Three serviceable tow-floats are assembled on the first day and four the next, using parts and materials salvaged from the shuttle’s crew module flotation devices, cargo stowage hardware and parachutes. These will allow the team to transport all the atomic cells, spacesuits, weapons, ammo and most everything else. Stak and Mongo wear their power armor to help protect the team from the teeming mass of life in the bog.
Indeed, the swamp is infested with all manner of dangerous organisms: giant poisonous green and orange slime molds crawl slowly among trees…they must be kept at bay using fire. The night of the first day a number of hideous insects appear in the gloom nearby, dog-sized flightless mosquitoes that move only in short bursts, standing stock-still to become nearly invisible. That night the freakish skeeters overrun the camp and crawl all over the crew module seeking a way inside. They disappear into the woods as the watery light of morning filters down through the giant boles. The crew module is proof against their depredations, but soon it will be necessary to camp out in the open. Parachute fabric is not likely to provide much protection. Sleestak is pretty sure the skeeters will stalk the team until night falls out in the open swamp…
Gooptaz has developed a feel for the dangerous flora and fauna…he leads the way north. A few hours later Gooptaz spots the tell-tale eyes of massive gators lurking just below the water. The huge beasts float silently past along a parallel channel of swirling black water. It seems they prefer to attack by surprise. On two other occasions multiple gators are spotted resting on muddy banks or fallen tree trunks in the distance. Gooptaz discovers that his acid vomit does indeed seem to repel these monsters, or at least mask the scent of men not in power armor.
Muddy islands have developed over time in the narrow spaces between clusters of tall hardwoods. These spots make ideal campsites with only narrow gaps between the natural palisade of black trunks. To conserve atomic cells, Stak and Mongo turn off their armor at night, sleeping inside and powering on only to stand watch or repel attack. Strelok and Titus use electronics parts from the shuttle to repair the thermal-vision goggles looted from the albukerke spaceport. These are traded between Bannstone, Titus and Gooptaz, insuring that everyone standing watch has night vision. Bannstone makes a habit of climbing above camp to sleep in the trees whenever possible. A strong natural resistance to poison means he can play snuggle bunnies with the slime molds and not wake up dead. No skeeters make an appearance the first night.
Before leaving camp, Gooptaz catches a few buckets of frogs and crayfish using the fishing kit and nets cobbled together from shuttle parts. Plastic bottles turned into solar collectors help purify a small amount of water each day. Several liters of pure water can be had from cup-shaped depressions found in the trees and hanging plants. If it weren’t for all the poisonous flora and fauna, this swamp would be easy living! Even so, Gooptaz cuts consumption of the team’s precious food and water in half. Bannstone finds he can stomach the pestilent swamp-water, leaving the good stuff for his companions.
The swamp is home to all manner of dangerous mutated plants, from giant sundews and pitcher plants to hanging strangle-vines to even weirder sorts that exude puffs of deadly poison or electrocute animals and insects landing on them. Just after mid-day Gooptaz and Stak run into one of the latter. In a singular failure of survival skills, Gooptaz mistakes the plant for a tasty fruit and receives a healthy shock. A sick or wounded man might well be killed by such a jolt. Stak is forewarned when he sees Gooptaz lifted on stilts of white fire. The lizard-man avoids a shock at the last second thanks to his gymnastic abilities.
Later in the evening, Strelok and Titus manage to wire a chemical cell to the salvaged shuttle comms console. The radio is programmed to begin scanning for traffic across all possible bands. Strelok recharges the chemical cells daily using his onboard recharger. The range in this morass of water and vegetation is undoubtedly poor. So far the console produces only static.
Around mid-morning a group of rat-like humanoids are spotted some distance away, apparently eating a dead or dying animal. They appear savage and without clothes or weapons. These look very similar to the king-rats, or ‘Squeekers’, known to infest the maze of ancient sewers beneath New Salt City. It is thought that these beasts originated in ancient UWS labs, such as Facility 7 in the mountains just north of the Ag-Station. Looks like the range of these feral mutants extends much further than anyone suspected…2500km east in this case. The team moves on quietly without disturbing their mealtime.
Three giant skeeters somehow sneak within 10 meters of camp before Humongous notices them. The bloodsuckers are dealt with quickly and only one escapes. Thankfully these nasty mutants seem to be somewhat fragile and easily crippled or killed with any weapon. Gooptaz and Mongo discover that these monstrous insects produce a powerful paralytic poison, no doubt for immobilizing bitten victims. Bannstone or Mongo could probably shake off one bite, but two would put down a rakoxen. Gooptaz is able to reduce the venom to rubbery treacle over a slow fire. After a little experimentation the team discovers this stuff serves as a primitive general purpose anti-venom. That which does not suck your blood makes you stronger!
Mongo and Stak must change out their first set of atomic cells for the power armor. That’s it for the new-quality cells. Luckily the next set of not-so-new cells start up ok. If the armor breaks down or the power cells give out it will be necessary to ditch some other equipment to make room for the power armor. Progress through this watery hell is excruciatingly slow, perhaps 6-7km daily.
