorer. I am sure your medical skills will be of assistance but remember OMAC, Siu-Ling will be call the diplomatic 'shots' when the team meets up with Athru. Don't give her any grief, she will need to keep focused on the task at hand." OMAC grunts and nods in reply as xZot shoots a glance a Gleep and cannot suppress a thin smile.
"Gleep, I am very impressed with your cube forming abilities but if you can demonstrate that you are up to the task, I am prepared to give you a shot at piloting the spare Jetcopter. Sp'ock has indicated a strong desire to join our team and Crisbel's talents could also be indispensable, so with the additional members in our team the use of both Jetcopter's will make the transportation issues much more simple. As for today, I want all the Tech's working on the radio fitting or the robot reprogramming to get these task completed before we leave. On a lighter note, I'll be preparing a meal for everyone in the mess tonight. The opportunity to eat something other than rations has me motivated and I'm sure everyone is looking forward to a night's sleep in a real bed. We better make the most of it, it may be several days before Raid's team reach their destination. They'll be scratching sand out of every orifice before they return. Any questions? all right, let's get to it."
Con had gathered around with the rest of the team, listening to the words of the leader. When xZot didn't call his number for the trip, disappointed, he moved off, away from the rest of the team to make sure his equipment is in proper working order. After realizing that Con was omitted from the roll call xZot quickly moves to correct his error.
"I think that you should go with Raid to the Ul-Mor. I will let him know of the inclusion in his team. Your experience and talents will be required in defending the explorer and rest of the team in the event that trouble breaks out. While OMAC may also be providing military support, his medical skill will be needed and this may reduce his involvement should team be attacked. In the meantime, while everyone is working on the radios and robots, I need for you to make sure the explorer is sufficiently stocked with ammo and weaponry. Check with OMAC first but I think he stored his recoilless rifle in the jetcopter, you should grab it and store it in the Explorer, you never know it might come in handy." xZot heads to the store room with his quartermaster to check on the food situation.
After hearing xZot's inspiring speech, Gleep starts towards the 'copters to finish up with the radios.
"I will check the work on the Explorer next." He says and as he is walking away GleepGlooup lightly sings an old song he heard as a young bud.
"Yes, we have no bananas..."
"Make sure that there are sufficient rations in the Explorer for both the mounts and Raid's team." xZot voices to Gloo "They may need a few things just in case they run into trouble on their trip, they have plenty of room so don't be frugal." Gloo listens to xZot's requests on supplies.
"Well in order to give them the food they will require I need to know just what they plan on feeding these beasties. If it's from our supply then just how much do these things eat? I'll give them 20 days worth unless that's not enough." He ponders aloud "As for letting Con have the RR remember it only has 25 rounds available here, the rest were left at Brucebane. So do I have this right for Raids group there's Raid, Jag, Omac, Siu, Boro, and Con. For your helo it's you, me, Sp'ock and McKilin and for Gleep's express is it going to be Crisbell, X'anthe and good 'ol Snikkers?"
"Correct, except that McKilin and X'anthe will be staying here to co-ordinate things here at the base in our absence." Gloo looks around making sure they are out of the others hearing range.
"I mean far be it for me to criticize your unit organization but if this group is getting split into two groups shouldn't your X-O be in charge of the explorer group? Not to diminish Raids abilities or anything."
"As you know, Sp'ock didn't come out with us last time as he was still recovering from the injuries that he had been carrying from earlier battles." xZot answers "Since our return Sp'ock asked particularly to accompany us to the Kurabanda. As you've seen, Sp'ock takes his role as X-O very seriously and I don't generally question his motives on operational issues. Incidentally, as you know, I support an open command structure and encourage questions about our actions. Lets just say that Sp'ock's military background means that he approaches his duties with a far more regimented style, it might not be wise to let him think that you were questioning his responsibilities. Raid has proven himself very capable and he is well supported on this trek. Any problems that might come from his actions will be reviewed on his return and will, no doubt, reflect on future assignments. I wouldn't worry about it too much if I were you." Gloo listens to Xzot and adds
"Ah I see, was curious was all. Well if McKilin and X'anthe aren't going would it be feasible to ask them if they would mind lending their defensive suits out to somebody who doesn't have one? We have spares for others but for humans we are out and with the majority of them going to see the Ul-Mor who seem to like rituals involving the ever loveable and snuggley quickdeath."
