Doc quickly examines the paralyzed infiltrator android and finds recently healed incisions in the back just to the right of the spine. To gain more time for the procedure, doc ‘anesthetizes’ the android every few minutes with another bop to the head from the tech-III stun club. Using his tech I medical kit, a pair of laser scissors and his combat knife, Doc is able to remove a small explosive device from the androids chest without killing it. Meanwhile Grek securely binds, gags and blindfolds the luckless Infiltrator unit. A narrow hand-dug tunnel is discovered in the rubble at the end of the collapsed transit tube. The tunnel winds and wends about 100 meters to emerge in the floor of an abandoned adobe hut some distance from the northwest corner of Airfield city. In the starlight trash-pickers are visible wandering among the mountains of garbage outside the wall.
Grek radios Airy and Josephine from the abandoned hut. They drive the vehicle through the east gate and around the south wall. It is close to dawn by the time the team is able to extract the numerous robotics parts and other loot from the hidden android lair and load it up, including a completely intact 100-kg killbot moved with the help of two anti-grav pods. It becomes obvious that all this activity has attracted the attention of Mormon guards and snipers atop the Mormon Control Tower. Arik and Grek use their light amplification scope and binos to observe them in turn, but no action is taken and the team is able to make their escape with the disabled Infiltrator. Grek and Doc remain behind in New Salt City to negotiate for additional supplies and gear while Airy, Cassey, Arik and Josephine head south for Vault 57.
Twelve hours and 250 kilometers later Airy drives the military utility vehicle into Vault 57. Eagle Clan specialists attempt to interrogate the Infiltrator using every available means, but the android utters only this phrase before becoming catatonic: “You are the past, We are the future”. Doctors and technicians will take apart the still-functioning android piece by piece over the next weeks to see if anything new can be discovered. From the remains of the Worker and Thinker androids some idea of their capabilities is deduced. During debriefing with General Morgan and Colonel Althea it is revealed that in the past 4-6 weeks other encounters with androids have been reported. Scout and salvage teams report that small groups of 2-3 androids appear to be scouring ancient ruins and deathlands all over the region in search of artifacts. In all cases the androids sought to avoid contact. At least one such team was ambushed and destroyed in the Delta Ruins 25 clicks north of Black Mountain. These teams were composed of 1-2 Workers and a single ‘Warrior’ type armed with a heavy energy pistol and protected by re-manufactured Shadow Years Combat Armor. Sometimes these warriors also carry energy rifles or grenade launchers. The Workers wear repaired Tactical Sheath armor and carry laser pistols. The weapons appear to be roughly but recently manufactured or refurbished copies of standard Shadow Years models.
The team departs Vault 57 with 60 additional liters of alcohol fuel (40 liters are required to cover the distance to New Salt City). The base team at Keeg Vault meets the vehicle at the end of the mountain path south of the Orm Ruins and exchanges equipment. Grek and Airy are able to figure out the mechanical details of the ‘killbot’, but Airy fails to reprogram it so this bot will be left deactivated at the Keeg Vault for now. After swapping equipment and supplies the team drives the vehicle back to Airfield City.
