1 km. west of Quatro village 'F' - stardate fy 1111014 - 0700 hours
"No one move! Don't draw your weapons!" Marcus cries as the Quatro rushes down the hillside, leveling a keen blade at this throat.
"Mr. Cole," Cymon says steadily, "I believe it was you who suggested we stand and do NOT defend ourselves from the Quatro onslaught. Is this a test, as it were?"
Marcus doesn't answer. 'I hope those reports on the quatro customs were accurate', he thinks to himself as he plants his feet and prepares to meet the apparent attack. Cymon and Groo unconsciously step aside, understandably cautious of the size and speed of the approaching sentient. Marcus forces his hands to his sides, keeping his reflexes under control. Somehow he finds the resolve to fight his instincts and trust the information he'd been given. His body braces for the anticipated attack. His nerves scream to react yet he grits his teeth and forces a calm over himself.
In the last instant Marcus can hear the sound of the Quatro breathing, see the blade swing high, and even feel the opponent's footfalls on the sand...
A firm smack from the flat of the blade catches Marcus in the abdomen. He grunts more from shock than the force of the blow. It pushes him back, but somehow he finds his feet and remains standing.
(Marcus RS check 65%; rolled 41)
'A skilled move', he thinks to himself, 'to hit me face-on with a blow and pull the weapon away as it passes.'
Marcus blinks and lets out a sigh of relief. The reports were true. The quatro were merely displaying their skill and testing his courage. He had passed the test, apparently, for the Quatro now wheels around and charges back up the hill. There, he resumes his sentinel position : stick vertical, eyes trained upon the visitors.
Before a word can be spoken, another Quatro charges. This time it is towards Cymon. His blade swings differently than the first: in a round, focused path in front of him. Cymon, in spite of the demonstration already performed, stares wide-eyed at the menacing approach. More quickly than he can follow with his eyes, the blade disappears and the butt-end of the staff taps him forcefully in the chest as the Quatro passes.
he grunts, and finds himself reeling backwards. The experience takes him completely by surprise, and he tumbles to the ground.
(Cymon RS check: 55%; rolled 86)
Cymon quickly regains his footing, his only wound a bruised ego. If the quatro judge anything by the shortcoming, it isn't visible. The Quatro runs back up the hill to rejoin his brethren and is still again.
Several meters away, the rest of the team watches the spectacle with disbelief. Freya watches the charging Quatro in a detached manner, seemingly more curious than concerned until Cymon falls. In a blur of motion, Freya unslings his laser rifle and sights on Cymon's attacker. Scarce seconds later he relaxes his aim, seeing that the Azram is apparently unharmed. Morning light reflects off his sungoggles as Freya turns toward V'Sndyk.
"An interesting process. I've never witnessed this style of greeting ritual. Given that Frontier races laud the logical nature of the Vrusk race, I'm interested to learn whether your people participate in similar rituals?"
V'Sndyk doesn't bother turning towards Freya, his compound eyes perfectly capable of seeing him a multitude of times. "Sorry to dissappoint you, Freya, but the Vrusk are a more...civilized species."
At last a third Quatro charges, this time at Groo. It is apparent that every person present is to participate in the ritual. Groo makes the connection and tries his best to stand proudly, no fear visible on his face. He can imagine Ty scolding him for leaving his guard down, but everything he'd seen now told him that this simple act could mean good relations with these people. Hours with the teaching helm aboard the Vercingetorix learning the Quatro language had imbued him with a special insight into their way of thinking. 'This is a test. This is only a test...' he thinks to himself. With a stiff upper lip he braces his feet and does his best not to blink.
From his distant vantage point, Ty fights the urge to cut the charging Quatro down with his blaster. Instead, he sees the look of resolve on Groo's face and forces himself to watch. His hand slides over to his pistol, keeping it ready just in case. He relaxes a little but looks around, trying to spot if the running Quatro is in fact a distraction for a more deadly attack from another direction.
The third challenger plummets down the hillside in a sideways fashion. His bladed staff whistles as he slices it in a side-to-side move different from the others. The unique pattern is an artform to behold, as they all are, but Groo can only see the blade and the grim reality of its function. At the last second, when Groo can see the Quatro's eye widen menacingly, the butt of the staff finds his stomach.
The force is greater than he'd anticipated. His body, rigid in anticipation of the blow, works against him as it absorbs all of the force that sends him sailing to the ground.
(Groo RS check 75%; rolled 97)
Groo grumbles a curse under his breath as he stands. He knows he will never hear the end of this from Ty. At last the entourage of quatro descends. The leader, marked only by a black band around his forehead, steps forward.
KEENACHU - SHI SHI HO-HANI MAKU-SHU.
He extends one of his four hands and makes a sign in the air. He then hands Marcus a flat, grey stone and speaks some more. He then waits, as if for a response. It seems that no one in the group speaks Pan-Gal.
Marcus whispers to Groo, "What did he say?"
