Prologue Quatro village 'F' - stardate fy 1111014 -2300 hours
(GM's note: this passage was not included in previous story chapters but requires posting. For this reason it appears here now. It will later be moved to fit the narrative for Chapter 20)
Perched atop a nearby dune, Freya observes the festivities of the Quatro village as they celebrate the appearance of the offworlders. Freya monitors the event, as if memorizing every detail. To an impartial observer, the engineer might seem like a scientist, intent on observing a fascinating experiment... to one with a darker soul, the cloaked and bandaged figure might more closely resemble a hooded wraith, silently assessing a religious gathering.
Freya's vigil over the village's celebration strikes a chord within his breast that sends him wandering further from the village. Perhaps the spectacle of comradery was too much for one accustomed to solitude. For whatever reason, he finds himself plodding the nighttime wastelands in search of meaning.
It is then that his keen eyes catch a glimpse of something illuminated in the distance a dozen kilometers to the east. Instantly his hands go to his omnoculars. There he spies a shimmering blue humanoid figure casually walking amidst the sand dunes. Even at extreme magnification, the omnocs pick up no noticeable features on the figure, only a light frame with slender appendages that is enveloped in an eery bluish glow. There seem to be no weapons or other items on its person, and it seems to move about with little direction. Every so many meters it stops and black spots appear then disappear on its upper appendage, which approximates a head.
Freya immediately produces his c.a.s. unit and begins scanning the distant anomaly. Strangely enough, nothing registers on any scan except faint light energy radiating within the range of normal vision.
"A hologram of some kind?" Freya ponders out loud. "But where is the transmitter? Nothing solid shows up on the scanner."
Freya's first instinct is to retrieve his flitboard and check it out. But before he can even turn to go, the apparition is gone. Dumbstruck by this new mystery, the emaciated Yazirian merely sits and waits, hoping to catch sight of the figure again. Nothing else appears until the faint rays of sunrise greet his eager eyes, hours later.
The Well of Azran, beneath the Quatro Oath Ground - 1100 hours - stardate 1111016
Cymon stands before the assemblage of Azran in weak amazement. His dream, an army of Azran leading a host of the Quatro against Syrtra and her legions. The Azran before him, true enough, were no army. But then, he had expected none but himself.
"This one, Cymon Ak-Barruda, unworthy and humble son of Cerrud Ta-Barruda-Chi, kneels to you who have come here first." He settles comfortably onto his haunches in the ages old position of the Haiokah's office. "You who precede this one in this holy cause, pray to the thousand blessed spirits. Our time is at hand. This one is keeper of the Kohinoor by their graces only."
"Aki", the assemblage answers in the Yazirian equivalent of 'amen'.
"Surely," he continues, his voice steadying the frenzied, trapped feeling, "There must be another. Why this one, unworthy, dishonored, a failure at every step of the way? Gardus is dead. Charon Tavis lost. The remains of our Crimson Pirates perhaps lost in battle. My own kind afraid of the unseen menace of some lurking disease and the demon spawn who use it to their own ends. Failures great enough for a clan lay at the feet of one so dishonored he may not speak his own name. Your Azram must be a great leader, not one who cannot even claim his own birthright. It must be one of you, honored warriors. Or perhaps he is yet to come."
"Son of Cerrud, your faith must be up to this task. Long have you walked in the path of science and reason. But now you fight for the souls of your people. There is no logic here - only good and evil. Let your heart be your guide. The mighty mountains tower over the insignificant grains of sand. Yet when the unseen wind blows over the centuries, is it not the sand that the wind uses to wear away the mountain? How much more likely can the Dens fashion a weapon of vengeance from a lowly Haiokah? You count the sand when the unseen wind is what will win the day."
"I...I don't understand."
"You rely too much on the power of reason, Cymon. Let it be enough that you will understand, in the end. Let it be enough that the Denai will be your wind when the time comes."
The Quatro Oath Ground - 1100 hours - stardate 1111016
Groo, Mrylinax, and the rest of the party sit under a prickly tree inside the oasis wall of the Great Meeting Place of the Quatro tribes. The climbing sun forces them to crowd under a small patch of shade offered by the tree. All around them hundreds of Quatro warriors sit silently next to their mounts, the large ostrich-like lizards called Vrada. In spite of their intense zeal to march north for the Final Battle, they seem content enough to rest and wait for Cymon to reappear from the hole in the ground.
Mrylinax chews on a cinammon stick and runs a whetstone across one of his many knives. His years as a soldier have taught him to rest when you can. His trigger finger itches with excitement at the memory of the ambush they'd laid yesterday. But he is patient. Fighting will come soon enough. And with it dying. And perhaps Berdax, if he was lucky. No rushing the finer things of life, he thinks. Some people believe in fighting a war to prove who's right. Foolish. Mrylinax knew war proved only one thing: who's left!
"I don't understand, what could he be DOING down there?" Marcus says impatiently.
"Maybe it's a bargain basement and there's a sale on Azran fashions." Ruby chortles. The group bursts into uncontrolled giggling. The laughter is a welcome respite from the grim tone of recent events. Freya can only manage a curious stare.
"There are no vestments attached to the Azran honorific." he says dryly. V'Sndyk starts to nod at this, but quickly remembers these kind of observations earning him only sneers from his companions. 'Non-Vrusk seem to abide a panoply of erroneous information', he thinks to himself. 'Perhaps this Freya is even more out of touch with alien ways than even myself.'
Just then a stir goes up from the crowd. At once every Quatro rises and faces the hole. The lid opens and up comes a Yazirian never seen before. He is dressed in simple Yazirian clothing with crossed belts and carrying a gold Zamra.
