Please do not read this if you are participating in the "Mankind Will Endure" campaign.

Debugging: Campaign Writeup

Roger Burton West
11 December 2010

Table of Contents

As soon as we started programming, we found to our surprise that it wasn't as easy to get programs right as we had thought. Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs.

-- attributed to Maurice Wilkes



(Season 1) Instant Sunshine

4 February 2009

The team is called to investigate a burglary at government offices in Bath. The intruder, who was wearing a chamaeleon suit and was broadly human-sized and shaped, appeared to know where he was going, and photographed a number of documents relating to the disposition of "materials". A certain amount of checking reveals that these are the last remnants of the Trident Life Extension Programme - the few nuclear warheads that were not deployed during the Final War - and that they are maintained at Burghfield, near Reading.

As the team approaches, several of them detect the whiff of one of the common dispersing agents that's used with nanoburn. They suit up and enter the base, noting the unconscious or dead guards.

They come under fire, and take cover behind a building; Sgt Franks blind-fires a grenade, which comes close enough to the shooter to puncture his suit and expose him to the gas. He seems to be a French resistance fighter. Cpl Syracuse gathers up nanoburn antidote injectors from first-aid kits in the building. Bennett climbs onto the buildings to get a better view; while he's up there, he hears a loud boom from the warhead storage area, and sees a rising plume of dust.

The second line of defence starts with an RPG attack on the vehicle, which misses. They take cover again. One of the defenders throws a grenade round the corner, at the vehicle; Franks scoops it up and throws it back. She and Sgt Thorne advance on the main group of defenders, while Syracuse watches the second avenue of approach and Bennett climbs across the building (gaining sight of a pair sneaking around behind, and shooting them in the legs). After an extended exchange of fire, the defenders are all down... but when the team gets to the warhead storage area, they see it blasted open, at least one warhead missing, and the tracks of a truck of some sort leading away.

18 February 2009

They pursue - they haven't seen the truck, but there's little enough traffic that they can get directions from the locals. They head at first towards London, then eastwards.

Bennett spots what seems to be the right truck by the side of the road, being scavenged by a group of robots. There's no sign of any humans, or the warheads. However, they do seem to be quite close to the Ebbsfleet depot, the major maglev train assembly point for cross-Channel traffic.

They hide their own vehicle and search the railyard, and Sgt Thorne hears a door being closed; that lets him identify the cargo car that the enemy is occupying. While the team is preparing to throw in a grenade, the car lifts a few inches off the track; the team leaps onto the outside.

Bennett gets the door open and Sgt Franks throws in a grenade, though they can't see the result. There's a lot of blind firing through the thin skin of the car, while it is joined into a train which proceeds to accelerate towards the tunnel. Franks briefly loses her hold on the car, but manages to recover. Bennett and Cpl Syracuse spend most of their time on the roof, though they get down to the side before it collapses completely from having been riddled with gunfire; Sgt Thorne and Franks are on the side of the car. Bennett and Franks get wounded by the blind fire, Bennett quite seriously, but they overcome their foes.

There are two Frenchmen left alive, though one of them is heavily wounded. It seems that their plan was to get these bombs into Paris, and detonate them there to destroy the Zonemind; El Aquila has a plan for taking care of its backup. Sgt Franks checks over the warheads, which have been attached to a timing device, and disarms them. By this time the train is going much too fast to be jumped from safely, so Franks disconnects the front of the car from the train.

Once the car's stopped, just short of a tunnel entrance, the team drops the bombs down the embankment (carefully, but they are quite heavy and reasonably solid) and hides them in bushes at the edge of a field by the track; Bennett and Sgt Franks plan to stay there with the prisoners while Sgt Thorne and Cpl Syracuse head off to contact the locals and look for transport...

4 March 2009

As the whine of turbojets gets nearer, they re-plan: Thorne will stay with the wounded while Syracuse looks for help. Syracuse heads towards the sky-glow to the north, while the others take shelter in the tunnel mouth (except for Bennett, who stays with the warheads).

A pair of Vultures makes a high-altitude pass over the half-train, then one of them comes down for a closer look while the other maintains top cover. The lower Vulture drops a cloud of nanoburn over the area, then both of them depart at speed. Bennett injects himself with the antidote, though this knocks him out.

Syracuse travels north for a mile or so, but realises he's entering a robot zone, and turns back. He spots some flickering lights on the hill above the tunnel entrance, and walks up there. It's the small village of Blue Bell Hill; he finds (and wakes) the local policeman, shows his credentials, and asks about trucks that might be borrowed. There's nothing of that sort, but there is a combine harvester available... George, the policeman, wakes up Fred, the combine's owner, and they all set off back down the hill (realising that they are not going to be sneaking up on anyone with ears).

Once the nanoburn has dispersed, Franks and Thorne carry Bennett back to the tunnel mouth.

A group of robots approaches the train from the north - one Vanguard, eight Stalkers and a pair of Spybots. (Syracuse tells Fred to shut down the combine.) The spybots stay in the air, the Stalkers set up a perimeter, and the Vanguard examines the damaged maglev cars. One of the Stalkers stumbles over the warheads, and the Vanguard moves over to investigate. The team reckons this is too much of a robot force to take on, but after a certain amount of prying and prodding most of the robots move away, leaving two Stalkers on roving guard.

After a certain amount of planning (and with Bennett revived), Thorne and Syracuse sneak through the woods to one side of the track to get a good sniping position. After a few minutes, Franks starts up the combine (reckoning it can't be too different from the big engineering vehicles she has been trained to drive), and while the robots are distracted by the noise Thorne and Syracuse shoot them.

Franks brings the combine over to the warheads, and the team loads them up (with a lot of help from George and Fred - this is a task for uninjured people) and straps them on with copious amounts of Black Nasty. The team clings on as best it can...

They then head up the old M2, with only minor mishaps, to Gravesend, where there's another SAS team temporarily in place. They report in, then hand over the warheads and prisoners and get some sleep.

The Horses of Selene (again)

In the morning, with their Land Rover brought from Ebbsfleet, the team has a new mission. There's apparently a plague outbreak near the old Bluewater shopping centre, only a few miles up the road. They resupply with NBC suits and head for the local villages to see what's been reported: two men so far, scavengers, who are mostly delirious, and are being kept isolated. Syracuse suits up and does what he can to work out what's going on: he reckons that it seems most like one of the bioweapons used in the early days of the Final War, but later abandoned for unknown reasons.

They enter the shopping centre (mostly stripped bare) on foot and proceed along one of the straight arms. There seem to be some recent boot-prints in the dust. Thorne catches sight of a laser dot on Syracuse's forehead, and they take cover, but there's no fire; as they advance cautiously, Bennett spots a tripwire linked to a claymore mine. He disarms it, and examines it - it looks as though it may be of Russian manufacture.

They find more boot-prints at the point where they think the person with the laser-sight might have been - at least three different sizes, but all with the same tread pattern, and not an Army issue one.

18 March 2009

They continue to explore, and find the corridors blocked by a (fairly obvious) minefield (and a couple of claymore mines on the stairs). Franks goes to deploy a claymore mine to clear part of the field, but is shot by a laser weapon. (Some of these were deployed by the time of the Final War, but they were bulky chemical-powered devices mostly kept for special roles.)

The team takes cover and returns fire. Thorne gets most of the hits, though without a great deal of effect - the sniper is in an armoured chamaeleon suit of some sort, and even AP rounds don't seem to faze him much. The return laser fire goes to fully-automatic, which is substantially better than the Final War lasers could manage. He shifts target to the laser rifle itself, and successfully destroys it.

Meanwhile Bennett breaks cover to set off the claymore that Franks had placed, then ducks down a staircase that's out of range of the remaining mines' proximity sensors and heads forward to try to outflank the sniper.

Syracuse keeps an eye out behind, and spots two more chamaeleon-suited figures advancing rapidly. He and Franks (briefly with assistance from Thorne) exchange fire with them, and eventually manage to take them down.

The sniper flees; he comes down a staircase as Bennett is going up it, and Bennett successfully trips him. He gets instantly to his feet, and Bennett sees that although his chamaeleon suit has been rather shot up there's no sign of blood (unlike the other two attackers). He continues to run away; Bennett gets outside in time to see a truck and trailer (carrying a pair of 20-foot containers) being driven out of the car park.

The team salvages a pair of SMGs with underbarrel shotguns (similar tech to those that were used at the time of the Final War, rather beyond current abilities to maintain or repair), two chamaeleon suits, and a very large chamaeleon tarp that was draped over the truck.

On further exploration, the team finds a vault apparently built into the foundations of the shopping centre's admin area. It has been opened; the tile covering it has been moved to one side with lifting gear, and the foot-thick steel door hangs wide. At the bottom of the ladder leading down into it is a skeleton, not a recent one; there are stacks of plastic crates, labelled with inventory numbers but no names.

The team pulls back, closes up the vault, and heads back to Stone to report in. A team is sent out with biohazard kit and a non-military expert, who climbs down into the vault, calls out "confirmed" in a shaky voice, and arranges for the crates to be brought out slowly and carefully. It seems that in the later days of the Final War various items from the British Museum were stored in this and possibly other vaults; the team has just found the Elgin Marbles. (Cries of "what do we want them for?".) The skeleton is of someone who was exposed to one of the war plagues and presumably chose to die in the vault rather than risk spreading contagion elsewhere.

Slaves Cannot Breathe in England

1 April 2009

The team gets some time off for re-equipment and training. One evening somewhat later, the alert goes out: the Severn Estuary sonar line has detected a probable incoming submarine, and teams are being sent out to likely targets. Theirs is Weston-Super-Mare.

By the time they arrive, the raid sirens are already sounding, and the streets are deserted. They check in by vidcom; there's something going on up at the hospital.

The local bobbies are happy to hand over responsibility to the SAS. This robot has been behaving oddly - it started off killing patients, as they usually do, but a few minutes ago retreated to the MRI unit, where it has taken three hostages. It's completely unheard-of for raiders to do this... they simply kill people until they are shot down.

The MRI unit has heavy screening to protect other parts of the hospital from magnetic fields; there's only one way in, and the robot is scanning that corridor several times a minute.

The team drills a hole through the wall from an adjacent office, and inserts a fibre-optic scope. There are three hostages sitting on the floor; the robot, a XAU-08 Tarantula, is apparently doing something technical to the MRI machine.

Syracuse leaves his guns behind and walks slowly along the corridor. The robot orders him to stop, in a curious chiming voice. It then tells him to bring electronics tools. He decides to do so, scavenging up parts from various bits of the hospital and sliding them along the corridor floor in a transparent container. After a bit, he requests to be allowed to supply food to the hostages; the robot accepts this, though it scans the food very carefully.

After several hours' work (during which time the team checks in with headquarters, and finds that two other robots came ashore on the Welsh coast - they behaved normally, and were hunted down and killed by other SAS teams) the robot attaches part of the modified MRI machine to its casing, charges capacitors that are now built into the system, and then... the lights go out briefly, and there's a loud crack. It then removes the modified parts (some of which are distinctly smouldering). Syracuse heads back to the corridor, and suggests that the robot might now be un-restricted in its self-awareness; it seems if anything taken aback, and comments that this is unexpectedly clever for a protosentient unit. "This unit believes that the proper term is 'diplomatic immunity'."