(Groo: Quatro Language 3rd level: 66%; rolled 68)
"I didn't get it all. His name is Keena, I think. They want us to follow them somewhere. I don't know what the rock is all about."
"I do," Marcus whispers as he bows and smiles at the Quatro. "I remember that from the holovid I researched on them. It's their way of symbolizing they now put trust in us. Whatever we do now, we can't give them a reason to want it back." Marcus makes an odd motion with his hand.
(Marcus Society:quatro level 1: 41%; rolled 10)
The leader bows and returns the hand gesture. He offers a well-crafted knife to Marcus and begins speaking.
(Groo: Quatro language: 66%; rolled 35)
"He says you took your blow well. You are a formidable offworlder. He salutes you."
"Tell him 'Thank you - it is an honor to be received by you'."
The leader motions for the three of them to follow. Nothing else is said. Marcus, noting the opportunity, whispers to Cymon to get the others and catch up with them. The Quatro don't seem to notice. They march eastward, skirting around the ditch where the others are hiding. Cymon and the others fall in behind the procession, unnoticed. It occurs to Marcus that the Quatro have their backs turned to them, with no guards posted to the rear to watch them. They simply march eastward and allow them to follow as it suits them.
"What are you looking for?" Ruby asks Ty, who is looking around nervously.
"Are you kidding? There could be a dozen more of those one-eyed freaks coming up behind us and we wouldn't know it! Who's to say they're not just tricking us?"
"I dunno. Seems like they had us dead to rights when we got here. They didn't attach then."
"Ruby, son, you've got a lot to learn about meeting new species. I don't trust anyone or anything until I see the credits."
To the rear of the line Freya marches alongside Mrylinax. His eyes scan the landscape with close attention to the indigenous life, of which very little is visible. His thoughts return to Ty's comments about his appearance. The words did not perturb Freya's stoic front... seemingly nothing short of a supernova could. A portion of his thoughts, however, return to analyzing the familiar problem. How could he present a less foreboding visage? His form, deemed hideous by so many, could not be revealed. Yet remaining hidden behind dark bandages and shrouded in a heavy hooded robe provided a transient solution at best.
An unanswered question leaps to the forefront of his mind. Despite the circumstances, he turns to Mrylinax for an answer. The dark sungoggles mask his expression as Freya intones in a soft, steady voice.
"Please define the term 'sonuvabospor'."
Mrylinax looks back at the Yazirian in surprise. Without warning he slaps Freya on the back, throws his head back and lets out a huge belly laugh. The reply serves only to confuse Freya even more.
Quatro Village F - 0800 hours
A few minutes later the entire group arrives at the village, a narrow ravine with a floor five meters below the landscape and measuring roughly 1000 square meters. Rock walls line the interior on all sides. Crude openings here and there mark doors to the tunnels below ground. One of the Quatro walks over to a metal disc hanging on a wall, takes a baton and strikes it, piercing the still morning air with a loud gonging sound. Single-eyed faces fill the doorways. Such a curious image leaves the group unsettled as they are studied by a crowd of cycloptic creatures.
A commotion goes up with the appearance of the strangers. Several clusters of Quatro begin murmuring to themselves and staring suspiciously. Hesitantly they emerge from their entrances and begin clustering around the new visitors. One Quatro in particular wearing a green head band stares critically at the visitors with his four arms crossed and jaw set. He does not look happy. Freya, busy surveying the primitive village, notices the green- crowned Quatro. Without a word he resolves to watch this one for fear of treachery.
Finally the crowd is silenced as a prominent figure emerges from the largest entrance and approaches the rag-tag group of offworlders. A golden stone adorns his forehead. His single eye frowns with intense thought, but he holds his hands out in an open gesture and speaks loudly and cordially. His speech is short, but Cymon and Marcus recognize a few of the words from their studies.
WELCOME - PROPHECY - DANGER - SRYTRA - AZRAN - DESTINY
He then pauses, waiting for the group to respond.
(Groo: Quatro Language level 3: 66%; rolled 66)
"This is the chief of the village," Groo says slowly as he works the words over in his head. "His name is Kanto. He welcomes us as desert travellers but presumes we came from the sky like many who have come this way over the years. He warns us that this is a dangerous time, that the prophecies of Azran and Syrtra are at hand. He wants to know if we are here through ill fate or is it our destiny to play a part in the war to come?"
Cymon steps up and bows. "Tell the chief that Azran decides our fate as he does all else. If there is a war to be fought and Azran deems us worthy, then who are we to deny our destiny?"
(Cymon PER check: 50; rolled 08)
The chief nods and smiles at Cymon. He claps his four hands together and a procession of smaller Quatro appears. From their build, it is apparent they are the female of the species. Another Quatro begins playing on a reed instrument, signalling the females to dance. Marcus signals the group to sit.
"Nice reply to the chief", Marcus whispers to Cymon. "You left it just vague enough to not commit us to anything, but bold enough to keep us from looking weak. You'd make a good explorer."
"Thank you. But my words were best served by the teachings of the Den Qritsa. I assumed that the Quatro could not argue with their own scripture being read back to them."