xZot looks at Gloo as if trying to read any ripple of emotion on ids face
"A re-allocation sounds reasonable to me. Although you should be prepared for a reaction from X'anthe, especially if you are thinking of loaning her suit to Siu-Ling." A thin smile cracks xZot's dry lips "I am sure she will ultimately accede to your request without having to push it, but be prepared for a bit of lip. X'anthe can be a fiery one!"
Gloo starts to turn around but stops and mentions
"By the way Con still has your techkit. We have room for it on your helo and I'm sure he's tired of carrying it across the planet. If you'd like I can get it from him".
"I had forgotten about my kit. Just stow it in my `copter and you are right, I am sure Con will be relieved to be rid of it." The young yazirian commander nods back. The 'younger brother' approach to his leadership has been incredibly effective on Volturnus. The more physically capable members of the team have automatically protected the weaker ones who in turn, have carried the vital skill sets to overcome the intellectual obstacles.
"A wonderful synergy" he mutters to himself as the ever practical dralasite continued his observations.
"Also, I will be keeping the rest of the grenades unavailable until the sathar have arrived, unless of course we can get some from either the Eorna or the Mechs." xZot nods and the dralasite heads about his duties as xZot heads off to the galley.
Looking around at the food supplies xZot is some what disappointed that he doesn't have time to prepare anything too elaborate, instead he elects for a simple but hearty stew using fresh local wares. He also grabs the ingredients to prepare some fresh baked sweetbread as a treat. xZot reflects on the fact that he has never been able to bake like his mother despite his many attempts. He doubt's that too many people will complain; particularly since his outburst with Siu-Ling.
xZot had noticed that everyone has been smiling at him for no apparent reason and he has even caught a couple of people chuckling at the sight of him. It had somewhat unnerved him to the extent that he had been checking to make sure his suit was securely fastened or that he hadn't developed a rip in an unfortunate location. He had also checked that he didn't smell too bad.
"Maybe Sni'ktl had prescribed something to alleviate the tension that had been mounting in the past few days" he thinks as he dismisses his concerns as paranoia.
After getting the needed info from his commander, Gloo refills all available water packs collecting the empties from all team members and the various cargo holds and distributes the water packs with the extra food among the vehicles. Gloo then goes about the task of recharging all parabatteries. While recharging he makes sure the drivers of the vehicles are present and shows them how to recharge the parabatteries. After making sure even the bots batteries are fully charged, Gloo then moves on to the power packs, making sure everyone's power packs are full.
When Gloo approaches Con about xZot's techkit the big enforcer is more than happy to be rid of the kit and gladly turns it over. Once that is done, Con joins up with his assigned group and helps prepare for the upcoming mission. Con later joins the rest of the team for xZot's meal. Con takes his meal off to the side where he has semi privacy. Con does, however participate in the companionship of team getting involved in discussions about the mission at hand, football, or life in general with his team-mates.
xZot notices the dejected look on the enforcer's face, maybe he is not looking forward to another trek into the desert xZot thinks.
"Con, is there a problem?" genuine concern is evident in xZot's voice "A bit too much sand in your suit?" xZot chuckles in a effort to lighten the mood.
"Yeah Skipper. There is. All these local folk. Before I joined up with the Gang, I let my friends down. My failure got one of them killed, and the other one." The big warrior almost chokes up, a rare display indeed from the courageous soldier "I never found out what happened to her." The trooper looks directly into xZot's eyes, "Skipper, these people are counting on us. If we fail them." He pauses again to compose himself "I fear what the Sathar will do to them."
