Chapter 18: Sundown on Starmist 18.01 18.02 18.03 18.04 18.05 18.06 18.07 18.08 18.09 18.10 18.11 (Mission Time: 56.346Pf - 14.077)
Frontier Date 14.022
As the motley crew of Frontiersmen and women known collectively as the Black Hand Gang recline in their frozen slumber, the years slip by. The first of the true Mega Corps, Pan Galactic grows and evolves across known space as the area beyond the Greater Morass claims hundreds of exploration vessels.
Then the sathar came, in force. The First Sathar War was fought and won by the united forces of the four races of the Frontier while Volturnus this time, was largely overlooked except as a staging point for Sathar fleets attacking the Truane's Star system. After the end of the war the four races founded the United Planetary Federation for their mutual defence and Spacefleet was established. New worlds are discovered, new corporations attain Mega Corp status and the Frontier continues to grow.
Seventy years tick by before the Eorna revive xZot and his team once more. The Eorna facility has been dramatically expanded by the time the Black Hand Gang are called upon once more to serve the Eorna and their Great Mission. This time the entire staff have been revived and brought together for the next mission. xZot, Con, Raid, Sni'ktl, Siu-Ling, Gleep and Gloo bring the rest of the team up to date on the previous rescue mission before Jameson once more takes charge of the team's briefing session.
"Welcome back folks!" Jameson delivers his wicked smile with the greeting as everyone gets comfortable around the conference room table. "You will all have plenty of time to catch up on what happened during your nap and rest assured, you haven't missed out on all the action. This time you're heading 'off planet' people. Our hosts and sponsors, the eorna have developed a pretty extensive intelligence network across the Frontier and have stumbled across an opportunity too good to pass up." Jameson fires his smile about the table like a high powered beam weapon. "We need you to make contact with an individual who may have discovered a new planetary system and new life forms, something you all have valuable experience with. He is looking for specialists for a private expedition and we have already taken the liberty of submitting several of your resumes, as it were." Jameson pauses as he prepares some audio visual aids for the next part of his briefing.
"Maximillian Malligigg, a former second-master and navigator of a Vrusk freemerchant ship, will hire you for a private expedition to an uncharted planet he calls Starmist. During his last voyage, Malligigg made an emergency landing on Starmist. The planet was within the normal environmental ranges for all races.
According to Max, the surface of Starmist is broken by cracks that are kilometres deep, called rifts. It was in one of these rifts that his ship landed. In the rift the crew found intelligent life: a predominantly nomadic culture and one native village located along the river near a narrow section of the rift. Maximillian learned the native language using polyvox computers and that the natives called themselves Heliopes.
During the course of his short stay on the planet, Maximillian found a small piece of fused metal near the village. The native culture lacked the sophistication to produce high temperatures, and it was obvious the metal had not fused by natural means, such as volcanic action. Max took the metal with him when he left Starmist.
Later Max had the piece of material tested and found it to be a product of nuclear fusion. This information startled him, for it implied that an advanced civilization may have been on Starmist sometime in the past. Since he knew an official expedition would be sent to Starmist soon following his captain's report to the authorities, Max is eager to get there first. If he could find evidence of a lost civilization, and perhaps locate some artifacts, he could become a wealthy man. Therefore, after raising the funds, he purchased and refitted an old ship, the VSS Last Legs, and is about to hire you to accompany him to Starmist on an interstellar treasure hunt." Jameson pauses as he looks around the room for the groups initial reaction before continuing. "This afternoon you will depart from Volturnus for the Truane's Star system. From there you will make your own way to Arraks where Max is making his final preparations. Sign on with his crew, get down to Starmist and find out exactly what is going on."
xZot still finds himself stretching his neck in an effort to relieve a tension that feels similar to that he would have felt if he'd slept the wrong way, for seventy years. "Got to remember to keep my neck straight..." he mutters as he listens to Jameson layout their next mission, the ever reliable Mr Sp'ock at his shoulder once again.
Around the conference table Jameson gets a mixed reaction from the members of the Black Hand Gang. The diversity of talent and personality has been concentrated by the common traumatic experiences of the one way time travellers. X'anthe is all business immediately and literally, using the conference rooms computer terminal she begins accessing the groups investment fund statistics for an assessment of current team assets.
OMAC's stony visage almost appears to be sleeping with his eyes open whilst James McKilin's eyes haven't moved off X'anthe. Con stretches and yawns still waking up from his extended sleep. Sni'ktl scritches once where the last cryo tube was removed from his aureoles.
"Seventy friggin' years." Con says in a low angry tone. "I should be spending time with great grand children, telling them stories of glories of adventures past as Adi prepares... Great Maker!" Con sobs "I'm so sorry Adi, please forgive me." He refocuses, finding relief in the company of his mates, making corny jokes about not ageing in 70 years.
"We're your family now Con." Borovski offers his fellow time warrior. Sni'ktl spends much of his time confirming flat line ageing, cancer and mental development curves for the team, trying not to bore them too much with the personality profile tests. Con makes it plain he is not pleased to see Jameson. The look on his face tells it all. He does not speak of his displeasure with the team. Con shows him the proper respect, but deep down, he does not hold Jameson in as high regard as he once did, that much is evident. After Jameson opens up the briefing for questions Gloo asks the former Truane's Star Lieutenant Commander,
"So do we get to take the explorer or what? What are we supposed to do exactly? This Maximillian character is looking for treasure or what ever but what are we supposed to be doing really, I doubt you woke us after 70 freaking years just to go on an excursion to make him wealthy."
Struggling with the reality that seventy years had passed by xZot can only wonder what makes this 'discovery' special, so special that it beats the Sathar War for a reason to wake the Gang for a mission! However, knowing that he needed to appear supportive of Jameson's leadership xZot agrees with his plans without question. Any private concerns xZot may have were not evident in his outward appearance as he goes about preparing the group for their next jaunt.
Raid also had a feeling that clone Jameson and the eorna knew a lot more than they were saying. The eorna were a little too secretive for him, but he figured they must have their reasons. "The name 'Last Legs' doesn't give me too much confidence in the ship. Let's hope it gets us there. I suppose the eorna don't want us to use one of their ships any more than they want us to use their crystal technology. All part of our covert status."
"Correct." Confirms Jameson "Under the circumstances I don't think it is practical taking vehicles from Volturnus to Araks via commercial freight and after viewing some of the data on Starmist I'm not sure how much good they would be." Jameson then addresses the entire company. "Your experience in first contact scenarios with new races is extremely valuable to the eorna and the Great Mission and is the reason you have been assigned this mission. The Volturnus Trading Company will also have the usual salvage rights for any assets you may liberate along the way, for those of you with a more mercenary bent. Or the mere prospect of adventure itself, for those of you who have yet to have your fill. For the rest of us," Jameson indicates toward xZot and Sp'ock in particular, "it's all about duty."
"Four million." X'anthe announces abruptly. "Four million and ninety eight thousand, two hundred and thirty seven point four two credits to be precise." She confirms. "That's the balance of the Volturnus Trading Company account people. That equates to three hundred and fifteen thousand, two hundred and forty nine point oh three credits each."
"The hull of your salvaged ship from the last mission is orbiting near a shipyard at Truane's Star awaiting orders for parts from the VTC, something you can attend to during your journey across the Frontier." Jameson continues "Gloo, the eorna will take an order for equipment from you and send it to Truane's Star this evening so that everything will be waiting for you there. Tomorrow morning you will all depart for Truane's Star a 5 day journey. There will be a brief lay over before you depart for Dixon's Star and from there it's up to you."
The group breaks up to attend to their gear, place orders with Gloo and brush up on the last 70 years of history on the Frontier. After the briefing, Con ventures off alone checking out his updated gear. On their way out of the briefing room Raid suddenly realizes that his father, if still alive, must be well over one hundred years old by now!
Gleep rearms what weapons he had used in the teams previous adventure and checks the status of his suit. Con joins him in the armoury testing his own arsenal. "Damn, boys. I need some practice with this disruptor thingie. Didn't hit a friggin' thing with it." Con says turning to xZot, "It's got to be that the sights are off, you can't expect a stinkin' pirate to maintain their weapons properly."
Gloo gathers the rest of the teams excess gear and places it into packing crates then Gloo puts all of his weapons except the sonic sword and sonic stunner in a lockable travel chest. As part of the preparation xZot checks in with Gloo to give him his equipment requisitions. "I'm not going anywhere this time without a gas mask! Surely we must have one somewhere?" he asks "I'm sick of being knocked out by gas because I can't hold my breath long enough! Also, I need my beltpack recharged and two extra clips."
Gloo puts together his own list of requisitioned items: bandolier sling with 10 shotgun clips: for shotgun. Bandolier sling with 10 autorifle clips for autorifle, 1 pair infrared goggles, 10 incendiary grenades, 10 fragmentation. Raid asks the eorna to rig up a safe sling for airlifting his hovercycle and Snik also orders 5 tangler clips and 20 tangler grenades.
After seeing to their commissary requirements of the team retire to their own rather spartan quarters set aside by the eorna for their privacy. OMAC and several others head to the gym for a stretch and workout while the likes of McKilin and the other scientists head for the library and computer terminals. Later that evening the group reassembles for dinner, xZot serving up his speciality, BBQ grilled sandshark.
The next morning the Black Hang Gang departs Volturnus for Truane's Star, a five day journey and a seven day lay over. Con uses the time to acquire some basic computer skills while the rest of the team collect their orders from various establishments around the city. X'anthe sets up an office and shop front for the Volturnus Trading Company, selling authentic souvenirs from the Battle of Volturnus in the form of the teams store of arms gathered during their adventures after crash landing on Volturnus 77 years ago. Crisbel and McKilin remain on Pale with X'anthe to staff the local operation, Borovski and OMAC will set up a similar presence at Prenglar, Mr Sp'ock and Siu-Ling, the same in Araks. The team depart for Dixon's Star then Prenglar and Athor to arrive in Araks 43 days later.
Frontier Date 14.027
Gloo walks up to xZot during their layover on Truane's Star. "Boss we need to get an explorer. There's just too much equipment to carry, and relaying back and forth to get it from the ship would take too long especially if we have a wounded in need of medical attention and the spare kits are back in the ship. Not to mention it would be much easier to bring back to the ship whatever is found there. It would be nice to get a trailer as well."
"Good idea Gloo." Says Raid "Those explorers can handle almost any terrain, and they provide basic shelter as well." Raid helps the team with the acquisition of any large vehicles during the layover and shells out more of his own credits for another rugged hovercycle he tries to obtain an ex-military model with five coats of armour, but in the end has to settle for a standard civilian model.
"From the report that I have just heard from X'anthe, having the money to fit us out properly does not seem to be any problem and I agree that it is important that we are as well equipped as is possible." xZot comments after reviewing all the requests for additional equipment. Approving the acquisitions without question xZot wholeheartedly supports the need for an Explorer, and possibly a trailer set-up, to assist in the movement of the Gang and their equipment. "Gloo and Raid, I'll leave the purchases in this regard to you. Fit the vehicle out as you see necessary."
Gloo also expresses a desire to get another radio phone and a weapon hatch mount for the explorer during the shopping spree. The radiophone is no problem but he also has trouble getting the vehicle fitted with military style modifications. Gleep takes on the burden of new communications equipment from Gloo, that is after all his job. Gleep checks that everyone's chronocoms are good to their maximum range of 1 kilometre then orders a radiophone for the explorer as well as one for the hovercycle and a spare set for storage on board the ship.
Sni'ktl checks that B1 and B2 are fully loaded with gear and checks that they still follow the same command vocabulary after 70 years. The CMO continues his work with the science team to identify the impacts of frontier technology Volturnus. He is pleased to note the slick from the crashed ship is not noticeable. He puts his finishing touches to his paper "A web we weave: degradability of tangler threads in multi phasic environments" and submits this to "Supernature".
