Race for the Raptor
Early the next morning, the greater part of the team heads north in the APC. Strelok stays behind to fine tune the defensive programming of the newly-acquired bots and set up a defensive network. In a freak occurrence, the APC is hit by a rock-slide while crossing the hills and suffers minor damage to the roof. Unfortunately the robotic sentry turret is knocked out. Shortly after reaching the familiar 10-meter cliff below the boulder-field, Gooptaz feels as if he’s being watched. Sleestak and Humongous search the area but don’t find any tracks or other signs of surveillance. Regardless, Humongous dons the mighty suit of 26th century power armor. Within a minute he’s completed the ingress procedures and is transformed into a gleaming tower of metallic mayhem. Everyone loads up on weapons and ammo and follows Sleestak up the cliff.
Fifteen minutes later the team is halfway up the sloped field of boulders and gravel below the cave concealing the VTOL. After a few more meters the top of the cave can be seen. A minute later, both Humongous and Gooptaz notice movement along the N-S cliffs about 2km to the north: a file of hissers are moving quickly toward the cave! Humongous uses the power armor’s thermal/UV telescopic vision to confirm between 12-16 armored hissers bearing a variety of artifact weapons including rifles, machine guns, missile launchers and energy weapons. They are moving with a purpose and will likely arrive within 20 minutes. The team breaks into a run toward the cave 180 meters up the slope.
That’s when all hell breaks loose…ambushed! A ballistic missile roars from the south edge of the cave, fortunately missing the closely packed team. It explodes in a thermobaric fireball 30 meters away. Heavy caliber bullets sing past Humongous. One armor piercing round slams home and cracks open a hissing gap in the duralloy carapace. Sleestak sprints off to the left while Humongous finds cover and sets up his LMG. Gooptaz and Titus spread out and charge up the right side.
Another missile lands behind Humongous. Grenades attached to crossbow bolts arc out of the sky and explode nearby. Humongous is protected by boulders and armor. Two armored hissers are spotted hiding behind boulders at the north and south edges of the cave entrance. Both Sleestak and Humongous notice that the VTOL is warmed up. Titus yells out, “the main propulsors are locked in flight configuration!” Apparently the hissers have figured out the ancient flying craft and loaded it with fresh atomic cells. The culprit is most likely a smaller (2.5m) unarmored hisser taking cover inside the open cargo ramp, armed with a crossbow and explosive bolts.
Humongous burns through an entire belt of 100 rounds, seriously wounding two of the hissers. The smaller hisser at the cargo ramp is pinned down. Power-armor is cratered by several painful hits from the powerful anti-material rifle. Humongous shouts ‘STIM!’ and the suit injects a dose of Combine battle-madness drug. Red fog fills the military clone’s vision as he finds himself charging forward, dragging the empty LMG along by it’s shoulder sling. The small hisser peeks out from the VTOL and launches several bolt-grenades at the onrushing juggernaut, none of which hit home.
Meanwhile Sleestak becomes a target and is hit multiple times by AP rounds that knock off fist-sized pieces of tactical armor. The lizard-warrior’s scaly hide is gashed by splintered armor and bullet fragments…blood spatters the dust. Sleestak is quickly pinned down 50 meters from the rifle-armed hisser and well beyond grenade range. He can advance no further. Gooptaz and Titus have escaped notice and quickly reach the cliff wall 20 meters south of the nearest hisser, who appears to be out of missiles and bracing for close combat.
Humongous flies up the rocks with super-human speed and pounds the hapless hisser with his energy mace just as it tries to reload the huge and unwieldy anti-material rifle. At the other side of the cave opening, Gooptaz creeps up to an angle where he can unleash his violet eye-beams from behind cover. He manages to burn through the skulking hissers metallic armor twice, inflict severe burns.
Suddenly the VTOL rises up and slews toward the cave mouth, dragging a skid along the rock. Humongous sprints across the cave and leaps three meters in one bound. The cargo ramp is already half way up when he catches the top edge with his armored fingertips and pulls himself into the small cargo bay. The hisser pilot lacks skill and clips the cave wall. The VTOL spins around several times as it soars 30 meters into the air over Sleestak. Humongous is thrown back and forth like a marble in a tin can. The hisser completely loses control and crashes 50 meters past Sleestak. The VTOL skids to a stop against some boulders, crushing the right side missile-launcher hardpoint, but still more-or-less upright on it’s four landing skids.