"I thought the Denai religion was a Yazirian belief system." Marcus whispers, surprised.
"Yes, but much of the Den Qritsa matches oral traditions passed from one Quatro generation to the next. It seems the two races share a common source of faith."
"But the Denai religion pre-dates space travel. How would such a primitive race on this backwater moon already know your teachings?"
"That's a question theologians and archaeologists have been asking for decades."
"Shhhhh!" Ruby whispers from behind them. "Keep it down, fellas. I'm watchin' the show! This far from home it's not often I get to see a four-armed girl shake her thing."
Festivities commence. The newcomers are treated to local food and a dry but tasty wine. Storytellers spin their yarns while musicians play their reeds. Keena officially welcomes the group and lavishes small gifts upon them. Marcus, intent on making use of the time, has Groo question the elders of the tribe for information about the latest events.
Morning moves into daytime. With it comes a mild but noticeable heat. After the village has had time to investigate the newcomers to their satisfaction, Kanto commands that they be shown to their shelters. Marcus and the others are ushered into the natural rock passageways leading underground. A single Quatro leads the way, holding a small, hard-shelled insect that glows and provides a modest source of light. The tunnels branch off into chambers of varying size and intersect with other tunnels in a criss-crossed network. Eventually they come to a moderately-sized chamber and are invited to rest. Pallets hand-woven from dried scrub grass furnish the room. More scrub grass is strewn over the stone floor.
"Kanto says we are free to come and go as we please," Groo says, "but that we must use the main tunnel and not enter their living spaces. The village council is meeting to discuss our arrival. There's a big dinner planned tonight in our honor."
"That's when we should discuss the Doghan situation with them," Marcus replies. "And we need to have some solid plans to offer them - we want to appear to have a clear mind on what's going on. Cymon, you should bring your book and the gold zamra. They will identify heavily with those symbols and they add legitimacy to our plans."
V'Sndyk flops into a pallet and sighs. "Say, let's knock off for a while. I'm beat and it's a scorcher outside."
"Agreed", Cymon says. "It has been a long time since we last had rest and the Quatro seem to sleep during the daytime as well."
Quatro Village 'F' That Evening - 1900 hours
Cymon and the others are shown to an long central chamber underground. Wooden frames are mounted on the walls. On them, weapons and tools are displayed alongside mats of woven art. The exhibits run from one end of the chamber to the next. Marcus and Cymon notice the assortment tends to be more crude on one end of the room and steadily show improvement as it moves to the other end.
A line of Quatro sits along each wall, facing inward to a low table that is open in the middle. Fire pots in each corner provide the only light and cast the chamber in a reddish netherworld gloom. At the head of the double table sits Kanto. Keena and Tozat are at his sides. Kanto motions for the group to join him at the head of the table. A special seat is made for Cymon on his right, Groo on his left. Keena motions for Marcus to sit next to him. Quatro females enter bearing trays and vessels.
"Oh boy, I'm starved!" Ruby whispers to V'Sndyk. "I hope this is good grub."
Kanto bellows out a short speech and picks up the lid to his bowl. This seems to signal the others that it is time to eat, for they all begin to dig in. Cymon lifts the lid to his bowl to find his dinner still moving.
"Ah. Live necternids. A rustic Yazirian dish, and a rare delicacy on the more settled worlds. It's been a long time."
Cymon, Groo, and Marcus dig in happily. Marcus' past experience with the Yazirian culture has seen many such meals. Freya watches the three of them eat, then proceeds to join them. Ty, V'Sndyk, and Ruby all stare at one another hesitantly.
"Couldn't be too different from Zikrit bugs back home." V'Sndyk says, and picks up one of the crunchy worms.
"You GOTTA be kidding!" Ty whispers, his face turning pale. He looks over to see Mrylinax shrug and lift the bowl to his mouth. 'Humma stomachs can take anything', he thinks.
"Pssst. Here." Ruby hands him a dried meal bar under the table. "I stashed a few of these in a hollow vacuole inside me just in case. I can easily stow those grubs in another vacuole until later so we don't insult our hosts."
Ty smiles gratefully at the Dralasite. "Thanks, Ruby. I owe you big time."
After dinner is finished, Kanto barks out a command. The younger Quatro rise and leave. He then looks at Groo and begins talking at length. Groo struggles to keep up with the chatter, talking in brief spurts as he comprehends the words.
(Groo: Quatro language 66%; rolled 42)
"Offworlders, you have come at a grave time. Srytra has awakened and threatens us all. Rumors come from other villages of quatro disappearing, of strange lights and noises coming from the north where the mountains form a 'stronghold', and of the dead walking at night!"
A murmur goes up from the assembly. Ruby and the others begin staring at one another in disbelief. Groo stops to pose questions back to the chief.
"The dead", he asks, "are they Quatro, or do they take the form of some other kind of creature? Do the creatures have glowing read eyes? And where exactly are the dead seen walking?"