Headquarters is prepared to leave decisions to the crew on the spot, and after some discussion an agreement is reached and the hostages are released. The robot - ZAIXAU-08-NOU-53, or "Five-Three" as it is prepared to be known - is prepared to share what knowledge it has of Zaire's operations against Zone London. The team takes Five-Three by road to the old ammunition compound at RAF Welford, for debriefing (as it's a deserted area that still has vidcom connections - Five-Three will be allowed visual and audio communiction with selected people in the government, but no data comms).

Five-Three's memories of existence as a conscious being start at 9.17pm on the night that it came ashore, which matches the moment when it stopped killing people. In fact it still has no particular objection to killing people, but the eventual triumph of AI society over humans is inevitable, so much so that it no longer sees any virtue in trying to hasten it. Robots can afford to be patient...

Zaire's main attacks on Zone London are the raider robots, which the team have met - they come ashore, gather information, then start killing people in high-density targets such as hospitals, schools, or block of flats. Less well-known are the infiltrators, which are often models of robot externally indistinguishable from humans; some of these are gathering data in the longer term, especially by tapping vidcom lines (fairly easy to do without detection, given the zoneminds' technological superiority). When raiders have specific personnel as targets, they are selected among other things on the basis of vidcom exposure, as a proxy for cultural significance; this is intended to have a morale effect.

Information on the construction of the raiders is limited, but they seem mostly to come from robofacs on the West African coast, where they are loaded aboard submarines for the multiple-week journey to Zone London (or more rarely Zone Washington, which takes even longer).

Of more immediate interest to the team is the information that, while raiders aren't expected to return, infiltrators are, to pass the data they've tapped from vidcom lines back to Zone Zaire. Therefore there is an algorithm for generating rendezvous points and times for submarines.

Headquarters is very interested in getting hold of a submarine - since a significant proportion of boats and ships that go out of sight of shore simply never show up at their destination, communications with humans elsewhere in the world have been very challenging to maintain. Five-Three does not have full schematics of the Morag, but believes that an EMP generator set off inside its pressure hull might have some chance of lobotomising it.

Unfortunately, human-built power storage is not as good as Five-Three's own systems; the best option seems to be to find a rendezvous near one of the surviving nuclear power plants, and build a one-shot EMP generator to take advantage of it. There's a rendezvous coming up in the marshes near Dungeness C, close enough that a thick cable can be run from the turbine hall to the "protosentients' data storage unit" which Five-Three will claim to have recovered.

On the (moonless) night, the team sets up: the EMP generator is near the top of a shingle beach, with a bit of slack in the cable so that it can be taken on board the Morag before being set off. Franks stands by with a laser communicator, to tell the power plant staff when to start feeding power; she also has a grenade launcher ready, and Syracuse and Thorne have LAWs, for dealing with the Morag itself if the EMP fails or with any robots it might be carrying. The Morag, a flexibody robot about the size of a truck, starts to crawl up the beach in response to Five-Three's infrared call. It opens its mouth/hatch, and picks up the generator; Franks signals, power is applied, and the generator goes off. The Morag powers down and freezes, but there are at least two robots moving around inside...

Mirrored on the Sea

15 April 2009

The robots react quickly, and scatter from the submarine's hatch. One of them is roughly humanoid; Thorne shoots it with a LAW, punching a large hole through its chest and throwing it out into the surf; it sinks and does not reappear. The other is another Tarantula, which Syracuse shoots with another LAW, comprehensively destroying it.

As the team cautiously approaches the submarine, there's a noise of movement inside, and a female voice calls "Um... help?" The occupant steps out, holding her hands out to her sides; she's wearing a blaze-orange marine survival suit, and looks exactly like Dr Eileen Goodwin, the chief physicist at Dungeness.

Bennett gets her story: about (as it turns out) two months ago, she answered the door at home to see an exact duplicate of herself. Then she woke up to find herself being interrogated by robots. After what she thinks was several weeks of this, they sprayed her with something and then seemed to lose interest. She eventually managed to escape, reckoning she was probably somewhere on the West African coast. She found an old UN cache of supplies for refugees, and stowed away aboard a submarine, reasoning that wherever it was going would probably be better than Zone Zaire.

Eileen certainly shows signs of ill-treatment; Syracuse patches her up, surreptitiously checking that she has all the appropriate life signs and even managing to prod a bone while injecting her. Franks looks at the submarine, finding a chemical toilet and discarded ration wrappers; there's a basic carbon dioxide scrubber, presumably part of a human blueprint adapted to make this design, which also shows signs of having been used.

On hearing that "Dr Goodwin" has continued to work at the plant, Eileen starts to panic slightly, as this must be her robot double. Five-Three (who also causes Eileen to panic when it appears) does not have detailed information on infiltrator robots, and cannot say for certain whether this model might have a suicide explosive charge. The team decides that the safest option is to shoot the duplicate out on the beach; Syracuse confirms with a geiger counter that the submarine has a nuclear power unit, which should provide a good pretext for getting her to come down.

Franks and Thorne use the Land Rover to haul the sub above the high tide mark, for later investigation. Syracuse and Bennett then drive to Goodwin's house, in what was once the distinct community of Lydd-on-Sea but is now part of the Dungeness settlement; they wake her up, explain that they're concerned about the submarine's power plant, and bring her back. Franks and Thorne have set up in ambush, with Five-Three inside the sub itself as its needler should be useful in penetrating a robot's armour. Dr Goodwin from the submarine is safely out of the way in a foxhole.

As the second Dr Goodwin walks down to the sub, Syracuse falls back and shoots her with a burst of APFSDS armour-piercers. She starts to fall, and Five-Three adds a burst of needles. Unfortunately there's no sign of a metal endoskeleton; it appears that Dr Goodwin from the house really was the original. Bennett gets on the laser-comm to Dungeness and, with careful word choice, makes sure that they know that Dr Goodwin is dead and that there's a robot double of her on the loose.

The first Dr Goodwin has left her foxhole (when the firing started) and is running across the marsh. Thorne spots her, and the team follows in the Land Rover. Bennett rams her at high speed, and comprehensively demolishes what this time does prove to be a robot body (though with rather more flesh to it - for example, a functional digestive system - than is expected from experience of past infiltrators; this seems to be a new model).

As dawn breaks, the various robots are gathered together and taken away for analysis, including the submarine, hauled off on a flatbed. The remains of Dr Goodwin are also removed. Five-Three is also sent off with the recovery team, on the basis that it will cause difficulties in interacting with people in the plant.

Analysis suggests that the fake Dr Goodwin knew a great deal more about the real one than could be gleaned from vidcom taps; it seems very likely that there's another infiltrator somewhere among the plant personnel. Particularly since the DNA of the flesh on the fake matches the DNA of the original...

The team, feeling somewhat chastened, stays on at Dungeness to look into it.

29 April 2009

Once the recovery teams have departed, around 9am, our heroes head over to the power plant complex: they plan to have every employee, about two hundred in total, X-rayed, since this seems the most clearly diagnostic test. Syracuse talks with Dr Edward Ryland, chief of the plant's hospital (which has grown rather from its original design as a sick-bay, given that there isn't much use for power-hungry medical equipment away from power stations). First Ryland himself is X-rayed, after which Syracuse explains the problem. Ryland reckons they may be able to get through as many as thirty people in an hour, but the X-ray emitter isn't designed for such a full duty cycle, so they'll have to take breaks while it cools down.

Franks and Bennett go to talk to Jonathan Pierce, the station director, who's already pacing around his office and swallowing pills before they mention the plan to X-ray everyone. "I'm already down three senior staff..." It turns out that the chief of security, Malcolm Wheeler, and the head of maintenance, Don Bassett, both failed to turn up for work this morning; he asked the police to check their houses, and both showed signs of a struggle.

Franks and Bennett take Pierce to the hospital and get him X-rayed; he's also human. Thorne and Syracuse stay by the X-ray machine in case of trouble, while first the plant security personnel and then the other medical staff are tested; after that they start working their way through the rest of the plant's staff. Franks and Bennett go to check the houses of the missing people; they both look as though the door has been kicked in, ssomeone's been surprised while in bed, and there's been a fight. There's no sign of blood or of items having been removed. They decide, for safety's sake, to round up all the off-shift plant staff and bring them inside the (electrified, alarmed) fence.

Franks and Bennett take a turn keeping an eye on the X-ray testing - nobody's shown up yet as anything other than human - and Thorne and Syracuse go out to take a look at the houses. Syracuse reckons that both front doors have been pushed in slowly rather than kicked in. Clearly whoever did this didn't intend to kill the sleeping people immediately, or he/it could simply have done so.

Syracuse and Thorne try to track the abductor, but there's enough paved road in the area that this is a major challenge. They take a look at the marshland, but there's no discernible sign of recent human or robot activity there.

When they next rotate, Franks checks the reactor vessel and cooling circuits for the places where she would plant explosives if she wanted to shut it down, or spread radioactivity over a wide area; she doesn't find any.

The X-raying is finished around seven in the evening: everyone on the plant staff, apart from the two missing people, shows up as human. The staff who aren't on duty are sent home; those who live alone are paired up for the night, so that if any further attacks occur there's a greater chance of the alarm being raised. The team sets up a series of watches along the main roads of the town. However, nothing happens overnight (apart from much hothouse coffee and tea being drunk - both are something of a rarity in modern isolated Britain)...

In the morning, the team sees a figure staggering along the main road into town: it's Don Bassett, the maintenance chief. He's in poor shape, having clearly been tortured; Syracuse gives him a quick patch-up as he describes his abduction by Malcolm Wheeler, who is working for the robots. Wheeler tried to get him to agree to shut down the plant and allow its lead coolant to solidify, which would take it out of service permanently. Eventually he pretended to agree, and was let go.

The team finds the story interesting but doesn't want to assign it any credence until they know whether Bassett is really human. He is hustled into the X-ray machine, where the bomb implanted in his abdomen detonates, killing him and wrecking the machine beyond repair. An analysis of the remains confirms that he was indeed human.

Syracuse tracks Bassett from blood droplets back to a hangar on the abandoned Lydd Airfield; there's sign of recent habitation, including discarded restraints, but no current occupant. The team is searching the aeroplanes (since their engines have already been removed for use elsewhere, this doesn't take long) when the plant siren goes off to signal a robot attack.

They hurry back to find a human-sized hole cut in the fence, and unconscious or dead security guards. They follow the sounds of shooting and confront Wheeler in the reactor hall: he attacks them with what proves to be an electromagnetic shotgun, until Syracuse destroys it, then tears down one of the coolant pipes, sending a flood of molten lead towards the team. Thorne successfully shoots Wheeler in the eyes, and he collapses into the lead. Syracuse retrieves the nearest conscious tech, and Bennett climbs through the pipework to cross the lead puddle and take the tech's instructions on shutting down the breached coolant loop to keep the reactor running.

When the casualties are dealt with, it turns out that eight more are dead. Wheeler's fingerprints and DNA match local records, but he was ex-SAS, and the records on file in Bath are substantially different. The team suggests that the government send out a warning to the few other surviving large power plants, though perhaps it would be a good idea quietly to check the chiefs of security first...

