Detachment 2551 : A Star Frontiers Adventure

Chapter 18 - Forced Re-Entry

Bridge of the Vercingetorix - stardate fy 1111014

(from much, much earlier)
V'Sndyk: Computers: Access & Operate - automatic
V'Sndyk: Comp: Repair Mainframe : level 2 + 1 CS - 4 CS = 35%; rolled 00 (ouch)
V'Sndyk: Comp: Program Manipulation : 2 + 1 CS - 4 CS = 35%; rolled 34 (yay!)
V'Sndyk's was able to program a cut-off 'switch' to disconnect OTTO from the ship's systems
in case of emergency.

"V'Sndyk, get your thorax up here! We've got problems with OTTO!"

Several tense seconds pass as the bridge crew awaits the arrival of their Vrusk companion. Groo and Ty fight furiously with the controls, but to no avail. The orbital monitor shows a steadily declining arc marking the path of the station and the Vercingetorix above moon g. Telemetry alarms begin wailing. The light next to the heat shields blinks. Finally there is a skitter at the door as V'Sndyk pops his head in.

"What's going on?"

"V'Sndyk - get over there and activate that manual override you installed last week! OTTO's been over-run with a virus and the ship is doomed if you can't get us control!"

"Well, I..." V'Sndyk rushes over to a free console and immediately begins tapping away the sequence to call up his homemade cut-off device. "This should restore full control of the onboard systems to us, removing OTTO's executive authority from the command structure. I'm no pilot, but..."

The screen on his terminal clears, showing a full surrender of the system to manual control. V'Sndyk wastes no time, calling up a diagnostic test of the ship's drive program, standard on every starship. He turns to face the group, his face even more concerned than before.

"...the virus is attacking the computer system, not just OTTO's AI package. Every system that is computer-controlled is deteriorating! There's no time for me to restart the system or purge the damage - we're on full manual!"

Marcus stares in disbelief. The contingency put in place had indeed protected them from OTTO going haywire. But that eventuality paled in comparison with the emergency that had now arisen - the entire computer system had become their enemy! He turns to interrogate Ty, but the pilot is ready with the answer.

"Without the drive program I can't run the engines! Maybe if there were some residual subroutines left that were intact I could guide us in, but everything's trashed! There is no fly- by-stick on a starship...this is fully fly-by-wire! Without even control of the flaps on her wings we can't control the descent angle...and that's even assuming we'd know what angle to hold her at!"

"I want OPTIONS! Not excuses!" Marcus snaps, trying to galvanize the crew.

Ty throws up his hands. There just wasn't any talking to a non-spacer, sometimes. "There are NO options! This crate is dropping like a rock! We have to abandon ship before it gets too hot in here and the air friction starts kicking us around! And someone better use that escape pod on the station before the Osiris computer detaches and leaves us to fall!"

Cymon, Mrylinax, and Freya arrive on the bridge and have heard the situation. Shocked faces begin to exchange glances, looking for a solution. Mrylinax produces a handful of his flavored smoking sticks and proceeds to snap them in two at different lengths.

"Well, we knew what we were gettin' into signin' onto this crazy mission. Three escape pods between the eight of us... I say we draw straws."

"W-W-W-WHAT!?" is the only response V'Sndyk can muster.

"It's the only way," Ty fires back. "Every spacer knows the rules - every man has an equal chance at the pod when it comes time. I live and die by that rule."

"Hmmmm" Groo nods in solemn concurrence.

Ruby lets out a long whistle. "I've gone through too much to die like a roasted marshmallow, chums...there's GOT to be a way out of this!"

The smoking sticks go flying from the Humma's hands, displaced from them by a sudden slap.

"What the hell do you think this is? Some sort of damn holovid drama? We're not splitting up the team! Ruby, Groo, Freya - get to the equipment hold and start transferring our equipment to the Osiris. Start with the survival packs first, then the nonessentials. Cymon, get your medical research and the Den Qritsa, then give these guys a hand. Myrlinax, Ty, help me transfer the weapons, ammo, suits, and screens."

