Titus takes the stealthed Xarmid cargo ship up to orbit the biodome in case extraction is needed. If the entire team is killed or captured, Titus can return to earth with news of Star Mother, aliens infesting the Daedalus and moon, and the fate of his companions. Sleestak, Gooptaz, Strelok, Grey and Bannstone plunge forward down the broken tunnel.
After 600 meters the first in a series of concentric rings is reached. The curved hallways provide access to machinery supporting something at the surface, probably the energy screen and hydroponic towers in the biodome. At the 3rd ring a brightly lit opening is visible far ahead. While passing the 4th ring, Gooptaz spots furtive movement and screams a warning. Two Xarmids open fire from the far ring while other Xarmids approach from the left and right. It appears the intention was to catch the team in a crossfire between the 4th and 5th rings, but Gooptaz blew the ambush.
Goop and Strelok take cover at the corners and fire on a Xarmid ‘battle-bug’ approaching from the left. Bannstone hugs one wall and sets up his proton cannon. Grey attempts to dart across the hall to join Goop and Strelok, but is knocked flat by multiple blasts of blue-white plasma from Xarmids 25 meters up at the 5th ring. Two smaller silverfish-shaped Xarmids wielding silver-green batons rush Grey from the right side. These look like the Xarmid ‘Controllers’ described by Star Mother – aka ‘Brain-bugs’. Stak tries to melt them with his fusion rifle but succeeds only in etching molten scars along the walls. Gooptaz and Strelok quickly burn down the nearby Xarmid battle-bug with their combined energy weapons.
A strange dark presence appears in the hall past the 5th ring. Bannstone fights to focus on the strange mental blind spot blotting out whatever it is in the hall. His proton cannon shot goes wild. A pair of mental vise grips seize his consciousness and everything goes black. Stak sees Bannstone slump briefly, then aim his proton cannon at Grey!
Grey twists around on the floor and fires an entire drum of hydra rockets from his gyrojet assault rifle. One brain-bug explodes in a spray of blue-green blood. The other is wounded but staggers forward with baton held high. Just as the second ‘brain-bug’ strikes down at Grey, it is incinerated by a flaring gout of spiraling orange energy from Gooptaz’s blaster carbine. Grey drops the smoking gyrojet rifle and scrambles across the floor beneath lines of white fire projected by the Xarmids down the hall. Gooptaz rushes down the side-passage to see if any usable weapons can be retrieved from the smoking battle-bug. Sleestak rolls grenades down the passage toward the pair of Xarmids taking cover there. One is knocked flat by the nearby explosion.
Strelok notices the mass of writhing darkness down the hall. With great mental effort the android-bot is able to break through the mental blindness. A large heavy-set humanoid is revealed, with three glassy black eyes the size of dinner-plates. The elephantine legs, thick torso and bullet-shaped head are almost one continous unit. Heavy arms hang down either side. A mass of tentacles dangle at the base of the ‘head’ below the huge staring eyes. The being carries no weapons, but wears a vacuum-suit and helmet of translucent bluish energy. This must be one of the Sreelathan ‘Masters’ described by Star Mother!
Strelok takes careful aim with alien blaster carbine. In a stroke of luck, part of the Sreelathan’s monstrous head is burned away by a bolt of blue-white energy. The creature slowly topples to the floor.
Stak takes up his fusion rifle and charges down the hall, firing from the hip. The Xarmids desperately return fire but are unable to hit the lightning-fast lizard-warrior. Both are quickly burned to cinders by raging fusillades of nuclear energy. For good measure Stak burns away the torso of the fallen Sreelath.
Bannstone lies slumped over his proton cannon, fortunately without having fired a shot at his friends. A few seconds pass before the goat-man regains consciousness: “Wha hapn?”. Visions of tumbling toward a moaning black void will trouble Bannstone for the rest of his days.
Scattered alien weapons are quickly picked up and distributed. Gooptaz patches up Grey yet again, using dwindling supplies from the external medi-kits to conserve what’s left to the automated medical system in Grey’s inertia armor. As a memento of the occasion, Grey later cuts away an intact eye-disc from the burned head of the Sreelath.
The team pushes forward, wary of another ambush. After a hundred or so meters, an open vacuum hatch gives access to a series of research laboratories set up by the Xarmids and their Sreelathan master. Humans and humanoids from earth are secured to pivoting tables inside pressurized force-cages. All are either transformed into howler zombies or in the terminal stage of infection. Most appear to be tribal people or raiders from various locales of earth. A minority look to have been captured from Tech-I settlements. A very few wear the blue, gray or gray-blue jumpsuits of Daedalus crew and colonists. One lab restrains several giant 2.5 meter humanoid zombies with hunched backs and huge club-like fists. Do these monsters hail from earth, or are they creations of the Sreelathan and Xarmid scientists?
In the last laboratory, one recently infected Daedalus colonist is discovered. Name patches identify this person as ‘Sudomo Salim’, ‘Agriculture Team’. A red and white patch is fixed to the right shoulder, a typical Daedalus patch on the left. Gooptaz enters the pressurized force cage and administers a Cure-in dose to the writhing test subject. Within minutes humanity returns to Sudomo’s eyes. Sleestak gives Sudomo a very truncated description of the situation. Sudomo’s personality seems to be made of simple and stern stuff, because he takes the news rather well.