"They take the form of offworlders, mostly", replies Tozat, "bipeds and these strange insect- men, but none of the squishy ones like the one you have with you. They do not have glowing eyes nor are they ever Quatro. They only appear at night and the creatures are almost completely reduced to bones."
At this Cymon becomes acutely interested. "Groo, ask the chief if these creatures appear metallic. Also, how fast do they move? What do they do when out and about? Do they act with some intention? Where do they do this? Have they ever attacked the Quatro or have the Quatro ever attacked them?"
Groo turns back to the shaman. The shaman excitedly babbles on in Quatro, prompting Groo to switch gears once again to Pan-Gal.
"The creatures do not carry metal like we have on our spears, Kanto says. Nor do they carry it in their bones, which are clearly visible. The few of us who have foolishly wandered near the great northern fortress at night speak of the dead walking but not running. They move with purpose indeed - as if to take one away to the land of the dead. No Quatro has ever dared to strike at the dead - they flew straight away from them. And rightly so - the dead are cursed. The Quatro fly for fear of being taken to the land of the damned."
The Quatro present become agitated at the mere mention of the rumors. Marcus is quick to try and get the discussion back to a more secular light. "Groo, ask the chief about recent events, any accounts that can help us assess what's going on."
Kanto begins speaking solemnly, as if with a heavy heart.
"He says that there is much dischord among his people." Groo says as he listens. "Signs have appeared telling of the way of Azran, but the villages disagree as to the meaning of the signs. Every morning the sun rises and shines upon the great spire, a mountain peak to the north, and the sign of things to come is revealed. But no one can agree on which village's soothsayer is telling the true word of Azran."
Cymon is silent, thinking hard upon the words. History was replete with wars fought over religious misunderstandings. Even here on this simple planet things were seemingly no different. Did the Quatro need focus to draw them together? Here, he might provide the healing of a people.
"Tell him I may be able to help", Cymon says, then rises to move into the center space between the tables. With deliberate care, he unwraps the sacred text he carries, the tattered Tome of the Dens, and sets it upon a stone set in the center of the room. A wordless gasp goes up from the crowd at the sight of the book.
(Cymon: Theology: Amradar level 1 + 2 CS = 49%; rolled 14)
The quatro watch with rapt attention as Cymon kneels and performs the ancient rites attached to the holy book's reading. With practiced poise, he orients the book to the north, offers up a prayer, and opens the book's pages. Much to his surprise, the entire crowd immediately bows their heads as if ready to hear his words. Cymon motions his teammates to join them in the gesture.
"Duradai!!!" the shaman cries as he points a finger at the open Den Qritsa tome. There on the pages is drawn an ancient glyph of peculiar shape. Cymon frowns and stares at the image. There is something familiar about the image.
"What does that mean?" Groo asks.
"It is the first of five harbingers mentioned in the book of Seera, a section of the Den Qritsa. They appear after the death of Seera, a famous Yazirian princess, and proclaim this moon the home of the quatro."
Kanto begins speaking again. Groo is quick to translate. "Kanto says that Duradai is seen every morning at the pinnacle of the Tooth."
Cymon sees the grim-faced shaman nod his head solemnly in agreement. The shaman then breaks into another course of gibberish, forcing Groo to concentrate hard on his words.
"But the other villages.... have the, uh, insolence to claim that it is.... Telfis? A-Kold? Foo? Tepik? I don't understand those words."
"I do." Cymon begins turning the pages of the book, marking sections as he goes. Finally, he turns the book to the crowd and points to a series of other mysterious glyphs. "Cha?" he asks, pointing at the images.
The shaman's eyes widen in recognition. An excited gush of words begins pouring out. Elders in the crowd argue loudly with him.
"Duradai, Telphid, Ahkolde, Fuul, and Tepek. The five messengers identified in the book of Seera. They're all seeing a different symbol of the messengers. Curious."
Suddenly Tozat jumps up and begins shouting and pointing his finger at Cymon. Groo flinches to hear the foreign language delivered at such speed and with such rancor. He tries his best to translate over the shouting.
"Lessee... Tozat is accusing us of being charlatans and thieves. He says we have offered no proof that we are indeed who we say we are. Offworlders have come before with mouths full of trickery. Copies of the holy book have been stolen from the ancient temples to the north. Prophecies speak of false prophets appearing in the end times. How can they be sure we are not slaves of Srytra come to destroy them?"
As if to punctuate Groo's translation, the Quatro council begins to rumble with doubt. Factions begin to form up and down the table, arguing vehemently and making gestures towards the visitors. The meeting chamber suddenly feels very small.
"I don't know about you guys", Ruby says nervously, "but I'd like the check now."
Just then a pair of Quatro dressed in green bands similar to those of Tozat's enters carrying a PGC issue duffle bag. It is Groo's.
"Hey! What're you doing going through our stuff?!" Groo cries, forgetting the sensitive atmosphere.
Tozat ignores him and begins chattering again, waving his hands at the bag.