"Listen, _prokarfinov_, I've punched out people for less than..."

"NOW!"

"This is crazy! We have to make for the escape pods! We only got enough time for..."

"We're OUT of time! If V'Sndyk can't save the computer, then we'll transfer our operations to Osiris and hop onto the next ship that docks." Marcus then sees Ty staring back at him in disbelief. "Look, to hell with your spacer rules! Three of us surviving to make it planetside aren't going to save this mission! You think YOU will be able to survive down there with all those Doghan shock troopers? Now move!"

With that, Marcus heads for the weapons locker, firing off a final order. "V'Sndyk, you've got eight minutes to give us a computer solution. Try rebooting the system, purging the memory, anything! If you can't fix it, we're abandoning ship!"

V'Sndyk and the rest of the crew stare dumbfounded after him. Finally, the ratteld programmer turns to Freya. "Um. Okay, any ideas? Looks like we've got the ball."

Freya ignores the commotion of the others frantically moving through the ship and saddles up alongside V'Sndyk. He sits at a terminal next to the Vrusk and pauses, as if catching his breath. Even in his pressure suit, the Yazirian carried a shroud of mystery, insisting on donning the hood inside the helmet and thus hiding his scarred features still. Freya leans over the console, offering his support.

"Your kind is fond of assessing problems in a logical manner," Freya says addressing V'Sndyk. "Let us do so as well."

"V'Sndyk, you said you'd hacked into the Osiris computer." Groo says. "Can we keep the docking clamp locked, preventing the station from dropping us and forcing it to keep us in orbit? I don't think whoever programmed this trap had in mind losing the station, too."

V'Sndyk wastes no time producing the portable CAC and wiring it to the Vercingetorix terminal, offering a direct link to the now-hacked Osiris computer. He begins tapping furiously.

"I-I don't understand. There's no listing, hidden or otherwise, for a program that would cause what's happening! It's as if it doesn't even exist! There's not even a listing for a docking subroutine!"

"Whoever set this trap isolated the necessary systems for us to counter it," Freya ponders aloud. "See if there are dormant routines for docking that we can activate."

V'Sndyk shakes his head. "Nothing."

Groo shakes his head. "Would it be possible to shut OTTO down and do a clean re-boot?"

"Doubtful. That takes several minutes a healthy computer. And most virus programs replicate themselves so that even the initialization programs are infected. We could have been infected the moment we docked - that gave the virus over an hour to work!"

Freya cuts in: "If we can't order the computer to reestablish orbit, can the thruster systems be controlled manually at the hardware/system level? Power to the computer could be cut if necessary."

"This part I know," Groo adds confidently. "Again we're talking a best-case scenario. Shut the computer down and we would need someone at each thruster working the firing mechanism. " Groo points to several spots on the Osiris schematic. "We'd need to EVA three people to these points and figure out how to work and synchronize the units. Maybe Ty and Ruby could do it, but enlisting anyone else would take a while."

Freya continues, undaunted. "Can the station's sensors be 'tricked' into reporting a VERY low orbit, forcing the computer to regain altitude prematurely?"

(V'Sndyk Program Manipulation level 2 + 1 CS - 1 CS = 45%; rolled 35)

V'Sndyk shakes his head. "I changed the altimeter monitoring routine but the descent continues."

"Perhaps the rogue program has a separate sensor package to prevent us from tampering with it?" Freya asks.

V'Sndyk stammers with excitement. "D-d-dunno. Hey, can we 'weld' the ship to the docking clamp to prevent release? Perhaps if we tether the ship to the station? I know...the thrusters on the escape pods - can we activate those manually?"

Again Groo cuts in as his area of expertise becomes relevant. "Won't work. The moment arm caused by the station's suddenly return to orbit without an equivalent thrust from the Vercingetorix would snap the weld. A tether job would take too long in EVA. And the escape pod's thrusters aren't oriented correctly to provide a safe burn."

The rapidfire brainstorming session ends abruptly. Reversing the traps seems impossible.

"We need to get out of here, fast, then. But how? There are only three escape pods left and eight of us!"