"Hey!" Ty whispers, "That guy's got Cymon's weapon! What do you think happened to Cymon?!"
No sooner does Marcus hold up a hand to silence him than another Yazirian, this time female, ascends the steps leading down the hole. She is dressed in bright, expensive clothes denoting a wealthy member of the Family of One and is also carrying a gold Zamra.
"Wait a second...TWO of those Kohinoor thingies?" V'Sndyk points out.
Another Yazirian follows, and another, until finally Cymon appears with his own Zamra in hand. At this point there are fully thirty Yazirians standing around the hole, all carrying gold Zamra. The assemblage stands silently and proudly, the desert sun reflecting off of all the gold blades like the light coming off of a shimmering sea.
Cymon bows to one of the other Yazirian and approaches his teammates. The Quatro seem to be convening at the far end of the oasis courtyard. Cymon ushers his friends over to a secluded spot and sits for a planning session.
"Friends", he says in a quiet tone, "the Final Battle is more real than we first thought. Before you is gathered a historic company. Yazirian all bearing the sacred Kohinoor. Never in recorded history have so many of these objects been brought into one place, nor by so many claiming to be Azran. It is breathtaking to think of the significance of this meeting, or the coincidence that brought us all together here!"
Marcus looks suspicious. "You mean ALL of these Yazirians have come here for the Final Battle? What prompted them? This wasn't exactly advertised."
"Yes, I know. But they all report feeling compelled by one reason or another to return to this place. Some have heard rumors, others saw my Kohinoor on the newsfeeds coming out of Gulriddar port during our escape weeks ago. Still others had links to Gardus before he died and were compelled by his quest."
"Okay, so where does that leave us?" Mrylinax asks hoarsely. "Are we ready to make a move on Calas or what?"
"It appears so", Groo interjects. "Kanto has informed me that there are another three hundred Quatro waiting for us in the village to the north. That brings our force to over six hundred strong, as opposed to the Doghan report that they have three hundred camped at Calas."
"Translation: time to kick ass and take names... and we didn't bring along any paper!" Mrylinax chuckles as he fits a newly sharpened bayonet to his rifle.
"Let us compare notes, then we can concern ourselves with gathering names." Freya says, speaking softly through the bandages covering his face and without a hint of humor. "Point One: Groo and I have run several tests on the strange fuel pellet found onboard the Lacien. The structure of the compound matches the profile we decoded onboard the Vercingetorix for the element referred to as 'Tsorium'. However, it defies known Frontier understanding of chemistry. Obviously the object is radioactive, but its internal structure is radically unstable, to the point it should not have a half-life of any observable timeframe - it should break apart in an instant, giving off all its mass. However, there seems to be no degradation of the pellet's mass nor any release of the extremely high levels of energy contained within."
"Point Two", V'Sndyk says, jumping in with his own report, "I managed to set up a controlled experiment, firing a small bolt of energy into the pellet. To my surprise, a brilliantly colored arc emanated from the pellet and lashed out mere centimeters from where I was standing! I soon found that the discharge operated at exactly the same wavelength of the bright light seen coming from Calas, but at a much, much weaker power level. Microscopic samples taken from the rock which the arc struck showed atomically fused particles! Nothing to sneeze at!"
"What have we learned from the Calas light that can be cross-referenced?" Cymon asks. "I found from casual observation that the beam did not intersect with any surface locations such as the Serpent's Tooth or any temple sites - it extended directly upward from the vicinity of Calas and into the nighttime sky."
"My calculations indicate that the observed beam of light would have intersected the Osiris station exactly if it still existed." Freya notes, showing his file computer's results. "Since the station was kept in geosynchronous orbit above Calas station, it is assumed the beam originated directly from Calas itself. Beyond Osiris, however, no other target is apparent except the distant stars."
Freya continues, "A spectral study of the beam showed energy levels off the scale. However, there were no residual affects on the surrounding area, such as a rise in atmospheric temperature or changed weather patterns. This implies that the beam must focus the energy extremely well, channeling all of it outward with little or no heat dispersal. Such a high level of containment is baffling."
Groo cuts in with his own file computer: "After talking to the Quatro elders, it seems the light we saw has appeared every night for the last month. The Quatro could see Osiris from the ground and indeed concluded that the beam struck the station every time. Studies of the star charts do show one star in particular just outside the Frontier that lines up with the trajectory of the beam, and spectral studies of the star show it to be discolored compared to what I know, as an astrogator, it is supposed to be. Everything points to some serious disruptions being caused by this shaft of light, but I don't have the equipment here to study exactly what the disturbance is. Still, anything that can fire at FTL and disrupt an entire star light years away is mind-blowing to say the least. That's one helluva projector!"
Cymon nods. "That leaves us with two mysteries and two potential threats - one an unknown device of potentially devastating power and the other a disease with the ability to wreak incredible alterations to living organisms."
"I've wondered about that", V'Sndyk says in an excited voice, "does the crystalline sheath the virus arrived in appear to be correlated to the material in the pellet? Perhaps this Tsorium is the remains of the virus sheath or a continuation of the sheath as the virus progresses into another form. Normally a virus is only 'grown' when it is transmitted to a host, but this is obviously something 'new' in our experience."
Cymon produces his own file computer and begins calling up the research accumulated on the moon 'G' virus and the blood samples from a dozen subjects. "Nothing about the pellet registered as organic so I doubt it is a new virus form. Hmmmm... yet it seems your hunch is right - the crystalline sheaths used in the Doghan cells actually contain minute quantities of Tsorium! From what I can tell, the sheaths serve as a convenient containment system for the viral bodies lacing the Doghan nervous system."