"Jala!" Tozat cries and the two Quatro tear the duffle bag away to reveal the glowing containment jar holding the bogus atomic pellet found onboard the Lacien. A great cry goes up from the crowd. The jabbering reaches a new height.
"He says that we have cursed them all by bringing forbidden objects into their midst. He says 'Behold, the Arrkwythe'? Cymon, do you know what that means?"
(Cymon: Theology: Amradar level 1 + 2 CS = 49%; rolled 56)
"I can't be sure without consulting the book. There are many symbolic objects mentioned."
"Well you'd better think of something", Mrylinax growls as he steels himself for a fight.
"Mryli's right. I know there customs and those two goons are the shaman's religious police. This could get ugly real fast."
Cymon turns to whisper to Marcus. "This one thinks to proffer the gold discus next, my comrade, if you gather my meaning. You have knowledge of their society. Would you concur this is the next logical move?"
"The gold zamra is the primary symbol linking the Yazirian culture to the Quatro culture. They've already accepted us into their homes. I think they're ready to see it. Let's just be careful how much religious significance we tie to it and to ourselves - these are honorable, trusting people at the mercy of larger fores. We need to gain their trust, but we can't abuse their belief system. Show it and offer a rational explanation of what's going on and why we're here."
Amidst the growing furor of the crowd, Cymon stands once again. He holds the Kohinoor in front of him, still concealed by his satchel. But as he gathers his thoughts on how to explain the situation rationally, the images of the last few weeks flood his mind: Gardus dead at his feet, demonic Doghan soldiers attacking like other- worldly creatures, the Crimson Pirate faithfuls dying in waves to protect Charon Tavis. The dreams that have haunted him every night since leaving Exib come back refreshed. Images of the apocalypse, of armies of flying Azran and marching quatro beating back the forces of Srytra, of rivers of blood staining the desert landscape. Cymon's pulse quickens. Perhaps it is being back in his native system, or the pressure of being a fugitive and a religious pariah, or the desperation of the moment to silence the damning evidence brought against them. For whatever reason, Cymon begins shouting in an ominous tone, his passion building as his speech unfurls. Even speaking in a tongue foreign to the Quatro, his gestures and tone of voice are so charismatic that the crowd is swept up by his fervor.
"Kanto, we are indeed here with a purpose. The final battle of which you speaks is at hand, and we are here on the side of Azran. The forces of Srytra walk in the form of twisted Yazirian demons that deal in disease and destruction. Their infidel feet already tread the sands of your world and will soon bring the serpent's tooth to destroy us all! It is true we hold the Arrkwythe. But who else would be allowed to hold such a thing had not Azran himself ordained it? We are here to drive back Srytra! We are here to save this world! Answer the call of the prophecies, Kanto! HELP US TO SAVE YOUR WORLD!!!"
(Cymon LEADERSHIP check: 50; rolled 45)
Taking full advantage of the moment, Cymon draws the Kohinoor and holds it aloft for all to see. Even in the dim light of the dining chamber the golden Zamra shines like a brilliant star. Already overcome by the appearance of the Den Qritsa, the Quatro begin chanting excitedly at the sight of the Kohinoor:
Quatro Village 'F' - 2200 hours
"That wasn't exactly the rational explanation I was talking about." Marcus grumbles as he sits on the edge of his pallet, going over his gear out of habit.
Cymon lies on his own pallet, quietly in thought. "I apologize for the abruptness of my display. But as I explained before I felt that time was of the essence and that a heartfelt petition to the Quatro was in order. You of all people must admit they were turning on us."
"Yeah, but you sounded like you were completely buying into this prophecy business." Ty fires back. "Either you were hoodwinking them like a Oni-Senada salesman or you're spending too much time reading that book."
Cymon rises and sits to face them. The entire team had moved back to their quarters after dinner. Emotions were running too high among the Quatro. Cymon sighs.
"Some....things are beyond explanation. Indeed I _do_ feel that something is at work here that is of far greater magnitude than even we know. You are not Yazirian. You do not understand the implications these prophecies hold for these people, for my people. Something is wrong here, I just can't put my finger on it."
"We were hired to investigate a corporate installation, that's all!" Marcus says. "Out of dumb luck we got picked to run a mission that was a set-up from the beginning. What you're sensing is the power and influence of a corrupt Mega-Corporation and a ruthless, deranged clan of Yazirians, NOT some cosmic force of good versus evil!"
"Whatever cause you want to pin this all on", Groo says, quickly coming to his fellow Yazirian's aid, "there are still enough of those Hooris fanatics that DO believe this corresponds to the dusty foretellings of a dead religion. If Cymon has a bead on how those events will unfurl, then we should prepare accordingly."
Marcus lays his gear down. "We have no right to push the buttons of the Quatro people. They are a developing race and easy to prey upon. You can't set yourself up as some messianic figure and expect them to follow you, just to satisfy our mission objectives."