Sleestak takes this opportunity to pepper the exposed hisser in the cave with his assault rifle, then begins limping back. Gooptaz and Titus both take off toward the VTOL. The hisser 20 meters away also slithers out in parallel, trying unsuccessfully to cut them off. Inside the creaking hull of the VTOL, Humongous comes to his senses before the unfortunate hisser pilot…he pulps the snake-demon with two blows from the booming energy mace. The power armor suit detects numerous wounds and injects a pain-reducer. The integrated robotic medi-kit goes to work, extracting bullet fragments and sealing wounds.
Humongous recalls his 150+ year old neural programming and hits the ramp switch, then charges back out and runs smack into the approaching hisser, bowling it over. Titus runs inside to re-start the vTOL…a vectored-thrust nozzle is damaged, but the craft is still airworthy. Sleestak also makes it to the ramp and jumps inside just as Titus lofts the smoking craft into the air. The relief force of 16 hissers is only 800 meters distant and scrambling to set up heavy weapons, including at least two missile launchers.
The hisser at the crash site is quickly finished off by Gooptaz and Humongous. The hisser at the cave has reloaded the anti-matierial rifle and shoots Humongous full of holes. Humongous is near death and sustained only by combat-enhancing drugs and his mythical constitution. The once-shiny armor is now covered with craters and cracks. The VTOL drops down and Humongous staggers into the cargo bay after Gooptaz. Titus rockets the VTOL up and away from the approaching hissers.
Bannstone has been listening in to the combat over his communicator (only occasionally bleating a goat-like scream of terror). When his friends make off with the VTOL, he jumps into the drivers seat and begins carefully driving the APC south, maintaining communicator contact with the ‘Raptor’ VTOL in case he gets stuck and needs rescue. The rest of the team flies the Raptor north to see where the hissers are coming from.
Following the likely trail by air, the airborne team gets a surprising sight. The hissers originate from a large fortified compound perhaps 300 meters in diameter located on the eastern edge of the towering inner-city ruins of Albukerke. Inside the compound are both renovated ancient ruins and newly-built structures. The new structures are all variously-sized geodesic domes constructed from panels of machined metal, probably duraluminum or plastics. There must be hundreds of hissers here, possibly thousands. An advanced high-tech base on the edge of nowhere, inhabited by mutants previously thought to exist only in small numbers!
A group of forty or more heavily armed hissers slither from the durasteel gates and head south. Is this an assault force intent on destroying the Wizaries, the spaceport ruins, or both? It will probably take these heavily laden snake-warriors a day or more to cross the urban ruins and foothills between here and the Wizary village, but only a few more hours to reach the spaceport. Other hissers point weapons from towers along the metal-and-rubble walls: heavy machine guns, small cannons, rocket launchers and other less-identifiable devices, but all equally menacing.
The team races back to the spaceport ruins, only 10 minutes away by air, and begins repairs on the Raptor and medical attention for the grievously wounded Humongous and Sleestak. There are at least nine cracks in the power armor where anti-material rifle bullets slammed into it. Humongous slowly comes down from his stim-dose induced fury, groaning as the pain-reducer wears off. A combat-clone could get used to this, if it wasn’t for the ‘getting shot’ part!
Bannstone makes it through the foothills in four hours and bypasses the Wizary village. He proceeds directly to the spaceport and arrives within the hour, where the team begins working on the APC. A few hours later Bannstone, Gooptaz, Strelok and Titus drive back to the Wizary village. Bannstone tells the tribe that their spirit-totem has reopened the ‘house of the ancients’. Food, water and shelter await their coming. The tribal Shamans are ecstatic…their fat is out of the fire! The chieftain seems to vaccilate and suggests that a pow-wow is needed. Something so important as relocating to the previously-feared spaceport can’t be decided on the instant.