Gleep also purchases an albedo screen and a new skeinsuit, and orders 3 tangler, 3 frag and 3 incendiary grenades. A check of ammo levels and power levels in his belt and backpacks is also in order he decides. "No sense approaching the unknown without an ability to handle any situation."
Enquiries into the space available on board the VSS Last Legs confirms that the team can take an explorer and a hovercycle on the mission and appropriate orders are placed at outlets closer to their final destination.
During the trip to Araks xZot spends time catching up on the last 70 years of history, focusing on the technical and computer advances that have occurred. xZot offers his expertise to Con in assisting in his Write Program project; if for nothing else xZot could use the practice with this computer skills.
"Boss, I am a soldier first. I am thinking something along the lines of a security program to help protect the team, or an infiltration program that can play havoc with an enemies computer system when we are in the middle of an operation. What do you think?" Con welcomes xZot's assistance in analysing and writing the programs and they focus their efforts on Installation Security programs, xZot's personal speciality.
During the journey Sni'ktl watches the Captain Maximillian noting every twitch, every crossed arm or folded leg. Humans being restricted to four limbs have a hundred fold less macro body language expressions as Vrusks. Still the facial morphology is something else. At least the Captain wasn't a dral. Try one of those for body language! Sni'ktl analyses his data to develop a psycho profile of the Captain and begins mapping out a model that will aid his comprehension of this man and interpret his motives. Gloo looks over the vessel, getting more and more curious about star ship functions.
"Now I wish I had gone into a more technical area of expertise." Gloo looks for all the life boat and escape pod areas, "Yep definitely a vrusk ship." He says while looking around and finding a head customized for the big insectoids. Gloo looks around and then asks the ships Vrusk engineer if there is a power recharge station onboard and heads off to top up everyone's rechargeable items. Gloo then asks Max if he was able to get a polyvox to understand the language these beings speak and tries to get all of the party members polyvoxs programmed with all available data. He spends the remainder of his time moving gear into new explorer in the hold of the ship.
Raid asks Max for a more thorough description of the fused material but their vrusk employer is not willing at this stage to part with the artifact, even for scientific testing. Several days later, Max and his vrusk engineer and pilot, transport the team successfully into the Sundown star system and into orbit around their destination before descending to the planets surface.
Frontier Date 14.077
During the ships descent Gloo tries using some of the ships cameras to get a better picture of the village. "Hey Max, is that energy sensor getting any energy readings nearby?"
"No." The captain answers as he casts his eyes across his instruments. "No such luck lad."
"I wonder if those eorna can teach me skills involving starships?" Gloo ponders, wishing knew more about ships systems than does now.
Maximillian has landed the VSS Last Legs in the same rift site as before. He wishes to proceed immediately to the village area and re-establish contact with the natives. He wants to learn more about the fused material. For this reason you must take care to maintain friendly relations with the Heliopes, for Max feels that the secret of the strange material is in the area of the village. The village culture is obviously more highly developed than that of the other nomads in the rift. Aerial photographs taken during re-entry show sizeable buildings and a large complex on platforms standing in the river.
xZot and his crew assemble their equipment and robots and disembark the "Last Legs". The VSS Last Legs has a Vrusk pilot and engineer who will under all circumstances remain with the ship Maximillian informs the team as they prepare to explore this strange new world. Spread before them is a deep rift valley, misty in the distance. On either side soar the towering stone walls of the rift, forbidding any ascent. Straight ahead, gentle rolling hills covered in tall waving grasses merge with a mass of green forest. Upon landing Gloo uses the ships cameras to get a better view of the surrounding area.
"Hmm don't see a welcoming party. Boss I hope we don't have to do any of those funky rituals like we did with the Volturnus natives." Gloo then asks which weapon do they want mounted in the top hatch of the explorer before heading out. Gloo gets himself ready while the group heads out. Raid unloads his hovercycle from the hold and gets it up and running as quickly as possible, while Con scouts the area.
"I'll just strap a vaporscanner to my handlebar and get constant air readings while we move along. This rift valley atmosphere is intriguing. How it remains stable considering the rest of the planet's surface." He keys his chronocom for a radio test. "I wonder if the walls of the rift have any effect on radio communication. I suppose line of sight comms should be no problem though." The enforcer takes in a deep breath of fresh air and slowly exhales.
"Damn that feels good. So glad to be off that stuffy old ship." The enforcer takes a look around at his surroundings and then at the team and finally at Max. "So where is this village and do you think they will welcome you back with open arms?" Con says to Max. After getting an answer from Max, Con steps away from the team to get a little personal space. Con reaches for the ring that is on a chain around his neck. He says something to himself that no one on the team can hear and kisses the ring, then he places the ring underneath his shirt and steps back to the team.
"What direction? I'll walk point." Asks Con as he walks to the front of the party. Enjoying the fresher air of a planet, Gleep takes his place near the commander for communications duty on any walking treks. Casting a glance over the group to ensure everyone has taken up their position, xZot give the signal to move out. The towering walls of the rift to their sides ensuring that the groups only course is straight ahead across the grassy hills
"Everyone on the lookout people, a new planet under our feet only brings new, unknown dangers."
The journey to the forest edge is a good fifteen miles from the landing site and the team are grateful for bringing their vehicles but the forest ahead looks quite thick and may provide a serious obstacle for the explorer and perhaps even the hovercycle. The distance to the frost edge is chewed up quickly and soon the team have to make a decision about their travel arrangements.
From 20 metres away all you can see of the forest is a dismaying tangle. But trees on the fringe show mighty trunks having an umbrella like spread of flimsy branches reaching to the ground and covered with feathery leaves. The distance between one trunk and another is ample for passage, although it is almost impossible to see a trunk until you are near it. This single species of tree dominates the forest, with many other varieties of the same species intermingled. Ground vegetation is sparse, and the soil firm and occasionally rocky. After examining the terrain a discussion ensues as to whether to remain with the vehicles or proceed on foot.
"A vehicle will not be able to manoeuvre in the close confines of the forest." Maximillian points out.
"The overhead branches will prevent any lift upward by a flying vehicle." Raid observes as he dismounts from his hovercycle at the forest edge.
"The vehicles might also frighten the locals." Max adds. "Perhaps we should leave the vehicles here and we can come back for them after meeting the villagers?" Reluctantly Gloo and the others agree to Max's plan but not before making some effort to camouflage them first with some of the umbrella like branches.
As xZot leads his team into the thick groupings of trees, masses of low hanging branches surround the party. Travel is slow and vision is limited. Suddenly you hear a loud screech and whizzing sounds as small stones fly past your ears. The stones seem to be coming from beneath the trees, and you glimpse what appear to be pincer like hands. Con blinks and winces when a pair of stones strike home leaving a rather nasty gash in his cheek and an ugly bruise on his chest (5 points to Con, 6 to suit). Out of the trees burst more than half a dozen Heliopes.
Heliopes stand erect and average two metres tall. They look slightly reptilian. The head is man shaped with a long, sensory, whip like antenna dropping down from the rear and curving back up into the air. Heliopes have large teeth and mandibles for chewing and cutting and one large central eye that is protected by bony ridges and two nictating membranes. Heliopes possess two long arms but the "hands" are two pincers, slightly rigid, with a sharp nail along the edges. Two extremely powerful legs dominate the lower body. A long tail sweeps up like a scorpion's, to rest over the shoulder. The feet are large, long and splayed. Heliopes have translucent skin. The normal network of upper musculature and veins is visible and Heliopes vary in colours from violet to deep purplish red. The whip tail changes colour toward the tip to opaque, shiny black.
Countless battles against all manner of enemies give the members of the Black Hand Gang all the experience and skills they need to retaliate to the sudden attack. Weapons are quickly brought to bear and the charging Heliopes receive a barrage of fire from their intended targets.
Caught by surprise Con blazes away at his attackers with his laser rifle while behind him, Raid steps to the left and fires his blaster twice at the nearest Heliope. His second shot hits the creature square in the chest (21 points) but fails to even slow it down. Opting for a non-lethal solution, xZot and Sni'ktl lob doze and tangler grenades respectively, succeeding only in scattering the oncoming attackers. Gleep adds to the light show until Gloo opens up with his autorifle, spraying lead into the two leading Heliopes (15 points each) as his weapon roars to life.
Taken slightly aback by the strange weaponry unleashed at them, the Heliopes appear almost stunned, allowing the Black Hand Gang an opportunity for a second volley before their attackers close in. Con steadies and takes an aimed shot, striking one of the wounded attackers (32 points) and knocking him to the ground. Raid continues firing at the second wounded Heliope, hitting him again (20 points) this time burning a hole through his eye and killing him. xZot hurls another doze grenade, this time far too long and Sni'ktl repeats the feat with a tangler grenade. Gloo fires another burst from his autorifle into the onrushing group of Heliopes, this time wounding three more (15 points each) but Gleep manages to miss everything again.
Then the Heliopes are among them, flailing away with their pincers and gnashing with their mandibles. Everyone but Con sustains a bruise or cut or slight injury from a pincer or bite in the ensuing melee as the team struggle to draw melee weapons in the hand to hand combat. All the while Maximillian is backing away from the attacking Heliopes keeping the team between himself and the ambushers with his blaster draw but he is yet to pull the trigger.
As rifles, pistols and grenades are exchanged for sonic swords and machetes the Heliopes continue their onslaught, teeth and pincers flashing and lashing out. In the second flurry of attacks none of the BHG manage to avoid injury to themselves and their skeinsuits before lashing out once more and the Sundown aborigines.
Con draws his sonic sword and swings, cutting down a wounded Heliope (38 points). Raid hacks into another one with his machete (29 points), chopping into the creatures side. xZot and Sni'ktl try defending themselves with stunsticks and miss completely. Gloo draws his sonic sword but can't repeat Con's effort although Gleep is more successful with his machete, wounding another Heliope (19 points) with a slash across it's chest.
During the melee you see four more of the creatures. These have painted tails. Their pincers are upraised and they are rushing forward. Maximillian yells that they are Heliopes from the village.
"I can tell by their painted tails!" Max cries aloud. One Heliope is carrying what appears to be an automatic weapon. The village Heliopes attack the nomads, the ones who had ambushed xZot and his men.
Before the team and their new allies can inflict more damage on their assailants Gloo, Gleep and xZot all sustain further minor injuries to themselves and their defensive suits.
Gloo grabs for his stunner along with the sword, just in case but the nearest Heliope ambusher dies under his sonic blade. Gloo upon being reassured that the new arrivals are friendlies, turns his back to them and tries to get Snik's attention to do the same as it seems the good doctor is paying more attention to assessing the teams current injuries than looking after his own carapace.
"Doc, back up behind the friendlies." Gloo bellows as loud as possible while swinging sword, if nothing else for intimidation purposes, and tries to cover Snik and Max best he can.
Continuing to defend himself against the nomads with his stunstick xZot watches the painted-tailed Heliopes for further signs of their intent. Hoping that Maximillian is right in his assessment of the new comers xZot will follow his lead once the attackers have been repelled.
xZot swipes at one of the Heliopes as he notices the leader of the ambush as yet is still unharmed. Gleep chops again at his attacker (20 points) forcing him back as Con lays about with his sonic sword (36 points), slaying another of the Heliopes.
Raid and Snik prefer non lethal forms of defence, swinging stunsticks in an attempt to knock out the humanoids. The new arrivals are not so inclined, and two of the wounded heliopes from the ambush party, disappear under whirling pincers.
The surviving nomad Heliopes abandon their assault and flee into the surrounding forest as the new arrivals turn to greet Maximillian and his employees.