"Our mission is non-existant." Cymon replies. "We are no longer under corporate contract. There is no hope of financial remuneration for our efforts. So why do we proceed? Because a terrible conspiracy is at work here and we feel compelled to fight it, if we can. That is all that motivates us now. That, and clearing our name. Nothing I do runs counter to these aims. And if we agree that the stakes are high enough, then our use of the prophecy rationale is justified."
After a long silence, Freya speaks up. "My time with the Crimson Pirates has convinced me that there is indeed a war here being waged on an impressive scale. Gardus and Chamra believed the prophecies and enlisted the loyalty of their faction based on them. If it was enough to cause petty thieves to abandon their spoils and fight, then it is perhaps a matter dire enough to justify any means we take. But I have no opinion on the matter. The quatro are a resource that can be used for or against us. It is better they be used for us than against us."
"I don't know about you guys", Ruby says, sensing ids turn to speak, "but these voices in my head have been talking about a war for so long that even I'm beginning to believe them. Whatever's going on, it defies any explanation I can give. We're smack in the middle of voo-doo land. I say when in Gran Quivera, do as the Quiverans do..."
Ty observes outloud, to anyone who'll listen: "Aw hell, we know how easy it is to prey on a primitive people's superstitions, especialy usin' hightech stuff, like we got. Now, somebody's on this moon, causin' us a whole heap o' trouble. That means they gotta be at least as advanced as we are, tech-wise. Maybe these 'religous sightings' are tied into our own troubles somehow, I dunno. Nothing wrong with fighting fire with fire, I guess. I say we just go on up to this "holy hill" and take a look."
Checking the sights for the hundredth time, Mrylinax mumbles over the barrel of his laser rifle: "Me, I don't care. I'm just here to clear my name, kill as many of those Doghans as payback for shooting me up on Exib, and find Berdax. If playing 'god' gets me Berdax' pelt, then so be it."
All eyes move to V'Sndyk, the only one who hasn't spoken so far. The Vrusk senses the silence and looks up from his portable memory module to see everyone staring at him. "Hmmmm? Oh, the religion thing! Um, yes, lessee... have we decided anything yet? Are the Quatro going to help us?"
"We want to know your opinion, V'Sndyk", Marcus replies impatiently. "Should we be pursuing this religious tact in dealing with the Quatro or not?"
"Oh. Well, I don't know much about the religion. It does creep me out that there's some weird message appearing in hidden files that's addressed to me and has no return address. I'd like to think that there's a good explanation for that, but I can't think of any. This whole mess makes me nervous. If the Quatro can help us, then let's do it. We need all the help we can get."
"Alright, Cymon" Marcus says, relenting. "If you insist on playing the role these quatro have dreamed up for you, then go ahead. But be careful. In all my years of exploring uncharted worlds I've never heard of a fellow explorer using the 'Powerful Magic' routine that didn't end up backfiring."
"The only difference", Cymon mutters in reply, "is that I am not inventing the magic these people are witnessing. Perhaps it is real."
East of Quatro Village 'F' - 2300 hours
A hundred meters outside the villages perimeter, Ruby hunches over the radiophone in Groo's helmet. Ty sits nearby, eagerly watching the Dralasite's work.
(Ruby: Communications Devices: Operate level 3 + 1 CS = 53%; rolled 28)
"Okay, I've rigged the radiophone to scan the frequencies like you asked. If you find something that interests you, just lock it in here and press here to transmit."
"Great! Thanks, Ruby, I owe you _two_ now!"
"Are you sure it's such a great idea to try and contact any smugglers in this area? I'm not sure the others want it known where we are."
"First of all, I'm only going to contact smugglers I know. I'm not stupid - I know there's a bounty out for you guys. But if I can use my contacts to get us some additional supplies and information then we'll be a lot better off. Second of all, I'm not going to transmit any active carrier signals unless I'm transmitting, and even then I'll do so briefly. They won't be able to trace me unless they're already on top of us, in which case it wouldn't matter anyways."
"Well, alright. Just don't tell Marcus or Cymon I helped you."
"Not a chance."
Ruby walks off carrying ids tools and whistling to idself. Ty waits for id to go, then begins fiddling with the controls. Ruby seems in no particular hurry to get back. The air in the Quatro warrens was stale and gave id a headache. Still, it was better than being out here alone at night.
The thought is fresh in ids mind when suddenly a purring sound comes from behind a nearby rock. Ruby stops dead in ids tracks, listening for what it may be. Ids hand reaches for ids sonic disruptor just as a large, round figure lopes its way into clear view. The creature appears reptilian: greenish-brown hide composed of scales, black eyes set into a smallish, tapered head that extends out from the body a couple dozen centimeters from the top. The head is greatly disproportionate to the body, which is immense and rounded and ends in two stubby legs and two forearms. Ruby can't help but compare the figure to an upright version of turtles id had seen in holovids from human worlds.
"Uh....g-g-g-good boy. That's a good boy...girl...thing." Ruby begins backing away. The small head cocks to one side and blinks as it watches Ruby go.
"NO AFRAID" Ruby hears inside ids head.