Marduk is happy to see his valuable new customers return and provides accommodations and Tech-0 food at the previously negotiated discount rate. Before splitting up, Airy speaks to Marduk and tries to see just what kind of work he is offering. It is unclear if Marduk recognizes Airy as the ‘Wasteland Avenger’ who has been wandering the wasteland righting wrongs and defending the weak, but he doesn’t immediately produce any work. Illicit slave trading or otherwise. Marduk’s deep bass voice thrums jovially, “Ah, Airy, It is so good to see you back safe and sound. I’m sure there is much mutual profit in the future of enterprising prospectors such as ourselves! I’ll see what business I can drum up for your team. Meanwhile, I have some perfectly sound alcohol fuel over here at a price you cannot pass up…”
Just as Airy and company leave Marduk’s Caravansary they are surrounded by a waiting squad of Mormon Military Police Force (MMPF) troopers in various heavy armor and armed to the teeth. Two officers are arrayed in humming power armor, a suit of Combine Powered Plate and a more advanced suit of Combine Alloyed Plate. Clearly a tactical reaction squad from the best the MMPF has to offer. However no weapons are drawn and Airy is not apprehended. A high-ranking officer steps from the nearby armored vehicle and approaches: “I am Commander Blackstone. First I want to thank you and your fellows for the work done several nights ago. We have followed up your trail and also communicated with your officers at Vault 57. We have much to discuss”. Commander Blackstone arranges to meet the rest of the team tomorrow morning at the Sheriff’s office. Airy, Josephine and Cassey are allowed to continue on their way where they spend some time listening to street preachers from the Followers of the Voice cult that has a temple at the east end of Main Street. The preachers rant about ‘Messengers of Doom’ sent by ‘Demons of Darkness’. The Messengers of Doom are apparently the killbots so recently dispatched, the meaning of ‘Demons of Darkness’ is less clear.
Grek, Doc and Arik head for Lucy’s to see if they can find Oona. While hanging out at the bar this team learns through the grapevine that no ‘killbot’ attacks have occurred in the past 2 nights. Either the android infestation is truly excised or they have chosen to cease operations after the damage dealt three nights before. It is impossible to know how many infiltrators and other androids might still lurk among the substantial undocumented population of the Free Zone and Airfield City. Oona does not seem to be around tonight. The bartender informs Grek that Oona is also known to hang out at Coopers, the haunt of mercenaries, guards and general guns-for-hire.
Coopers turns out to be a simple 1-story structure built around the skeleton of a small hangar. A large simple sign stretches across the front of the building, illuminated at night in blue and white by several ancient nucleonic lights. The dimly lit interior is divided into 3 sections: 1) an expansive saloon and dining hall; 2) small casino…mostly cards and craps, knife-throwing contests, plus something called ‘spin the wheel of fate’; 3) private hotel rooms and apartments (15-30cr/person/day). This venue is clearly the main hangout and meeting place for mercenaries, bounty hunters, caravan guards, general-purpose toughs, and other hired guns. Cooper himself is a retired mercenary. As promised, Oona is on the scene. Grek breaks the ice with a few drinks and proposes a new detente relationship based on mutual information-sharing. To this end Oona is given a poor-condition communicator keyed to the Keeg Vault communication-sender comm-code. She’ll have to keep this off most of the time due to a paucity of chemical power cells, but communicators can store received messages even when off. Oona agrees to convey any interesting information that comes her way to the Keeg Vault base if Grek’s team will do the same for her.
As the team prepares to leave, a tall lean man in dark overcoat and hat emerges from the shadows:
“My name Reverend DR Blackstone. I know of your team by the stories of your exploits. Captain Tan is an old friend of mine. You can think of me as Indra’s counterpart on the Mormon side of things. I also have spoken with Arik at Vault 57. I wanted to congratulate you on your recent successes…the Mormon people are grateful for what you’ve done. If you are willing, we would like to discuss some other topics of hopefully mutual interest”
Reverend Blackstone is a man of late-middle age with a long gaunt face, deep-set dark eyes and solemn but friendly countenance, wearing iguanodon-skin boots, a long black overcoat and broad round-rimmed black hat. The Reverend invites the team to a private meeting in a Mormon on the 4th floor of the Lucky 7. Arik of course recognizes him from a previous brief encounter at Vault 57 many months ago (Blackstone revealed the invisible Mormon genetic stamp on Arik’s forehead).