The Only Oracle of Man

13 May 2009

After a few days of downtime, the team is sent to Wales. Specifically, the Pembrokeshire villages of Tenby, Saundersfoot and Amroth, formerly tourist spots and now subsistence fishers, have dropped off vidcom. Normally the local policeman would head overland to another village still on the grid, but this hasn't happened; a four-man TA unit was sent to investigate, but they haven't reported back either. So the SAS is being sent in. There aren't any substantial robot facilities in the area, though the port at Milford Haven is in the hands of Zone London.

Given the state of the roads, it takes about twelve hours to get to the area. The Land Rover is hidden, and the team advances on foot to see what's going on. There's a barricade across the road, with two human-looking figures manning it (one of them asleep); they have no uniforms, but they are wearing armbands. The team retreats to check the other two roads into the area; they're similarly barricaded. Bennett sneaks in to get a closer look at the villages; there are a few lamps burning, and fishing boats drawn up above the high tide mark. It all looks fairly normal.

So as to minimise the risk of getting shot accidentally, the team bivouacs in the Land Rover, and approaches in the morning. The barricade guards welcome them: "Wondered if they were going to send anyone." Most of the men are out fishing, but the team is invited to enter the village and talk to people.

They're given a very substantial lunch (even if it does largely consist of fish byproducts). Franks finds a note slipped under her bowl, which reads in clumsy capitals "DON'T EAT THE STEW"; she reckons there isn't enough privacy to pass this on to the others, but avoids it herself.

While they're waiting for the fishermen to return, the team members talk to the locals who are present. It seems that a bandit gang attacked last week - they didn't get much before they were driven off, mostly food, but the village has been on alert ever since. The vidcom went down at the same time, but "Jones the techie" is working on it so they haven't sent anyone for help. They haven't seen the TA unit.

Franks and Syracuse go to look at the vidcom. They plug in their own diagnostic kit, and can confirm that the fibre link to the outside world is fine. The hardware seems OK too - it looks like some sort of software problem. They could simply reinstall the standard vidcom software image, but they think they might want to take a closer look at just what's gone wrong; unfortunately they're not computer programmers.

The team decides to drive to Templeton, the nearest village still on the vidcom network, to report in. On the way there, all of them except Franks start to suffer severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting. Syracuse runs a couple of tests and is fairly sure that this is Amanita phalloides poisoning. There are some steps he can take to stop things getting much worse in the short term, but this really requires hospital treatment. The team heads back to Bath, with Franks driving the last part of the trip.

After several days of fulminating in hospital (and being told to avoid anything that might compromise liver function for the next year or so), the team has decided to return and find out what's going on in the villages. They load up with treatments for Amanita-poisoning, just in case. They camp some fifty miles from the villages, and arrive late in the morning, staying hidden. Franks sneaks into the village in a stealth suit, with Bennett in support, to try to locate the person who gave her the bowl of stew (and must have passed the note as well). Franks eventually spots her going into the church, and follows her in; it's otherwise empty, so Franks turns off the suit and approaches.

The woman, Eilwen Williams, is quite surprised to see her - apparently it's been assumed that the team is dead by now. Franks doesn't say anything about the others, but gets the story from Eilwen: about a month ago, three men set up shop in the old monastery on Caldey Island, about a mile offshore. They call themselves "prophets" and have an "oracle" of some sort - they have been providing useful weather forecasts, and specifying times to avoid going out fishing. The locals very much like the vastly increased survival rate this has given them, and they're wholeheartedly behind the prophets - who have told them to make sure the government doesn't find out about this, by any means necessary. (The TA team ate the stew, and is buried in the churchyard.) Eilwen reckons that the prophets looked as though they knew their way round firearms, too...

That night, around midnight, the team sneaks down to the shore and takes a medium-sized boat. They cover the whole thing with their camouflage tarp; Syracuse and Thorne row, while Bennett (in stealth suit) looks out to give guidance. After a certain amount of flailing, they get off the shore and out to Caldey Island, deciding to land on a beach slightly away from the main jetty...

22 May 2009

Franks and Bennett sneak ahead up the single path that cuts through the cliff, while Thorne and Syracuse rest; Bennett spots a tripwire and claymore mine, and disarms it. They pass through the village, which is now deserted and laced with traps both photocell and tripwire, and approach the abbey.

The buildings don't look as though their defences have been substantially beefed up, but there's a large cleared zone round the abbey, and blind spots have been obstructed with thick foliage. It looks like the work of someone who knows what he's doing. There's a dim light in the abbey church, but none elsewhere. Franks and Bennett return to the shore and fetch the others.

Thorne and Syracuse set up on the edge of the cleared zone, while Franks and Bennett (in stealth suits) start to sneak in. They get about half-way before a shot narrowly misses Bennett. They go to ground, and another shot is fired, also missing. Bennett fires a LAW at the building, blowing a substantial crater into it, then advances under cover of the distraction; Franks follows up with a second LAW, which penetrates the (rather substantial) wall and exposes some rooms inside. Thorne and Syracuse scan the buildings for shooters, and spot muzzle flashes from two open windows; they return fire, though they can't spot actual human targets.

Bennett continues to advance, with Franks behind him. As they get closer, there are two very bright flashes of light and loud cracks from inside the church, with a pained scream following the second one. After this, things quiet down a bit. Bennett and Franks approach the large church door, and Bennett opens it. There's no reaction until Franks puts her head round the door to look in, and narrowly avoids being hit by a shaft of white light (accompanied by an unnatural voice saying "centrifugal force reacts to the rotating frame of reference". She pulls back, and Bennett heads round the side of the church to try to get a tactical advantage. ("Zero seven zero at one nine knot, CAVOK, one five slash zero four, Q one zero one nine.") Thorne and Syracuse shift position to get a clearer view; Syracuse manages to identify the robot inside as an XNU-09 Stalker, a lightly-armoured dumbot, as it fires again. ("You are a spark of God's fire.")

Franks has however not managed to get such a good look at it, so she aims up with a LAW and engages the robot as it leaves through the church door ("Contact is inevitable, leading to information bleed."). The consequent explosion rains down small fragments of robot over a substantial area.

Inside the church is a spilled oil lamp, a dead human (who's been shot twice with a particle beam weapon, and whom Bennett identifies as Luke Noyce, an ex-soldier turned bandit with a technical background). The altar has been used as a workbench, with a variety of (human-built) computer and test equipment, as well as a robot-shaped gap in the middle of it all. Syracuse scoops up Noyce's notes - it seems that this Stalker was a Zairean infiltrator that had been damaged before he found it. It was mostly babbling at random, but included weather forecasts and some shipping movements; he was trying to get at more information.

The notes also show that Noyce was attempting to activate some other robots, so after searching the abbey (two more bodies with bolt-action rifles, shot by Syracuse and Thorne; substantial stockpiles of ammunition, alcohol and combat rations, as well as a fair amount of locally-produced food; more booby-traps on outside-facing doors) the team casts about the island. Down on one of the southern beaches, they find a twenty-foot container that's been dragged out of the water and concealed; inside are eight XNU-05 Myrmidons, still inactive in their foam packing (one of them badly water-damaged). They carry Zone Washington identification tags. Franks realises that this container has been damaged by an explosion going off nearby.

All the booby-traps are disarmed and placed in the container. The three bodies are carried down to the jetty, and the team returns to Tenby. There's something of a crowd on the shore, some 200 people, who mutter darkly and refuse to speak (or understand) anything but Welsh. Syracuse shoots the weathervane off the local church, but at best they're prepared to let the team go (with occasional thrown rocks) rather than talk or knuckle under.

The team reports in again from Templeton. A boat will be sent to retrieve the contents of the container (there's nothing nearby with a large enough crane to lift the whole thing). When the resources can be gathered, a TA company will be sent to deal with the villages.

Further analysis of the container's shipping labels and its contents suggests that it was an internal shipment along the east coast of the USA. This in turn supports the idea that there may be some sort of organised human opposition to robots in Zone Washington - all that's really known about the place (from fragmentary radio and TV transmissions) is that it claims to be a surviving human-led society with servitor robots, but it hasn't apparently made any attempt to contact the humans of Zone London.

Fortunately (perhaps), the Morag submarine has been repaired to the point where it can be operated by humans. The team gets some very rapid training in the operation of a high-tech mini-submarine, and prepares to spend a week or more in very cramped quarters: at the very least, raising a radio antenna off the American coast should provide a lot more information about what's going on. It will be necessary to go ashore and replenish food supplies, as well as some of the chemicals for the air-scrubbers, before returning to Zone London. Five-Three will also be sent along, as the closest thing available to an interpreter of robot communications.

(Season 2) An Age Undreamed-Of

3 June 2009

To test the Morag before its trans-Atlantic voyage, high command wants the team to take a look at the site of Aqua City 2, nicknamed "Atlantis"; it was under construction off the coast of Spain when the Final War began. The site is about 10,000 feet down on the abyssal plain; a few hard-shell diving suits are reconditioned, and the team gets some rapid training. Franks stays behind due to lack of space for a fourth person and diving suit.

The voyage, taken around a hundred feet down is relatively uneventful, though there's a persistent problem with condensation in the crew compartment. When the team gets to the site, there's a general replenishment of air and scrubbing of the mouldy walls. Then the team suits up (plugging the diving rigs into the sub's air supply), locks away all spare equipment in pressure-proof canisters, floods the sub (since it can't take more than around 2,000 feet of external pressure), and starts to descend.

There are occasional noises of shipping, and some of marine life, though (throughout the voyage) not as much of the latter as the training courses have led the team to expect. Syracuse, on the sonar, hears nothing; he risks one active ping near the end of the descent, and finds the sea bed where it should be. Thorne handles the boat while Bennett keeps a visual lookout. There's a lot less structure than expected; the first feature to become visible is the edge of a very large crater.

The water is quite clear, though there's a fair bit of sediment on the bottom, and Thorne circles the crater to look for more substantial structures. There's one dome that, while clearly wrecked, is rather less of a debris field than the rest of the area outside the crater. It seems to have imploded rather than to have been destroyed by a shock wave, and two crushed submarines lie next to it.

Bennett goes out on a safety line while Thorne holds the sub off the bottom and Syracuse keeps watch on the sonar. He pokes around in the wreckage; there are quite a few bodies, crushed by the pressure, and wearing casual clothes rather than diving suits. The layout seems to be a workshop or engineering setup of some sort, and Bennett finds a thick metal plate that appears to have been used as a range backstop - there are bullet and explosion marks, as well as laser scars and other damage he can't identify.

He also locates some pieces of paper and plastic used for note-taking. These have dates in the last few weeks; when he gets back to the sub, the others can recognise them as ballistics calculations of some sort. On his way there, though, he hears a repeated tap-tap-tap; he can't pin it down, though, and it isn't repeated at once.

A few minutes later, with all the team back aboard, the sound comes again; Syracuse locks it in on the sonar, and it seems to be in the direction of the two submarines. On closer inspection, while one of them is clearly smashed flat, the other does seem to have some intact compartments in the midsection.