When the fighting is done Gloo looks over the area, wary for any others hiding nearby and looks over the Heliopes bodies for any sign of advanced technology. The nomad Heliopes are apparently more primitive than their village counter parts who are now engaged in greetings with Max via his polyvox.
Sni'ktl finishes treating the minor cuts and bruises and scanning the gang in case any toxins, viruses or diseases have been transmitted from the Heliopes. Only xZot and Gleep require First Aid treatment with the rest of the team not needing any of the wonder drug biocort.
Sni'ktl pays close attention to the friendly Heliopes and mentally drafts the abstract for his next paper on encounters with sentient species. The dominant vegetation and local land forms do not go unnoticed by the Vrusk.
"Raid, what do you make of this monoculture? It looks to me like there must have been a recent environmental collapse if there is only one species so dominant. I wonder if that is related to the coruscating land forms around the lake below the village, that could be some kind of impact site. Gloo, can you check back with the ship, is this crumpled land form and mono cultured vegetation canopy unique to this area or do either occur commonly on the planet?" Sni'ktl takes some vegetation samples en route to the village and tries to analyse the colonization of the area to get an estimate of how long this particular ecosystem has been in situ.
While the doctor is tending to wounds Gloo answers, "Doc you'll have to ask Gleep about contacting the ship, he's the radio person."
Gleep keeps his machete in hand until there is no threat. He is very comfortable with this weapon. At Snik's suggestion, Gleep radios the ship to get answers to the CMO's questions.
"Since we were able to see other rifts as we came in, I am sure that they must have been some exploration beyond this one." Gleep also gives a status update to the ship to record the two diverse groups of Heliopes.
Gloo tries to get a good look at the autopistol the heliope is armed with. Raid also tries to get a look at the Heliope's weapon to see if he recognizes the design. "Well it's definitely a projectile weapon." Gloo observes.
"Yeah, but nothing I've ever seen." Adds Raid, "That's not Frontier design. Look at the way the trigger mechanism works, that not for a human hand."
"Doesn't look like it's really ergonomically designed for a Heliope either though." Gloo replies. While Raid and Gloo discuss the villager's weapons and the rest of the team continues making first contact, Con steps back a bit to keep a sharp eye out for any more unfriendlies.
Max calls xZot, Sni'ktl and the others over for an introduction to his new friends. "This is Lekeekh, he is a sub chief from the village and can serve as the contact between us and the villagers." Max announces after his initial greeting and chat with the Heliopes with the painted tails.
"Hey boss," Gloo pipes up, "Gleep and I can go back and get the explorer and catch up with you guys at the camp. I don't think we'd get attacked, they'd probably be afraid of the explorer as some sort of monster and yes, before you ask Raid, we could bring the cycle back foryou as well. I'm sure we can cram that sucker into the 'xplorer somehow."
"Don't worry, we're not going to leave the Explorer behind. I don't like leaving our equipment parked on the edge of the forest any more than the rest of you." xZot acknowledges Gloo's concerns. Turning to Raid, xZot also notes an eagerness to retrieve his 'cycle. "Raid, you can join the Drals in their trek back to retrieve the Explorer if you like." Turning back to Gloo and Gleep, xZot continues. "You'll need to take care to avoid another run in with the nomadic Heliopes. The Explorer will provide cover but the enemy will have all the experience in this terrain. The rest of us don't want to mount a rescue mission so watch your backs!" xZot barks. Noting the smirks between Gloo and
Gleep xZot realizes what he has said. "Well, you Drals know what I mean! Don't get caught." A toothy grin breaks the young Yazirian's lips.
As he walk away, Gleep turns his head and watches his back, laughing before switching into tracking mode, machete in hand.
"Watch our back? Why? Does it do tricks we weren't aware of?" Gloo giggles as wanders off back towards the explorer. "Boss we'll let you know when we are close to the village so you can arrange for a reception instead of us just busting out of the trees like a wild animal."
With the bosses permission, Gleep accompanies Gloo back to retrieve the explorer, keeping a wary eye out for further ambushes. "I presume that the remainder of the team will spend some time in communication with the villagers and will keep us informed as time permits?"
Raid decides to ride his hovercycle at a snails pace through the congested vegetation of the forest, rather than leave it behind. "These villagers have automatic weapons. I don't think they will be frightened by a hoverfan on this cycle, and I'd like to know where they got the weapons from or if they built them themselves." He shuts down the electric engine during communication updates to avoid distractions, and even attempts a friendly non-verbal gesture of his own as best he could.
Gloo makes a note to check over everything in the explorer. Gloo's pretty sure that there is something missing, not stolen and not anything of the teams'. Gloo glares towards an unsuspecting Max
"Hmm I wonder how he's..." Gloo's thoughts on the subject end as he awaits xZot's thoughts on going to get the explorer.
In conversation with the village Heliopes, Sni'ktl tries to elicit some local history and myths of the area. He learns that the Heliope village is at present being ruled by three Heliopes, a chief, Rokakar, and two sub chiefs, Chukak and Lekeekh. The Heliopes have one high priest, Akhan, and six lesser priests: Chaka, Gokul, Okalla, Edaku, Kuku, and Kiilok. Along with the chiefs, the priests rule the Heliopes.
They direct all religious ceremonies. Sni'ktl also takes an interest in local religion, customs and art as he endeavours to understand this culture as quickly as possible.
While back at the explorer Gloo looks for stuff that doesn't belong to the team, particularly trade items. "I wonder how Max plans to gather the treasure if he didn't bring anything to trade for it? I don't plan on helping him steal, it would make us no better than those Star Devil pirates we dealt with ages ago. Hopefully if we find anything useful to us I can trade some of our excess gear for it."
Hearing the explorer start Gloo heads up the top hatch. "Gleep I'll be up in the top hatch looking out for any bad guys." Seeing Raid on his much smaller and more manoeuvrable cycle zip by them. Gloo clutches the assault rifle and keeps watch around the lumbering vehicle.
After the Explorer arrives back at xZot's position he checks in with Gloo to find room to store his Tech Kit in the vehicle where it will be accessible. With the small team reassembled and reunited with their vehicles, Max and Lekeekh guide them through the dense forest to the Heliope village. Lekeekh is just as interested in the alien beings and their technology as they are in his outlandish projectile weapon. The Heliope sub chief staring at the strange weapons and technology and was equally mesmerized by the vehicles when they arrive.
Travelling at little better than walking speed through the trees takes another three and a half hours before the team arrive at the riverside village of the Heliopes. Sni'ktl and Raid are entranced by the find. The aerial photos and other survey data paling into insignificance beside the real thing. A new, primitive species of humanoids on the doorstep of the Frontier.
xZot holds a short briefing, outlining the basic ground rules before the team breaks up, pursuing their own interests and agenda or just getting down to the business of making sure the curious locals don't take off with anything that might take their interest. Over the last few hours of their journey, Max, Sni'ktl and Raid pass on relevant information they learn from their guide including some basic information about the villagers and their customs.
The pyramid is the spot most sacred to the Heliopes and only the priests and those Heliopes making appropriate sacrifices are allowed on its platform. The priests live in the huts out on the river. In the river huts are stored many religious objects and no one is allowed near them except the priests. The gods live in the sky. The flash of light, which gives a pleasant sensation to all Heliopes, comes from a gift left for them by the gods.
After xZot's briefing on arrival at the Heliope village, the team breaks up and begins exploring the village and meeting the inhabitants. The architecture of the village is primitive and very much of a style. All huts are made of wood with wood shingle or thatched roofs. Buildings are rectangular and divided when needed by heavy movable screens that provide what little privacy is available. All the buildings are heavily carved.
Sni'ktl still watches his back from time to time, still trying to understand what the joke is about but some aspects of Dralasite humour are beyond the understanding of vrusk mentality. Sni'ktl watches vermilion reflections of the afternoon sun in his carapace. While this has certain aesthetic merit he can't get to the humorous root. "I guess I'll just have to continue expanding my Dral humour taxonomy."
"Monoculture? Impact?" Raid thinks about Snik's earlier comments and observes what he can of the ecosystem and the village in the limited time available. "I'll keep an eye out for ejecta material or other evidence of an impact, though it may be covered with vegetation or water. I want to run some bio scans on one of the dead heliopes and maybe a vegetation sample as well. I wish they had all been friendly."
At a discreet time after rejoining the team Gloo asks Sni'ktl "Do you want to study one of those bodies from the ambushers? We stuck one in the explorer for you." Gloo adds and Sni'ktl nods almost imperceptibly as he heads towards the teams' vehicle to conduct a post mortem with Raid's assistance. The two scientists make some interesting and remarkable discoveries, passing on the relevant information to xZot.
During the autopsy, Raid is occasionally distracted with the thought of having to guard his hovercycle from overly curious heliopes. Deciding to leave Snik to the slicing and dicing, Raid leaves the explorer to perform vaporscans and geoscans of the ground, air, and river water around the village. He also looks for any irregular gas or radiation levels as he scans the shore and river.
Once the team is in the village Con does a bit of peaceful exploring. His laser rifle is slung over his shoulder in a casual position as he becomes more and more comfortable with his new surroundings and the local inhabitants. As Con moves through the village he observes the local Heliopes, who seem equally curious about their visitors but also give the Frontiersmen plenty of space. When approached by the more outgoing villagers Con tries to communicate with them hoping the polyvox does its thing quickly.
The Heliopes are friendly and curious about Con and his friends; however, they shy away from the Vrusks. In general, Heliopes allow Con and the others free range of the village, however anyone who approaches the pyramid, temple or river huts is quickly discouraged by nearby villagers. Con is shown an empty hut (11) that has been turned over to the explorers when the villagers learn they are not here to cause trouble. For his own peace of mind, Raid's hovercycle is moved into the hut and the explorer is parked beside the primitive structure, looking very definitely out of place.
Everyone's attention is drawn to a commotion around the pyramid, drawing together the curious explorers from their various tasks and investigations around the village. As the Heliope villagers gather around, xZot and his crew take up advantageous viewing positions in the crowd.
You hear the sound of large wooden trumpets being blown by the Heliopes. As you watch, all the villagers gather along the route from the river complex bridge to the door of a building in front of the pyramid. A Heliope dressed in ceremonial attire steps from a doorway in the highest tower of the river complex and starts across the bridge. As he passes through the complex he is joined by six others. You can see that all are carrying various pieces of technical equipment made from artificial materials. They proceed into the building in front of the pyramid and up a wooden walkway to a platform at the pyramid's summit. The other villagers have followed and now surround the pyramid.
On the highest platform the leader of the Heliopes removes a red and black striped rod from his robes and extends it down into what looks like an opening. There is a flash of light. All the onlookers cry out in awe. The leader and one of his party reach out, placing their hands into the well. The strange light flashes again and the two Heliopes sway happily as though they enjoy the contact.
The others in the lead group now approach the opening two at a time and stretch out their hands to the flash of light. When they finish, Heliopes from the crowd bring objects to the leader who examines them. Some of the Heliopes are allowed to mount the platform and perform the strange ceremony. Others are turned away. When all have had their turns, the gathering breaks up and the lead party returns to the river buildings.
xZot watches the Heliope ceremony from his vantage point with interest. The various pieces of technical equipment and the flashes of light emanating from the pyramid keep xZot's attention focused as he adjusts his sungoggles for a better look. Hoping to glimpse something in the ceremony that might explain the phenomena xZot watches the proceedings closely. After the lead party returns to the river buildings xZot sets about trying to find out more information from the locals as the intent of the ritual.