"Electro-stimulus tests confirmed that the axial fillaments laced with the viral cell bodies conduct electricity faster than normal neurons. From my studies of the different samples, I hypothesized that the fledgling Doghan received a stronger sheath around the cells due to their relative inability to survive having the destructive viral cells inside their bodies - more advanced Doghan can apparently withstand the cells better and so have smaller sheaths encasing the viral cells. This allows the cells to conduct bioelectrical signals much more quickly and results in higher performance in reaction speed, strength, and dexterity."
"The sheath demonstrates no technology other than acting as an insulator. The Tsorium is easily powerful enough to harm living organisms but according to Freya and V'Sndyk's readings the radioactive field it gives off is so tight that Cymon hypothesizes that any harm would only be to organic cells in close proximity to the atomic structure of the element itself. I propose, therefore, that the Ix were somehow mutated by the Tsorium, encased within it to retard any reversion, and systematically used to drive the insidious machinery of the Doghan cyborgs. Never before have I seen such a vile molestation of nature."
Marcus shifts the discussion back to practical terms. "What happened to the Doghan after they were injected with the pure Ix cells from Ruby?"
"An hour after their injections, the three Doghan prisoners fell into a deep coma, their bodies began rejecting the artificial components implanted within them, then the enhanced nerve cells lining their central nervous system reverted back to Ix cells. The Doghan awoke with aching muscles and high fevers but were lucid and still determined to follow the fanatical calling of their religion."
"So there IS a way to subvert their diabolical body chemistry!" says V'Sndyk, optimistically.
"Okay, time is running out", Marcus says, picking up a stick and drawing in the sand. "Whatever's going down goes down tomorrow at 1200 hours. We have to assume it's important because of the counter V'Sndyk found. We also must assume that it takes place at Calas and has something to do with this Tsorium we found."
Mrylinax speaks up. "I propose we split the team into two groups. Group one is made up of Cymon, Ty, Groo, and V'Sndyk - you move out with the Quatro and recon Calas. Group two is the rest of us - we head south to check out the ruins, try to make more sense out of this energy source and any archaeological clues we can find, then gun it back on our boards at top speed. Should be plenty of time for us to scout around for a couple hours and get back before the action starts. How's that sound?"
"Sensible, and the best use of our resources" Freya notes.
"I am troubled by this division at such a crucial juncture, but we can't afford to leave any stone unturned. It could mean a decisive edge in the final battle." Cymon says.
"Now don't go calling it THAT", Ty jumps in. "I'm sick and tired of all this religious mumbo- jumbo. Sure, there's something big going down and we're in the middle of it. But there aren't enough spooky apes with frisbees, or one-eyed gibbering giants, or weird glowing rocks to convince me the end of time is sneaking up on us! Let's hit this operation like professionals and stay alive long enough to toast your dishing out some payback on Pan-Gal for putting you in this spot!"
"Your sense of perspective is admirable, Mr. Grogan", Cymon humbly acquiesces. "However, I am of a divided mind on this matter. I am Yazirian. I have heard tales of this prophecy from the day I was born and every coincidence I've encountered so far has strained my hold on reason to the breaking point. I agree with you - it is wise for us to keep our heads. But believe me when I say that even without a religious agenda to follow, there is more at stake here than we can hope to be prepared for."
"It's not that... it's just..."
"You have wondered if the deific Azran title would sway my rational mind. Know that I am Haiokah and team member first and foremost. But the duty of a Yazirian to the calling of such a station is enormous. I can and will operate to the best of my abilities to see this mission through. But there is more here than we ever expected."
With that, Cymon rises and stalks off to his flitboard. The group is left staring at one another. Marcus finally ends the silence decisively.
"Okay, enough of that. You all know your jobs. We'll all meet up again as a group at 1400 hours at Quatro village marked 'C'. That should give team 2 enough time to check out the ruins. We can discuss the recon of the compound and our next move then. Let's gear up and head out!"
Groogash breaks off from the group and heads over to a cluster of Quatro chiefs deep in discussion. His approach elicits eager looks from the chiefs, who are bedazzled by the presence of the Azran and his friends. Groo takes a moment to recall his Quatro tongue:
(Groo: Quatro Language skill roll: 66%; rolled 62)
"Pardon the interruption but it is very important for us to find out more information about the ruins to the south of here."
The Quatro chiefs look frightened at the mention of treading on the grounds near the ruins.
"Oh no, you should not go near those places - the mighty Den have ordained them holy places and off-limits to all for fear of awakening the unseen agents of this land. For the book of Seera says:
"We leave you a barren world, but one full of promise. We leave you to be custodians of a great gift, the Arrkwythe, the heart of the gods, to be its caretakers. But beware, for the Arrkwythe is not to be disturbed lest you awaken it. And any as much as disturb the Arrkwythe will face the wrath of the Unseen Hand which has in times past smote those who do not abide by this rule."
At this, Kanto points at the satchel at Groo's side which once contained the mysterious pellet found on the Lacien.
"You bear the Arrkwythe without fear - you must truly be blessed by the Azran."
Groo simply nods and bows respectfully before turning and going. Carrying around a radioactive time-bomb was bad enough, he thinks to himself. For it to have a curse put on it was enough to have him thinking of letting someone else carry it.
Meanwhile, Mrylinax steals over to V'Sndyk and asks in a subdued voice: "Say, crawdaddy, does the tracking device report any change in Berdax's position?"
V'Sndyk looks down to see 3 of the 5 lights now lit up - only 1 was lit when the Vercingetorix dropped out of void space inside the Scree Fron system!
"Wow...looks like the guy is closing in on us and fast! I should tell the others..."
"Okay, bug, I'll be taking that gizmo now. We're in good enough company with these Quatro that we stand no risk of being easily nabbed by another bounty hunter. And I've got a special use for this baby."