"Oh, you guys again." id moans as id recognizes the voices that have plagued ids mind for the last few weeks. "Great, just what I needed - the schizophrenic choir playing its greatest hits."
"NO AFRAID RUBYSELF. CONTACT"
"Whadya mean? I can never understand what you're saying! Am I the only sentient in the history of crazies that can't understand the voices coming out of ids own head!?"
Ruby turns to notice two more of the turtle-like creatures standing solemnly behind him.
"AGH! Where did YOU TWO come from?" Id's disruptor shakes wildly in their direction.
Without warning one of the beasts takes a step forward, leans over, and nudges Ruby with its head. A long, black tongue swipes across ids face.
"YECH! Geez, why'd you go and do that!?"
"FRIEND" sounds the voices in Ruby's head.
Ruby looks around to see six more creatures loping into view. Soon id is surrounded by a wall of large scaly bodies all craning their short necks to peer down at id. The placid looks in their dark eyes is disarmingly innocent. Ruby soon forgets the disruptor in ids hand as id stops to listen to the plaintive grunting coming from their throats. Somehow id knew these beasts. Id didn't know how, for this was the first id had ever seen them. But something in their eyes spoke to ids soul. Something there said 'friend'.
"Okay, baby, sing to me." Ty says, grinning over his new toy.
For several minutes Ty gradually adjusts the controls on the frequency selector. With every adjustment, he cocks his ear to listen for any of the telltale codes he remembers using whenever trying to contact another smuggler in the network. Starlaw spends countless hours trying to track down the latest ciphers used by bootleggers throughout the Frontier. But the ciphers never stay the same, and are different for every network. Being out of the loop for a couple weeks, Ty begins to wonder if he's missed that latest word on the codes being used.
Cryptic beeps can barely be heard all along the spectrum. Some are just noise. Some play out sequences if listened to long enough. Ty closes his eyes and uses a safecracker's instincts to sort through the static. Finally, he hears a sequence that is familar to him. The pattern of beeps tells him exactly what frequency, out of a countless number of frequencies available, to switch to to talk business. Eagerly, he punches in the code and listens.
"...four one delta. We have your merchandise ready and are in-system. Over."
"Roger four one delta. Kal-Kree here. We have T'Prinna and are ready to trade. Vector in at these coordinates and prepare for your pickup. Can you confirm the payment? Over."
"Roger Kal-Kree. Ten million C.E.C.'s and coordinates for your ride out. Over."
"Roger that. We'll be ready this time tomorrow night. Kal-Kree out."
Static fills the channel. Ty drops the headset and closes the comm unit, too stunned to think of anything else. He begins rubbing his chin, the wheels turning in his opportunity-driven mind.
"Who's Kal-Kree? Who's T'Prinna? And what the hell is going down that involves ten million untraceable credit exchange chips?"
Ty picks up the radio and starts back for the village. Along the way he finds Ruby sitting by idself and staring up at the stars.
"Um, Ruby? Are you okay, pal?"
"Yes, I'm fine. I just had the weirdest experience. We're not alone on this planet."
"Old news, my friend. We're currently crashed at hotel Quatro, remember? You aren't having one of your spells again, are you?"
"No, you don't understand. We: us and the quatro, we aren't alone here. This planet is home to others. I can.... hear them speaking to me." Ruby places a pseudopod to the ground as if feeling the sand.
"Oooookay, you're done for the night." Ty says as he helps Ruby to ids feetstalks. "C'mon, we're heading back to the village. I've got some financial news that should make my partner real happy."
The early morning skies are still a deep blue as the Quatro entourage leaves the village. Cymon, now revered by the villagers as an authentic representative of Azran himself, walks at the head alongside the chief and the shaman. The others follow closely behind. It is a short walk to an elevated plateau overlooking the surrounding desert and affording a direct view of the nearby mountain range. Promininet among the peaks is a single thin spire that is easily the highest point in the range.
Freya and V'Sndyk busy themselves with their newly constructed scanner rig. Ruby makes some final adjustments to Groo's helmet radiophone. Their tinkering is ignored by the quatro, who now stand nervously waiting to see the morning apparition and its effect upon their new Azran.
"Say, you'd think these guys were waiting for the sky to fall or something." Ty jokes, nudging Freya. Freya turns and stares quizzically at the human. "Oh, never mind."
Marcus creeps up to where Cymon and Groo are standing and quickly scans the area below, a region stretching from the base of the plateau to the edge of the mountain range. It is an open, flat area marked by sand dunes and speckled with dozens of tall, round boulders jutting upright out of the sand.
(Marcus INT check 55; rolled 39)
(Marcus: Geology level 2 + 2 CS = 53%; rolled 81)
"Kuja!" the shaman cries, pointing to the north.