(Groo: SOSO check: lvl 4: 53%; rolled 02)

In the midst of the hysteria, Groo thinks about the condition of the ship and any unaccounted factors that would help in their plight. He turns and begins typing on a still-functioning terminal, calling up the ship's schematics. Ty, busy moving equpiment to the Osiris, casts him a quizzical look.

"What are you thinking?"

"There's GOT to be something we're not thinking of. This ship is anything but typical - Breanna made some special modifications to her and at our last stop the Pirates all but replaced the lavatory sink. I'm thinking..." An image of the underbelly of the Vercingetorix appears. An overlay of the DEEP6 berth appears on top of it with Breanna's written specs listed next to it. Groo calls up more detailed plans of the unit itself.

"Waitasec... we never really took a good look at that fancy powder keg we've been toting around all this time. I just wonder..." A few more commands and the schematic of the pod rotates. New details emerge of the interior and fuselage. "Well, whaddya know?"

"What!? What?!" Ty asks hurriedly.

"The DEEP6 unit is more than just a detachable pod full of pyrotechnics. The unit has its own limited flight capabilities."

"What? Why the hell would it be able to fly?"

"Well, it makes sense. It's designed to be detach and move like the ship before it blows up, therefore throwing off pursuers. By design it has its own small engines, retractable air fins for use in-atmosphere, and a simple computer system to drive it."

"Well, it's no good to us with explosives in her hold."

"That's just it - the explosives were loaded into the unit. It's modular. The pirates had to rig it as best as they could at the time. The explosives can just as easily be unloaded to make room for something else. See? There's a door leading from our cargo hold directly into the pod."

Ty looks at Groo in shock, realizing what he is implying. "WE get in that thing? Are you nuts? That's like going over a waterfall in a barrel!"

"Not exactly, check out its specs."

Ty sits and begins reading. "Yeah, but if it's like the rest of the ship's computer systems it's screwed, too!"

"Says here that the onboard computer is isolated and independent of the ship's systems. If we were to activate it from up here then there's risk of contamination when the two systems interface. But if we go down there and program the flight pattern locally we should be safe. Dump the explosives, load as much gear as we can, wear our pressure suits and we've got ourselves an escape vehicle."

"No landing gear...I shudder to think how badly banged up we'll get on re-entry. How much room in there?"

"I can see us fitting all eight of us but very little of the cargo we have in the hold. Of course, we can always load more cargo and send someone down in the escape pods."

By now everyone has stopped moving cargo and is looking over Groo's shoulder. Ty drops his rifle to point at the screen.

"You sure this thing will carry us safely to the ground?" he says, looking at Ty.

"Simple sensors and directional controls," Ty mumbles as he reads the screen. "No windows. The system wasn't designed to be flown except remotely from the bridge. I think I can program it to land in a general area of the moon. Yes, it can survive re-entry, but it'll be a real job setting her down."

"Okay, then. Change of plan. I propose the following - we load the deep six, five of us go on the deep six, the rest take the escape pods down. Myrlinax boards the station, sets up a massive TD-19 charge on the station's reactor, sets the time for 2 minutes, and follows us to the ground."

Mrylinax smiles at this idea. "Yeah, I can handle that. Let's dish out some payback!"

"Wait," Groo says. "I volunteer to stay onboard the Osiris and try a last-ditch attempt to save the ship. Mrylinax can still blow the station using timers. But I need some additional time to try and gain control. Ty's the better pilot, so he needs to be onboard the DEEP6, but I'm the only other person qualified to bring the Vercingetorix back in if it can be saved. V'Sndyk, I'd like access to the information stored in your memory module. Perhaps there's something there that can help me fight the virus." V'Sndyk nods.

"If the ship cannot be saved, I propose wiring it for destruction as well." It is Freya's voice. Calm, even, and without a hint of remorse for what he is suggesting. His goggled eyes do not return the gazes he receives. The thought of purposefully blowing the Vercingetorix strikes the group hard. "It is the only way to assure the enemy does not use it, or its contents, against us."