"What's that?" the Vrusk asks innocently.
"Never you mind, bug. This mission is still going down as planned, but me and Berdax have got a score to settle. Now that's on the QT, got it?"
"Um, sure, whatever you say!" V'Sndyk hands over the tracking device and scratches his chitinous head as he watches the Humma lope away. After a few more minutes camp is filled with the sound of four flitboards gunning their engines and speeding away. V'Sndyk can't help but feel a sense of separation at the departure of his friends. Battle could be only hours away and they were splitting up. A sense of dread overwhelms him.
"Good luck, Group Number Two." he mutters, falling back to his Vruskan penchant for over- labelling those he knows by name.
Denai Temple Ruins - Site #3 - 1130 hours - stardate 1111016
Marcus brings his flitboard to a halt at the base of a gradually sloping hillside. He quickly removes his sungoggles and checks the map on his file computer. Behind him the other three boards slow to a stop, kicking up dust in their wake. All eyes go to the top of the hill and the silent stone ruins perched there bleaching in the sun. At the center the large round edifice of the temple stands capped by an equally large dome of gold. The desert sun gleams brightly off its surface. Ornately decorated window shutters cover several windows ringing the building. Where age and the elements have worn the shutters down, the dark interior of the temple can be seen. Radiating out from the temple are short columns of elegant stonework pointing up into the sky.
"So is that the place?" Mrylinax asks gruffly as he pulls another chewstick from his saddlebags.
"Yes", Marcus replies, replacing his file computer in his satchel and pointing. "Let's hide the boards and walk up from that approach."
Mrylinax stares for a while at the dome, remembering a similar dome on Exib, at the top of the temple of Khoshu where half the group was almost decimated by a Doghan hitsquad. "Why do these monkey boys haveta keep putting bowls on the top of their buildings?" he mumbles to himself.
Minutes later the foursome is quickly scaling the gentle incline. Mrylinax takes point and sweeps the scene with his modified laser rifle. His eyes dart from one shadowed spot to another. Freya is oblivious, scanning his toxy-rad guage in one hand and wielding a pistol in his other. Marcus' eyes move from the edifice to the ground and back again. His tracker experience takes in the entire scene looking for clues. Ruby follows last, not sure what id is looking for or what to do.
"Background radiation is stable", Freya whispers.
Mrylinax signals the group to stop and take cover. He rushes ahead and crouches next to an open door leading into the temple building. Carefully he cranes his neck around the edge of the door and surveys the interior.
"All clear", Marcus whispers and rises to catch up.
Inside it is a massive chamber taking up the entire building. Beams criss-cross in a lattice where dome meets building and are supported by columns interspersed throughout the floorspace. A single feature to the room is a round stone well at the center that measures six meters across. Marcus' eyes rise to scan the interior ceiling and are met by a dazzlingly beautiful caleidoscope of intricate artwork in a wide range of bright colors. The murals depict dozens of Yazirian-like figures brandishing gold zamras and fighting a large black serpent descending from above. The serpent appears wounded. Out of one large wound extends a bright gold ray of some kind, ending at another spot on the wall that seems to be a brilliant circle with lines radiating out from it.
"By the stars, look at that! We haven't seen anything that wasn't brown on this desolate planet and here, in the middle of nowhere, after all these centuries survive the most beautiful colors...!"
Freya scans the ceiling slowly, methodically. "Extraordinary detail. Diverse pallette. This is aesthetic."
"More spooky Denai prophecy, by the looks of it", Ruby says calmly. "Say, what is that?"
Ruby points to the mural where the ground upon which the army is marching is depicted. Upon closer inspection it looks as if the individual dots making up the ground image change color from a pure white to a dark, purplish stain near the serpent. At another spot across the dome, murals that look to contain birds and lizards show the animals plunging into a sea of silver, whereupon the figures change color.
"Somebody get a shot of that for Cymon - maybe he can make sense of it."
Mrylinax is busy peering down the well when Marcus finally remembers himself and joins him. Ruby stands on the other side, monitoring with ids scanner. A coiling ladder is hanging from the rim of the well, which extends down for fifty meters then is obscured by darkness. Mrylinax drops a chewstick into the well. Nothing echoes.
"Wonder where this leads." Mrylinax ponders. Marcus leans over and runs a finger across one of the ladder rungs.
"Recently used, judging from the quality of the dirt left behind."
"And whatcha think this is all about?" Mrylinax points to a bundle of wires leading up from the well and draped over the side, ending in an interface connection.
"Hmmm. Someone's been doing some hi-tech work here. We'll have to go down below to find out what kind it was."
Freya enters the southern entrance of the temple, toxy-rad guage in hand.
"Interesting", Freya reports as he eyes his toxy-rad guage, "there is a sharp fall-off in the background radiation gradient at this site. Definitely significant. The further south we travelled from the meeting place the lower the level dropped. But as I move to the south of this area the gradient falls off to almost zero."
"What can it mean?"
"Such background radiation is typical of fields emitted by massive generators. The readings I'm seeing suggest something enormous, with a focal point centered around the location of Calas compound. I can only surmise that this temple, along with all the other sites we see on the map, somehow work with the focal point. The circular pattern of the sites around Calas, along with the field I'm picking up, is too significant to be random."
Ruby pulls up a large tarp situated in a darkened area of the chamber. Under it are hand tools, books, sample trays, and a small computer. Wires lead from the computer to an interface plug matching the one found near the well. Freya moves purposefully over to the computer and begins working on it.
"I looked around and found some crates, too." Ruby says, waving a pseudopod. "Scanner indicates bundles of Odium, Eldium, and Edium. Why would they be packaging stuff like that?"