After walking through the village and interacting with the good people of the village Con makes his report to xZot. "The Heliope village is at present being ruled by three Heliopes, a chief, Rokakar, and two subchiefs, Chukak and Lekeekh." Con reports "The Heliopes have one high priest, Akhan, and six lesser priests: Chaka, Gokul, Okalla, Edaku, Kuku, and Kiilok. Along with the chiefs, the priests rule the Heliopes. They direct all religious ceremonies, including the ritual witnessed at the pyramid."
When the ceremony is over Gloo approaches xZot, "Boss, are we supposed to help Max steal this treasure? I don't think Max has any intention of trading for it. I could be wrong but I didn't see anything brought by Max to trade for it? I also didn't see any gear to help find it, no metal detectors, energy sensors? To me it seems like Max already has an idea where to find this treasure. So what are we supposed to do?"
"I don't plan on stealing anything from the Heliopes, let alone what appears to be their religious icons." xZot affirms as he listens to Gloo's advice. "At this stage I don't think we'll try to investigate the pyramid without permission. I know that Sni'ktl attempting to obtain the high priests consent to get a closer look at the ceremony and I think it prudent at this stage to see if he is successful. I do however share your concerns about Max, he has not given too much away about his plans and I think he knows a lot more than he is letting on. I think it is time for me to have a chat with our employer and try to pin him down to some specifics about how he is planning to do."
"Boss, I have no desire to take anything from these folks either, and I won't allow Max to take advantage of these people." Con adds "In fact boss, I like it better here, than the ice box back home." Says the enforcer with a roguish grin.
"I would prefer to trade for anything we'd like to take, but I'll follow your decision." Says Gloo "Anyways I'm sure I'm not the only one who would like too see what is causing that flash at the pyramid." Maybe we could get Raid to do a look see late at night using that holobelt of his, I don't know how well they can see at night, but I can see OK with my IR goggles. I could give him some cover using tangler rounds, I don't know how effective the doze rounds would be."
"I'll go for the holoscreen plan if xZot gives the go ahead, or let someone else use the screen." Raid agrees to Gloos' proposal as he joins the conversation. "The eorna did send us here to investigate." Raid says after hearing Snik's idea. "We need a backup plan, though, if things go badly, that doesn't include gunning down half the village. The eorna wouldn't like that either, I'm sure."
"Hopefully we won't, but if we should need to escape in a hurry, I suggest taking the vehicles out on the river. The explorer and hovercycle can both travel on water and could easily outdistance any boats the villagers send in pursuit. It's just a good backup plan to keep in mind in case anything goes wrong." Raid offers his thoughts quietly during the discussions.
"Good idea, Raid. Hopefully it won't come too that. If Max is trying steal something from them, we got to make them understand we won't let it happen." Says Con
After the impromptu meeting Gloo wanders the camp comparing the aerial photo to the camp itself, listing what can be observed about each building, "I wonder what keeps the other Heliopes from attacking the village? That flash of light might have something to do with it."
An official delegation of priests and village chiefs approaches xZot and his companions soon after the ceremony. As the teams' polyvox stutters through the translation, they realize the Heliopes are simply asking.
"What do you want here?"
Sni'ktl attempts to talk with the delegation of Heliope priests and chiefs, diverting the discussion to theological questions while xZot and the others plan an appropriate response.
Unable to gauge much from the Heliope response, Sni'ktl shrugs at the others as the Heliopes return to their respective quarters and duties around the village.
After a somewhat awkward encounter with the village leadership, xZot seeks out Maximillian. The young yazirian also wants to ensure that they are out of earshot of any of the natives before he sets about probing the starship captain directly about the Gangs role here. xZot rehearses what he wants to say to Max as he begins scouring the village looking for the elusive ship's captain.
"We are not common thieves Max so I hope you don't expect us to steal from under our hosts' noses" xZot asserts. "Before we can go much
further with this mission I need to know the facts about your discovery last time you were here. It seems strange to me that before we left, a small piece of nuclear fused metal was the only thing of note; what about the technological equipment in the priest's care or the light
produced from within the pyramid? These are all evidence of the influences of an advanced civilization that you neglected to mention. Whether they are remnants of a lost civilization or not you must have been aware of the significance the artefacts play in the local ceremonies." xZot considers further, "Maybe if we can find out where the Heliopes obtained these artefacts or we could start a wider search and see if there is anything else like these around elsewhere on the planet? You might have to accept that surveying the source of the artefacts and documenting the civilization that produced them may be the only 'treasure' that can be taken away from this planet."
After spending a good half hour composing his thoughts and searching for Max, xZot realizes he has not seen Max since the end of the ceremony. In fact, nobody seems to have seen Max for quite some time. xZot gathers the Gang together at their hut to share what everyone has learned from interacting with the locals and recounts his concerns about Max.
"Has anyone seen Max?" xZot asks
"OK, something's not right." xZot shakes his head. Minutes later it's apparent that Maximillian Malligigg has disappeared. A cursory investigation, simply questioning some nearby villagers reveals that several Heliope priests seized Malligigg and took him to the river complex where he will now serve the gods.
"Being allowed to serve the gods is an honour." The somewhat puzzled Heliope villager says before going back to tending his garden.
Gloo turns back to the group upon hearing about Max's capture. "OK what has that idiot Max done now? Sorry but I don't see him as the innocent here. With the past experiences we have had with natives and serving their gods I doubt it will be a pleasant experience."
"Oh Hell. He's gone and done it this time!" Con gently asks the villager tending the garden. "Friend, why did they take Max to serve the Gods? Did he offend them or have they selected him for a special purpose?"
"Being allowed to serve the gods is an honour." The Heliope villager explains again, as if to a young child. "I wish I were called to serve the gods."
Gloo glances at Sni'ktl and continues, "Did anyone else notice that these beings don't seem to like being around Vrusks very much? Some actually went out of their way to avoid them, so why would they give that honour to beings they don't seem to trust? No offence here Snik just making an observation."
"I think we need to go to the chief and find out from him what's going on." Gloo decides, "What if Max actually did something wrong? Another question, what do we do then? Do we allow them to punish him in whatever way they do? And if so, how do we get home again? Are there any other crew members back on the ship who can pilot the starship?" Gloo turns to Xzot and smiles in that amusing Dral way "At times like this it must be fun being you."
After receiving his answer from the villager Con addresses xZot. "Boss, I don't like this one bit. If Max did something to offend these people, we would have heard some kind of commotion." Out of ear shot of any other villagers. "xZot, if you want someone to sneak into the complex at night, I'm your man. Not to interfere, but maybe to find out what the hell is going on with Max."
Raid also asks around the village to find out how long Max has before the gods claim him, "Well it seems everyone in the village would like to 'serve the gods'!" He reports back to xZot and his companions. While the others continue talking, Gloo turns his attention to his map of the village saying to himself, "If I was a priest where would I take somebody to serve the gods?"
"Malligigg has been taken to Akhan's Tower." Raid answers, "Out there in the river complex." He points to the wooden structures over the edge of the river. xZot and his team move away from the nearby villagers and retire to their hut to continue their discussions and make their plans in private. Out of the hearing of the Heliopes Gleep says,
"Methinks something sinister may be afoot. Maybe we need to consider a rescue and explore the temple and complex at the same time. We can't leave Max behind, he is not only our employer, but he is our way off this rock. We can come in after dark and if need be, when we exit we can get out of town. Probably best to move Max into the woods away from here anyway. That is a way we can hide the fact that we rescued him."
"I guess we're here to investigate the history of this place." Raid responds as others nod heads in general agreement.
"Yep, that make two of us for going in undercover of night." Replies Con, "I am rather curious to see what goes on out there, so I volunteer to go."
"If we even have until nightfall." Raid looks slightly exasperated. "What if the river gods don't wait that long. We need to find out soon." Gleep also suggests attempting to set up a air wave scanner using a radio receiver.
"If there are other forces working here, or some external influence controlling some of this technology we have seen, we might be able to get a bead on it by watching for signal traffic. As to nervousness around Vrusks, heck, with all those feet, they are bound to step on a few toes." The dralasite technician adds.
"Well, whether we like Max or not, he is our ticket out of here." xZot reminds everyone, "I don't really like the guy but we're not going to stand by while he is taken prisoner." After listening to the views of the rest of the Gang, xZot looks around to make sure they are out of earshot of any locals, then in a lowered voice he adds "I think we will go down and confront the priest directly and see if they'll tell us anything. This should make an opportunity for someone to slip into the river complex undercover of the holo screen. Con, if you're volunteering to scout around, this would be your opportunity."
Overseeing the quick change of equipment as Con prepares for his scouting assignment on the river complex xZot reminds the big man to be careful. "Don't break radio silence unless you're in trouble. You're on a strict timetable, if you're not back in an hour, we'll come in looking you. We're not leaving anyone behind."
"Yep. You keep em busy, and I'll see what I can find out. Hopefully, I can bring Max out with me." Con prepares some equipment for his mission, namely his laser rifle, attaching his magnetic flashlight, with a fresh clip in the weapon. Con also makes sure his sonic sword is in operating condition and his machete is sharp.
Gloo watches as Con gears up, "Here's a my sonic stunner and my only doze grenade, probably be better if we didn't kill them so I would use the doze grenade and the stunner, then go lethal at last resort." Gloo turns to the others "Anyone else want to donate any dozes for the cause?"
"Thanks for the stunner," says Con "but you keep the dozes. I can still render them unconscious with my martial arts."
"I have some tangler grenades here Con, they may be useful in a tight squeeze" Sni'ktl hands over a couple of small sphere's that can can have a large and messy impact. He thinks a bit further and also offers the enforcer a can of solvaway.
"Solvaway, good idea. Hopefully everyone will be preoccupied with talking to you guys so I can sneak in see what's going on and sneak him out. If I can get him out, I will sneak him into the explorer." Con accepts the equipment his team mates have lent him. Con takes the magnetic light off of the laser weapon and puts it on the borrowed stunner. "Thanks guys, keep them occupied and I'll find Max, and maybe more."
"Boss if your going to go chat with the priest as a diversion wouldn't it be prudent to have the explorer waiting just in case this whole thing blows up in our face? If Con's little excursion goes bad, me and chuckles here," Gloo points to Gleep "can wait for a signal and come roaring up, get you and split before the whole village is awake and starts getting primitive on us."
"I agree Gloo, sounds like a good idea." xZot answers, "I'm hoping that we don't have a confrontation but it would best to be prepared for the worst."
"I'm ready Boss." Con says, "Anything else you want me to find out?"
Once Con has kitted up and is ready, xZot leads a delegation to see the priests at the river complex and engage them for as long as is possible. xZot is careful to avoid any perceived aggressive posturing and adopts the most non confrontational demeanour he can muster. Hoping that the language differences will buy him time, xZot also gears Sni'ktl and the others up to have them step into the discussion when he is struggling to retain the priests attention.
xZot elects to await putting the plan into action until it is getting dark before he approaches the river complex with Raid and Sni'ktl in tow. Gloo and Gleep alight in the explorer, silently starting the electric engine and leaving the lights off a quick means of escape. Meanwhile Con activates the holoscreen borrowed from Raid for his mission and heads toward the river complex, trusting in his camouflage technology.
As xZot, Raid and Sni'ktl head toward the river a crowd of villagers quickly forms between them and the priests' huts. The chief, Rokakar, and both subchiefs, Chukak and Lekeekh soon arrive on the scene to explain to xZot and co. that the river complex is out of bound to everyone except the priests. The villagers are obviously getting very agitated about the groups presence near the river huts.
Con meanwhile has managed to reach the river bank. Extending from the shore is a wooden bridge with native boats moored to the first few pilings. Small ladders lead to the water and boats. The bridge is 6m wide for the first 10m and rises 300mm above the water. After the first 10m the bridge narrows to 2m, although its height remains the same. The narrower portion extends into the widest part of the river for 1 km and enters a building on a platform in the river's center. There is no railing. Con cautiously proceeds along the bridge out across the waters of the river to a building platform and boat dock 70m away from the bank.