Bannstone gets antsy and tells the Chieftain about the approaching snake-demon war party. That nearly causes a panic, but does the trick. The tribe assembles within the hour and begins streaming south. Bannstone rounds up the laggards and leads the 120+ tribes-people south across the desert sands to the spaceport, distributing water and food out of the back of the APC along the way…a strange pied-piper followed by a band of destitute barbarians. Four hours later the entire tribe is safely (?) ensconced in the ruined parking garage next to the control tower. Jason-7 clearly has great affection for the Wizaries and hurries into the garage to greet them. The tribe is both terrified and overjoyed at the same time. The elderly borg is welcomed with much wailing, dancing and beating of drums.
A few hours later the Raptor lifts off and speeds northward. Sleestak, Gooptaz and Humongous remain behind to guard the spaceport and care for the Wizaries. The amazing flying craft lofts Titus, Strelok and Bannstone far above the ‘damnation alley’ that required weeks to cross in the APC. Within two hours the Ag-Station valley comes into view. The Raptor is recognized and met by a small group of cheering scouts, farmers, warriors and technicians…so few? Among them are Major Sands, Sgt. Major Grek, Arik, Gyorj Wasinktun, the cyborg ‘Mr. T’ and a few dozen technicians, warriors and scouts. These are people without families or other ties to the New Utah Federation ( NUF) who planned to remain behind to protect the crucial greenhouses from raider attack until the reactor is finally played out, or the inhabitants of Gunson, Sipio and Efram migrate northward.
Sands drops the bombshell: the Mount Pleasant Skyship left for the Exodus to Heavens Gate eight days ago, but crashed far south of the valley. Only 350 of the 1000+ crew and NUF citizens made it out of the burning wreck. Of those, nearly 50 perished during the terrible march north through 50km of desolate mountain terrain. According to radio reports relayed from the valley through Ft. Mohawk and the KRS, the great skyship was attacked by barely seen aircraft visable only as small distortions in the atmosphere. Captain Underwood and his bridge crew responded with everything they had, but it was no use. Blazing blue-white and green energy beams tore into critical parts of the ship including the auxiliary reactor bays and the aft anti-gravity generators. Without any automated damage control to speak of, the ship was quickly enveloped in radioactive flames. The survivors fled into the mountains where they watched the nearly-invisible foe reduce the skyship to a slag-filled crater. Reports state that between four and a dozen of the flitting distortions were sighted…there’s no hard evidence either way. They disappeared as quickly as they came, leaving death and destruction in their wake.
In a bitter twist of fate, Captain Underwood went down with the ship he worked for ten years to make operational, along with most of the bridge crew (mostly Mount Pleasant natives). Mount Pleasant First Officer Sid Adalay was also killed on the skyship bridge during the attack. Maggie was one of the few Mount Pleasant survivors to escape the devastated bridge. MP Technical Officer Candice Sheyun survived both the crash and the trek through the mountains. She has assumed the role of Mount Pleasant ‘High Councilor’ to the NUF remnants at Heavens Gate.
General Tolstoy is also among those lost. Colonel McDermott survived along with about 110 of the 300 Eagle Clan passengers. She becomes the 17th Commander of Eagle Clan. Reverend D.R. Blackstone survived along with about 130 Mormons. They suffered the least due to being concentrated in the forward part of the ship farthest from the burning reactors. Col. McDermott is now both High Councilor to the NUF and Commander of Eagle Clan, though sadly instead of 1000+ people, the NUF consists of barely 300 survivors plus 16-18 Eagle Clan site-prep personnel stationed in the valley since late 2754. With the loss of the hundreds of tons of cargo aboard the skyship, the NUF is badly in need of tools, parts, fuel, weapons…pretty much everything except food and water, which the blessed valley provides in abundance.
Strelok confirms the existence of the spaceport, and the Wizary and Hisser tribes, during a cumbersome radio-relay conference with the three NUF Councilers at Heavens Gate. The new General gave Titus’s precious 25th century PDA to Major Sands before the Exodus. Sands passes it on to Titus. The council urges the team to scrape together enough atomic cells to make the trip to the ‘Omega Control Base’ coordinates recorded in the PDA. There is still the desperate hope that somehow this base is the missing link between the ‘Omega Project’ of ancient times and the beings who stalk the remnants of mankind today.