"Archaeological protocol", Marcus answers. "Any potentially volatile substances found when excavating a site are to be disposed of. Hmmm. Excavation tools" Marcus says, fingering the items found under the tarp. "Looks like this is where Dr. Hramoraadis Leinso was running his latest dig. The journal here is dated as recently as a week ago. I wonder if..."
"Marcus? What's wrong?"
All of a sudden Marcus feels a strange sensation in his head, like that of a humming noise in his ears and a whirlwind in his brain. His fingers tingle as with electricity. A sensation strikes him like a heightened sensitivity to the air all around him. The sensitivity grows until he feels an impression of the entire surrounding area. Into this perceptual field he suddenly feels a disturbance - movement of some kind, outside the building. How he can feel this or if it is imagined he does not know. But he cannot surpress a feeling of danger about it. Nor can he resist the urge to seek it out. Alone.
"N-nothing. Just feel shaky. Motion sickness from the flitboard ride... gotta get some air. Keep looking around for clues."
Marcus hurries to the temple's northern exit and closes the door behind him. The disturbance is stronger here, as if a presence waiting for him. He swallows hard and grips the handle of his katana. Unbidden his feet move forward, his eyes shift to take in the area. Low crumbling walls and loose rock litter the courtyard, legacy of an era long-gone. Marcus also notices that they obscure any view of the surroundings.
As he walks he can hear the desert wind rising and falling, howling as it whips through the low walls. It is only his newfound sense that warns him to look up in time to see a figure appear from behind a severed column. The human stops and leans with relaxed poise against the column - dark hair and eyes framing a mischevious grin. A finely crafted saber in his hand shines in the sun.
"VEGA!" Marcus whispers, almost spitting with hate.
"Greetings, Marcus. We meet again."
Marcus draws his katana and takes a step forward. Vega merely raises his hand.
"Now, now... you should know the rules by now. This is holy ground - we are forbidden to fight here, even if the people who consecrated it are long dead by now."
"I know your Watcher found you on Charon Tavis - he should have explained it all to you. We are what they refer to as 'Avatar': mysterious refugees of some unexplained phenomena that left us with arcane devices in our brains. For some reason we've been secretly popping up all over the Frontier and, what did the report say? Oh yes: we tend to seek one another out, we have a penchant for archaic bladed weapons, and we possess some kind of proximity sense that warns us when another Avatar is nearby. But why we do this is still unknown, even to us. Nor do we know why we insist on taking the heads of our enemies, or what the brilliant electrical discharge that occurs afterwards means. And the holy ground thing? Well, I have no idea, but I'm not one to break form." Vega smiles again and rests the sword across his shoulders. He appears to be very comfortable with the situation, which makes Marcus nervous.
"Asaino told me all of that" Marcus growls through his teeth, "but he didn't explain why I am what I am or what I'm supposed to do with it. This is madness - a slew of strangers fighting for no reason other than some unexplained compulsion?"
"Ah, I forget - you're still new to this. You probably haven't even taken a head yet. I have. You'll understand the stakes when you feel the sudden rush of knowledge that comes when another of our kind falls - it is glorious, the memories, the perceptions. I don't pretend to understand, either, Cole. But the fact remains that you feel the urge inside you even now to take my head. Admit it - you can't fight the feelings boiling up in side you. We're all infused with the drive to be the last one to survive this game, no matter what it takes."
"If we can't fight here then why have you come? Why show yourself? Why not attack us like you did on Charon Tavis, capture us for the bounty?"
Vega looks at the ruins thoughtfully. He runs a hand across a finely sculpted facade and sighs.
"Surely you must admit there are bigger things going on here than mere money or mission objectives. Gardus' followers are spooked about the end of the world, the Hooris clan is cheering it on, and the local Quatro population is scared senseless. I am a bounty hunter, yes. And I plan on collecting the price on your group - don't worry. But this.... this conflict is tied to my very soul. I can't ignore it. I thought death was the final mystery. Yet here we are: two warriors locked in a secret war. What does it mean? What is this prize we fight for? I must know! I must meet this challenge before anything else. We are part of something so secret, so ominous... I can't help but follow my destiny. Neither can you."
"Then why come to me here if we cannot fight? Why now?"
"To talk. It's a lonely existence we have - carrying this secret, always looking over our shoulders for another of our kind hunting us. Perhaps I just wanted to meet you again, share words, savor the challenge. Regardless of our differences, Marcus Cole, we can't deny we are two of a kind - a rare breed. We may never know the reason for our strange mission - we may never live to see the end of this game. I just wanted to look you full in the eyes before I finally took your head."
"That's not going to happen!"
"No? I almost had you on Charon Tavis. I don't plan on being interrupted next time. It's ironic to face you here, on this planet, with all that's going on right now. Rather appropriate, don't you think? With the 'end of the world' going on - what better place for us to cross swords and carry out our dark mission?"
"I won't fight you over some crazy game that's been programmed into us - but I won't let you hurt my teammates, either."
"As you wish, Cole. Oh, I almost forgot." Vega produces a small object and tosses it onto the ground at Marcus' feet. "Here's a progit that will tell your Humma friend the exact location of Berdax over the next couple of days. I did my homework on your teammates. I figure Mrylinax may be interested in settling some old debts with him."
"What?! Why? What's in it for you?"
"Well I sure wouldn't mind seeing your team split up- makes my job easier when the time comes to round you all up. Besides, Berdax is my competition. If your Humma has recovered from my skinning him and can take the old Yazirian out, then so much the better for me, right? Heh heh. But don't worry - I'll make sure you and I finish our dance first before I get back to business matters."
"Your sick little games won't work, Vega. This battle is for more than one man's vanity. People's lives are at stake."