Red warning lights flash on and off, creating a stark portait of the crews' faces. Marcus ends the silence in a decisive tone. "Alright then, Mrylinax, wire the station and the ship. Groo, you stay and try your plan. Radio Mrylinax if you get our bird flying and he'll turn off the timers on the ship. Mrylinax and I will take the pods down - we're the most qualified to survive the wait until the rest of you break out the flitboards and come to find us. Hopefully we can cluster the landing points close together."

Ty sniffs. "Looks like a risk we're gonna have to take if we want to get as much gear down as possible. Maybe if you're worried about the casualties in the DEEP6 then the medics should travel in the pods so they can be in some shape to treat us."

Marcus notes how glibly Ty and Groo talk of the chances of death or injury involved in landing or flying. Was it a mark of their experience or something more cynical?

"V'Sndyk and I can try to rig some rudimentary onboard interfaces to make the pod's onboard computer easier to control." Frey says. "As it is now, it receives instructions remotely from the Vercingetorix. We will alter it to take local commands via a CAC. Also, our CAS units can be rigged to read the pod's sensors and return up-to-the-minute information to the pilot."

"Okay, let's get moving!" Marcus shouts as the group breaks up.


FCS Vercingetorix - Rear of the Cargo Hold - T-minus 6 minutes

The next several minutes see the crew rushing to their stations. Freya and V'Sndyk follow Mrylinax to the hold and await his removal of the pod's explosives before moving in to do their work. After several seconds Mrylinax emerges with bundles of concentrated TD-19 satchels strung together with wires. His expression is a mixture of relief and residual concern.

"Don't ask me how many shortcuts I just took doing that rush job..." is all he says as pushes past them and climbs up the ladder.

(Mrylinax: Demolitions level 3 + 1 CS = 53%; rolled 21 - successfully removed charges from DEEP6)

[Freya and V'Sndyk rigging the DEEP6 with extra controls for Ty to use:]
(Freya: Computers: A&O level +X - 1 CS = 89%; rolled 49)
(Freya: Computers: Interface level 4 - 1 CS = 49%; rolled 25)
(Freya: Computers: Repair Specialized (attach CAC) level 4 + 1 CS = 58%; rolled 01 (wow!))
(Freya: Computers: Repair Specialized (attach CAS) level 4 + 1 CS = 58%; rolled 95 - fail)
(V'Sndyk: Computers: Repair Specialized (attach CAS) level 1 + 1 CS = 45%; rolled 53 - fail)

V'Sndyk finishes the last connections for the onboard computer and stands. Marcus, Ruby, Ty, and Cymon continue their back-and-forth march to load the pod with as much gear as they can with Ty supervising. Just then Freya descends the ladder. A cylinder hangs from one hand. He approaches and sets the cylinder down beside several more that have been placed next to the DEEP6 opening.

"I found this packing foam onboard the Osiris. I believe it will help us in padding the interior of the pod and reduce the shock when we land."

"You must be using the term 'landing' liberally," V'Sndyk snickers. "Seems more like we're going to be crashing than landing!"


FSS Osiris - Deck 3 - Main Computer and Navigational Center - T-minus 5 minutes

Groo works furiously at the main terminal of the station's computer. His eyes move back and forth from an open book of station schematics to the screen showing the computer control for all systems. Behind him, Mrylinax moves quickly with an armful of explosives. He turns to eye the schematics, noting the areas best suited for placing charges. Groo doesn't notice him looking over his shoulder.

"There's GOT to be an in-road into the routine running this trap!" he cries, whacking at the keyboard and continuing. Mrylinax says nothing, planting a huge block of incendiary TD- 19 from the DEEP6 to a place in the wall where a power line runs.

"Heh heh...there's gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight. I hope you know what you're doing, Groo. I wouldn't want to be onboard this time bomb with the charges I've set."

Groo doesn't pause in his work. "You just make sure you fill me in on the countdown to the last second - I'll worry about getting out on time."