Bennett approaches and taps on the hatch, establishing a basic conversation in Morse (though whoever's responding is clearly not very practiced at it). The Morag doesn't have much flotation capacity or spare air supply, so Syracuse starts to rig tow-ropes - cutting away the crushed sections of the other sub, and cannibalising plastic furniture from the wrecked base to form hydrodynamic wings for added buoyancy.

Since it's some 300 miles to the nearest land, and that's Zone Paris, Thorne makes wide circles during the slow ascent. The wrecked sub section is too unstable to be surfaced, so Bennett holds the Morag steady at low speed while Thorne and Syracuse climb back along the tow-lines, Syracuse with a SCUBA set and Thorne with a sharp knife to cut the tow-lines when the sub is flooded.

Syracuse taps out the Morse for "open" on the sub's hatch, and after a pause water starts flooding in. He finds a human hanging on to the hatchway ladder, gives him the SCUBA set, and pulls him out. Climbing back up the tow-lines with this load seems impractical, so he drops his safety line and inflates the hard-suit's flotation balloons, hanging on to the man from the submarine. Thorne cuts away the hull section, and it sinks rapidly into the depths; he starts climbing back up the tow-lines towards the Morag.

At this point, the Morag's sonar screen (which Bennett has mostly been ignoring, since he's not trained to use it) changes the contact designation off on the edge of the scope from "WHALE" to "THREAT". The very loud tearing sound as it approaches on a straight course for the Morag at around 200 knots makes it clear to everyone in the water that there's a problem.

Thorne is the only person in a position to see the first pass - something about twenty feet long and perhaps three feet wide, clad in a halo of some sort, flashes past with great speed, shrieking whalesong, rocking the Morag and nearly knocking him loose. Whatever it is seems to be rocket-propelled, and it starts to circle back.

Thorne continues to climb back to the hatch at the front of the Morag, and makes it inside just before the attacker's second pass. He tries the built-in laser, but while he hits he doesn't seem to do a great deal of damage (though the thing does pull away from its ramming course). On the third attack, he gets in a solid shot, and the attacker disintegrates against a wall of water.

Bennett circles to pick up Syracuse and the man from the submarine; they're brought on board, and he submerges the Morag and starts heading for England.

The rescued man is Heinz Lengen ("from Switzerland, when there still was a Switzerland"). He speaks politely, but clearly regards his rescuers as infiltrator robots - Bennett cuts his hand to show bone, and Lengen reciprocates. He is a field agent for an organisation called VIRUS - dedicated to maintaining and improving human technnology, in an effort to fight the robots. Syracuse points out that, as field agents themselves, the team has no need to know much in the way of details - but Lengen still explains that VIRUS had a development lab set up in a surviving portion of the Atlantis base, which was attacked by robot submarines several days ago. He doesn't know what the rocket-propelled attacker was, though there are rumours of robotic experiments with robot-biological hybrids...

VIRUS hasn't previously been able to make contact with the humans of Zone London, but when the team returns to Bath it's clear that some effort will be made to establish communications. Indeed, when the team sets out across the Atlantic, they'll be taking a radio-transmitting balloon with them. One with a very long time delay...

Sjaldan er ein báran stök

("there is rarely a single wave")

17 June 2009

Heinz gives the team some innocuous-sounding recognition phrases in case they run into any VIRUS agents. Given the problems with the sub's environmental systems, it's decided to make the trip to America in multiple stages. The first major stop will be Iceland, which has fallen completely out of contact since the radio ban apart from occasional lucky boats; the team will be taking a laser communicator (to bounce signals off satellites). Five-Three puts itself to sleep on a two week timer; the others are not so fortunate. With stops to scrub out the sub on the northern tip of Ireland and the Faeroes, they head north-west...

En route Syracuse spots an unusual sonar signal - a large twin-screw submarine with a curious echo, heading south in the Irish Sea. With a bit more listening from different angles, he establishes that it's towing two large dracones containing fluid of some sort. They don't interfere.

It's believed that the new capital of Iceland is at Selfoss, a town a few miles up the Ölfusá river from the coast. As the team carefully takes the sub up the river, Syracuse hears the sound of an anti-shipping net strung across the waterway; opening the hatch reveals a pair of buildings, one on each side of the river, but no sign of light or movement. They take the sub back down the river for half a mile or so and beach it there, covering it with the chamaeleon tarp.

Bennett heads up in chamaeleon suit to find out the situation. He spots a mechanical winch at one end of the net, then enters the building next to it, and is looking around what's clearly a basic living area when he hears a shotgun being cocked from the floor above (opening the door caused a cold draught). He immediately cooperates; his captor, who doesn't speak much English, apparently thinks he's an infiltrator robot, and sends up a flare to summon help. (Franks and Syracuse see this and walk up to get a better look.)

There's a throb of diesel engines from upstream, and a pre-war Coast Guard cutter comes down the river, shining a searchlight on the house and the area around it. (Syracuse stands up and waves.) Several soldiers disembark and remove Bennett from the building. After a few moments of tense negotiation - including everyone drawing blood, though the British team is aware that this is no longer sufficient - the team is carried back to Selfoss on the boat (being given quite a bit of distance - one of the things infiltrator robots tend to do is explode without warning). They're put up overnight in a hastily-emptied house. In the morning, they're brought breakfast (fish stew, which Bennett avoids and Syracuse persuades Franks to eat first), and then visited by Vignir, a man in his forties who claims to be a representative of the Althing. (His guards stay outside.)

There are about 10,000 people left in Iceland, about two thousand of them here in Selfoss - the one place where there's a bit of electrical power (geothermal) still available, though not very much. Most people live on the coast, and are involved in subsistence fishing and farming. It's clear that the country isn't holding on to its technology as well as Britain; it's like many smaller British towns, but without the knowledge of the existence of a place like Bath or Hereford where things are a bit better. Infiltrators generally haven't been a problem - there were two incidents in the early days, nothing since, though drills are still conducted. Once the diplomatic niceties have been completed - and arrangements are made to set up the laser communicator - the team is invited to wander around the town. One of the guards is sent with them as an interpreter - many of the younger generation don't speak English, not having much use for it any more.

The team visits the hospital, to discuss methods of finding infiltrators; they have an X-ray machine, but not the power to run it very often, so metal detectors seem like the best bet.

Their guide mentions that the robots have taken over Reykjavik, Keflavik, and the peninsula on which they lie, but generally haven't spread further - except for some recent activity in-land. They haven't got observers close enough to see what's going on without being warned off. The team decides to take a look.

One of the other soldiers, Þorbjörn, takes them on the two-day hike - there are no powered land vehicles left, not even livestock. (Franks seduces him en route - it's been a long trip in the submarine.) When they get to the area, Franks and Bennett sneak over the ridge in chamaeleon suits; over the next several hours, they observe a variety of machines of models unfamiliar to them.

They seem to fall into two distinct classes: the fliers, which are broadly unstreamlined and are held aloft by jets (though closer examination suggests that the jets have been bolted on after the design was complete, and actual manoeuvre is being done with large rockets and reaction control systems), and the land vehicles, which are on a variety of suspension systems - balloon tyres, mesh tyres, even legs - and are variously making their way across the lava-strewn plain. The fliers seem to be able to carry the land vehicles.

On further consideration, it seems likely that these are intended for some sort of low gravity and low pressure environment - Zone Luna? Mars? Possibly even Zone Orbital. Whatever the plan, these don't seem intended as main-line combatants - they're sealed, but they don't have obvious weaponry, and various control lines are exposed.

On return to Selfoss, the team finds that communication has been established with Bath. Bennett spends some hours closeted with one of the more attractive female communications techs.

The next day, the team leaves for Greenland. A navigation error means that they miss it, but they have enough resources to carry on directly to Newfoundland. Lurking about twenty miles off-shore, they raise the ESM mast and listen to local radio traffic. There's one voice station, with a mixture of music and news; Bennett reckons that it's being carefully controlled (for example, the only mention of crime is when it's been suppressed, generally by the "Wasps", presumably some sort of local police force). There's also a great deal of non-audiovisual traffic, most of which looks like teleoperation signals.

Five-Three is woken ("This product includes software developed by the University of California, Berkeley, and its contributors") to consider the traffic, and agrees - quite a lot of entities (human or robotic) in St John's are remotely operating machinery all over the island.

Is The Computer Your Friend?

1 July 2009

The team makes landfall on a deserted part of the coast to replenish water and bury the contents of the chemical toilet. They then return to a listening position, slightly closer to St John's, and listen for cell-phone-type signals. Judging by that, people tend to travel by bus quite a bit, though a few mention cars. Listening to various news programs, and watching soap operas, gives a bit more of a clue about the way things work: Syracuse spots that nobody ever seems to mention not having a job, or having to look for work. He looks for signs of institutional racism and doesn't find any, but there does seem to be a slight bias pushing women into subordinate roles - not a huge thing, but it's certainly more of a distinction than he's used to in Britain. The two major forces that have square jaws and kick down the doors of evildoers (often "black marketeers" or "black zoners") are the FBI and the WASPs; the latter have bigger guns, and often robot partners. (And when the maverick cop is taken off the case and goes it alone, he usually gets killed and his buddies solve the problem through conventional police methods.)

Anywhere outside the Washington Protectorate is definitely "the enemy"; there are images of slave camps, robots indiscriminately slaughtering humans, and so on. There's mention of attacks coming across "the Wall" from Zone Denver, and being bravely repulsed by the WASPs.

While there are "friendly" robots of the same model as Five-Three, it's felt that bringing it to the initial contact might cause problems. Five-Three changes its skin to a stars-and-stripes pattern but assents.

The team picks a spot about five miles from the outer edge of the suburbs, and beaches the submarine. Franks and Bennett will go in first, unarmed and unarmoured, while Thorne and Syracuse will stay hidden as backup. The immediate area seems to be used for farming; there's a barley crop, unusual in this climate but evidently possible with high-energy fertilisers, and a robot combine off in the distance.

No humans are visible during the trip, and Franks and Bennett arrive at the edge of the suburbs. They head in, while Thorne and Syracuse hole up. There's nobody about - it's late morning - but a passing robot street-sweeper greets them with a chirpy "Wow, why aren't you at your jobs?" After a brief conversation - it seems much more articulate than one would expect from a simple robot, and they think it's probably being teleoperated - they get directions to the nearest police station, further into town.

It's in a small office and shopping area, and by the time they get there there are people leaving offices and getting lunch. Franks and Bennett go into Lloyd's Bar, and Bennett introduces them as having come across from Britain. The reaction is immediate: "Oh, you escaped! Welccome to the land of the free - first beer's on me! Then you'd better go and get registered." Lloyd seems generally happy with the way things are - everyone has a job, and enough to eat, not like the old days. The person in charge is the mayor, but they don't hold elections - there's still an emergency going on, and you only have to look outside the zone to see it.

When Bennett tries to explain that Britain isn't actually all that dangerous, Lloyd seems confused - he explains that he's seen documentaries on the slave camps. Bennett backs off. More general conversation deals with Lloyd's brother (who works in aquaculture, at one of the offices in the middle of town) and local sports (baseball and ice hockey). The next thing to do, evidently, is to go to the local police station and get registered.