"Fight for whatever pathetic reason that makes you feel complete, Marcus Cole. But I WILL have your head. You can count on that. Hahahahahaha..."
Vega steps behind a crumbled wall and disappears. Marcus can only stare after him, sword still at the ready. His mind feels the strange sensation fading, the feeling of panic subsiding. He takes a deep breath and returns to the inside of the temple.
En Route to Calas Compound - 1300 hours
Groo brings his flitboard to a stop and turns in his seat. The image of the convoy trailing behind him still takes him by surprise - hundreds of grim-faced Quatro mounted on their lean Vrada, the colors of their respective clans flapping from head bands and banner staves. In their midst he can pick out two score figures cloaked in grey, riding with heads bowed like pilgrims. The line extends for a half kilometer behind him, rolling over the dunes of the northern desert expanse. It is like a scene from an old story book: an army of stalwart freedom fighters off on crusade against an unmistakable evil. Leading them: a contingent of holy warriors, brandishing Zamra gleaming gold in the sunlight, their names and histories a mystery even to one another. All the stangers have in common is an ages-old prophecy - a calling higher than their own lives.
And ahead of them all, taking point on his flitboard: Groogash Kar'Chudka, smuggler, freebooter, and fun-loving rogue.
'How did I ever end up in this odd menagerie?' Groo thinks to himself as he studies the juxtaposition of his place in life with this assembly. 'Where in the cosmos would you expect to find such a ragged assortment of fanatics and primitives?'
It hadn't been an easy time for Groo. He is an adventurer, accustomed to working for money and his own ends. If that work fell outside the law, the excitement made up for it. What then could prepare him for an odyssey that at times meant pure survival, at other times a lofty quest of which he only barely understood.
He'd heard the stories read to him as a child back in his clan home. Tales of the evil Srytra, the noble Azran, the end of time. They were children's stories. Nothing any serious- minded Yazirian would take notice of. Surely nothing any freebooting astrogator could give a rip about. Yet there was something about this saga. Something that seized him, entranced him. Something that spoke directly to the primitive warrior-sense inside him, like a sleeping spirit that had been dulled by the eons of technological development.
Astride his flitboard, leading the convoy to what surely would be a battle of some kind, Groo feels his body flush with excitement. Here and now he can just as easily be a member of Azran's retinue from the old tales, a vanguard warrior leading the way to a grand destiny, a bearer of arms in a mighty conquest over his clan's collective life enemy.
Groo shakes his head and makes an effort to stop baring his fangs. No time for daydreams or battle lust now. Time and again his modern mind has struggled to suppress the inborn fire of Yazirian heritage that this adventure has excited - too many times he has strived to keep his perpsective intact. No time for flights of fancy - the convoy is almost within the shelter of the northern mountains and needs his watchful eyes to spot enemy scouts. He taps his chronocom.
"Point to convoy, nothing showing on my sensors up here. The rockline ahead looks clear. Keep the line moving."
"Roger that", Freya's voice replies over the speaker. "Check in, rear guard."
"Nothing back here as far as the macros can see. 'Cept maybe that hovercar full of cuties I see cresting the eastern horizon." It is Ty's voice. His report, as always, is half fiction - half Vrada dung.
"Rear guard, please confirm - how many vehicles have you spotted?" crackles the reply from Freya. Groo can only shake his head.
"Freya, for the hundredth time: he's joking!" Groo interjects. "For Gomra's sake, will you stop taking everything so serious?"
There is a short pause.
"Acknowledged. Proceeding on your mark."
Groo snickers and kicks his flitboard back into gear. Within minutes he arrives upon the broken ground surrounding the edge of the northern mountains. There are patches of rock scattered throughout the landscape, jutting up through the sand like jagged islands. Perfect cover for sentries watching the southerly approach. Groo bears this in mind and climbs high enough to get a good view of things.
From this new vantage point, Groo notices of something that didn't strike him before. Scattered amidst the random flat patches of rock are other rocks that are neither flat nor jagged. Standing in sharp contrast to the landscape are smooth, ten-meter-tall egg-shaped monoliths. They dot the landscape in no particular order. Judging from how they taper, their bases seem to be located only a half-meter beneath the sand surface, not at all rooted in the rocky undersurface that characterizes the outlying area of a mountain range.
"Now that's interesting..." he mumbles to no one in particular. "Looks like someone dropped a bag of gigantic marbles. Amazing the rock formations you see out here in the middle of nowhe..."
Groo's revery is cut short when a crimson flash of light cuts across his bow.
Groo RS check: 75; rolled 74
"Gra-Chak!" he cries as he mashes the air brakes and lays the flitboard on its side. With a high-pitched groan from the engine, the board veers a full ninety degrees and stops. Another blast cuts across the airspace ahead where he would have been. Without waiting, Groo jams the pressor beam controls, cutting his altitude and swooping behind the nearest rock formations. There in the shade of a low rock-island, he cuts his engine and waits.
"Groo to convoy" he whispers into his com, "snipers in the hills. Repeat: enemy contact ahead bearing fifteen degrees from your present course."
"Roger that, Groo. Take cover and wait - backup's on the way."
The sound of a lift unit from another flitboard powering up causes Groo's pointed ears to swivel in the direction of the noise.
"No can do. We've been spotted. I've gotta take 'em out."
Groo's board is on and the accelerator to the floor before he can manage a reply. This time pulling back on the altitude lever, he takes the board high and fast to look for anything moving. Off to the right he sees it: a lone flitter with a Yazirian onboard breaking from a stone wall and making for a nearby passage through the low hills.
"Oh no you don't, you sonuvabospor."