(Mrylinax: Demolitions level 3 + 1 CS = 53%; secret roll for setting charges on Osiris)
(Mrylinax: Demolitions level 3 + 1 CS = 53%; secret roll for setting charges on Vercingetorix)


FSS Osiris - Deck 1 - Docking Port between the Vercingetorix and the Osiris - T-minus 4 minutes

(V'Sndyk Computers: A&O level+X - 1 CS = 89%; rolled 58)
(V'Sndyk Computers: Display Information level 3 + 3 CS - 1 CS = 58; rolled 11)

V'Sndyk finishes his survey of the control panel outside the station's single escape pod and faces Marcus, who is waiting nearby.

"Looks clean. I don't see any hidden commands that would interfere with the operation of this pod."

"So Groo will be safe using this thing? I don't want him ejecting at the last second, only to find the virus hit here, too."

"No, no. Signs of command corruption are pretty easy to pick up. Plus, Freya checked the pod out with his diagnostic CAS and it's fully functional."

Marcus flips the intercom switch on a nearby c.a.s. panel. "Did you hear that, Groo?"

Groo's voice responds from the tiny grill set in the plate. Only two decks down, he sounded a million miles away. The sounds of furious typing can be heard in the background. "Yeah, thanks."

"Don't wait too long to get to your pod - give it your best shot then get the hell outa here!" Ty yells into the interom.

"Yeah, yeah, I got you. Don't you have someplace to go?"

Ty smiles. Groo could be cool under any pressure. "I'll go when I'm ready. You just be in a pod when this thing goes up."

"Roger that."

"I still don't like the idea of leaving him here," Cymon says. "The risk far outweighs the potential gain."

"C'mon," Marcus says, cutting him off. "Let's go. We're running out of time."

The crew files quickly through the airlock and into the bridge of the Vercingetorix. The mood is somber, like that of a wake. Not only are they leaving a team-mate behind, but it is time to say farewell to the ship that has been their home, their refuge, their savior on so many occasions. And with it, the endearing personality that is the ship's alter-ego: OTTO.

V'Sndyk pauses next to OTTO's main terminal in the computer berth and lays a hand on the sensory receptor. He watches to makes sure the others continue aftward before he leans in close.

"I-I'm going to miss you, OTTO. You were the best computer I'd ever had the privilege to work with. I hope I did a good job. I'm sorry we can't fix you. If there was any way I could take you with us," he whispers, patting the portable memory module in his hands.

"C'mon, bug!"

V'Sndyk pats the sensory bubble one last time. "Time to go. Goodbye, OTTO."

V'Sndyk chokes back a tear as he walks down the hall and descends the ladderwell into the cargo hold where the DEEP6 is waiting. The empty computer berth is filled with a dead calm. There is only the ticking of OTTO's automated systems chugging away faithfully. A red light blinks nearby, an indicator on a TD-19 charge the only clue of recent occupation.

Unnoticed in the shadows of a nearby corner, hullbot Alpha hovers and watches the Vrusk leave. Somehow functional again in spite of its ordeal onboard the Lacien, the diminutive automaton waits, then approaches the demolitions charge and eyes it purposefully. It then proceeds up to OTTO's console and stares again. Lines of code scroll up OTTO's screen, left there by V'Sndyk when he was trying to repair the system. The lines reflect meaninglessly across the hullbots clear dome as it hovers and stares coldly at the crippled computer. And waits.

A quick jolt of the ship tells V'Sndyk that one of the ship's pods has ejected. Seconds later, another jolt signals the other. Ty is standing next to the DEEP6 in his pressure suit. One of the hullbots stands ready with the hose for the packing foam.

"About time. What took you?"

V'Sndyk edges his way into the cramped pod. It's a tight fit, with flit boards and survival gear crammed into the nose of the craft and the others packed like sardines in the back. The claustrophobic quarters are made worse by the pressure suits that encase them. Soon the feel of something soft can be felt expanding all around them. The white packing foam oozes over and under everything in the hold until at last it thickens into a spongy residue that leaves the passengers immobilized but well-protected. Ty finally enters, carving out a pocket that will allow him access to the controls.

"Okay, Beta, close the hatch."