From the building platform extends a 3m wide by 12m long boat dock. It is resting on pilings 300mm above the water and beginning 1m from the wooden bridge. A small crane arm is centred in the dock. The arm will reach any boat moored to the dock. Near the arm is a coil of rope 1250mm long. In the wall of the building is a 2m by 2m door, which is closed. A stout ladder leads up from the dock to the door. There is a small wooden box at the edge of the dock nearest the platform.
As Con reaches the ladder the doors open and Chaka, one of the priests, appears at the doorway of his hut to survey the commotion back on shore. The platform upon which Chaka's hut is built is 3m above the water. The hut (10mx10m) is a little smaller than its platform so that the platform makes a 300 mm ledge all the way around. Because of water damage, the hut has been repaired many times and the walls are braced. The entrance door, Con can see now that it is open, is double, built of 150 mm thick wood and normally barred from the inside. The doors open on wooden walkways that lead to the firetowers (18). The doors were left open during the religious ceremony when all the priests are at the pyramid; otherwise they have been closed. The hut behind the lesser priest is stacked to the roof with junk, but not low tech wooden or bone junk, tech junk! Larger pieces of equipment, such as generators and transformers, take up most of the available space. Massive tools and heavy structural members from some technological structure are corroded and broken from age and lack of proper maintenance.
Con takes immediate advantage of the situation, firing the borrowed stunner at point blank range. Chaka's large eye blinks once, then twice and he keels over backwards into the room, his antennae quivering from the sonic attack. Taking the victory in his stride, Con steps into the hut and closes the door behind him. A quick glance around the room confirms he is alone before he flicks on his chronocom to message the dralasite crew of the explorer.
"I've reached the first hut safely." Con reports in a hushed voice as he gazes at the pile of high tech garbage around him and tries not to gag on the stench of fish oil that reeks through the entire room and it's contents. "I'm heading out the east door." Con continues as he drags an alien projectile weapon from the fallen priests belt and jams into his own. "I'll take that for now." Con says to the fallen priest as he slips out the side door of the hut.
In the failing light Con creeps along the narrow wooden walkway rising in a gentle slope as he continues out over the river toward the platform to the east. The walkway is 1m wide and rests on pilings spaced at 3m. Again there is no railing. The walkways rise from 3m above the water at Chaka's Hut to 6m above the water at the firetowers then the walkways rise from 6m above the water at the firetowers to 9m above the water at the priests' hut.
Back on shore the tension is beginning to mount as xZot and Sni'ktl attempt to distract the villagers without getting them over excited. Already the task is beginning to look bleak. In the cab of the explorer things are also tense as the dralasites consider racing toward the river bank and out into the water to fetch Con and hopefully Max, or using the vehicle to whisk xZot and the others out of harms way if things turn nasty.
Con reaches the eastern tower where he finds a round platform 6m above the surface of the water. The platform is 10m in diameter and serves as the roof of a cylinder 2 m high. There are no visible openings in the cylinder. Below the cylinder are the pilings that support the firetower. There is a light balustrade, 1m high, around the edge of the platform. Two small, intricately carved, hinged doors in the balustrade are located where the walkways meet the platform. A large barrel stands on the shore side of the walkway. A massive wooden pedestal 1m tall rises from the center of the platform and a huge clay bowl sits atop it. Fire is burning in the bowl, and the smoke smells like greasy fish. The priests maintain the clay pots of burning oil both day and night. The priest Okalla is responsible for the east tower as is diligently standing watch now only meters from Con who weighs up his options before proceeding.
As Con leaves the first priest, he reactivates his holo screen and moves across the wooden walkway to the next raised platform. Peering over the meter high wooden palisade Con sees the other priest, Okalla and readies his sonic stunner. Hearing the commotion back in the village Con tries to speed up his scouting mission. Wrinkling his nose at the smell of fish oil still clinging to him from the first priest's hut, Con cautiously steps over the wooden gate, taking care not to disturb anything. He quietly makes his way behind the Heliope priest around the edge of the circular platform to the southern gate. Hoping to avoid subduing this priest, Con steps carefully over the second gate, breathes a sigh of relief and begins the climb up the wooden walkway to the largest structure of the river complex.
Listening closely to the radios, the dralasites in the team's explorer are ready to move at a moment's notice. "Gloo, can you track the group by map as they progress, that way we know where to go to if called?" Gleep asks his partner as tensions begin to rise. Gloo nods his answer as he plots the shortest route to the dock as their main plan and then out past the west edge of the temple and north into the woods.
Watching the growing tension in the massing villagers xZot opens a com link to Gloo, "I'd be getting ready to move if I were you guys, things are heating up out here." Beside xZot, Sni'ktl is also becoming concerned at the level of agitation among the village Heliopes just at their mere presence the the river bank at the entrance to the walkway.
Behind xZot, Raid is on his hovercycle with the electrical fans at their most quiet speed, he observes the quickly changing events. Raid hangs back, giving xZot plenty of space for negotiations.
As quick as he dares Con approaches the next platform of the river complex. This hut extends to the edge of its 20 meter by 30 meter platform and is 9 meters above the water. Heavy doors lead into the hut but Con quickly discovers that they are apparently barred from the inside. Con scratches his head as he ponders his next move, with the doors barring his access forward his options would appear to be pretty limited. From his vantage point he can see another hut, 15 meters by 25 meters square and 3 meters high, is built on top of the hut in front of him. The huts must be connected by a ladder or trap doors. A wooden walkway leads south from the tower roof to the entrance to the last and highest tower. The walkway gradually slopes from 20 to 23 meters above the water, has no railing, and is 3 meters wide and 15 meters long.
Back on the shore, xZot, Sni'ktl and Raid are gradually giving ground to the animated Heliope crowd between them and the river bank while Gloo and Gleep begin to edge the explorer toward the river's edge.
In the face of the growing tension amidst the crowd around them, xZot struggles to retain his composure. Behind his goggles swift eyes dart from left to right as he surveys the deteriorating scene. "Everyone hold your ground!" xZot snaps "Wait till we get a signal."
"I suggest that the best use for the explorer is to cut off village access to the bridge by blocking it." Gleep offers over the comlink "That way Con can jump in the door and we can make the Heliopes have to hit the water to get to the bridge."
Gloo listens to the ideas and adds. "Wait a minute, we haven't even heard from Con yet, and it doesn't seem like they even know he's out there yet, but they will once you guys start rushing out there, could cause more problems than solve right now. If we just pick you guys up and then head away from the village along the beach, then if Con needs us we can return rather quickly and in a more prepared state than we are now." says Gloo
"Why not use this time to get everyone on foot into the explorer?" Raid whispers to xZot. "The whole village can't fit on that bridge at once. We'd be safer out on the water and be able to pick up Con more easily."
Suddenly Sni'ktl steps forward, finally taking the chance to put his amateur theatrics to a more practical use. And they said he should never give up his day job as a janitor at the local health clinic in his 'tweens!
"All hail the High Priests, of this honoured tribe. All hail Max who has been chosen to serve the gods." Sni'ktl launches a verbal broadside at the milling Heliopes. Despite their caution around Vrusks, Sni'ktl hopes his diplomatic skills will at least cause a diversion. Moving slightly away from the bridge and the command group, Sni'ktl diverts the villagers' attention from what is happening towards the river huts. "We who have seen the wonder of the lights at the temple. We who have seen the awesome power of your priests. We are honoured that one of us has been chosen. All hail, all hail, all hail." Sni'ktl judges the reaction of the crowd as he goes, keeping them transfixed for as long as he can, creating that vital opening for the team to reach the bridge if needed.
Lets move!" Barks xZot as he pushes forward and heads toward the bridge. Motioning to Raid to use his 'cycle to clear the path, xZot opens a link to Gloo, "You guys better get into position. If we have to jump into the drink I want you guys nearby to pick us up. Keep all those Dral eyes open you pair, there maybe marine defences around the structures we don't know about, approach with caution." As he moves forward xZot draws his stunstick and quickly checks that his pistol is handy.
Now Sni'ktl just hopes if it all turns sour that his six legs will give him the edge he needs. "Ai ai ai ai ai aiaaaarghkka" Sni'ktl ad lib's using the highly theatrical Ul Mor ritual yodelling "All praise the God's. Ai ai ai ai ai aiaaaarghkka..." The Heliopes and their chieftains are suddenly confused, caught between their desire to protect their priests solitude, or honour their gods at their temple with their alien visitors. Much of the crowd follows or even leads Sni'ktl toward the wooden pyramid as xZot, Raid and the Dralasites dash to Con's aid.
Out on the river complex Con checks the door, but finds it barred from the inside. He makes note of the second level then quickly decides to try climbing up to the second level and gain entry through a window or door. Con makes several attempts to get hand or footholds enough to haul himself with sheer physical strength, up the side of the tower. Although sufficient in physical ability, Con lacked any training or experience at this type of climbing and even though he managed a couple of hand holds and a niche for his foot to get him halfway up the hut's side, it was not enough. Con's foot slipped and his heart skipped a beat as he suddenly dropped a meter and a half, toward the edge of the walkway. Throwing weight back to his right, Con managed to avoid dropping into the river below but the noise of his landing was sure to warn the occupants to his presence.
As the crowd by the river was moving toward the pyramid and xZot and the others were making their dash toward the wooden walkway, Con watches the door in front of him open revealing another Heliope priest, wielding more of the alien high tech weaponry in their claws. When Edaku, the Heliope priest, raises his pistol like weapon to sweep the area before the doorway, Con pulls the trigger of his borrowed stunner. Con's beam strikes his target, and although the priest rocks back from the sonic assault, he manages to stand his ground. The Heliope priest screeches a warning to his companions and Con recognizes the sound of an automatic projectile weapon as the priest fires a burst of lead, searching for Con's camouflaged form.
In such a confined target area, it's not surprising Con was struck by the burst of automatic fire, he grunts and reels back himself as several projectiles pierce his skiensuit (27 points to Con & suit) and then his side.
Sni'ktl continues to draw attention as long as he can but the sound of gunfire back across the river sends a sudden ripple through the crowd of villagers. Raid brakes and swerves his hovercycle around at the edge of the river in front of wooden walkway to face back toward the Heliopes in the village. xZot sprints past the cycle, his feet pounding the wooden boards as the dralasites hit the water beside the walkway in the explorer. Both priests in the firetowers to each flank open fire with more automatic weapons as the leader of the Black Hand Gang races across the wooden bridge. Bullets whip through the air all around him, thudding into the wooden structure or splashing in the water around him.
Behind xZot, Raid reaches for one of his grenades and hurls it between a farm lot and a hut to try and block the approach of some of the villagers while the drals hunker down in the explorer, gunning it's way toward the river complex. Con makes one more attempt at a non lethal solution, rolling his last doze grenade at Edaku. The grenade pops right in front of the priest but he fails to succumb to the grenade's effects, unaffected the priest empties his clips into the woodwork in front of him. Amazingly it would seem that the Heliope cannot penetrate Con's holoscreen and the burst of lead misses the human warrior.
Angered by his injuries and desperate to find Max, Con draws his sonic sword and lunges at the nearest priest. Sensing something wrong the priest lashes out with a claw swiping at empty air and screaming in pain when Con's blow lands (32 points) inflicting a terrible wound along the heliope's flank.
xZot reaches the first river hut as both priests in the firetowers empty their automatic pistol clips at him and another volley of lead fills the air around him but xZot reaches the protection of the reeking hut containing the first stunned Heliope priest. Back at the head of the walkway, Raid extends his temporary barricade with another well placed tangler grenade. Having drawn much of the heliope crowd away from the river bank, Sni'ktl is now largely being ignored as the villagers mill about in confusion or try to make their way back toward the river complex.