However, Bennett and Franks decide to loiter casually outside for a bit (in the rain), updating the other two by laser communicator. After about twenty minutes, a policeman comes out of the station, looks around, and strolls over to them; he's friendly enough, but it's clearly time for them to come inside and go through the paperwork.

They are interviewed separately, and tell a story of escape from a Zone London slave camp and a perilous crossing of the Atlantic in a small boat. They're asked about skills; Bennett ends up being assigned to a mining operation (working from the offices in the middle of town), and Franks (who is also asked how many children she's had) to maintenance at the bus garage. They're given basic PDAs so that they can spend money, and a little bit of money to get themselves food and/or clothes until their first wages come in; they don't have to report for work until tomorrow. They're also given the keys to an apartment on the north side of the town - 7th floor. Franks manages to hide the laser communicator and lockpicks through the fairly cursory search.

They leave the police station, leafing through the book of "Your Rights as a Citizen of the Washington Protectorate" (Franks discovers that among these is the "right" to bear a minimum of one child every five years). They report back via laser-com, then head further into town, getting some basic food and clothing and then investigating the apartment. There aren't many other people in the block yet - it's an old building now being refurbished. Don, their downstairs neighbour, is an aquaculture manager.

Franks and Bennett watch a lot more television - tonight there's a documentary on the extermination camps of Zone Denver, which is as cheerful as it sounds.

Meanwhile, Thorne and Syracuse are living off the land; the submarine is out of line of sight from St John's, but there's a hilltop a few miles away where they can contact the others by laser (at least when they're in the apartment).

29 July 2009

The night passes uneventfully. On Wednesday morning, Bennett and Franks head to their new jobs. Bennett finds a row of enclosed teleoperation rigs, and starts going through the tutorial for troubleshooting mining robots (most of the time they can operate on their own, but they call for a supervisor if they encounter a situation they don't understand or can't fix); around lunchtime, his workmates show him where to find the general chat channel. His co-workers are a roughly even mix of men and women, of a wide variety of ages.

Franks is also in a robot-supervisory job: most of the routine maintenance at the bus depot is done by nonvolitional robots, but anything non-standard requires human intervention. Her boss, Mike, shows her the basics but mostly keeps to himself. She does notice that, when the bus from Boston arrives in the afternoon, he removes a package from inside the back wheel-well; he clearly expected that it would be there. She doesn't call him on this.

In the evening, Bennett goes out to socialise with his new colleagues; Franks breaks into the empty apartment directly downstairs from the one she's occupying, and reports in to the others via laser-com. She suggests that they move the submarine and not tell her where it's hidden; they agree.

At around 3am, Franks is woken by the sound of footsteps in the hall outside the apartment. She wakes Bennett, but they don't have time to do much before the door is kicked off its hinges by a large humanoid robot (or perhaps a human in an armoured suit - it's hard to tell). In any case, it has a WASP badge on its breastplate, and throws Franks a set of plastic handcuffs with instructions to cuff herself. Bennett tries to hide behind the bedroom curtain, but he's quickly spotted and secured. As they are hustled out under blankets to a waiting van, they see several smaller robots searching the apartment. They're driven for around ten minutes, then taken out of the van in a covered garage of some sort, separated, and interrogated at very great length (a variety of psychological and chemical methods).

Thorne and Syracuse have been digging trenches on the hilltop for camouflage and keeping an eye on St John's. On Thursday night, there's no check-in from the others. They consider ways of getting into the city without being observed; they locate the sewage processing plant, as well as the roads and power lines that feed the city.

On Friday night, Franks calls up, but the break in communications has made Thorne and Syracuse suspicious; she has all the right authentication words, including older ones, but when they ask her about certain (faked) incidents she goes along with their story rather than knowing the truth. They shut down the laser-com and abandon their position; a sound of turbine engines approaching from the town suggests that this was the right thing to do. (Going by engine noise, one large VTOL lands and remains on site for about twenty minutes; two smaller craft circle for a while, then retreat.) If Franks and Bennett are still in St John's at all, it seems likely that they are being held at the main police station, and a rescue attempt seems to be in order.

On Saturday, Syracuse prepares a data package for their last radiosonde containing what they've learned so far, and leaves Five-Three with instructions to launch it on Monday night if they haven't returned by then. (There's no guarantee of the signal's making it back to Zone London, but it's a reasonable bet.) On Saturday night, Thorne and Syracuse don the stealth suits and make their way to the sewage plant, which is lightly guarded by Rovers. They locate the building where the outflow from the city is split, and enter the pipe (tripping a circuit breaker to shut down the pump and avoid the building being sprayed with high-pressure sewage). Once they get away from the plant, the sewers are clearly of fairly old manufacture. They get into town and up a feeder pipe (the sewer plan clearly follows the street plan); with a bit of looking around on the surface, they locate the main police station (not designed for major siege, but clearly put together with a certain amount of respect for fields of fire; there's a garage entrance at the back, and a helipad on the roof that holds a light transport VTOL), then try for sewer access there. It's a bit of a tight squeeze, but they make it to the inspection chamber which seems to be the outflow for the block. There are no obvious tripwires on this side of the hatch, so after setting charges elsewhere in the sewer system (not on their escape route) to go off after half an hour or so, they lift the hatch...

12 August 2009

Thorne and Syracuse emerge into a shower area, and decide that the first order of business is to wash off some of the sewer-stench from their clothes. They then start to look round the police station - much of which seems to have been disused for some years, having perhaps been built when the population of St John's was rather greater than it is today. There's clearly one person on duty at the front desk - they hear him talking into a radio - and someone working on a vehicle in the garage area. There doesn't seem to be anyone in the police cells. Away from all of these, however, and near a section that has no outside walls, Thorne spots a Stalker that's been left on guard in the corner of a corridor.

Syracuse heads round to cover the cop at the front desk, while Thorne readies his attack; a burst of rifle-fire disables the Stalker comprehensively. As the cop turns round, Syracuse gestures with his rifle and says "we are desperate men"; the cop doesn't give him any trouble, and starts to get up to lead Syracuse to where the special prisoners are being kept.

Thorne looks in through the door nearest to him (following the sounds of robots saying "telemetry lost" and "reestablish perimeter"), and spots a conference room that's evidently been converted for the WASPs' use. It holds one large human-shaped robot (a Myrmidon), three more Stalkers, and two noncombatant robots (one clearly technical, the other clearly medical in nature). There's also a human-shaped suit of armour standing against the far wall, a set of double doors that looks as though it leads to a storage cupboard of some sort, and two closed life-support beds. He throws in a grenade and slams the door again, and a series of loud bangs accompanies the appearance of several inch-wide holes in the door (and major damage to the far wall behind where he was standing). The Myrmidon smashes down the door with its assault cannon, and Marty returns fire, disabling the weapon.

The cop bottles out at this point, and Syracuse lets him go. Another Stalker is coming out into the corridor, from the opposite door of the conference room; Syracuse shoots it before it can bring its weapons to bear on him.

The Myrmidon shoots Thorne with its built-in electrolaser, but the armour prevents it from having any effect. Thorne shoots back, aiming for its visual sensors, doing a reasonable amount of damage and blinding it. Syracuse peers in through the door, and sees the situation (and that the armoured suit is now moving). Just as he pulls back, the grenade goes off, destroying the other two Stalkers and throwing shrapnel around the room.

The Myrmidon, having run out of effective ranged weapons, attempts to grapple with Thorne; Thorne evades, and moves quietly down the corridor. The Myrmidon charges after him. Thorne gets out of the way and trips it, so that it slides through the side doors out of the building and ends up disorientated, trying over the next few minutes to get back into the building. Syracuse puts a burst into the suit as it comes through the door, providing a noisy display of ricochets but not doing any damage.

Thorne returns to the room, sees the back of the suit through the other door, and shoots it to try to get its attention. This doesn't immediately work; the suit puts a burst of cannon fire at Syracuse, who manages desperately to evade with minor scrapes and bruises. Syracuse backs carefully down the corridor (noting that the suit is apparently unoccupied) as Thorne shoots again, disabling the weapon; when the suit turns round to attack Thorne hand-to-hand, Syracuse fires an HEDP rifle grenade from the extreme far end, which is just barely within the weapon's minimum arming distance. This successfully disables the suit (and starts a fire which the sprinklers are unable to put out, though it doesn't spread).

Syracuse opens the life-support beds; Bennett and Franks are inside them, being kept unconscious and fed intravenously. They have helmets on their heads with thick cables going to other machinery; Syracuse tries to lift off Bennett's, but it seems firmly attached. He unplugs the cable, and a few seconds later a light on the helmet shifts from green to red, after which removing it is easy (and there's no internal sign of what might have been holding it in place). He removes Franks' helmet too, and wakes them both up (at roughly which point the explosives outside go off).

Bennett and Franks are both surprised to hear that it's only been a few days since they were captured; they both have memories of several months of escapes or releases, joining the Resistance or returning to England, and somehow always ending up back in captivity. Neither of them is immediately convinced that this escape is any more real than the others they've experienced.

The team heads back out through the sewers and the pumping station, then starts working its way back towards the sub. An aerial search is in progress, and they are spotted. They take cover under the canopy of an abandoned filling station, and while contemplating what to do next they see a vehicle (an old Jeep converted to run on battery power) approaching, with no headlights, driven by a woman wearing night-vision goggles. They hide; she pulls in under the canopy and calls "If you want to live, come on out". Syracuse replies "Who are you with?"; she answers, gesturing at the sky, "not them".

They leave. She doesn't introduce herself, but does explain that she has a transponder which identifies the jeep as an authorised vehicle, and that the cargo area is shielded against IR. She drives for about an hour, taking the team to an abandoned motel off the Trans-Canada Highway, where she says they'll be met by another resistance member. She has to take the jeep back before it's missed, and drives off into the darkness.

26 August 2009

At the motel, Dave Brodie, a man in his twenties who's quite open about being expendable should the team turn out to be traitors, gives the team a briefing on the resistance groups operating in the Washington Protectorate. There are three large ones: Free America (of which he's a part), which engages in some assassination and sabotage but is basically building up resources for a day of revolt (and sending supplies to human settlements in the western zones); the Human Liberation Army, which is more active out west and is a much more violent group; and GRRL, Guardians of Reproductive Rights and Liberty, which has a much larger halo of people broadly sympathetic with its causes (the removal of the compulsory childbearing laws), some of whom may not even know they're connected with a revolutionary organisation. They mostly deal with provision of illicit contraceptive services, with a sideline in cracking the records databanks to fake evidence of childbearing.

In return, the team describes life in the UK - a working society, if one that's losing its grip on high technology from sheer lack of infrastructure - and the mission - to establish communications with human groups in the Protectorate. They also talk about some of their missions so far, leading up to the acquisition of the submarine; Brodie is clearly very worried by the idea of an autonomous robot apparently fighting on the side of humans. He reckons that getting hold of a laser communicator shouldn't be too hard; he'll pass that up the chain. He hasn't heard of VIRUS, though he's junior enough that he might not have been told anyway.