"So do I" xZot answers looking the human in the eye then continues with a big grin "But who else is there?" With the conversation done Con grabs his gear
Frontier Date 62.398Pf +102
The next morning a final check is made of all equipment, supplies, weapons and ammunition. The drivers, pilots and riders check their vehicles and mounts and both patrols leave on their assignments.
Raid makes sure a fully stocked techkit along with water and food supplies are in the explorer before rolling the heavy vehicle out of the outpost and onto the desert. Raid also keeps one or two ropes, with end loops, tied to the explorer exterior for emergency extraction's. With Boro and Siu-Ling riding close at his side, Raid drives slowly and recrosses the ancient canal, then heads southwest to skirt the shard plains at a respectable distance. He is counting on good information from the Eorna to avoid dust storms, and to quickly locate the Ul-mor camp.
"Someone, Con or Jag, could ride on the explorer's roof as lookout. Be watching for sand shark and funnel worm signs. In the event of a dust storm, the animals could take cover behind the vehicle with a tarp for extra protection."
"Roger that!" replies Jag as he climbs onto the roof of the vehicle and takes up the lookout position.
Leaving all his weapons except grenades in the jetcopter and take the Star Devil Captain's eye patch and heraldic shield with him as gifts for the Kurabanda King. Sni'ktl climbs aboard the jetcopter.
"I suggest we head straight for an audience with the king, perhaps xZot could lay on some kind of feast where we give over the presents and present something like a straight forward case." The pilot commander smiles wryly at his Chief Science Officer, oblivious of his suggestion and totally deaf from the noise of the jetcopter engines as they power up beneath them. Less than an hour later, both jetcopters are settling safely to the ground near the forest edge as close as possible to Auramada's village. xZot's squad disembark from the choppers and head into the forest toward the Kurabanda settlement.
Upon arrival at the Kurabanda village, xZot and company are met by a party of 10 Kurabanda warriors. The warriors immediately recognize their old friends and escort the player characters immediately to Chief Auramada.
After some initial chat, Auramada demands to know why the Black Hand Gang are here.
"Your majesty," Sni'ktl begins "your meeting with us at short notice does us great honour and we present you with hard-won trophies as befits your strength and courage. We also bring news that another great enemy would come here to enslave all the races of Volturnus and lay waste to your beautiful forest. An alliance is forming to defend Volturnus from this new evil. Please hear the petitions of my comrades and share with us your wisdom on this matter."
Sni'ktl stands aside while his comrades speak. As planned with his comrades, he observes the king's emotional responses closely and scritches two legs together when the king likes what is being said and scratches his aureoles when the king is unimpressed. Initially xZot takes his diplomatic lead from Sni'ktl during the meeting with the Kurabanda but now he steps forward to plead their case.
The chief tries to display his wisdom and authority whenever possible and Sni'ktl gets the distinct impression that he dislikes being told what to do, or being made to seem ignorant. Of all the Kurabanda, he is the most easily insulted. On the other hand, the battles with the space pirates have taught him that there are "demons" who come from the stars and must be destroyed. This is obviously how he interprets what xZot tells him of the Sathar. Once xZot has made known their request, Auramada pauses, considers the situation for a while, and then renders this decision:
"It is much that you ask of us. The Ul-Mor were our enemies long ago. The Edestekai are no friends of ours. Yet you suggest we should trust them as allies in battle. No sane chief would accept such a proposal. There is, however, one way for you to get what you want. That is to retrieve the Sacred Idol. For he who holds the Sacred Idol is chosen by the gods to lead the Kurabanda in battle. The Sacred Idol was stolen many years ago by a demon in the form of a large bird. It was taken to the Demon's Temple in the forbidden area. If you go there and bring back the Sacred Idol, I and all my people will do as you ask."
Auramada offers the squad a guide to the "forbidden area' and such food and other assistance as the Kurabanda can provide.
Meanwhile, across the desert sands...
As night falls, Raid studies the star patterns overhead and compares them with a compass to aid in navigation. The rising and setting sun provide another check to back up compass readings. The only sign of steady progress for most of the trip is the relentless addition on the explorer's odometer.