Gloo continues steering the explorer toward the eastern fire tower and as they draw within 15 meters, Gleep leans out the window and hurls a dose grenade over the wooden palisade. The heliope priest ducks under the missile that releases it's gas harmlessly behind him.
xZot glances about, quickly summing up the situation before leaving the shelter of fish soaked river hut...
Sni'ktl backs away from the remaining villagers to try and disappear in the shadows by the wooden pyramid...
Gloo throws a look over his should to see Raid preparing his next missile...
Con steps back, his sonic sword in hand as he faces the heliope priest, slashing and flailing with his razor sharp pincers...
At that same instant another series of explosions and fires erupts from the western side of the village. Heliope villagers scream and panic as fire leaps into the sky and smoke quickly boils up from the sudden blazes. Combatants from both sides whirl around in the direction of this new threat and for a brief moment no one says a word, fires a shot or swings a blade. Then, as if time had suddenly stood still, everything catches up and chaos ensues...
Aboard the VSS Last Legs things getting tense, the crew have not heard from their Captain for quite some time. And that mercenary band he took with him to the native village have been out of contact as well.
That same mercenary band is now earning it's keep. On the water, Gloo swings the explorer around in a U-turn to bring him over toward the dock on the wooden walkway. As Gloo makes the turn, Gleep leans out the window and hurls another grenade at the heliope priest in the fire tower. Whilst the dralasite gambit had some merit, the result doesn't quite achieve the desired effect, with Gleep's second doze grenade disappearing with a plop into the river.
xZot decides to take advantage of the distraction, and guessing the priest was reloading, dashes out of the fishy hut toward the fire tower between himself and Con.
Con jumps into a fighting stance (not that the priest can see him) and waits for the priest to let his guard down. Con takes another swing with his sonic sword when the priest is off guard and inflicts another nasty wound (38 points) on his opponent. Edaku reels backward under the sonic blow and collapses in the doorway as Con realizes the doorway is now open. As the victorious warrior steps through the portal he notices what appears to be an alien defensive screen hooked on Edaku's belt.
"Hmmm" Con observes then smiles to himself "Obviously not a sonic screen." He mutters to himself as his looks around the inside of the structure. The hut contains a mass of relics, some made of plastic and ceramic. The relics are in bad shape or completely useless. Three minor priests live here: Gokul, Okalla, and Edaku. They sleep on cots and have a few simple possessions, such as robes and beads. In the center of the room, which measures 5 m high, is a heavy ladder that leads up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. On the roof of this building is another building (20).
Back at the river bank, Raid sits astride his hovercycle, watching the panicking heliope villagers and glancing nervously over his shoulder to what his team mates are up to. He relaxes a little when he sees Gloo bringing the explorer about by the dock where the occupants can possible disembark to assist either himself or xZot and Con. As Raid swings his gaze back towards the village he squints again through the crowd and rapidly building smoke. Was that the Heliope chieftain heading toward the river complex?
In the confusion of the burning village Sni'ktl has managed to slip in to the Heliope temple fronting the pyramid. The massive wooden building has an angled, thatched roof. The walls and entryway are heavily decorated with colourful carvings. The entry opening is 4 m wide. This building is 10 m wide, 30 m long, 3 m high, and has no windows. At its north end is a stairway of heavily carved wood that continues through an opening in the roof. This stairway leads to the great pyramid. There is no other exit at the north end. The temple has no furniture although some beautiful statues and carvings of wood are displayed on the walls.
The inquisitive Vrusk moves quickly through the hall to the 3 m wide wooden stairway that leads to the first platform of the pyramid. It has no railing and is ornately carved every foot of the way for it's total length of 25 m. The massive, wooden, stepped pyramid is 10 m high at it's highest point. The carved wooden steps from the temple lead to the pyramid's top. At the top are two platforms, the larger platform is south of and 3 m below the smaller. A short set of steps lead to the smaller platform which has a roof. The entire pyramid is intricately carved. Large, beautifully carved screens, colourful cloth and shell beads are strewn over its surface.
From this vantage point Sni'ktl peers into the chaos below. Smoke rises into the sky as the outermost huts turn into blazing torches. All around, panic-stricken Heliopes run in search of their families and friends. Among them you see four Heliopes who seem to be moving without quite touching the ground. Beams of light are flashing from these Heliopes and everything the beams touch bursts into flame. As the destruction mounts, streams of Heliope refugees flee the village.
Con looks down at the fallen priest and notes the alien device." Obviously not a sonic screen," he repeats "but interesting none the less." He says reaching down and picking up the alien technology. "This makes an interesting clue to what's going on." Pocketing the device Con enters the room. He takes a quick look around at the other devices that are obviously out of place in this culture, or at least should be. After a cursory examination, Con climbs up the ladder and to the trap door into the room above.
Behind the wheel of the explorer loo hears the explosions off in the distance from behind. "What the hell are they doing?" Gloo wonders aloud as he contacts Sni'ktl and Raid. "What is going on back there?" As he waits for a response Gloo mutters, "I knew this was going to get out of hand, did anybody listen, nooooo."
Sni'ktl remains on the high ground relaying tactical information to xZot and now Gleep. "Yup that's right the high velocity hover motivated Heliopes are firing highly luminescent discharge weapons of a portable nature on my left." The excited vrusk reports on the chronocom "Yes, that's your right. You want to know their strategic orientation? Apologies xZot, I do not relate to military linguistics, can't you speak more plainly."
Gleep just shakes his head at Snik's reporting style as he ponders the immediate problem, what support he can add in distracting the fire towers? Gloo looks back at Gleep and sees that the other Dral doesn't appear to look too good. "Gleep, you take over driving, your a better driver and I'm a better shot anyway." Gleep agrees as Gloo swings the explorer up to the dock. The Dralasite freelance military engineer gathers the IR goggles, his gyrojet rifle and ammo loads. He also grabs a doze clip and plugs his laser pistol into his pack while Gleep scrambles into the drivers seat of the explorer. Gloo flicks on the comm link, "Boss it appears all sense of surprise is now long gone, with all that racket back on shore the priests are surely getting prepared for action."
Making his break for the fire tower xZot dashes along the narrow walkway quickly flashing a glance toward the explosions in the distance. Seeing nothing of the commotion from where he is, xZot can only accept the diversion for what it appears to be, an unexpected advantage. Keeping as low as possible without hindering his movement, xZot zigzags along the walkway as he draws his laser pistol and readies it for the inevitable clash that awaits ahead. Okalla, the Heliope priest, turns to face xZot, his pistol back in it's holster and his huge eye fixed on xZot's advance.
Gloo hops onto the dock, kneels and aims his rifle toward the firetower xZot is running towards, covering the yazirian. The moment the Heliope presents itself to fire at xZot, Gloo fires a three round spread. Gloo was sure the second round was a clean hit but the Heliope barely flinched from the rocket round. "Damn! They're shielded!" He mutters to himself (14 points, only half to target). At point blank range, xZot actually saw the inertia screen deflect Gloo's round and pulls the trigger of his laser pistol but misses as Okalla takes a swipe at him with his pincers. The yazirian ducks under the blow but the banister and the priest prevent him from getting past the firetower.
After watching xZot rush past on the bridge, Raid hovers out toward him on the river where the bridge narrows and looks for a weak point in the bridge's wooden supports. Just on the shore side of the dock where the dralasites have parked the explorer he pulls out a laser pistol and on maximum setting he blasts the wooden post at point blank range. His attempt to cut off the complex from the shore may not be obvious but a second blast tears away another large chunk of wood from the opposite side of the bridge and Raid smiles at his own handiwork. "This may slow them a little," Raid sighs, not liking the turn of events. "I hope Snik can take care of himself back there." Then seeing the movement on the shore "Is that the chieftain coming?"
Back in the middle of the village the afore mentioned vrusk makes his own contribution to the chaos. "Hmmm, the sides of this vertically oriented quadrahedron give me an idea!" Thinks Sni'ktl. The CMO experiments with rolling grenades down the sloping sides and attempts to establish a trajectory that disadvantages the enemy more than his friends. Fortunately his first choice is a smoke grenade and when it bounces amongst a family of fleeing Heliope villagers it does nothing lethal when it explodes at the feet of a Heliope child.
Sni'ktl opts to hurl his next grenade instead of rolling it down the side of the wooden pyramid. His choice of a tangler grenade this time catches the attention of it's intended target even though he hit the barn door behind the target by accident. Sni'ktl gasps and ducks for cover when the strange hovering heliope starts shooting laser beams at him! The Chief Medical Officer finds himself scrambling up to the top of the pyramid's uppermost platform. This unenclosed platform is 10 x 10 m and has a small, carved wooden roof supported by pillars. In its center is an enclosure 1 meter wide and 1 meter high that looks like a well.
Suddenly oblivious of the chaos around him, Sni'ktl peers into the well, his curiosity aroused now. The well exposes what appears to be the highest point of another alien structure. Stunned Sni'ktl reaches down to touch the metallic fin pointing toward the sky.
"Ouch!" He yelps as he almost falls back down the stairs after a blue flash of light and the spark of electricity surges from the metal to his claw (13 points). Dazed, Sni'ktl lies on the wooden platform as the battle rages around him.
As Con heaves he discovers the trapdoor to the hut above has been barred. Not wanting to waste anymore time, Con pulls his last frag grenade from his belt and jams it under the trap door where he guestimates the main barrier to be. Making sure he has easy access to the door Con pulls the pin from the grenade, drops down the ladder and dives toward the door of the hut to escape the explosion. With a loud crash that echoes through the huts and across the water, the grenade blows apart the wooden trapdoor. While Con ponders the problem of ascending to the hut above now that he has destroyed the top of the ladder, xZot ponders his own obstacle.
Okalla remains behind the banister blocking xZot's advance so the young yazirian decides to try his arm once more before physically confronting the heliope guardian. xZot fires again, at virtually point blank range he shoots the Heliope in the torso (26 points) eliciting a spine tingling howl. The enraged Heliope stoops and rather skilfully scoops up a stone with one of it's pincers from a nearby pile and hurls the projectile at amazing velocity toward xZot. Gloo also takes keen interest in this attack method of the Heliope priests when he too comes under fire from stones, this time hurled by the priest in the second tower.
Gloo ignores the second priest for now, continuing to fire on xZot's opponent and hoping to force the desperately needed breakthrough. He fires the last shell from his clip, a perfect score as he hits maximum center mass (20 points, half to target). As Gloo ejects the empty magazine he watches the Heliope priest waiver then fall. Only meters away on his hovercycle, Raid is plugging his pistol into his beltpack and switching his gaze back and forth between the river bank and the second firetower.
Everyone looks up at the sound of the explosion when Con's frag grenade goes off in the main structure of the river complex, even a groggy Sni'ktl manages to discern the distant crack of explosives. xZot leaps the first and then second banister surrounding the firetower as he races to catch up with Con. Then there are more shouts and howls as several Heliopes from the village who have penetrated Raids initial tangler barricade at the bridgehead, reach the weakened section of the wooden bridge. Running at full pace they send the last remaining splinters of wooden support straight into the river, along with themselves and several meters of walkway section.
Before trying to find a way up to the second level, Con picks up a few other small bits of technology that the locals should not have. After putting a few small gadgets into his pocket he goes back to where the shattered ladder stands. Con tries to leap up to reach the floor of the second level and pull himself up to the next level but the ceiling is too high from the floor. Instead Con climbs the remaining few rungs of the ladder, testing them before placing his whole weight and stretching for the upper level. The sound of running feet and a crackle over Con's chronocom heralds the arrival of xZot at the bottom level of the hut.