Toward noon another larger group of squeekers are spotted walking along a wide shallow stream-bed several hundred meters ahead. They soon notice the explorers but don’t make any immediate effort to flee. Strelok makes an obscene gesture. The rat-men respond with jeering squeals and some obscene gestures of their own, but keep their distance. They tire of the game after a few minutes and disappear into the woods.
In the late afternoon Gooptaz spots a pair of monstrous gators lazily floating toward the team only 20 meters away. Thinking to spare their lesser-armored friends any danger, Stak and Mongo rush forward in their filth-encrusted power armor. Two 8-meter giants bolt from the water and onto the muddy banks. Stak successfully holds one gator at bay. He clubs it with powered fists and raises his modified visor to give it a savage bite when it gets stuck between two tree trunks. This reptile probably wasn’t expecting to get bit by a close relative.
Mongo stabs the other gator with his great-sword, but gets grabbed by one leg and dashed into a tree trunk, then pulled into the water where the gator begins spinning in circles. Mongo grapples with the monster in a froth of churning blood and mud, desperately trying to gut it with his meter-long iron blade. Then the gator gets Mongo’s head in its vise-like jaws and bangs the armored cranium against an underwater rock…everything goes black.
The rest of the team rushes up. Strelok’s recently-installed laser pistol malfunctions but he puts a 10-gauge shotgun-pistol slug in one gator. Titus begins firing carefully aimed shots with his semi-auto rifle. The gator assaulting Stak goes down. Bannstone and Gooptaz use their heat beams and laser-eyes to finish off the surviving monster before it can drag Humongous away into the black water.
It seems that even 2nd generation Combine power armor is not proof against the larger mutated giants of the 28th century! The team tends to Mongo’s wounds after making camp in a dry hummock inside a circle of trees. Gooptaz uses dwindling power from the precious medikit to deal with a serious leg wound and concussion. Fortunately the device works perfectly on the physiology of cloned humans.
Later that night Strelok spots a reflection of moonlight off something metallic in the distance. The next morning this turns out to be the skeleton of an ancient ground transport, pushed up to the surface by swamp gas or flowing water. Among a lot of rusted junk is a hermetically sealed box containing of all things, a corroded but functional blender. Stak says “all we need now are limes and salt!”
The terrain slowly transitions from dense swamp to a more open watery woodland with giant trees walling off networks of shallow waterways. Almost no open ground available, making wading down the stream-beds a necessity. Aside from a few encounters with freakish plant life, the day passes quietly. Judging from the inertial navigator still in Stak’s possession, the team has covered around 30km since leaving the crash site. Barely halfway to the bottom end of the estimate provided by the shuttle’s flight deck instruments! This could be a long slog…
Gooptaz and Titus come down with a strange sickness. Both feel extreme fatigue. With the help of the mediscan artifact Mongo diagnoses both with a parasitic wasting disease. This sickness will progress until both are incapacitated within 7-10 days. The team possesses two doses of a miracle pre-war curative, but decides to hold off on administering the precious drugs in case Mongo or Stak come down with the sickness. Bannstone is likely immune as he’s been drinking swamp-water with no ill effect.
Mongo, Strelok, Stak and Gooptaz are awoken by shouts and gunfire. Titus is shooting up toward Bannstone’s sleeping nook in the arms of three branches just above the camp. Five of the stealthy giant skeeters are clustered around the goat-mans body. Their steel-hard proboscises are inserted through tiny gaps in the combat armor. The bloodsucker’s pale bellies are already flushed pink with blood. Gooptaz uses eye-beams to turn one into a plume of acrid smoke. BOOM Strelok blows another away with the shotgun-pistol. Mongo is the first to reach Bannstone. He knocks a 15-kilo skeeter away with his armored fist and yanks Bannstone down from the tree. The surviving skeeters scamper along the branches and evaporate into inky darkness.
Bannstone is pale as a lily and near death. Mongo stabs a rusty stim-dose into his chest (shades of Pulp Fiction). The robotic medikit recommends a blood transfusion. Luckily all 26th century combat clones were made universal donors for obvious reasons. Bannstone recovers quickly from the paralysis poison, no doubt due to natural resistance. By morning the beast-man is back on his feet, though still weak and shaky. That was a close shave.
Shortly after breaking camp a torrent of water pours from the dark sky. Never have these men of the 28th century desert experienced such an event. Gooptaz wastes no time setting up water collection and is able to harvest almost 30 liters of pure water. The meandering channels of water swell until the sparse land is completely submerged. No further progress is possible until late in the day.
Strelok catches a small group of rat-men approaching camp a few hours before midnight. They managed to get within 40 meters by swimming beneath the still black water. This group is obviously intent on mischief. Two of them are white-haired/red-eyed albinos. Not wanting to find out what mutations these things possess, the group quietly sets up an ambush. At 20 meters two of the skulking squeekers are cut down by a fusillade of heat beams, eye-lasers, rifle and shotgun fire. The 3rd is wounded. Mongo nearly kills it while trying to capture it, then uses his medical skills to save it’s life. Unfortunately Stak is unable to get anything intelligible from the squealing creature. Stak lops off the miserable rat-man’s head with his Katana. Hopefully the Squeekers will figure out that sneaking up on this group at night is a bad idea.