Again he mashes the accelerator, sending the board hurtling into the narrow 30-meter-wide ravine littered with rubble and rock formations. It is readily apparent that the fleeing rider is bent for escape at all costs. He takes his board under and around every obstacle that presents itself. Groo finds himself hurtling ahead at close to 150 kilometers per hour just to keep up. As if goading him on, the fleeing rider turns to check on his pursuer. Groo instantly recognizes the glowing red goggles the rider is wearing and bares his fangs.
(Doghan rider RS check 80; rolled 37)
(Groo RS check 75; rolled 21)
After a quick succession of swoops and sharp turns, both riders round a corner and find the passage blocked by rubble and leaning slabs of stone. The Doghan spots a tiny opening up high and swings wide to fit it. No time to think, Groo curses and does the same.
(enemy rider RS check 80; rolled 44)
(Groo RS check 75; rolled 76)
Boulders and columns jump out of nowhere. Groo and his quarry zip in and out of every turn with only a fraction of a meter to spare each time. At one turn the route takes both riders through a pair of jagged columns. The fleeing rider manages to rotate his board and pass without harm. Groo hesitates for only a fraction of a second, rotating a little late and banging his flank against one of the columns as he passes through.
(narrow miss, 1d10 dmg + 2d10 vehicle damage table: rolled 1+5+8+2(cycle)=15: no effect) (Groo RS check 75; rolled 70 - maintains control)
Groo snorts and glowers at the fleeing rider. "You wanna play hardball, eh? Okay, buddy, I can do that." With that he mashes the firing controls on his board's laser mount.
(Groo beam weapons level 4; bth 78 - 20 (target in fast vehicle) -20 (attacker in vehicle) = 38; rolled 97, 04) (set to 5 seu)
(direct hit: 5d10 damage + 2d10 + 2 on Veh. Dmg. Tbl.: result > 30: roll and burn)
Groo's second blast scores a direct hit and turns the fleeing bike into a billowing ball of flames. The craft plummets to the ravine floor and crashes, rolling end-over-end in a macabre dance as the rider's body is tossed clear.
(speed upon crash: 150 kph = 250 m/turn / 20 = 12 (round down) = 12d10 + 24 pts. damage; rolled 69+24= 93 (yeeeeouch!))
Several meters away the Doghan's burning flitboard erupts in a deafening explosion. The sound booms through the ravine and echoes like a peel of thunder. Groo comes around and slowly descends to where the Doghan's body has come to a rest. There he finds the Yazirian's body mangled and burnt beyond any hope of recovery.
"Groo to convoy", he mutters into his com, "cancel one Doghan sentry. No sign of any others. Maintain your course, I'm going to rest here for a while."
Denai Temple Ruins - Site #3 - 1159 hours
Mrylinax finishes his sweep of the temple area and sits down next to Mrylinax, still busy on the computer found among Leinso's equipment.
"So how's the hack work coming?"
"I have accessed the computer and its contents. There are numerous files detailing the finds here and at other temple sites. However, the most intriguing part is an encrypted program I found. It is much too sophisticated to be used for archaeological work."
"Could it have anything to do with the wires running down the well?"
"Possibly. I am still trying to decipher it."
Mrylinax looks over to where Ruby is studing the journals found with the computer.
"Hey, yogurt-head. Find anything?"
Ruby finishes skimming a page and looks up. "Pretty dry reading, if you ask me. The last few entries are the most interesting. Says here that Scree Fron officials were coming around two months ago and waving paperwork at them to cancel their expedition. Leinso refused. Starting two weeks ago, it says that some unidentified goons began hitting the expeditions sites. Even nabbed a few of the professor's workers. He writes that he's been on the run ever since and that communications have been jammed."
"What about this site? Anything about the well?" asks Marcus, who has recently returned from his excursion outside and up until now has said nothing, choosing to stare down the well deep in thought.
"The excavation notes report preliminary excavation of the well shafts at each site in the area half a year ago. The last entry mentioning it says that a false wall was discovered on this site a month ago. They burrowed through and.... wow!"
"Unbelievable! It says they found some kind of ancient machinery behind it! Tunnels leading past dusty computers of an unknown origin... strange fields that couldn't be measured... weird writings in a strange alphabet." Ruby cranes ids head to look at the well and shudders.
"What kind of machinery?" Freya asks, now interested.
"Doesn't say. Guess Leinso didn't have the experience to study it properly. But it sounds dangerous - says here that they lost two guys on the first day - vaporized by some kind of field! There are some notes scribbled down about the layout of the place, where it happened, some readings."
"Let me see." Freya says, taking the book. Before he can even read the first line the alarm on his toxy-rad guage begins wailing. Almost simultaneously a low humming noise begins to rumble throughout the temple structure. It seems to be emanating from down below. Freya rushes to his equipment. "This is serious. For some reason the radiation gradient emanating from Calas has changed, intensified."
"Is it dangerous?"
"No. The area is still within livable limits, but the area of effect is enormous. Something very powerful is generating this kind of field. The change could signal something massive about to happen at Calas."
"What about here?"
"EM readings are climbing. There must be machinery in the immediate vicinity generating power. Something big. I am scanning with my Mechanical CAS - there seems to be a power plant of some kind under us, it's design is similar to fusion plants that I've worked on before on Charon Tavis."
"Could it be the machinery mentioned in Leinso's notes?" Ruby asks, getting visibly nervous.
"What else?" Mrylinax fires back as he hefts his rifle and powers it up. "Awright, boys and girls, we all knew this could get hairy. Looks like the krik-dung is about to hit the rotor - I say we high-tail it outa here and frag this place from a distance."
"B-but we don't even know what those machines ARE! We have to at least examine them, find out what's so important about them."
Marcus stares at the well intensely. "I agree with Mrylinax that we should at least pull back and measure this from a distance."