Frontier Date 62.397Pf +103
The explorer chews up the kilometres and even though the team is slowed by the pace of Borovski's loper and Siu-Ling's mount, they reach the site of Athru's camp early the next morning.
Upon contact with the Ul-mor Raid breathes a sigh of relief and shuts down the engine. He lets the riders of both groups meet at a distance to avoid spooking the animals with his oversized vehicle leaving the diplomacy to Siu-Ling. Nounouche's eager canter slows to a cautious approach as Siu-Ling guides him to halt. Raid squints and puts a hand to his forehead to block Zebulon's sunlight to get a better view of the interchange. The woman's feet touch the ground and she pauses for a moment, as a senior loper approaches. Riding atop the mature female mount is most likely Athru, dressed in the ceremonial plumage of his people.
She approaches the Ul-Mor. The loper drops and rests on its underside as Siu-Ling takes a few more steps forward. A tentacle extends to meet her outstretched arms. The embrace comes slowly, followed by the insertion of Athru's spinal tentacle into her own neurology. For a moment, all is silent, and dark. It is as if she has never left. Athru is with her in the darkness, as are the thoughts of her others. It is as if planets were aligning before her. It is as if she were inside a womb, her mother's resonating voice wrapping itself around her like a blanket of warmth. And she is home. Raid ducks his head from the sunroof, turns to his passengers and asks in a low tone,
"Is she crying?" The woman's rhythmically shrugging shoulders and bowed head suggest so, though Athru's tentacles appear to be moving in a comforting manner.
Raid's team has arrived safely at the Ul-Mor settlement and been greeted by Athru, an Ul-Mor chieftain. In the discussions that follow, Athru explains to them via Siu-Ling's mind link their good fortune in arriving in time to witness the Great Game, one of the most important rituals of the Ul-Mor. Athru also points out the new forms of The One assumed by tribal members who have finished their existence as Ul-Mor. This sort of talk continues for some time. When Siu-Ling begins to explain the importance of their mission, Athru asks them to wait until a council of Ul-Mor elders can be assembled.
Later that day, after much catching up between old friends, Siu-Ling explains the nature of the Sathar threat and asks that the Ul-Mor join with the other races of Volturnus in order to combat it. The Ul-Mor seem to be able to understand and sympathize with the character's hatred for the evil Sathar, although space travel and the use of advanced technology is beyond the Ul-Mor's understanding. It would seem that prior to the teams arrival, the Ul-Mor received a similar story from the Eorna. The Ul-Mor have decided that the Eorna are distant ancestors who have taken a new form of The One. Once Siu-Ling has explained the situation to Athru, he breaks the mind link and confers with the other Ul-Mor elders who have been waiting patiently as Athru communicated with Siu-Ling.
The Ul-Mor wave their tentacles about, in what may be a series of elaborate gestures. Athru utters some kind of chant which your poly-vox cannot translate, and the Ul-Mor elders establish mind links themselves. After a debate, during which all the elders seem to become highly excited, Athru returns and communicates the following:
"We have heard of the great danger from the sky. Our ancestors with the long tails have told us. Truly it is a mystery why The One would take such an evil form. The Ul-Mor are strong! The Ul-Mor will fight the evil. But we do not fight with silly Kurabandas beside us. We do not fight with arrogant Edestekai beside us. Ul-Mor fight alone! We do not like silly Kurabanda and proud Edestekai.
All the elders of all Ul-Mor tribes have met, for the ancestors have requested that we fight alongside these others. The request of ancestors is not a thing to be taken lightly. This is our decision. We will fight with you, and with the silly Kurabanda and proud Edestekai only if one of you proves worthy to lead us. To do this, you will take part in the Great Game as representatives of the tribe of Athru!"
Athru further explains that there are five Ul-Mor tribes represented in the Great Game, each with four warriors participating. If one of the four team members does not win, it will bring great dishonour to the tribe. However, to prove worthy of leadership in battle, it is not necessary that a player character win the Great Game. It is only necessary that one of them remain mounted at the end of the game. Finally, Athru asks the players if they would rather ride lopers, as the Ul-Mor do, or strange beasts called horses, which were sent by the ancestors for the player characters' use. The Tomar's horses are fitted with saddles appropriate for the members of the party.