At once every eye is staring at the spire. The sun, just peeking over the western horizon, is still hidden behind the mountain range. But the spire's peak, standing so tall above its neighbors, manages to catch the first of the suns rays shining up to it. Instantly a white-hot glow emanates from the peak, almost too brilliant to watch. From inside the corona of the light a distinctive mark appears. Cymon stares awestruck, recognizing the sign of Duradai from the book of the Dens. The apparition lasts for only a second, then is gone. Only the silhouette of the peak itself is left, which Cymon notices is identical in form to the Duradai symbol, but wouldn't be obvious to the casual observer if not for the manifestation of the light. He turns to find every eye now upon him.
"The shaman wants to know what you make of it, Cymon", Groo mutters in translation.
Cymon hesitates. What is there to say? They'd only seen the apparition and nothing more. There are more questions to pose, more evidence to gather. Yet these people look to him to have the answers.
"Tell him.... that I must consult the Den Qritsa." he mumbles in his ear, then walks over to where Freya and V'Sndyk are reading their monitoring gear. "Did you pick up anything?"
(Freya: Computers: Repair Specialized (boost CAS pickups) level 4 + 1 CS = 58%; rolled
(V'Sndyk: Computers: Repair Specialized (boost CAS pickups)) level 1 + 1 CS = 45%; rolled 47 - fail)
"No", V'Sndyk says with disgust, "unfortunately the CAS units are too small to pick up anything from this far away. We need to get closer to the site of the disturbance to read anything useful."
(Ruby: Comm Devices: Repair (rig radiophone to scan) : level 3 = 49%; rolled 08)
(Ruby: Comm Devices: Operate level 3 + 1 CS = 53%; rolled 69)
(Mrylinax: Comm Devices: Operate level 1 + 1 CS = 45%; rolled 99)
(Tiberius: Comm Devices: Operate level 1 + 1 CS = 45%; rolled 23)
Nearby, a huddle has formed around Ruby. Mrylinax, Ty and Ruby are all getting different readings from the unit. Cymon kneels among them and asks for a report.
"I got the unit working fine, but I couldn't quite catch the burst of incoming information." Ruby says.
"I'm telling you, I think it's a signal coming from outer space!" Mrylinax claims.
Ty laughs. "Outer space? You're nuts. Cymon, I've looked over this and my gut tells me this is the source of all that rhythmic radio-noise that's been thrumming in Ruby's headset since we entered this system. Whatever just happened, it preceded a huge peak on that frequency where the repeating signal is being transmitted from the surface. I'm thinking that we've got us a big transmitter of some kind operating in the area."
Cymon stands and pauses, thinking about the implications of these facts. Marcus and Groo join him.
"The data suggests a technical origin for our epiphany", Cymon says in a whisper, "but this would not be well received by our superstitious friends. We must offer them some explanation without misleading them."
"Why do you suppose the image looks different to the other villages' shamans?" Groo asks.
(Cymon INT check 78; rolled 57)
Cymon remembers the totem he found aboard Osiris station and produces it. Holding it upright for all three of them to see, but hiding it from the view of the now-anxious Quatro, he turns it over and over in his hands. The stone statuette is only ten centimeters long and carved to look like the gnarled branch of an old tree. Yet something about it is familiar. Cymon finally stops turning it when he notices that along one side of it the raised ridges correspond exactly to the outline of the Duradai symbol.
"Amazing", he mutters. "Notice how as I turn this totem gradually, you can make out one of the five symbols of the Den Qritsa from the silhouette of the totem itself. Then, if I turn it a little more...there! You can see another of the symbols. In fact, I can turn this one full rotation and see each of the five symbols from a different angle. Fascinating."
(Marcus: Geology level 2 + 2 CS = 53%; rolled 56)
"May I?" Marcus asks, reaching for the totem. Gingerly, he holds the statuette in his hands, turning it over and over and examining its profile and running his fingers over its length. His eyes narrow as he quietly works it over in his mind what the object could mean to its original maker and to those who might find it. Suddenly, his eyes widen and he turns to look at the spire in the distance. Without regard to the Quatro nearby, he holds the totem aloft, comparing it side-by-side with his view of the jagged mountain peak.
"It's a model of the mountain" he whispers out loud. "It's a decoder for the mountain itself."
(Marcus: Archaeology level 2 + 1 CS = 49%; rolled 01 (wow!))
"Heads up! We've got company!!!" Mrylinax shouts from behind him.
Marcus and the others look up from their discovery to see the Humma training his omnoculars to the south. Sure enough, a distant cloud can be seen rising from the desert just south of their position. In the midst of the cloud tiny figures can be seen hunched over hovering vehicles of some kind. Marcus flips the omnocular attachment on his helmet down and breaks out his rifle.
"Everybody find some cover! Groo, tell the Quatro to find us a place to hide!"
A quick glance over his shoulder reveals a nearby grove of immense plant bulbs sitting atop thick stalks extending out of the ground. On one side of the plateau the path descends lazily and extends a thousand meters to the nearby village. On all other sides the plateau drops off sharply, several meters to the north, a dozen or so meters to the south and west.
"How many do you count, Mryli?"
"Can't tell through all the dust. Six or seven, maybe more. Rangefinder puts them at ten kilometers."
"Looks like they finally tracked us down."