"We have come too far", Freya says, looking up from Leiso's computer. "The opportunity to learn what is at the heart of Calas is at our disposal. Already I have managed to isolate the encrypted program and divine that it has something to do with the machinations below. Given the chance, I may be able to discover how this network functions. Therefore, I volunteer to stay."
Marcus casts an uneasy glance at the Yazirian. Before he can say anything, a loud scraping sound can be heard coming from deep inside the well shaft. It repeats, again and again, each time punctuated by a low crunching noise like rock being broken apart. The sound grows louder and louder, causing Ruby and everyone else to stare wide-eyed at the center of the room.
"Cole!", Freya shouts, "EM readings from below are becoming erratic - the power levels I measured before are unstable and growing!"
"Something has disrupted the machinery below. It is out of control and must be stabilized. I must get down there and inspect it, shut down any damaged modules."
"I wouldn't advise any field trips right now", Mrylinax yells over the din as he trains his rifle on the well opening. "We're about to have company!"
A low voice can be heard in the midst of the commotion. It is low, menacing, a chattering of some kind that is unintelligible and mechanical-sounding.
Mrylinax grits his teeth and begins to emit a low growl.
"What the hell....?" Marcus whispers, reaching for his weapons.
The hum grows louder, now shaking the old stone walls of the temple. The scraping and thumping noises, too, draw nearer. Marcus and the rest of the team train their weapons on the well. Just as they do so a half dozen black rod-like projections appear above the lip of the well, ending in sharp vertices and extending back down below like a pack of inverted 'V's. Each of them sways as if supporing some great unseen mass.
A second later, the mass is no longer unseen: a huge, black orb rises slowly out of the darkness, pulled up by the six stems that now reveal themselves to be leg-like appendages. Six more reveal themselves as cruel-looking hooks lash out from below and fix themselves onto the rocky rim of the well. The black orb appears to be 3 meters in diameter, metallic, and decorated by a single feature: a prominent photo-receptive eye. The chattering noise is loud now, obviously coming from the orb. The eye begins to rotate in its socket, taking in all four figures that stand before it.
"Freya... report." Marcus whispers hoarsely, his mouth hanging open at the sight of the monstrosity.
"Unidentified automaton: capabilities unknown."
Suddenly the huge robot's single eye dilates and turns red. A high-pitched whine is heard, along with a rapid series of clicks as ports open throughout the orb's surface.
En Route to Calas Compound - Outskirts of Northern Mountains - 1330 hours
Groo sits casually on the edge of a low precipice, watching the three flitboards approach. His right hand still twitches from the recent suicide plummet into the ravine behind him. His Yazirian ego forces him to hide this as Cymon, Ty, and V'Sndyk dismount and walk up to him.
"Groo, where is the sentry you reported?" V'Sndyk asks, genuinely curious.
"Fertilizing some scratchy patch of dirt back that aways somewheres", he grunts, stabbing a thumb in the direction of the ravine. "Where'd our cycloptic army go?"
"We stopped the convoy a couple clicks back." Cymon says, quietly noticing Groo's hand. "They're resting before we meet the other group waiting for us at village 'C'."
"You alright?" Ty asks, knowing better than to ask Groo such a question when he's in one of his post-battle moods. Groo ignores him.
"I first saw the Doghan break away from this rock formation here", he says, standing and gesturing below him. "When I checked it out, I found that."
V'Sndyk scurries forward and peers into the recess tunnelled out of the rock. A makeshift shelter has been constructed here, fashioned out of the rock and including a camouflaged entrance and small openings that offer a view of the entire southern approach from the desert. Inside, there is only a sleeping mat, survival gear, rations, maps of the area, a radiophone and a small computer. V'Sndyk leans over to inspect the radio.
"Well? Did he get off a message about us?" Cymon asks.
"There are signs of a recent transmission, but no confirmation signal indicating reception by the intended receiver."
"That doesn't mean anything" Ty puts in, "they could have passive sensors scanning for a warning signal from their outposts."
"I doubt that is the case", V'Sndyk replies. "Group two has failed to check in over Groo's radiophone for the last two hours. I believe this may be due to an increase in the background radiation gradient Freya and I discovered in the area surrounding Calas and extending as far as the archaeological sites. The radiation level, though harmless to us, has steadily increased in the last day. It may be jamming our long-range communications. Why else would the Doghan leave his hiding place and make a break for it?"
"Maybe you should ask them." Ty says, pointing in the direction of the ravine where two more flitboards can be seen approaching. No sooner do they come into view than they wheel around and begin speeding off to the north, heading out over open ground.
"Dammit! More of the buggers." Groo is already gunning his board when Ty and Cymon finally reach theirs. In seconds the three are off, chasing after the two sentries at full speed. V'Sndyk is about to mount his board when he notices a faint beeping noise coming from the hideout.
"What the...?" Another check inside reveals the computer on and displaying a tactical map of the surrounding area. Text scrolls across the top as red dots begin to appear all over the area where the chase is heading.
"By the Hivemother! The sentries must have activated a mine field near here - they're drawing Groo and the others into a trap!"
V'Sndyk recognizes it would be futile trying to catch up now. He watches the five blips on the screen moving closer and closer to the cloud of red dots. The two lead blips, the sentries, can be seen moving in a pattern that suggests they know where the mines are and how to avoid them. Warning his friends via chronocom would take time, and would probably be ignored regardless given the necessity of stopping the sentries. V'Sndyk's mandibles twitch nervously, his mind running through a myriad of possibilities.
"I've got to try and hack into this system, shut off the mines" he mumbles to himself. His digits begin working furiously at the computer. His eyes, scanning the information pouring across the screen, try to ignore the blips moving closer and closer to the blinking red dots.