The complete team assembles a few minutes later at the front of the Lucky 7 casino on the corner of Tower and Main streets. Oona seems to be slinking along behind the team trying to look inconspicuous. After a quick whispered discussion, everyone agrees to let her tag along. A huge sign of strobing/scrolling white and red lights stands atop the 4-story rooftop high above, spelling out ‘LUCKY 7 CASINO’. This high-end establishment is frequented by the well-off from all walks, but mutants are conspicuously absent: merchants, mercenaries, successful ‘prospectors’ and adventurers, even notable Mormons are rumored to frequent the private tables and suites on the 4th floor, typically arriving by armored car and entering through the back. The Reverend leads the way past casino guards around the back to a private elevator (!) which lofts the group to a 4th floor suite. While everyone makes themselves comfortable, ‘Reverend’ Blackstone presents his case:
“As you know, the Followers of the Voice cultists infest Airfield City. They arrived 20 years ago, first in small numbers of no consequence, but now they are a force to be reckoned with. I’m sure you’ve heard their street-preachers, but to summarize: the Followers worship Voices which amount to various ancient messages still broadcast from lost installations. They believe all these Voices are aspects of one great Voice, a term they use in place of what we…I mean I, would term God. They listen to these voices for guidance and their monkish priests specialize in interpreting these messages for the lay cultists. That’s the main way they control their hordes of ignorant followers.”
“Despite their apparently simpleminded creed, the Followers are more sophisticated than most give them credit for. The rank-and-file monks and the bulk of the cultists are simpletons it’s true, but the inner circle, the so-called ‘Elders of the Voice’, are technologically if not theologically sophisticated. It’s unclear to what extent they believe their own nonsense. We believe that over the years the Elders have leveraged their study of the ‘Voice’ to locate and recover some major troves of technology. While they don’t openly display weapons and other technology, we know they possess it.”
“Our current concern is that these cultists seem to know entirely too much about the killbots and now it seems, androids as well, through exactly what they know is shrouded in cult jargon. For a month their street-preachers have been ranting about the killbots as ‘Messengers of Doom’ sent by ‘Demons of Darkness’. Just the workings of superstitious minds, or could this be a reference to androids? How could they know about the presence of these ‘Demons’ a month before anyone else? Another troubling factor is that the android infiltrator was dressed as a ‘Listener’, the bottom rank of the cult’s 3-tier monastic order. We can’t risk open war with these lunatics. There are thousands of ‘Followers’ in the Utah Region in control of an unknown amount of ancient technology. But we badly need to discover what the Followers do or don’t know. The Mormons and other peoples of New Salt City would be indebted to anyone undertaking such a task. We Mormons may be on our own path in these latter days, but we take care of those who help us along the way. We’ll pay 3000cr, regardless of outcome, and another 3k for ironclad verification of what the Followers do or don’t know about these killbots and their android masters, and anything else you discover about the Followers true goals and capabilities”
“I see two options. The first is to join the cult as adherents, monks, or warriors…we know that for the past year they have been sending fanatical warriors on missions to the west. They call them “Paladins of the Voice”. Usually these sacrifices are pitifully equipped, sometimes better, but none return as far as we can tell. The 2nd option is to try and sneak into their temple, probably under cover of night and a sandstorm or radstorm, and find out what you can…a more direct but certainly more risky approach. The temple is surrounded by varying but substantial numbers of ignorant cultists, but otherwise doesn’t appear to be well guarded. We know there are a dozen or more armed thugs dressed as monks, but we don’t know any details about the temples internal defenses. The Elders are known to reside on the 3rd floor of the temple.”
“I recommend fist paying a visit to the temple as pilgrims to get the lay of the land, so to speak. Its the low-season here and I suspect the monks will be happy to explain their ludicrous beliefs to a powerful group of scav…I mean prospectors…no doubt hoping to recruit you into their cult as more of their ‘Paladins of the Voice’. They will let just about anyone into the common temple for a small donation. A much larger donation gets you access to an inner sanctum where the ‘voices’ are definitely more interesting.”