"I'm fine." Con reports back to xZot, "I'm pressing on." He says as he reaches up to pull himself through the hole where the trapdoor used to be. xZot nods and watches Con's ascent, his weapon drawn and ready.
"Vrisst, vrisst vricktick!" Exclaims the Chief Medical Officer as he comes to. The electrical discharge leaves particularly unnattractive tracks on the chitin of his pincers. "Now I look like a common labour drone from the mines, tck tck tck." He uses some biocort and his first aid skills to restore some buff to his claws (10 points back) while the team's technical experts mull over his observations and other pressing concerns.
Raid steers his hovercycle back away from the dock and moves forward to give xZot as much covering fire as possible, xZot reaches the safety of the larger hut and Raid's attention is brought back to the Heliopes from the village, now in the water. Once near the other team members, Raid slows and skids above the water, turning his cycle perpindicular to the dock to get a better view of things as the whirring hoverfans kick up spray and foam from the river.
With a fresh clip loaded in his gyrojet rifle, Gloo returns fire at the Heliope priest in the far firetower, hitting him with the second shell and confirming that priest is also protected by an alien inertia screen (28 points, half to target). The wounded priest returns fire with another sling stone skipping harmlessly across the water. With the explorer now resting safely by the dock Gleep adds his own fire support the Gloo's fusilade, hitting the priest twice more (14 & 15 point, half to target).
The villagers in the water swim back and quickly scramble ashore or onto the wooden bridge where their Chieftan, Rokakar orders them back to shore leaving him alone, glaring at intruders on the dock. Without taking his one eyed gaze from the Black Hand Gang, Rokakar shouts orders to Lekeekh and Cukkar, his subchiefs, who hurry off into the chaos of the now burning village.
Sni'ktl remains out of sight from the ground as he attempts to investigate the alien artifact in the pyramid. He first tries removing some of the wooden floor boards to peers through at the device but lacking sufficient tools and attempting to remain unobserved soon rules that option out. Sni'ktl crawls back toward the altar well for a closer inspection of what the pyramid conceals.
As Con hauls himself up through the remains of the trap door, Kuku the Heliope priest and occupant of the hut, opens fire. He sprays a burst from his alien autopistol across the wall above Con's head as he rolls into the room.
"Damn!" xZot swears as he hears the gunfire above him. Con surges forward, his sonic sword held before him and howling like a barbarian from centuries past as he lunges at the heliope priest. Kuku screeches as Con's sonic blade penetrates his side (37 points), the autopistol barks again and this time it's Con who yelps in pain. At point blank range the heliope could hardly miss. Emptying his clip, Kuku shreds Con's skien suit and wounds the human warrior (16 points to Con, skiensuit destroyed) as xZot crawls throught he trap door behind him. Con brings down the sonic sword again in an overhead blow that cuts through the upraised pincer of the priest into his shoulder and chest, killing him (26 points). While Con catches his breath, xZot surveys the room and it's contents.
Kuku's hut is 15 x 25m square and 3 m high and is built on top of 19. It is filled with relics that look like bits and pieces that have broken or fallen off other relics. All of the pieces are arranged neatly, although without any apparent order. The priest Kuku lives here. He and the priest Edaku from the hut below take care of the cooking, housework, and ritual painting for the other priests. Food and useful equipment for religious functions and everyday life are stored here. There were two trap doors. A ladder leads to one in the ceiling that goes to Killok's tower, the other was in the floor.
Back at the dock, Gloo's gun group, this time Raid also joins in, fires a second volley at the priest in the far firetower. Gokul goes down under a hail of fire as Gleep, Gloo and Raid all hit their mark, even the alien technology fails to save the heliope priest. On the river bank Rokakar howls again when the priest is killed, then deliberately takes aim with his own alien autopistol. With incredible accuracy, the Heliope Chieftan fires three shots hitting Gleep, Gloo and Raid (6, 3 & 7 points each) and whilst none of the wounds are lethal and all the targets are wearing skiensuits they are nevertheless surprised and impressed with Rokakar's accuracy.
Even before the three can return fire, Rokakar casts a baleful look at them before he turns and stalks back into his burning village leaving the priests to their fate.
In the village, Sni'ktl realises that the laser fire directed at the pyramid has actually ignited the building and the resulting fire may well reveal the very artifact he wants to examine. Then he glimpses the subchief Cukkar striding toward the center of the village near the pyramid. Cukkar hurls a missile at one of the laser emiting floating heliope's, what was apparently an alien grenade explodes with curious effect. A smoke grenade so powerful it will causes minor damage to anyone within 5 m, in this case the intended target and an unfortunate villager and totally blankets the village and river area with dense smoke.
Sni'ktl scrambles down and away from the burning pyramid under the cover of the rapidly billowing smoke cloud which now Raid, Gloo and Gleep can now also see rising from the village center. Inside the river complex, Con and xZot prepare to open the next trap door. The young yazirian commander looks up at his towering human companion, Con smiles down at the look of concern on his leader's face, remembers another face and a similar look before he turns to climb the ladder.
"Don't worry boss, we've been through a lot worse than this, haven't we?" The confident trooper, throws open the unlocked trap door and jumps back down when he sees the feet of another Heliope priest waiting above. Con dives for cover amongst the alien artifacts as the priest sprays the area around the trapdoor and ladder with bullets. xZot opens fire when Con clears his line of fire, the first shot misses but xZot's second beam strikes the priest and reveals what the defensive screen is.
"Unbelievable, he's got an albedo suit!" xZot exclaims as his laser beam is absorbed in a flash of light (2 SEU's). Before the priest can fire his second burst, Con returns fire, this time with his own laser pistols, his sword battery now empty. Cursing over his choice of weapons, Con blazes away anyway, scoring another hit on the priests screen (6 SEU's).
Behind a stack of alien artifacts, xZot reloads his laser pistol as he weighs up the options then decides to try another doze grenade. The priest moves to the top of the ladder getting a better angle on his attacks and empties his clip into the hut below. Bullets and richochets fly around the room striking Con and xZot from various directions as the room is filled with flying lead and metal scraps (16 points each, half to xZot's skiensuit). Seeing xZot hefting the grenade, Con ignores the pain from his wounds and rolls out from his cover to give his commander covering fire. He empties both his clips as xZot steps up to the open trap door and lobs his grenade through. The thud of a body falling to the floor announces the result of xZot's attack and he smiles across at his wounded friend.
"Snik, I think Con's gonna need your services." xZot signals over the groups chronocom frequency. "We're almost at the top of the second last tower, how's things outside?"
"The villagers have all withdrawn into the village and the priests have been neutralized." Gloo reports from his position at the dock with Gleep and Raid.
While xZot waits to hear from Sni'ktl he peers through the trap doors. This is a circular room built in the center of the roof of the building below. The room is 3 m high and 10 m in diameter. A trapdoor in the floor leads into Kuku's hut below. A trapdoor in the ceiling leads to the roof. The room is filled with the usual alien relics. The tower roof is 20 m above the water. A 1m high balustrade runs along its edge and has a small hinged door leading to a wooden walkway that angles up to another tower further out into the river. The wooden walkway leads south from the tower roof to the entrance to the last and highest tower. The walkway gradually slopes from 20 to 23 m above the water, has no railing, and is 3 m wide and 15 m long. At the end of the walkway is a door to the highest tower.
Sni'ktl doesn't immediately respond to xZot's call, he's been distracted by an extraordinary sight. Through holes torn in the pyramid by laser fire and the widening gaps being made by the fire, Sni'ktl catches teasing glimpses of the pyramid's secret, it's a vehicle, and what a vehicle!
It is is a vehicle with a bullet shape that is nine meters high, 16 meters long and 10 meters wide at its widest point. About two-thirds of the way forward a fin merges with a hemispherical turret resembling a recessed headlight. The turret faces forward. Two turret hemispheres 2.5 meters in diameter are located on opposite sides of the forepart of the vehicle. Sni'ktl moves back in for closer examination, most of the action now having swept past him and on to the other side of the pyramid.
The turrents appear on close examination to be detachable. A fourth hemisphere is inset into the front and forms its nose. This hemisphere is 4 meters in diameter and slightly more convex than the others. Two equally spaced grids are at the base of the machine, front and rear. A small portion of the gridwork is visible from the sides. Behind the grid Sniktl can see fan blades. There is a closed entry port at the lower rear of the vehicle and the turrets cannot be seen into. The access hatch section is closest to the altar well and is the source of the electrical discharge that stunned Sni'ktl previously.
Con recovers his composure blocking out that other memory, knowing dwelling on the distant past could only get him killed. "Geez Boss...I hope that wasn't Max hitting the deck up there." With that the defrosted barbarian of centuries past makes his way up the ladder into Killok's Tower. Above xZot and Con is a circular room built in the center of the roof of the building (20). The room is 3 meters high and 10 meters in diameter. A trapdoor in the ceiling leads to the roof (22) and the room is filled with the usual relics as well as the unconscious Heliope priest, Killock. As xZot quickly searches the motionless priest he orders Con to survey the roof. Con peers through the trapdoor under the cover of the holoscreen while xZot gathers Killock's defence screen and alien autopistol.
The tower roof above is 20 m above the water. A 1 meter high balustrade runs along its edge and has a small hinged door leading to a wooden walkway that angles up to another tower (24) further out into the river. The walkway leads south from the tower roof to the entrance to the last and highest tower, gradually sloping from 20 to 23 meters above the water. There is no railing, and the walkway is 3 meters wide and 15 meters long. At the end of the walkway is a door to the highest tower.
Akhan's tower rests on a platform 23 m above the surface of the river. Numbers of huge tree trunks lashed together in tiers form the pilings that support it. Akhan's tower is 10 meters in diameter and 3 meters tall. Con reports the scene to xZot who is growing concerned about Con's health.
As he scans the roof for other baddies Con says, "All clear. I have some interesting gizmo's for the technologically inclined to take a look at. It doesn't look like anything that would belong here."
"I think we might need some help, that walkway looks pretty exposed and Akhan has to know someone's coming for him with all the noise from us and down in the village." Con nods as he leans against the wall of the priest's quarters examining his latest collection of battle scars. xZot flicks on his chronocom, "Gloo, Raid I think we're gonna need both of you up here. Gleep, you stay there at the dock and keep one eyespot on the vehicles and another on the villagers. Has anyone heard from Sni'ktl?"
Gloo takes a last look around the dock and riverbank area before silently signalling for Raid to follow. When the human looks quizzically at the Dralasite warrior's gesture Gloo imitates a human shaking his head. "Civilians," he mutters "they need everything spelled out loud. Follow me biker boy, boss needs us up front." Raid quickly switches off and dismounts his hovercycle at the dock and moves to follow Gloo to xZot and Con's position.
As the pair head towards the fire tower the teams chronocom link activates again. "Sorry to take so long reporting in xZot." The Chief Medical Officer clicks over the com. You're not going to believe your eyestalks when you see this, it's some kind of vehicle, I think it uses hover technology. From all these what look like turrets, I'd suggest it's some kind of fighting vehicle?"
"That would be a tank or an APC." Gloo mumbles to himself as Sni'ktl's excited chatter continues.
"I think some of the military personnel need to see this!" Sni'ktl finishes as he continues to examine the outside of the vehicle, careful to stay clear of the area that gave off the electrical discharge during his first close encounter.