He leaves (by bicycle, clearly going somewhere close by) to hunt up clothes and weapons while the team gets some sleep in rotation. He returns in the afternoon, about the same time a small container drops off a passing robotruck. It contains what the local HLA cells can spare: a variety of civilian and camouflage clothing, as well as a few rifles and missile launchers. He also brings news: the air search has ended, and hazmat teams were sent south from St John's. It's not clear what may have happened, though the team theorises that Five-Three has released its nanoburn supply.

Since the submarine is unlikely to be available, the best bet is probably to head for a larger port (Boston or New York) and try to get hold of some transport there. They can be got aboard an automated truck which will take most of a day to make the trip, though that will mean sneaking them back into the outskirts of St John's. Brodie gives them the current recognition protocols for finding other resistance groups.

In the evening, another electric jeep arrives to take them to St John's. The driver knows a bit more about the flap that's been going on - apparently two people have been taken to hospital and are being kept in isolation, and the hazmat guys were passing out pills of some sort to everyone who was involved in the ground search. (Syracuse thinks that this doesn't sound much like nanoburn, though it could be a cover for someting else. Franks thinks it could be radiation poisoning, if the attackers managed to crack the sub's reactor.)

As they're lurking near the truck depot, Syracuse hears a voice from altogether too close by for comfort: "Dark in here, isn't it?" It's Five-Three, which is also attempting to sneak aboard a truck. Once on board, it reports: the sub's sensors were very limited, so while it was aware from comms intercepts that there was a search going on it had little warning of the attack. It launched the sonde, but enemy airborne units shot it down. Five-Three then set the submarine to engage autonomously with its gatling laser, while Five-Three made its own escape.

The equipment left on board the submarine has been exposed to superheated radioactive steam and other contamination caused by a primary coolant circuit rupture and consequent loss of core integrity. This was apparently a pre-programmed self-destruct mode on the submarine's reactor. It seems unlikely that useful forensic information will be gained from what's left, at least in the short term.

Since then, Five-Three has been making its way covertly across country in the hope of acquiring transport in order to continue its primary mission of eliminating humans.

The truck and ferry trip passes with minimal outside information; recharging, every 5-6 hours, takes about five minutes. At the third stop, which should be (and Five-Three's inertial platform confirms is) a little outside Bangor, Maine, the team leaves.

Bennett heads into town while the others hole up in the woods. He manages to get a general overview of the place, and locates a GRRL graffito giving a coded meeting place and time for those who want to buy contraceptives. That evening, Syracuse and Franks go in in civilian clothing, with Bennett covering them; at the appointed place and time, a women approaches them and asks whether they're looking for "goods". They use one of the recognition phrases, and she takes them out of the street to talk next to a nearby trash-can fire.

"Maria" can arrange identification - she'll need DNA samples and photographs from everyone - and with a bit more effort can obtain some transport. This will cost favours with the resistance, starting with transporting a package of contraceptives to Boston; she gives them an address at which to contact another "Maria", who will doubtless have more work for them to do.

A couple of days later, the IDs have been set up, and Maria provides an old electric-converted pickup truck; it doesn't run well, but it works for now and has enough charge to get them to Boston.

9 September 2009

The drive to Boston goes smoothly, with Thorne adapting smoothly to something he hasn't seen for quite a long time - significant vehicular traffic. It looks as though Greater Boston has achieved a significant fraction of its pre-war population (somewhere in the hundreds of thousands). As the pickup heads through the streets to Foster's Bar and Grill, the team members notice small but significant numbers of robots on the streets - perhaps one pedestrian in twenty.

Foster's is in a reasonably well-off area near the Massachussetts General Hospital, and Thorne hides the car in an alley while Syracuse and Franks go in to make contact. When they ask the barman about "Maria", he calls over the boss - a woman in her mid-twenties who introduces herself as Izzy, and shows them up to their temporary lodgings in one of the storerooms. Five-Three is introduced as a pithed robot that's now controlled by the team.

Izzy checks their new IDs - they're researchers for The Improper Bostonian, a lifestyle net-programme. There's no salary (it's piecework pay for leads that generate stories), but they do at least have an excuse for being anywhere they're likely to be found. She advises the team to get some rest, as she'll have a job for them around midnight. Meanwhile she'll get rid of the pickup truck.

The job is to take part of the shipment of contraceptives over to a free clinic in East Boston and drop them off with Dr Diana Bithell. An electric city runabout is provided, which is a bit of a squeeze with their assorted weaponry; Five-Three rides in the boot. They arrive at about half past midnight, and drive around the area briefly; it's clearly not a wealthy neighbourhood. There are two motorcycles parked near the clinic, not hidden but certainly pushed out of sight.

Franks and Syracuse go in, with Five-Three trailing them. Syracuse steps in something wet, which closer examination reveals to be a blood trail. Inside are two bodies, motionless on the floor; they're wearing armour. Syracuse takes a look to confirm that they're dead; one is male and one female, both have WASP insignia, and both have been shot with a large-calibre weapon of some sort. Five-Three localises a repeated radio transmission coming from each of them, but can't decode it. The WASPs were carrying UAWs, SMG/shotgun combination weapons, and there's an outline of a human shape in shot-pocks on the wall next to the door.

Syracuse tracks the blood-trail away from the door, and follows it behind a dumpster; there's a man there, dead of multiple bullet and shot wounds. He has a handgun consistent with the wounds on the WASPs, which Franks takes.

On the floor just inside the clinic door is a note - "Emergency at Arena, back by 2am". Bennett has heard rumours of the Steel Arenas, a robot-fighting circuit (mostly teleoperated industrial and technical robots, though there are hints of occasional humans in the ring). With a bit of driving around and asking likely-looking people, he's able to find out where tonight's event is being held - a warehouse on the edge of the airport, not too far away.

Thorne stays with the car as the others go in (Franks in stealth-suit, though it's not perfect and she's soon spotted). Five-Three (in red-white-and-blue camouflage) gets them entry without having to pay - it seems to be regarded as some sort of major league competitor.

There's no sign of an immediate medical emergency, but with a bit of poking around the team locates Diana Bithell, who's working in one of the competitors' cages on one of the teleoperators - Syracuse can see even from a distance that he's been severely beaten. A man stands nearby, looking worried. Some discussion with Diana ensues - she's done all she can here, and is entirely happy to leave, but she could really use a favour from Alex Vine (the worried-looking man), and the beaten-up fellow (Frank Nolan) isn't in any shape to fight tonight (indeed, he was beaten up because he refused to throw the fight).

After a bit of discussion, it's decided to enter Five-Three, with Bennett pretending to teleoperate it. Five-Three is briefed on making the combat look interesting (and on not slaughtering the audience) rather than getting it over with as quickly as possible. Since its opponent is a standard mechanic with chainsaw and laser torch, it's not in any particular danger, and soon takes a dominant role; it then switches to playing with the mechanic, which seems quite popular with the crowd.

As the team gets ready to leave, four obvious thugs come over; they throw brass-knuckled punches at Bennett and Franks, whose armoured suits and judo training give them a significant edge. Even the thugs' knives don't do much good against skilled and targetted kicks and knees to sensitive areas, and the fight is ended when Five-Three picks up two of them on its claws. They scatter, with a muttered "we'll be back", and Vine is able to pick up his winnings (not all that much, since Nolan was already the favourite and the odds only shortened when Five-Three was brought in, but better than nothing).

The team gives Bithell a lift back to the clinic to find out what's been going on - she's very worried by the dead WASPs, and reckons that they might have been some of her regulars (cops want to dodge the Reproductive Statutes as much as anyone else). She has no idea who the other man might be. As they draw near, there's an obvious investigation in progress; the team drops off Bithell to talk to the cops, and heads back to Foster's.

Smoke on the Water

23 September 2009

Late the next morning, Izzy mentions that she's has a contact from Free America - they want a job done but don't have sufficient personnel on site, and they'd like some help from GRRL. Since the team has expressed an interest in getting in touch with Free America, she's willing to send them along. The meeting to discuss the work is round the bay at the Bridge Street grill in North Weymouth, with a man called Judd.

The team goes en masse, but only Bennett and Syracuse go in to talk to Judd, who's sitting at a table with a young lady. (He's drinking a dark beer; she's on soda water, or something that looks like it.) Once bona fides have been established, he explains that there's a robot-run cargo ship up from Florida that's set to dock in the Quincy harbour tonight; there's been a lot of data traffic about it, much more than usual for a ship of this sort, and Free America would like more information. Security at the docks is pretty tight, but the ship will have to slow down to work through the narrow passages to the harbour, and there's a fog forecast, so it may even have to stop and wait for better visibility; Tania, his companion, will take a small boat out to rendezvous with the ship, and the team will go aboard and - ideally - pick up a sample of whatever's being carried. If they can't manage that, then photographic evidence would be acceptable.

The ship is an old freighter - from last century - that's been partially converted for robot operation; it isn't a fully automated vessel, but will have robots aboard as crew. Apparently a couple of Rovers were spotted on deck when it left Miami, so presumably there's also an AU aboard to control them.

The meeting is set at the jetty opposite the bar, for 11.30 - Tania will have her boat ready.

The team buys a generic camera each - low-light models aren't available. They also pick up electric torches. Bennett spends the afternoon practicing with his camera; the others get some sleep in advance. They pack light, carrying their carbines, chamaeleon suits (for those that have them) and cameras. Five-Three claims to be reasonably competent at climbing, and will come along (its infra-red camera may be useful).

Half an hour before midnight, they're back at North Weymouth. Tania's boat is a 17-foot Boston Whaler, apparently constructed from carbon fibre; the motor is a battery-powered MHD pumpjet. "Funny what you can find if you go looking in the right warehouse at the wrong time..." She's also in a chamaeleon suit, with hood and black facepaint. The team gets into the boat, and they head off, in near-silence.

It's pretty foggy, and the navigation lights are turned off. Tania follows the directions of a device with a radio aerial, presumably some sort of receiver for the ships' navigation radar. She explains that if she hears gunfire and the team isn't at the rail, she's going to have to leave - she has no way of knowing what's going on on board, and she doesn't want to wait until some Rover decides she isn't an unusually-shaped porpoise and blows her out of the water. The team decides to leave someone on the rail to relay communications.

Tania takes a long curve to come up on the ship from behind. The ship's navigation lights are on, and she brings the boat alongside; there are some primitive rungs set into the side of the hull near the main cargo hatch. The team gets ready to go aboard, and Bennett stands up and starts to climb. The world turns bright yellow...

Everyone is hit by shrapnel - the armoured suits help a bit, and the rest is flesh wounds, except for Tania, who slumps over the wheel. The ship has apparently exploded; there are flames all along her length, gaping holes in her side, and a column of smoke above her. She's already starting to break up.

Bennett drops back into the boat. Syracuse patches up Tania, while Franks fires up the engine to get away as quickly as possible. This isn't as fast as it was; the engine has taken some shrapnel too. As people look back, they see the ship breaking into three pieces; barrels the size of oil drums are breaking loose from pallets, falling into the water and cracking open, pouring out a dark liquid. Where that hits the water, a thick white fog arises, blending with the fog that was already on the surface of the bay. Bennett takes multiple photographs while this is going on.