In an uncharacteristic fit of blood-thirst, Doc presents a full-scale assault plan involving scaling the temple to blow open the roof using Grek’s explosives, snatching some cult Elders and shooting their way out through the mob of bloodthirsty cultists sure to surround the temple. Perhaps these ‘Loonies of the Voice’ just rubbed Doc’s rational side the wrong way: “Dammit Grek, I can’t pretend to be a filthy cultist! These Mormons got what they deserved when they let this scum inside the gates”. Reverend Blackstone quickly vetoes that proposal, “We just can’t afford a massacre in the streets, which would likely end with your deaths as well. Stealth and caution must be our watchwords for this operation!”
Oona reveals to Airy and Josephine that she knew Beth and confirms Beth did in fact join the Followers of the Voice in an attempt to locate one of the ancient facilities transmitting the ‘voices’. Oona declined to join, but communicated with Beth a few times before she disappeared from Airfield City six months ago. Airy and Josephine decide to visit the Temple of the Voice immediately and hurry along the wide dark tarmac lit only by flashing lights from the Lucky 7. The Temple is a large ramshackle 3-story building of salvaged concrete, bricks and steel, unique only in that the roof supports a huge apparently gold-plated dome surmounted by a 10 meter mast and aerial. The rest of the team listens to what transpires through Airy’s open communicator channel.
After paying a small fee Airy and Josephine enter the main floor of the temple, a large open area filled with a low volume babbling cacophony of various ancient voices…to the ears of Airy, the ‘voices’ are clearly ancient repeating radio broadcast loops. Within the great common temple, 7 or 8 pilgrims are listening attentively to the constant hum of voices, some staring into space with beatific expressions or completely lost in a trance-like state. Most of these voices are benign reports about weather conditions, traffic volumes, waiting times, commercial advertisements, etc. Some few are obviously calls for assistance by unknown persons or agencies, but fragmented or cryptic and lacking important details. Other transmissions are completely incomprehensible…series of codes and numbers, musical tones and chimes, unknown languages, etc. After 10 minutes or so, one particularly devout worshiper is possessed by the ‘Spirit of the Voice’ and falls to the polished flagstones writhing in ecstasy while babbling unintelligible fragments from the broadcasts. The others quickly gather around the lucky worshiper to smile and nod their heads, commending the fortunate pilgrim’s purity of essence and dedication to the Voice.
Josephine is clearly disgusted and does a poor job of hiding it, so retires to a shadowy alcove lest she start chopping cultist heads then and there. Airy converses briefly with a mid-level monk in dirty gray robes who appears to be monitoring the public area of the temple. ’Caller Taggart’ answers questions with a placid smile, but responds with cant, nonsense and riddles to any substantive inquiries: "Sister pilgrim, open your ears and your soul to the Voice”, etc. Until Airy asks about her sister Beth Sands, that is. Taggart at first replies in riddles until Airy becomes more insistent, then finally stares up toward the ceiling and benignly intones:
“The noble and exalted Paladin of the Voice ‘Beth Sands’ departed in Radio 22AV of the New Age on her Holy Mission to free the blessed Voice ‘FINTHIRTEEN’ from the Demons of Darkness who assail his might.”