The ex-colonist remembers bits and pieces of being taken from the Daedalus and his trip as a prisoner through the moon base. He recalls experiments performed on himself and other prisoners by the little silver-fish shaped Xarmid scientists. The test subjects here spent most of their time drugged or unconscious, interspersed with short periods of conscious terror until finally dying or being transformed into various types of zombie-like monsters. Fortunately Sudomo knows the location of a vacuum-suit in one of the labs where he was kept before being terminally infected. It’s agreed that Sudomo will accompany the team.
An open blast door gives access to a sizable operations center featuring multiple Xarmid power supplies and a bank of elevators accessing the biodome tower above. The remaining five blast doors leading into the center are closed off. A communications console near the center of the room is transmitting static in an oddly recurring pattern. Remembering their lesson in Morse Code from Titus at Delta Star 419, the team identifies a pattern in the noise The sequence of long and short bursts of static spell out ‘g-h-o-s-t-b-e-a-r-s’. Strelok respond with ‘s-t-a-r-m-o-t-h-e-r’. The familiar image of ‘Star Mother’ appears on the screen:
“The Sreelathan functionaries aboard the Daedalus regained contact with the Moonbase only minutes ago. The sole Sreelathan researcher directing this laboratory assembled the few Xarmids at hand and moved off toward the biodome causeway a short while ago. We assume this had something to do with your activities? Thus, they were not present when the Daedalus regained communications with Ariadne. I have taken control of airlocks and blast doors to temporarily isolate the few remaining Xarmids in the biodome.”
“In the walled compound above should be a number of Xarmid sublunarian assault vehicles, left exactly where they disgorged their compliment of alien soldiers centuries ago. If you can commandeer one of these vehicles, it may be possible to reach their point of origin, which we suspect and hope is the hidden Sreelathan moonbase we have hypothesized for so long. Our goal is to identify any weakness we can exploit now or later to disable the base, such as a hyperspace transport terminal, power plant, or alien life support. As discussed in the past, any such base must be at least temporarily disabled before an assault on the Daedalus is feasible.”
“We are simulating responses and normal communications by editing and reassembling Xarmid and Sreelath messages recorded over hundreds of years. This will fool the Sreelathans for perhaps 20 or 30 hours, until they send down a transport, identify damage to the base, or their Xarmid servitors finally admit to ineptitude. Once the Sreelathans discover the extent of your activities on earth, in orbit and on the moon, there could be serious consequences for the survivors remaining on earth. We cannot predict the scope or nature of the Sreelath reaction, but react they will. By then you must have completed your mission and be far from the moon. We will direct Titus to a future extraction point, whether it be here at the biodome or some other location on the moon.”
After a brief exchange with Star Mother, the team rushes up to the first floor of the biodome tower. The pressurized lobby features wide plasteel windows providing a panoramic view of the biodome. A walled compound of open-air structures built from slagged moon-rock surrounds the central plaza and tower. Beyond the compound wall is a 100-meter ring filled with scores of twelve-meter high hydroponic towers, some green, others empty or choked with desiccated foliage. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of humanoid howler-zombies roam this area. The outer ring of the biodome is lined with five tiers of solar collectors all aimed at the top of the central tower. The returning Daedalus is now visible five degrees over the crater rim. The team must work quickly to avoid observation, though according to Star Mother the Sreelathan’s aboard the Daedalus shouldn’t yet suspect anything is amiss.
The windows provide a clear view of six narrow streets radiating from the central plaza. One of the streets is blocked by a hole bored up from below the pavement of lunar slag. A 200+ year old Xarmid assault-borer is abandoned next to the hole where it has partially crushed and melted the walls of several adjacent buildings. The bulky 24-meter machine is shaped like a cylinder with silvery cones at either end. Curved assault doors are open on either side, exposing a space once intended to carry 20 or more Xarmid soldiers.
Titus enters the biodome through an airlock bubble opened in the forcefield by Star Mother. The near-invisible cargo ship lands in the plaza below the central tower. Sudomo goes aboard while the team quickly replenishes their energy cells and oxygen. Sudomo and Titus will have a lot of catching up to do. Especially Sudomo, who expected to be orbiting Epsilon Eridani IV, but woke to the horror of alien bio-weapon research on Earth’s moon.
Sleestak, Gooptaz, Strelok, Bannstone and Grey climb into the huge machine. Strelok and Bannstone quickly discover the controls are cookie-cutter approximations of other Xarmid craft. A set of controls is found at either end of the vehicle. The side hatches are raised and sealed as the team straps in as best they can. The craft rises up a meter above the street, tilts and slides down the gaping hole in the street.
Both forward and rear cones are transparent from the inside, allowing a clear view along the glass-smooth 6-meter tube descending into the moon’s crust. The cones emit incredible heat, instantly remelting the glassy lunar material as the ship slides faster and faster down into the moon. Speed through the previously-bored hole is uncertain, but could be well over 100kph judging by the perspectives. After a few twists and turns the tunnel settles on a 30-degree angle through the moon’s crust.
Will the hoped-for Sreelathan installation lie at the other end of this tunnel under the moon?