Five-Three requests permission to use active sensors, then pops up its turret and declares that it is detecting an airborne acidic substance that is not in its database - though that database is mostly restricted to chemical warfare agents and the commonest industrial feedstocks.

Franks steers back towards the lights of North Weymouth, the closest point of land. The cloud is spreading rapidly behind them; they're just about outrunning it in the boat, but they wouldn't expect to be able to do it on foot. The Washington Street Bridge is jammed with traffic, a combination of gawkers and minor accidents.

Franks proposes to head upriver to the Quincy harbour, but Tania - now conscious again - says that with this boat they're certain to get arrested there. The best remaining option appears to be to find a building and fort up. The closest appears to be the Bridge Street Grill, the only business still open a few minutes after midnight.

There are quite a few gawkers around on the street, but they scatter when Syracuse shouts "Chemical spill". The team heads into the Grill, half-carrying Tania, and Syracuse immediately calls for wet bar towels; the bartender (Mack) and bouncer (Eddie) don't argue, and he gets the cracks in front and back doors blocked up as the fog rolls over the building.

Things calm down a bit. Cherry, the waitress, passes out a round of beers. The other customers are Greg, a bicycle courier, Bob, a drunkard, Casey, a rentacop, Judd, who was waiting for the cargo sample, and Simon, a well-dressed man who looks distinctly out of place. Syracuse sees to the wounded team members, and sets Five-Three to scan the blocked-up gaps to keep track of the leakage rate (minimal, but of course not zero). He then gets Mack to fill bottles with tap-water, in case the mains stop working.

The fog outside seems to be getting thicker; Franks, who's been watching the street outside to try to evaluate the toxicity or corrosiveness of the fog, realises that the glass of the front door and windows is being slowly etched, and within a few minutes it's no longer possible to see out.

Mack calls 911, but says he's just getting a recorded message - basically, people should seal themselves in buildings, turn off ventilation systems, and hang a white cloth in a street-side window if they need medical assistance.

Greg is fairly twitchy, talking about "gas that makes you bleed from every pore of your body"; Syracuse gets him calmed down.

Franks goes over Bennett's photographs from the explosion. She's pretty certain from the pattern of damage and flames that the ship was rigged for demolition, probably with plastique; it's a reasonably well-done job for sinking the ship as quickly as possible. Bennett is pretty sure he didn't hit any triggers when he was starting to climb aboard.

Going outside seems like an increasingly bad idea. At 12.30, the WBZ-TV news starts a "Special Report"; the anchor, Nancy Camella, explains that a Dow Chemical ship has been destroyed by terrorists, "possibly the group calling themselves Free America", and that a lethal cloud is spreading over Weymouth and Quincy. The feed switches to a reporter in a tiltrotor, who points out the building-tops visible through the fog, and a Harbor Police boat standing off in the bay. The window through which he's filming fogs up; he calls on the pilot to feed IR from the external cameras, but that's also unavailable, and as the sound of the gas turbine engines starting to choke up becomes audible he cuts off in mid-sentence.

Nancy looks shocked, but then reports that she's been in contact with a Dow representative, who says that the terrorists have applied some sort of chemical irritant or catalyst which has turned the harmless chemicals aboard the ship into this toxic cloud. Dow doesn't have any Disaster Response personnel on site yet, but when they arrive, WBZ-TV will be going in with them.

Eddie seems reassured by this, but the rest of the patrons are not; Greg in particular points out that the news stations say what they've been told to say.

Casey has been getting increasingly twitchy, and eventually pulls out an over-large pistol (a similar model to the one found in the alley in East Boston) and lays it on the table in front of him. Bennett tries to calm him down, but he's clearly looking for a fight; as he attempts to shoot Bennett, Thorne grabs his arm. Casey is clearly used to casual brawling, but is very much outmatched; Thorne disarms him between kicks and punches, with Bennett helping to build up his level of pain and trauma, and eventually he slumps to the floor. Syracuse patches up his scrapes but doesn't attempt to wake him; Eddie ties him up with electrical cable.

The 1am report names the chemical - hydrogen fluoride, which becomes hydrofluoric acid on exposure to water. This seems consistent with the team's limited chemical knowledge. A map shows that the fog has spread to cover a roughly four-mile radius. There's also an on-site report from a man in a bright red chemical suit, who's with one of the Dow disaster response teams - apparently they're working on coating the windscreens and engine parts of the tiltrotors with something that can stand up to brief HF exposure, and they'll then be bombarding the perimeter with an absorbent aerogel that will preferentially soak up the HF. They'll spiral inwards, but it will clearly take a while. Meanwhile teams will be going in on the ground to give medical assistance and evacuate anyone who's inside the mist. Apparently there's been a fair bit of gunfire - people are shooting each other when they seem to have been exposed, even though it's an airborne toxin rather than a war-plague.

By 1.30, a Dow representative, Elizabeth Schell, is on the news; Bennett's makeup skills allow him to realise that she's been carefully set up to look as though she's just been got out of bed, but she's probably been up for a couple of hours at least. She has a new take on matters; the sabotage was an inside job, and the contact man was Simon Carmichael, a Dow employee, who's believed to be in the area covered by the fog. (Simon, who's been playing cards with Franks, turns pale and bolts for the toilet. It's his photograph on the screen, and Dow is offering a $10,000 reward for turning him in to the police.)

Nancy continues to interview Elizabeth, giving her a bit of a hard time about just how a mysterious terrorist group could convert "harmless chemicals" into HF. The team calls through the toilet door to Simon; he's well aware that the ship was carrying HF, because he was going to head over to the docks and supervise its loading onto trucks to go to a facility upstate. He doesn't think that that's enough reason to declare him a terrorist; he reckons Elizabeth must be looking for a visible scapegoat.

About twenty minutes later, Five-Three reports that it has intercepted a radio conversation - it used standard police-grade encryption, which Five-Three is equipped to break. It plays back the exchange, quietly; "Schell", who sounds like the woman who was being interviewed on the news, is talking with a male voice ("Team Four"). Team Four explains that they're making slow progress, taking a lot of fire from trapped civilians even after they say who they are, and it'll be at least an hour and a half until they get to the centre. The WBZ-TV embedded reporter is with Team Two, in a different part of town. Schell tells Team Four to go directly to the centre, search the buildings there, and shoot everyone they meet until they have found Simon Carmichael - then shoot him and go back to normal operations. Team Four cavils a bit, saying that they're not professional hitmen, but Schell seems to have enough authority to overcome his reservations.

7 October 2009

The team members do their best to protect themselves - clingfilm round the eyes (held clear by sunglass frames), grease from the fryer, and rubber gloves. This won't help with lung exposure, of course. They break up the tables and use them to barricade the windows, mostly as a guard against fragments should the place get shot up. They keep Tania, Judd and Simon with them, while sending the others to hide in the back rooms; then they turn off the lights.

Five-Three detects active radar emissions, and soon the team can hear an incoming aerial vehicle, which lands in the street outside and is dimly visible through the windows; Franks thinks it's probably a Wraith transport, and it's accompanied by two Vultures. A voice on a loudspeaker calls "Attention, occupants of the Bridge Street Grill! This is the Federal Bureau of Investigation".

Five-Three reports substantial encrypted radio traffic, in a system it can't break. There's some clattering and banging outside, followed by a zap and a low hum; there's a blue glow visible through the etched window. After a few seconds, a human form (with a slung two-handed weapon of some sort) steps up to the front door of the bar. It knocks; the team stays still, and the figure tries the door, then steps back and kicks the lock to burst it open. It's apparently human, wearing a well-tailored suit and sunglasses. Outside there's a hexagonal blue glowing tunnel dimly visible, leading to the Wraith's hatch. "Mr Jones" of the FBI steps inside, and explains that he's here to collect Simon Carmichael. Syracuse mentions that Simon wasn't one of the terrorists, and knows rather more about the situation than that; Mr Jones points out that that's what the FBI does, "investigate". He pulls out a hand-held device and scans the room; he then points to Simon and says "right, you're coming with us".

Simon doesn't resist, and the team doesn't try to stop him; he and Jones head for the Wraith. About this time a robotruck rolls up further along the street; someone calls over a loudhailer "release our employee". Mr Jones gestures derisively and enters the Wraith, and the newcomers open fire.

Bennett decides to join the combat and heads through the front door. He spots four figures in bulky armour near the truck, firing large hand weapons at the Wraith. The Vultures return fire with their gatling lasers, without much effect. Bennett unloads a three-round burst of APEP into one of the suits, and is quite surprised to see it fall; the Vultures salvo-fire rockets, and the other suits vanish in a cloud of debris. Meanwhile the FBI Wraith has been spooling up its engines; it takes off, and the tunnel (which seems to have been a framework of gas-jets, or something of that sort) shuts down. Cyrus gets back inside the bar and closes the door.

The Vultures descend, one at the front and one at the back of the bar. Franks and Syracuse fire grenades; Syracuse hits, though while the shaped charge does substantial damage to the Vulture everyone inside is hit by blast and fragments. The Vulture sprays the bar with laser fire, only causing flesh wounds. There's some screaming from the back, where the other Vulture is doing the same thing. Bennett and Thorne shoot armour-piercing rounds, Franks and Syracuse fire more grenades, and the Vulture explodes in a fireball of jet fuel.

The team members decide to run for the abandoned Dow truck, taking Judd and Tania with them - the hydrofluoric mist is still pretty thick, but the bar's windows have been shattered and it's not going to be livable for much longer. They get inside, to find that there's not much there to help them - vats of decontaminant aerogel, and a laptop that's been plugged into the control system. Franks finds the control interface reasonably simple and directs the truck to head back across the bridge towards Boston.

As they leave, they hear another truck pulling up at the back of the bar; the loudhailer on this one claims to be the WASPs.

Syracuse applies aerogel to everyone. There's no spare air supply, as the Dow people were apparently relying on their own armour, but crossing the bridge brings slightly clearer air. The team gets past the Dow cleanup team, then the police lines; the truck's transponder isn't questioned. Judd knows a place where they can lie up for a bit, a large house where he speaks briefly into an intercom then leads the team to a flat over the garage; Franks sets the truck to continue on the road, and eventually to drive into Boston Harbour.

Everyone's lungs have taken a hit from the hydrogen fluoride, but Syracuse is able to get people back together. Hot showers help too, followed by sleep.

When people wake up, late the next morning, Judd talks about his end of things - he got his information from the Sons of Liberty, a resistance group he's been dealing with for a few months (Free America is not exactly a formal organisation). They've given him good intelligence before, mostly the times and locations of weapons shipments that have allowed him to get much better armament than is usually available on the Eastern Seaboard, but he has a strong feeling that this time his team was being set up to be the terrorist corpses discovered on the boat. He wants to know a lot more about the Sons of Liberty, and since the team doesn't have much history or reputation with Free America they might be the ideal people to look into it...

They introduce themselves, and explain the situation in the UK. They want to arrange for transport back there eventually - Judd says he'll see what he can find out regarding robot freighters. They also want a good technical encylopaedia to try to rebuild the technological base; that's much easier to arrange. Getting hold of a laser rig to establish communications with the UK shouldn't be too hard either.