"Okay, detaching the DEEP6 in 5..4..3..2..1...detach!"

Another jolt, this one alarmingly strong, hits them as the pod, never intended for passengers, literally shoots away from the Vercingetorix. Weightlessness sets in for a few seconds, then "Firing rockets...now!" Even in the foam they can feel their bodies pressed against the back wall by the sudden acceleration. It isn't long before the smooth ride becomes choppy as the pod descends into the atmosphere below. As they plummet, the moon's gravity gradually yet firmly reaches up and begins tugging at them from beneath the ship.


FSS Osiris - Deck 3 - Main Computer and Navigational Center - T-minus 3 minutes Groo tries to ignore the timer and works furiously at his terminal. Desperate, he runs through every routine he can think of to access the onboard systems of the Vercingetorix in hopes of saving her. At one point he accesses the power schematic of the ship and is surprised to see a flashing light in the Vercingetorix' atomic drive fuel storage compartment. Intrigued, he punches up a detailed report.

Three windows are displayed, each with an orb-shaped icon in the middle representing a stored fuel pellet. Data is listed next to each one, specs for a standard atomic fuel pellet. The third icon, however, is discolored - the specs list warnings that the pellet emits at an incorrect wavelength and is therefore useless as fuel. On the contrary, the pellet is still very radioactive but still within safety limits. But the wavelength at which it radiates is completely foreign.

"What the....?"

Groo remembers the pellets stored onboard the Lacien and loaded onto the Vercingetorix. He recalls that a starship rarely has a full complement of pellets, given that one is burned up every jump and the Lacien hadn't the resources they'd had in the Crimson Pirates. He also remembers that the engineering compartment had been locked and booby-trapped as if something important was being protected, yet nothing was found there except the body of one of the crew.

"Why did they have this onboard? Surely there systems would have caught it. They must have known it was not a normal pellet."

(Groo INTUITION: 65; rolled 12)

Groo's thoughts to to the information from V'Sndyk's memory module. He punches in a quick cross-reference.

"Oooooookay, that's interesting." he says as the screen fills with information. Sure enough, there is an exact match between the pellet's spectral characteristics and that of the file V'Sndyk found some time ago while hacking.

"This pellet is made up of that unknown material that message made such a big deal about."

DECIPHERED ITEM #2:
UNKNOWN COMPOUND FILE 298103D8A ARCHAEOLOGICAL CROSS REFERENCE
SUGGESTS TSORIUM CHEMICAL AND RADIOACTIVE PROFILE ATTACHED
- HIGHLY UNSTABLE - HANDLE WITH CARE
- POSITIVE MATCH WITH CONFISCATED CORUSCE SAMPLES

"Corusce...that name again. And what exactly is Tsorium? Never heard of that. What the hell were those guys carrying?" A quick flick of his chronocom puts him in touch with hullbot Gamma. "Gamma, go to the atomic pellet hold and retrieve the third unit in storage. Seal it in a safety container and bring it to the Osiris airlock."

"Acknowledged" answers the metallic voice without hint of concern. If the robots aboard the Vercingetorix were aware of their impending doom they weren't showing it.

Groo returns to his work. At long last his efforts lead him to a juncture of systems that process of elimination has ruled the only command route that would allow the current trap to run without detection. He punches up a full disclosure of the commands stored there and is stunned at what he sees.

MEMORY ALLOCATION ERROR - NO SUCH BLOCK EXISTS

(Groo: Computers: Display Information - 1 + 3CS - 3 CS = 45%; rolled 25)
(Groo: Computers: Program Manipulation - 2 + 1 - 3 CS = 41%; rolled 18)

"No connection. There's no connection AT ALL! But it had to exist at one time to be listed in the subroutines..."

It strikes him. Somehow the perpetrators had rigged a physical break to occur in the computer hardware when the trap was sprung. Groo could imagine miles of wiring running through the station. Somewhere an isolated processor responsible for the trap sat on the other side of a break in wire. A break likely caused by a motorized blade wired to the trap program. With enough time anyone could track the unit down, reconnect it, and cease the process. But not in the time given - that was the elegance of the trap.