Con turns to Raid,
"If you need someone to represent the team, I'll be more than happy to do it."
"Are you good with a ball? That would be great if you are, although we only need to stay mounted. Let's decide who our four best riders are then," Raid smiles at Con. "If you think you can beat the Ul-Mor at their own game well then I say go for it!"
Con flashes Raid a confident look.
"I had some success in youth football. I'm big, strong, not the fastest, not the slowest either. Oh yeah, I can ride a little bit, I mean a little bit." Then all seriousness returns to the face of the enforcer. "But I have the heart to beat these guys."
Raid thinks for a short time after the Ul-Mor have described their ritualistic game and its rules.
"OK people, listen up, here are the rules used by the Ul-Mor when they play the Great Game:
1.) Spectators are not normally allowed to participate in any way in the Great Game. However, if the sand shark attacks a dismounted player character, any spectators can attack the sand shark in order to save the endangered players.
2.) The object of the game is to ride from behind the first stake to the other end of the filed, go around any of the three stakes at that end, come back down the field, pick up the ball, and carry the ball back behind the first stake.
3.) The winner of the game is the first rider to get the ball back behind the first stake. However, in order to win, that rider must at some time during the game have ridden around one of the three stakes at the far end of the filed.
4.) The ball can be taken from the set-up square only by a rider counter who rides around one of the three stakes at the west end of the filed before touching the ball. After the ball has been taken from the set-up square, any other rider counter may handle the ball without first riding around the stakes at the west end of the filed.
5.) Riders are permitted to knock other riders off their mounts, but riders are not allowed to use any kind of weapon against other riders. Weapons can be used when necessary to defend against the sand shark. Ul-Mor riders are armed with spears; player characters can carry any weapons they wish.
6.) Any rider who is knocked off his mount is out of the game.
7.) If all riders are knocked off their mounts, the last rider to hit the ground is declared the winner.
8.) If the rider carrying the ball is knocked off his mount, any other rider may pick up the ball. The ball may change possession any number of times.
9.) The game ends the instant any player gets behind the first stake with the ball and wins." Raid sweeps his gaze around the Black Hand Gang Team.
"Umm alright Con. You're captain of our team, since you're probably the best rider we have. Choose your three team mates, likely Boro, Siu-Ling and Raid and come up with a game plan. I think the Ul-Mor want to be impressed. Let's not let them down. I can ride one of the horses myself, but never really had the discipline for sports when I was in school."
"OK Raid. Give me some time to pick the best personnel and watch some of the warm up drills to get a feel of the game. I think I would be able to handle a Tomar's horse better than the other type of mount. I'll assemble the team then will plot strategy." The enforcer approaches Siu-Ling. "Siu-Ling, if I may have a moment of your time. I was wondering if you would be interested in joining us in the great game. Your experience with the Ul-Mor would be of great benefit to the team. Any input you can contribute to our overall strategy would be most appreciated. Let's see if we can put out a quality team on the field."
Siu-Ling casually smiles and leans towards her con specific as she relates a brief ethnography of ul-mor culture,
"The Ul-Mor are, I'm gonna use the pronoun 'we' even though I know my body's human, we're like cells, you know? Part of a tissue that is still a smaller part of an organ, and so on. The synchronicity of will and purpose among what we would call in Pan Galactic, individuals, is simply the One manifesting itself collectively. Athru can tell you all about it. Link with him. It's like understanding the wordless thoughts and motives of your host. Because biological Ul-Mor, now it's they not we, are much more integrated in thought and purpose than us, they will have a co-ordinating advantage over us. Maybe we can get a few of them on our team. I'm pretty good with the hand-eye sports, but not a great runner. I still haven't been able to master the loper, but maybe this'll be my opportunity to sink or swim," Siu-Ling adds to the conversation.