Gooptaz fails to spot a pit of dark quick-sand. Both he and Bannstone are trapped and unable to get free on their own. Fortunately the power-armored Mongo and Stak have the strength to quickly pull them out single-handed. This stuff could be deadly if over half the team were trapped and power armor was unavailable.
While searching for a campsite in the pale gloom of dusk, Gooptaz and Bannstone spot a pale humanoid face peering out from a big clump of reeds only 15 meters away. Bannstone doffs his helmet and approaches with open hands. After a cautious minute, the figure emerges from the reeds: a smallish humanoid with pallid frog-like skin and plants growing from a shell carapace. The weird frog-man appears at least semi-civilized and holds up a small talisman or voodoo-doll of moss and wood.
Bannstone is unable to read the emotions of the strange creature, but it certainly appears solitary and non-threatening, especially considering it carries only a wooden staff, stone dagger and the little man-shaped figuring. After a period the team learns ‘his’ name is Guglort, or at least this is the sound that comes out when pointing to himself. Gooptaz notices that nearby plants lean in toward Guglort as he passes. This humanoid is probably at least part plant and may have a symbiotic relationship with the flora growing from his shell.
The little swamp dweller seems to understand that Gooptaz and Titus are sickly. He urges the explorers to follow. Guglort guides the group to a hidden clearing lit with fireflies. If the swamp hadn’t been trying to kill you for a week, this grotto might almost be beautiful. In the center of the clearing is an elevated house, an impressive and sturdy structure of timbers, clay tiles and bamboo standing five meters above the swamp. The open windows are lit with warm light. A fire burns outside beneath a heavy clay pot of bubbling stew. A small, stunted version of Guglort tends the fire. Guglort communicates with his companion in a soft burbling language. Guglort shows some mild affection for the smaller swamp-thing. Possibly a female or a child? It seems hard to believe these two small creatures could have built the complicated stilt-house structure on their own.
Guglort’s house is well-appointed with hand-made wood, stone and fired-clay tools and furnishings, including oil lamps fueled by a clean-burning yellow oil. Gooptaz determines the food is non-poisonous, even palatable, and the hungry travelers share a strange meal of shellfish and herbs from the boiling pot. Guglort is enamored of metallic artifacts, a few of which he proudly displays in his house. Probably garnered from ruins buried in the swamps for hundreds of years.
Guglort gives Gooptaz and Titus a green stone bottle. Gooptaz doesn’t detect any poison so it’s bottoms up. By morning both are on the mend – the wasting disease is on the retreat. They should be back to top shape in four or five days.
The team trades Guglort the blender, a flashlight and a durasteel combat knife for food and water, various swamp derived anti-toxins and curatives, and above all information. Referencing the fuzzy photos of the spy-satellite monitors taken with Bannstone’s camera, Stak draws Guglort a picture of the ‘Ares Base’ layout. Guglort quickly recognizes the place and draws a simple map in the sand, showing distinctive landmarks such as rivers, trees and hills between here and there. Guglort has no measurement system in common with his guests, but it seems the base might be only 20-30 kilometers northeast. As little as 4 days march! The frog/plant-man declines to act as a guide. He’s either unwilling or unable to leave this area. Again Gooptaz suspects some kind of symbiotic attachment with the environs, possibly also between Guglort and his smaller companion.
That night Humongous spots a man-like shape standing stock-still out in the mists that surround the glade. The figure seems massive and lacks a neck, but no features are distinguishable. Guglort is awake and in a state of agitation. Again Bannstone is unable to divine the sense of Guglort’s emotions using his powers of empathy. Guglort seems to sense the intent of Bannstone’s friends and forces his voodoo-doll on Humongous. Neither Guglort nor his companion seem fearful, only disturbed or uneasy. Both retreat to their sleeping places – small covered dens filled with soft sand.
While Titus and Bannstone cover them from the stilt-house windows, Mongo, Sleestak, Strelok, and Gooptaz cautiously venture out from the glade and attempt to track the apparition. Both Mongo and Stak are in power armor. Stak follows a series of round indentations almost 60cm around and slowly filling with water. The mists part to reveal a secluded moonlit tarn. A mountainous figure over three meters high strides silently from the algae covered water. A halo of glimmering fireflies and moths circle its ‘head’.
Gooptaz instantly senses that this creature is related to Guglort somehow. Perhaps a symbiont? Or all three are but stages in the life-cycle of a single species? The plant-giant seems attracted to Gooptaz, who flees back to the stilt-house in gibbering terror. Mongo, Strelok and Stak stand still as statues. The silent giant approaches, finally towering above the three intruders, then simply strides away into the mists. Possibly the giant did not sense Mongo and Stak as living beings? And of course Strelok is 95% non-living material. No further attempt at pursuit is made. The three return to Guglort’s glade and resume watch, but the mysterious being is not seen again that evening.
Early next morning the adventurers say goodbye to Guglort and head toward Ares Base. The stilt-house recedes into the shadows and finally disappears. Perhaps certain mysteries sleeping in odd little corners of this elder earth are truly beyond the ken of man, mutant or machine…