Frustrated, Groo picks up the terminal and smashes it against the wall. Sparks erupt and cascade over the mainframe's cabinets.

"GGGGRRRRRRAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGHHH!!!!! I was so close! If I'd only had more time...."

He checks his chronocom. One minute left before Mrylinax's charges did their job. He casts one last look at the insolent computer system that lay wrecked before him. With a snarl he turns and bolts to the main elevator. At Deck one he is still locking his pressure suit helmet in place. There in the lounge sits the safety container left by hullbot Gamma. At least something had played against the odds and in their favor, he thinks to himself as he snatches up the container and mashes the release to the escape pod hatch. When the pod ejects, his eyes are closed. He can't bear to see the ship and station they'd failed to save. The explosion to come would be too much to watch.


DEEP6 - Moon 'G' upper atmosphere - T-plus 3 minutes

"Must've been lower than I thought..." Ty shouts over the now-deafening sound of the hull being buffetted by turbulence. V'Sndyk gets the distinct feeling he's going to lose his lunch. The ride gets even bumpier over the next several seconds. Ty can be heard struggling with the controls. The improvised flight stick is pushed to the test as he forces the escape vehicle to level off into a safe descent angle.

"AAAAAAAAGGGGGHHH! C'MON, YOU SONUVABOSPOR, LET'S DANCE!!!"

Finally, after what seems like a never-ending drop into hell, the roar of the air pushing past subsides. But without the braking action of the air friction, the drop now accelerates into a literal free-fall.

"YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHAAAAAAA!!!!!!!" Ty yells, not a note of concern in his voice.

"WHERE ARE MY NUTS? I ORDERED FIRST CLASS....." Ruby yells.

"APPROACH WINDOW IS FIVE-BY-FIVE....HORIZON LEVEL...TRIMMING THE GRADIENT..." The sickening drop stretches on for several seconds. It's long enough for everyone onboard to wonder if there was a planet down there to land on after all. Finally, Ty yells, "HANG ON, THIS WON'T BE PRETTY!!!"

The pod kicks and wobbles as it strikes something but stays airborn. Another kick and a scraping sound as it hits what must be a sand dune. A few more jolts spell out the landscape like enormous braille characters. Finally the nose drops. Everyone holds their breath.

SLAM!

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSCCCC CCHHHHH!!!!









silence

(Ty Computers: A&O lvl 1: +X - 1 CS = 89%; rolled 47 - accessed DEEP6 onboard computer)

(Ty Computers: Display Information lvl 1 + 3 CS - 1 CS = 49%; rolled 29)

(Ty Computers: Program Manipulation lvl 1 + 1 CS - 1 CS = 41%; rolled 13 - program landing coordinates for site of village 'f')

(Ty vehicles: Atmospheric level 2 = lvl +X + 1 CS - 5 CS (turbulence) + 1 CS (rigged CAC/CAS package) = 75%; rolled 02 - perfect landing!!!)

(no landing gear - roll on crash landing table with -10 modifier for perfect landing, another -10 for packing foam cushion)

Ty - rolled 58-20=38; character braces against shock - nothing happens
Ruby - rolled 28-20=8; character braces against shock - nothing happens
Freya - rolled 05 character braces against shock - nothing happens
V'Sndyk - rolled 16 - character braces against shock - nothing happens
Cymon - rolled 71-20=51; sprained ankle
(RS 55; rolled 24 made RS check) result rolled -10 = 41
[41-50] impact - 1d6 dmg from being thrown against equipment, bulkhead, etc.
1d6 dmg from impact; rolled 6; skeinsuit halves damage

"(Cough! Cough!) Everyone okay?" Ty yells at last. Voices sound out until all onboard are accounted for and without injury. Ty immediately grabs a cannister and begins spraying the foam with a solution designed for easy unpacking of foam. In minutes the white goo is reduced to dessicated whisps that float to the floor.