Borovski volunteers immediately to join the team, apparently football fever is contagious and Con now has a spring in his step as he casts an eye over the obstacles arrayed around the playing field. As he strolls back to his team mates he hums softly under his breath a popular, twenty year old theme song, from a holovid about some fictitious Zamra player from Gran Quivera. Jag and OMAC take up a position along the sideline, OMAC, eyeing the telltale mound of the sandshark in the playing area is unconciously stroking his carefully oiled Recoilless Rifle.
Meanwhile, over at the Kurabanda village...
xZot ponders briefly over Auramanda's decision but recognizes that there is little choice
"If retrieving the Sacred Idol is the only way of uniting the Kurabanda behind the cause, then so be it. Make the necessary arrangements and we will leave as soon as possible. Time is definitely not on our side." Assembling his team xZot reviews the information that the Kurabanda can supply about the location and details of the forbidden area and what is known about the demon in bird form. "How long ago was the Sacred Idol taken?" xZot questions the guide "Maybe if we are lucky this demon won't be expecting an attempt to recover the item."
Gleep tells xZot
"It might be best to park the copters before we actually get near a large bird. It might take offence at another flying object." xZot acknowledges Gleep's suggestion
"I agree. We are not set-up for aerial combat so this must be avoided at all costs. I am hoping that we can get into the area unnoticed and retrieve the Idol before we are discovered." xZot, together with Gleep, discuss with the Kurabanda guide the possible locations for setting down the 'copters so as to draw as little attention as possible. Taking on the necessary supplies xZot ensures that there is sufficient room in the 'copter for the guide and his equipment and, after completing the pre-flight checks, he gives the orders to move out.
Sni'ktl stretches out in the jetcopter, a feeling of satiation following the feasting last night. xZot and the Kurabanda chefs had really pulled out all the stops and the Kurabanda sure know how to enjoy a feast. Sni'ktl looks forward to the task ahead. The giant bird sounds like an excellent new example of Volturnus fauna. Probably a species that collects bright objects like Sacred Idols and takes them back to the nest or bower. Such a bird's bower would certainly appear to primitive cultures much as a demon's temple. Sni'ktl sets aside all his belongings except his enviro-kit, med-kit and sungoggles. Anticipating a peaceful mission he reclines his seat and reflects on the previous evening's celebrations.
"Moving out boss." I will suggest we fly nap-of-the-earth to draw as little attention as possible. If we see anything else flying, we probably should land right away and stay in the copters so we aren't taken for worms.
When the Black Hand Gang talks of plans to fly to the forbidden area, Auramanda objects strongly. He explains that flying over the area is extremely dangerous; this is one of the reasons the area is forbidden. All Kurabanda who have tried to hang glide in the area have been killed by the Wind of the Demon, a strange disturbance of the air which upsets any type of flying device.
xZot nods his acknowledgement of the Kurabandas chieftain concern but has faith that the jetcopters will probably be better suited to the job than a Kurabanda glider. The commander orders his birds aloft and the pair of jetcopters and their motley crew lift off heading northwest for several hours. xZot's still damaged engine begins to show some sign of wear as it lags behind the second flyer on this trip.
Sharp eyes first spot the huge crater from a distance of about 5 kilometres. It is indeed huge, extending to the horizon. As you fly nearer to the rim of the crater, you see some enormous explosions in the air ahead of you, over the crater itself. These explosions appear as sudden flashes of fire which last only a few seconds. They seem to be occurring randomly.
You see near the centre of this huge crater that there is an even deeper crater, a crater within a crater. In the very centre of this second crater, a rocky pinnacle, stands, towering toward the sky to a height of more than 100 meters. The rock tower itself does not appear to be more than 10 meters in diameter at the top; at the bottom it is much larger. The explosions nearby, along with the dangerous up and down drafts the pilots have noticed, will make it impossible to get all the way to the rocky pinnacle and back by air. Some part of this expedition will have to be made on foot. In the back seat of their respective choppers, Mr Sp'ock and Crisbel are holding on for grim death as the pilots plot their courses toward the fiery turbulence ahead over the crater.
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