Caller Taggart looks down at Airy as if expecting joyful celebration for the lucky fate of her sister. Through clenched teeth Airy informs Taggart that ‘Paladin Beth’ was her sister. Taggart seems oblivious to the mask of controlled emotion confronting him and soothingly replies, “The Voice works in mysterious ways, my child.” Airy pays over 100cr to enter the inner sanctum of the Voice, where it is rumored more interesting things might be heard. While Josephine seethes in the shadows outside, Airy wanders about a dim incense-filled prayer hall echoing with much more intelligible broadcasts. After listening for an hour to various advertising jingles, screaming pleas for help from ancient bunkers, and cryptic instructions from unknown ancients, something much stranger but at least partially comprehensible begins cycling through the speakers above. A flat and probably computer-generated voice calmly announces:
- “… this is FINN-13 … /dropout/ … please send military assets to our location … /extended static & hissing/ … UWS Heavy Robotics Factory 13 … /dropout/ … Nevada Border … grid coordinates 83…23…5 … /noisy feedback for 15-20 seconds/ … last reinforcements arriving May 20th 2754 combat ineffective … I repeat … /fadeout/”
Airy and the listeners in the 4th floor of the Lucky 7 are transfixed by the date…if the calendars are in synch, this was only three months ago! Five minutes later the message loops once again…the same exact message, as if recorded recently and being replayed in its original form. Airy quickly leaves the temple with Josephine falling in behind. Caller Taggart, still with a benign smile plastered across his face, strides after the pair all the way out onto the steps of the temple. Airy notices and turns…“May I help you?” Taggart says, “I am pleased to see such brave and powerful warriors gracing us with their presence. Might you consider joining with the Voice as Paladins of virtue, so that your names are immortalized in the logbook of honor for all time?” Airy acts vaguely interested and says she must converse with the rest of her team, then flees from this lunatic asylum into the fresh air beyond. Taggart softly calls after them, “The Voice is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever…may the Voice be with you, sister Airy”.
The team takes their leave of Reverend Blackstone and retires back to Marduks compound, a relative haven of eminently sane greed. That same night they agree to split into two teams. One team led by Airy will attempt to join the cult from the inside as ‘Paladins of the Voice’, hiding a communicator to send what reports they can back to the outside team. Josephine will do her best not to hack off any cultist heads before they are ripe. Arik is feeling a stronger affinity for the Mormons, particularly Reverend Blackstone who has adopted an almost fatherly attitude, so opts to join Airy’s team for the hair-raising task of co-opting the cult from within. Grek, Doc and Cassey will remain outside, prepared to enter the temple through the many ground level entrances when needed, based on what transpires with Airy’s team inside the temple.
The next morning the entire team meets in the Sheriff’s office at the appointed time. Sheriff J is present, but it quickly become clear who is in charge: Commander Blackstone politely if woodenly grills the team on their discoveries, though many of his questions turn out to be rhetorical. It seems as if he’s already communicated with Eagle Clan agents prior to departure of the motorized convoy/mission back to Vault 57. Seen together, there is an undeniable resemblance between the two Blackstones, though the Reverend is clearly a decade older. Sheriff J pays over the promised 500 credit bounty. Reverend Blackstone steps from a back room where he has no doubt been listening and accepts the plan proposed by the team, then hands over a satchel containing 3000 credits in post-war silver coins and red-colored rectangles of flexible but virtually indestructible hundred-credit bills. As the team leaves Blackstone has words with Arik who then waves the team along. Arik turns up 30 minutes later and lets everyone know Reverend Blackstone offered to determine where he really belongs within the Mormon Order, using a blood sample Arik allowed him to draw…“I’ll decide later if I want any part of it”.
Airy and her team quickly gather up all their equipment and present themselves at the temple. In front of a large gaggle of wondering cultists, they offer themselves to Caller Taggart as Paladins of the Voice. Unable to contain his joy, Taggart pronounces all three ‘Provisional’ Paladins on the spot and escorts them away from the babbling pilgrims thronging the hall. The three wait in a small study with chairs and table for some time, before a strange figure in long white robes with pointed headgear and floor-length flaring white flaps shambles into the room. Taggart breathlessly introduces an ‘Elder of the Voice’ (Airy later discovers that the Elders are never addressed personally, but only generically). The Elder is probably a mutant, having gray and horribly purple-blotched skin with eyes complete concealed behind broad pre-war sunglasses. A few more Elders are encountered in the next weeks, all of whom seem mutated in different ways though it is hard to see specifics. The strange figure carefully interrogates Airy for several hours, starting with basics and by degrees proceeding to more probing questions. Airy also asks questions, but ultimately is warned “Here you verge upon dangerous cosmic secrets, best left undisturbed. Trust in the Elders to guide us all along the path of the Voice”. The Elder is unable to break Airy. Airy however determines that it is likely the Elders, though much more sophisticated and intelligent than the rank anf file, probably believe their own dogma at some basic level. Airy is able to confirm that Beth was also a paladin, and ventured forth 6 months ago (Feb 2754) on her ‘heroic quest’ to free FINTHIRTEEN from the Demons of Darkness. It is this quest that currently consumes the cult. The Elder explains that Airy and her team will be groomed for this expedition in the coming weeks. Oddly, the Elder barely questions Arik and Josephine.