Ty stands and engages the hatch. The orange light of a setting sun fills the cabin. Cymon removes his pressure suit helmet and approaches the door. Heat can be felt radiating off the outside skin of the DEEP6 where the metal is still cooling. One by one the group exits and stands on the surface of another world.

Once again, Ruby can't resist a little fun. "What's this?? I distinctly told my travel agent I wanted to go to Ninland!!!!"


Moon G - 50 kilometers north - T-plus 10 minutes

The azure and crimson mix beautifully in the western horizon of moon 'G'. Her wind patterns, the force behind her terrible sandstorms, were also a driving force for the pallette of the day's sunset. Almost lost in all of this color is an incandescent white line streaking across the heavens. At first it could be mistaken for another cirrus cloud. But upon closer inspection one would see it pulse and quiver with a life of its own. A billowing ball of terrible fire at its head, the streak resembles a comet. But its plumage, especially seen through omnoculars, showed there was more here than dirty ice.

From his spot on the high ridge, Marcus watches the scene withoutout emotion. HIs finger comes up to flip the switch that turns off his helmet's omnoculars, allowing him to regard the specatacle with his own eyes. Even in lower resolution the swan song is hard to miss now. In its final seconds the Vercingetorix soars across moon 'G's western skies like a bright and beautiful phoenix.

Farther to the south, another image lingered in the sky that had already attracted Marcus' study minutes ago. It was the bright orange cloud that testified to the fate of Orisirs station, erupting high in orbit from the charges Mrylinax had wired. The cloud is shrinking now. The explosion is collapsing on itself. But glittering shards can be seen creeping away from it and falling to the surface. As they enter the atmosphere they flash and burn before disappearing. Marcus wonders if anyone else is sharing this display with him. Or if anyone other than his team knew its significance.

(modified grenade bounce roll table) 1 2 3
4 5,10 6
7 8 9

Marcus rolled: 2: ~ 50 km to the north of the desired landing site Mrylinax rolled: 8: ~ 50 km to the south of the desired landing site Groo rolled: 2: ~ 50 km to the north of the desired landing site

Potential Damage upon Landing - roll on Crash Table at -40: Marcus: rolled 23 - 40 = nothing happens Mrylinax: rolled 32 - 40 = nothing happens Groo: rolled 38 - 40 = nothing happens

Marcus is still rubbing his lower back when he sees a chute deploy a hundred meters beyond the nearest ridge. His own pod had come down in the east-west mountain range that bisected the local area of interest on this planet. The landing had seen his pod bounce off one rocky face into another and left him sore. But at the sight of another pod he forgets this and springs up the ridge to meet what has to be Groo's pod - its markings were totally different from that of the empty shell that had brought him here from the Vercingetorix.

"Lucky stiff," he mutters as he sees the pod land gently onto a basin-shaped ravine.

Minutes later they are together at Marcus' pod and sharing a drink of water and trying to raise Cymon's group at the DEEP6 using the radiophone Groo's customized battle helmet.

"This is the DEEP6 group, we copy you. Still no word from 'Hopper'," Cymon answers, still using the monickers to conceal their identities from potential eavesdroppers.

"Get your gear in order and plan to pick us up on your flitboards. You should be able to travel a short distance doubled up on the boards - long enough for us to get our boards. Over."

"Copy that. We're still debating who to send to look for Hopper. Our 'Mystery Guest' seems to have a strong hunch about Hopper's location."

That would be Freya they're referring to, Marcus thinks. How could he be so confident of where to look for Mrylinax? "Roger. Signal us when you're pulling out. We'll be ready. Natureboy out."

"Okay, we start walking south."

Marcus and Groo heft their packs and rifles and pick their way down a rocky slope. Somehow they'd all survived the insidious trap left for them at Osiris. But at what cost? Precious little new information and the loss of their ship and computer. Yet Marcus feels his resolve build. After all, he is groundside now - his area of expertise. Whatever answers are to be had are waiting for them here on this moon. And everything that had happened up to this point suggested someone did not want the team to make it here.

"This cat-and-mouse game is over," Marcus thinks to himself. "It's time to take the battle to the enemy."


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