In the meantime, the team can spare little time as they race against the clock. Twelve hours have passed since the Hisser assault force left the gates of their strange fortress in the Albukerke ruins. Unfortunately the tiny group of ‘stay-backs’ at the Ag-Station can spare no personnel to garrison the distant spaceport, being hard-pressed by encroaching raiders, but perhaps they can be convinced otherwise on the way back. At this point Sergeant-Major Grek decides to step forward and reveal a long-held secret, “I know the location of a bomb…”. He’ll ride along with another explosives expert and the necessary tools to finally make the dangerous attempt to defuse the device he discovered in the Ruins of Orm last year. A few relief personnel hitch a ride along with hundreds of kilograms of food and water for the isolated garrison of Fort Mohawk.
The team flies 20 minutes north to a spot in the Ruins of Orm indicated by Grek. The disc-shaped tactical fusion device is quickly located. The Raptor flies off and observes from several kilometers away. Grek rolls the dice and comes up lucky! The disarmed fusion device is loaded aboard. No one knows exactly how to use the terrible hockey-puck of doom. That’s going to have to be addressed very soon if it’s to be employed against the Hissers.
Fifteen minutes later the Raptor lands a good distance away from the Airfield City gates. Titus locks himself inside the armored aircraft and gets some desperately needed sleep. Bannstone and Strelok roll water barrels through the gate past wide-eyed guards. Bannstone wheels and deals with Keego the water merchant until he comes away with a hefty pile of credits and silver. The next stop is Arefu’s Armory where the wily two-headed arms merchant reveals he had to sell the “deadly device of which we spoke” to the Mormons at a “ruinously low price”.
On the way across the street to speak with Sherriff “J”, the team is intercepted by a squad of MMPF troopers led by none other than Commander Blackstone: “We know what you want…come with me”. Inside the fortified control tower dominating the town, Blackstone reveals they’ve been listening in on the team using the bug previously planted in Strelok’s android brain. Yikes! Instead of execution or hard labor, the team is offered the deadly egg of destruction on the condition it will be used to destroy the “nest of foul mutants” discovered in Albukerke. The Mormons have also planted inside Strelok’s much-abused brain the knowledge necessary to arm the nasty neutron bomb. On a less pleasant note, it’s been linked to Strelok’s bug and won’t detonate unless the bot/borg is within 400 meters…only 100 meters outside it’s rated area of effect. How thoughtful! Nor can it be armed within 10km of the Airfield City control tower. In any case, the team doesn’t question their fortune as a Mormon armored car delivers the 120kg pear-shaped bomb to the Raptor. Titus is horrified at the thought of dropping this thing on so much as a slime-mold.
Four hours later the team is back in the Raptor laden with newly-purchased gear, ammunition and equipment. Titus rockets the VTOL 30 minutes north to the isolated ruins of Fort Mohawk high in the radioactive mountains west of Heaven’s Gate. The team radios ahead so the huge two-meter thick blast door is already opening as they sprint through intense radiation down a long sloping tunnel. Ten EC personnel are based here to insure no one else claims the incredibly valuable technology inside the vast underground complex. A rad-geared team is dispatched to recover the desperately needed supplies from the Raptor. All the team’s hydrogen and atomic cells are recharged or refurbished in the Power Plant sector.
Two hours later the team rushes back to the Raptor and catapults away from the radioactive mountains. The team detours southeast to inspect the Skyship crash sight…the skeletal remains of the great ship lie in a blackened crater between two mountain ranges. A total loss. There is no time for a visit to Heaven’s Gate, so the team flies back to the Ag-Station to say their goodbyes, and perhaps convince Major Sands to send a team back to help exploit the spaceport and assist the Wizary tribe. Almost twenty-two hours will have passed by the time the Raptor team reaches Albukerke.
Back at the spaceport 700km to the south, Gooptaz peers from the ruined control tower for signs of approaching hissers. Both Humongous and Sleestak are exhausted and seriously wounded. Its doubtful if the ragtag collection of bots can hold out more than a few minutes against scores of heavily armed hissers. It won’t be long now…