Distracted by the chatter on the chronocom Gloo doesn't see what happens next. As he pushes the balustrade door open to pass through the first firetower, a trap door in the east side of the platform in the center of tower opens. A snakes with tapering dorsal fin running from the back of the skull to the tail, approximately 2 meters long and 500 mm thick, moves silently through the trap door following the vibrations from Gloo and Raid. Lifting the forepart of it's body to look for prey, the snikker spits venom and the fin extends fully.
Caught off guard, Gloo swears as the spray of venom spatters across the lower legs of his skiensuit. Raid draws and fires automatically, wounding the snake (25 points) when his laser blast knocks it to the wooden floor. Annoyed at himself for being ambushed by a snake, Gloo fires three rounds from his gyrojet rifle, hitting with the first two (20 & 21 points). The badly mauled alien serpent slithers back toward the trapdoor as the Dralasite and his human companion quickly exit the firetower through the second balustrade gate.
"Did you see the way that snake changed colour?" Raid asks Gloo as the approach the next building.
"Yeah, it went from green to red after we shot it!" Gloo laughs
"Not that," Raid continues "it went red alright, well more like maroon. I think it had some sort of chameleon ability, Sni'ktl will want to catch one for sure." Gloo groans back and Raid assumes he is worrying about Sni'ktl taking them on another science expedition when he realizes Gloo is actually in pain and stopping to check his pseudolegs.
"Damn, look at this!" Gloo says. The venom from the snakelike creature must have an acidic property, eating through Gloo's skiensuit and beginning to burn his epidermis beneath the skiensuit (13 points, 7 to suit). Raid pulls out his canteen and pours some water over Gloo's leg to try and dilute the venom but it continues to burn Gloo's skin for several more seconds before the pain finally subsides (5 & 8 points).
"Nasty stuff." Observes Raid as he helps Gloo back to his feet and they enter the priest's quarters. Raid and Gloo climb up the ladders with some help from Con and xZot and through the destroyed trapdoor and into the top room.
Peering through the trap door again xZot notices the door to the tower has slits that allow the high priest to fire out if necessary. Other slits are located in the walls, floor and ceiling. The roof is very pointed and angled sharply to prevent easy climbing. Finally the young yazirian decides, "I don't see that we have any alternative than to rush the door together. Anyone got any other ideas? Now's the time people."
While xZot opens the rushed briefing up for suggestions, Con, with weapon drawn, slips up into the next level to scout. He confirms his earlier description of the scene with xZot. Gloo ponders about what to do next, while Con gives a rundown of what he sees.
"Boss, you or Raid should grab the screen from Con here since he looks worse than I feel." Gloo observes aloud. "The non bulky folk should be up front so they can work around one another, I'd just be too bulky for anyone to get around me on that bridge and doorway."
"Is there an alternative to the logic of death?" Raid wonders as he prepares to fight his way in with the others. He switches back to his machete and stunstick for fighting at close quarters and hopes to take a live prisoner.
"Whoever has the holoscreen should creep out on the bridge low, possibly crawl before anyone else even shows themselves." Gloo suggests, "Once that person is near the door and ready then the group goes up. Whoever is at the door could slip a doze in if those slits are big enough, or if they see the priest they could fire a shot at him point blank. I have a shotgun that would make some fine damage at that range or blow the door open, either way." xZot nods at all of Gloo's suggestions as the plucky dralasite warrior looks around.
"Anyone else, ah Con, you wouldn't happen to have any stimdose left in your first aid pack would you? You should take some now." Gloo adjusts the laser pistol to setting 5 then starts to reload the rifle but stops and ponders. "Regular or doze?" He wonders.
"Load with doze," xZot answers for him before quickly issuing a string of commands. "Con, give the holoscreen back to Raid, try a slip a doze grenade through the slit." xZot instructs the tech. Gloo you follow Raid through the trapdoor and deploy to the side laying down covering fire while Con and I rush the door. Once we get going you," xZot jabs a long finger at the dralasite "follow up behind us." Deciding to try for a capture instead of a kill, xZot unclips his stunstick from his belt and glances at Con's sonic sword. "If we can't knock him out quickly, make sure you finish him off. Everyone ready? OK let's go."
Raid, now camouflaged with the holoscreen, slips through the trapdoor and quietly makes his way across the bridge while and Gloo scrambles up behind him. As xZot and then Con clamber up next their movement catches the eye of their intended prey. The unmistakable whine of a powered weapon discharging galvanizes everyone into motion as a beam of energy sears through the air.
xZot and Con race across the wooden walkway toward the door as the dralasites try to make out which slit the firing came from. Raid reaches the end of the bridge and pulls a dose grenade from his belt, pushing it through the nearest firing slit. The pop of the grenade is followed by more blasts of energy from the slit on the other side of the doorway. The first beam misses everyone, the second slams into xZot's stomach (15 points). The young yazirian commander cries out in pain and surprise, tottering on the bridge before Con grabs him and steadies him, before pushing to the deck. Gloo opens up with suppressing fire, his rounds nicely grouped around the firing slit, two actually penetrating the loophole and striking the heliope priest (38 points).
As Con and xZot crawl painfully toward the last hut, Raid reaches over with his last doze grenade and drops it through the firing slit, and into Akhan's lap. This time the pop of the gas release is followed by the thud of a body falling to the ground. When no more firing issues from the hut, Raid takes the chance to force the door open revealing their fallen foe, and in the darkness across the hut, the object of their search and rescue mission. Raid attempts to stop the bleeding of the unconscious priest, keeping him alive, but subdued. When it is apparent that Akhan will survive Raid sets about collecting any alien technology that looks like a communications, computer, or sensor devices and hangs onto it for future investigation.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you..." Maximillian's mantra carries across the hut after the brief fire fight and melee with Akhan. Malligigg is tied up on the far side of the hut. Also in the hut can be found Akhan's bed, food, decorative clothing, leather goods, ceremonial paints, and vestments. Beautiful objects carved from wood and bone by the Heliope crafts people are found here, and many are extremely valuable. In one corner are pieces of electronic equipment with lights that flash and shine. One is readily identifiable as a type of albedo screen unit. The other is an emergency radio receiver. The radio emits occasional bursts of static and flashes of light. In a small chest in the corner is a black and red tube that Akhan used in the ceremony at the pyramid with the 'hover tank'.
"OK, get Malligigg and anything else of use and let's get the hell out of here." xZot orders his crew then flicks on his chronocom. "Snik, hold tight. I think we've got the key, we're coming to you. Gleep, how's things down at the dock?"
"Dock and river banks are all clear boss, looks like things have calmed down in the village too." Gleep replies.
"Whatever those things were that attacked," Sni'ktl adds "they seem to swept straight through the village. It looks like most of the villagers have fled as well."
xZot, Con, Raid, Gloo and Max limp back across the walkway to the main priest quarters and make the painful descent down the ladders rejoining Gleep at the dock as fast as their battered bodies allow. Raid climbs aboard his hovercycle while the others clamber into the explorer and head back to the river bank.
"Straight to the pyramid Gleep." xZot says "Let's not muck around." Gleep guides the explorer with Raid following on his cycle, through the Heliope village in close to the eastern wall of the pyramid where an anxious and excited vrusk rushes out from the shelter of the damaged structure to greet his friends.
"You have to see this!" Sni'ktl chitters excitedly as he leads the gang back to his discovery. "Do you have the key?" He asks.
"Is this what you're after?" xZot says, holding out Akhan's rod.
Sni'ktl walks over to a closed circular metal hatch. Near its handle is a small hole. "I think this is the access hatch." The vrusk says, "It's guarded by a defence field which will causes electrical shock to anyone touching the hull of the tank." Shining a light into the hole shows it is about 150 mm deep. "Watch this." Says Sni'ktl, as he carefully inserts the alien rod retrieved from Akhan's hut into the hole he discovered whilst examining the exterior of the fighting vehicle. The hatch slides silently open open.
Before you extends a long metal tunnel to the south, it is 1 m high and 1 m wide and the light is soft and indirect. Sni'ktl takes the lead and the rest of the team quickly piles in behind him, eager to explore the alien technology.
"Ummm, I'll wait out here shall I?" Says Max to the disappearing backs of the Black Hand Gang as the crawl into the hover tank.
There is an opening 5 m ahead on the right and one directly above it in the ceiling. Thirteen meters ahead the tunnel turns to the right. This is an access tunnel into the tank. The opening on the right is a repair niche for some sealed equipment, one person may stand comfortably in the niche. The ceiling shaft is a cylindrical hatchway with ladder leading up for about 2 m to the power room.
xZot's crew quickly split up, exploring the entire craft. After watching the docks for the crew, Gleep in particular is itching to get a little more active. He immediately takes a hand at trying to figure out one of the turrets.
Large control panels and hydraulic machinery flank the sides of the access tunnel which tunnel extends for another 5 m. About 2 m past the turn there is a shaft in the ceiling. The shaft is cylindrical hatchway with a ladder leading up for about 2 m to the bridge. This is an access tunnel to the interior of the tank. It contains protective panels behind which are massive cable and control equipment. Some equipment will be familiar, some unfamiliar. xZot, Con and Snik climb up to the bridge where they find the room is shaped like an upside-down V with ceilings 2 m high. At the ends of the V are two rounded, mushroom like seats. Across the wall in front of the seats are glassy viewing screens. All are dark at the moment. In front of the two seats are several simple levers. Each lever has for its "handle" a narrow funnel depression.
"Something might be inserted in them." Snik and xZot mumble in unison. Also on the panels are horizontal bars almost flush with the facing and dials and indicators. All are lettered or numbered in an unfamiliar language. Nothing is operating except a small red light on the left control panel that faces forward. At the opposite end of the room is a sliding door which is open. A hatch is in the floor.
Sni'ktl fits Akhan's rod into the hole, and starts the tank engines. Sni'ktl and xZot smile at each other as lights flash, control mechanisms extrude from protective panels and the computer begins what sounds like an audio count of some kind. Con and Raid leave xZot and Sni'ktl to play with their new toy while they head behind the bridge to what can only be the combat center. Both dralasites join Con and Raid, keen to see what other secrets the tank has in store.
The room behind the bridge is shaped like the letter C. Along one wall are three mushroom like seats and a hatch in the floor. Over the hatch is a control panel but no seat. Along the opposite wall are a seat in front of a control panel, a large computer set in a block of machinery, and then another seat. In the center of the ceiling is a hatch which is closed. At one end of the room is a sliding panel which is shut. At the opposite end is the opening to another compartment.
Gleep checks out the ceiling hatch which leads to the inspection area of the upper laser turret, not into the turret itself. Only machinery is visible, and there is enough room for one person to crawl inside and make repairs. The floor hatch leads to the automatic ammunition magazine. The sliding panel at the rear of the chamber leads to the power room and opens at a touch. The power room is roughly square in shape but the walls are irregular, having many niches formed by sealed machinery. Lights blink on and off and there are dials and gauges but no chairs or anything that resembles a control panel. In one wall is a sealed hatch. Near its handle is a small hole. This room contains the nuclear fusion power supply system. It is smaller and far more streamlined and efficient than anything produced by the UPF. The hatch is sealed and would appear it can be opened by the same control rod used to enter the tank. The hatch is the entrance to the missile launch room. After a cursory inspection Con and Raid return to the combat center where Raid is amazed at how quickly he manages to pick up the controls and begins showing Con and Gloo how well engineered and intuitively designed the combat center is.
Gleep decides he wants to experiment with the turrets "It looks like the turrets can only be accessed from the outside." Gleep observes and heads for the main access hatch of the tank.
"Anyone else coming?" Gleep asks his friends. As the dralasite waddles through the bridge to the access tunnel the red light on the bridge master control changes to bright yellow.
"If I had to guess I'd say we're under full power now." Says xZot, "Report in when you're in the turret Gleep and we'll go for a test drive." He smiles at the rest of the Gang.
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