The ‘Rites of Purification’ required to ascend to Paladin-hood amount to three weeks of various meaningless repetitive tasks, such as chanting mantras, becoming a ‘living encyclopedia’ of messages or transcribing broadcasts (if literate). The cult provides food and water which Airy and her team must consume without really knowing if it’s drugged. In the first week, Airy’s team is closely watched and can’t do any snooping or escape beyond the first floor of the temple. By the 2nd week they are able to escape the cult handlers for short periods and eventually identify everything of consequence on the 1st and 2nd floors.
The first floor consists of the common public temple, the inner sanctum, and living/working/refectory areas for 30-34 brown-robed ‘Listeners’ that make up the lowest rank. The periphery of the 1st floor is encircled by a 4-meter hall and at least eight poorly secured windows and doors through which the temple could be entered.
The windowless 2nd floor is a maze of brick and metal chambers housing a dozen or so gray-robed ‘Callers’, representing the middle level in the monkish hierarchy. Also living in the 2nd floor are 6 menial servants, apparently brainwashed slaves, and at least twelve ‘Guardians of the Voice’. The Guardians are hulking ‘Listeners’ distinguished only by their physical strength and the weapons they obviously conceal beneath rough brown robes. A number of these are obviously mutated. At least three appear to be dangerous if brainwashed psychotics and are restricted to the 2nd floor. One particularly horrid example almost 2.5 meters tall has four huge arms and a massive gibbering head concealed beneath a hood the size of a bed-sheet. Strangely there is no evidence of powerful technology or weapons so far, nor is the expected radio equipment located, though recorded ‘Voices’ are piped into most areas of the Temple. By the end of the first week Airy, Arik and Josephine are hearing these voices in their head continuously, even in otherwise silent areas.
Access to the 3rd floor is apparently blocked behind a sealed steel door that looks like it came from a vehicle or ship of some sort. Airy happens to have spent significant time within the skyship-hulk of Mount Pleasant and so recognizes this hatch as identical to those found throughout the skyship. A primitive Tech-I lock has been added by the cultists. Elders are occasionally seen passing through this door.
Two weeks after starting their journey into cult madness, Arik manages to pick the lock and scamper up to the 3rd floor while Airy delays nearby monks. The 3rd floor is fortunately almost deserted, but luxurious: electric lights, running water, many recovered nick-knacks obviously looted intact from ancient installations. Arik narrowly avoids running into several Elders. This floor seems to be the exclusive precinct of the top Monks. After a hair-raising 15 minutes, Arik discovers a 2.5-meter reinforced security door, probably Stage II or higher and obviously salvaged from a Shadow Years facility. Unfortunately in the dim light Arik can’t get close enough to see the color on the transplanted access panel before he is forced to flee back to the 2nd floor. Arik is not even sure where the door is located on the 3rd floor.
All this is relayed in dribs and drabs to the outside team using Airy’s hidden communicator. The next morning Josephine and Arik are not in their cells and can’t be located…a strange bitter smell lingers in the air. When questioned by Airy, the current minder says only that Josephine and Arik chose not to be Paladins after all and have gone their own way in the world, “The rites have served their purpose, to separate the steadfast and true from the weak and worldly. May the Voice be with them…”.