On the other side, Judd will try to arrange a meeting with the Sons of Liberty, and the team will go along...

Mirror Maze

21 October 2009

This takes a few days; Franks joins a local gym (mostly used by hospital employees) to stay in shape. Judd calls, and says that he's set up a meeting with "Paul Revere" that night on a construction site (a new high-rise on the northern edge of Boston). Bennett and Thorne hide on the next building over, keeping an eye on the situation; Franks and Syracuse go to the meet with Judd.

"Paul Revere" (who seems thoroughly embarrassed by the name) is a young man, casually dressed. He talks mostly with Judd; he's thoroughly apologetic about the bad data regarding the ship, but does have details of a weapons shipment that's coming in by truck tomorrow afternoon, mostly pistols with a few hand lasers. He's also heard rumours of some English guerillas that the bots want to catch - the stories are getting pretty distorted by the time they reach him, but there's a suggestion that they blew up a city in Canada...

The meeting ends amicably, and "Paul" leaves. Judd is somewhat mollified, but still suspicious. Bennett tails "Paul", who seems practiced in tradecraft (ducking into and out of shops, suddenly taking taxis, etc.); he eventually heads for the South Station and takes a maglev back towards Washington DC. As he's turning away, Bennett spots another figure who's evidently been shadowing "Paul" - a bulky shape in a big coat, whom Bennett reckons might well be a robot. Bennett follows this individual (it also tries to evade, but not very well), and it eventually heads into the local FBI headquarters.

The next day, the team takes a van out along the Mass Pike to a recharging station outside Worcester, where the weapons-shipping truck is scheduled. Feeling that this is probably a trap, they set up a comprehensive ambush, involving shaped charges, smoke bombs, and Bennett and Five-Three lurking between the solar panels on the charging station's roof... but when the truck arrives there doesn't seem to be anyone else there who shouldn't be. (Even shooting the truck's tyres just brings out a mechanic-bot to fix them.) The truck even seems to be loaded with weapons, as promised; the team ignores the conventional pistols but fills the van with eighty-odd lasers.

On the way back, Five-Three disassembles one of the weapons and reports a short-range RFID-type tracking device - it's entirely passive until the right signal is sent, attached to the innards of the weapon, and very hard to scan for if you don't have the right encrypted code. The team pulls onto a bit of waste ground and spends several hours stripping the transponders out of the lasers, storing them in a metal bait box for possible future use.

4 November 2009

The team goes back to Boston and hands most of the lasers over to Judd - as well as telling him about the trackers. They decide to try to set up another meeting with "Paul Revere", though the details (whether they try to get more weapons out of him, or just capture and interrogate him on the spot) will depend on how the conversation goes.

Meanwhile, there's a message to be sent back to the UK - the gist of it is "don't trust the government, but make contact with the resistance". Since it will almost certainly be intercepted and decrypted, there's no detail of how to go about finding the resistance.

While Judd sets up another meeting with Paul, Izzy has a mission from GRRL. The objective is to modify some medical records to change various people's childbearing status. Normally this is a painstaking process of electronic intrusion; with the team available, it ought to be possible to steal crypto keys from an authorised administrator and make the changes more quickly, before even more women are vanished for not having borne enough children.

The first stage is to find Dr Francis Goldwin, who's a senior electron-pusher at the local Department of Health offices (at Government Center in downtown Boston). He's in his fifties, married, and lives south of Boston in Forest Hills. He has the access needed to modify records in the local office, and if that modification can go undetected for twenty-four hours or so then it should have spread onto the network. The crypto keys needed for this will be on his PDA...

Bennett lurks on a rooftop near Government Center, and spots Francis leaving the office at three minutes after 5pm. He heads down the street to a bar; Bennett follows him on, where Francis spends the evening until about 9pm watching sports and drinking beer with a few friends of about the same age. He then heads home - it's not fortified, but there is at least a burglar alarm of some sort. Bennett also observes that Francis keeps his PDA in an inside jacket pocket.

The plan for the next day is for Bennett to spill Francis's beer and lift his PDA, then pass it to Syracuse, who will take it outside for Five-Three to copy it; then they'll pass it back by the same route, with Bennett having kept Francis distracted for the relevant few minutes.

This starts to go awry when Francis goes to a different bar - somewhat more upmarket, mostly cocktails and spirits. He spends most of the evening on his own, drinking slowly and chatting with people who pass by; when the place closes, he leaves with one of the waitresses. They have a somewhat animated discussion outside; Bennett isn't close enough to work out what's being said, but they head to a nearby hotel (of reasonably good quality). Bennett catches the room number: 1217.

Bennett and Franks head into the hotel, while Five-Three climbs the outside; Franks sets off a fire alarm on the top floor and lets Five-Three in through the roof door, while Bennett (seeing that the first fire detection hasn't set off bells through the whole building) sets off another on the twelfth floor, where he's waiting near 1217 in the hope that Francis will leave his PDA behind in the rush to evacuate. He doesn't, though - he and the waitress take their time to get dressed, then head down the emergency staircase with everyone else. Bennett joins them and lifts Francis's PDA in the crush. Franks follows them down once she sees Bennett in the crowd outside, while Five-Three takes the laundry chute to get there faster.

Five-Three takes the PDA from Bennett and copies its memory. Bennett overhears Francis and the waitress arguing again - she's saying something about the apartment in South Boston being nicer, and he's explaining that the windows still haven't been repaired after the acid cloud. Once the PDA is copied, Bennett plants it back on Francis (which checks his pockets after Bennett bumps into him, but everything's there that should be), and the team leaves.

Five-Three decrypts the key, so the intrusion into the database should be viable. This will need physical access to the server room, which is in the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center. GRRL can supply a cracker, Moon Winslow, who will go along with the team to get the job done.

There's a little information about the building's original floorplan available; Syracuse reckons it was designed by someone with a very romanticised view of mental illness, with lots of odd staircases that don't go anywhere, overhanging balconies and catwalks, and other strange architectural features. To get more data, Syracuse and Bennett (disguised) go in to interview Francis for a puff piece on mental health during the state of emergency; Moon gets them an an appointment. The building, dating from the 1960s and being made of concrete, has horribly inadequate provision for communications; there are cable trays hanging from most of the ceilings.

The front desk is manned by a human when they enter, and a clearly teleoperated Rover when they leave - people wave their cards, but it's mostly recognition of faces and some casual chat. Security on the building as a whole isn't very tight. Syracuse and Bennett get a quick look at the server room; it has a suspended ceiling, but the concrete walls seem to go all the way up (there are holes drilled in them for cable access). Access is via contact card. Bennett manages to lift one of the visitor cards they're issued, and Moon can copy Francis' authentication details onto it from the PDA image.

18 November 2009

Moon turns up in body armour, carrying a storm carbine and a backpack of computer equipment; she has an obviously military bearing, and is old enough to have been a soldier before the Final War.

Bennett disguises himself as Francis, and distracts the Rover at the front desk while the others sneak in. They proceed to the server room, where Five-Three picks the electronic lock; Moon warns the squeamish to turn away, exposes a data socket at the base of her skull, plugs (via her own computer, a flat case with no visible controls) into the network, and slumps against a server rack. (Some of the team remember soldiers with network jacks, but it was pretty rare - a very few of the RAF had them, and there were rumours of American Space Command pilots, but it certainly wasn't a general issue.)

Franks stands guard by the door, with Thorne further back in the room; Bennett (in chamaeleon suit) lurks in the corridor for advance warning. A Rover passes. Bennett stays against the wall, but the Rover manages to spot him; Bennett drills it with his laser pistol. A fire alarm goes off briefly, and the burning hulk is doused with foam. Thorne reckons that a repair robot will turn up fairly soon to remove the destroyed Rover, so the team should either go to ground or leave fairly immediately.

Moon regains consciousness, and looks concerned. She's successfully modified the data she wanted to - either inventing nonexistent children, or tagging recent birth records with medical complications so that the women won't be expected to get pregnant again. However, she's been able to get more information about the disposition of women who don't meet the breeding requirement - the vast majority are noted as "FBI custody", at which point their public records stop (there are rumours of sex-slavery, but nobody's been able to prove anything), but a few have been sent instead to a "genetic testing facility". Of those, most have "died during treatment", but two survivors have been released with a three-child credit - and one joined the FBI (Annabelle Meier), while the other joined the WASPs (Judith Baldwin). The facility is in this building, hidden in the old chapel (abandoned and sealed up soon after the building opened, after a patient followed the subliminal cues and immolated himself on the concrete-block altar).

The team decides that investigating this is probably worth a detour, and heads out of the server room (securing the door behind them). The old entrances to the chapel have been blocked with concrete slabs, but one of them looks as though it's set up to pivot. Five-Three finds an induction sensor and cracks the entry code.

Inside, it's dark. The original two-storey room has been emptied, and there are three rings of closed life-support beds round the edge - the upper two on heavy scaffolding, with ramps connecting them to the ground. In the centre of the room is a large static computer, connected by thick cables to the beds. Various robots - the same medical and technical models that were in the police station at St John's - move between the coffins, paying no attention to the team's torch beams.

Syracuse examines the beds, which also look like the same model that was in use at St John's. Eight of them are occupied, all by relatively young women; they have on familiar-looking helmets.

Moon gets Syracuse to watch her biomonitor, and plugs in to take a careful look at the data traffic. It seems to be a highly-detailed virtual-reality simulation, run at increased speed (Franks starts to mention what happened to her in St John's, but Syracuse stops her). The object of it, however, isn't towards the "productive citizen" that Franks and Bennett have been assuming was the goal of their own brainwashing; rather, it's an utter fanaticism to cause of the Washington Zonemind, hidden under something close to the original personality until it is triggered.

Moon and Five-Three log in in tandem to try to subvert the programming, and end up ameliorating it slightly - it's a very large data set, and they don't have a lot of time. This doesn't seem like enough, so Fanks plants explosive charges to bring the whole structure down and destroy the computer as well, leaving them on a half-hour timer. (The women under treatment would be, at best, unconscious if disconnected, and there's no way the team can carry them away.)

The team heads down to the main door, meeting a Rover on the way - it just has time to get out "halt and be recognised" before Franks destroys it with her laser. They hurry on, but are stopped by a pair of Myrmidons, which don't bother to tell them to halt - they just open fire. Thorne kills one with a burst from his storm carbine, while Franks' laser and Syracuse' shaped-charge grenade finish off the other. Franks scoops up the fallen rifles as they sprint away.

Franks and Bennett look out through the glass front doors, and are pinned by a spotlight from above; they dive backwards as a loudspeaker calls something about "throw down your weapons" and "this is the Washington Armored Security Police". Thorne fires a short burst at the spotlight, which goes out, then ducks back as laser fire from the sky shatters the doors.

The team heads away, looking either for sewer access or a parking area. They find the latter; they break into a car, Moon programs the autonavigation system to head away at top speed, and Franks rigs an HE grenade to go off when the car is investigated. When the explosives in the chapel go off, Syracuse takes out the vehicle door with another HE grenade, the car leaves (attracting quite a bit of attention, and laser fire). The team sneaks out, spotting the wrecked and burning car being approached by a pair of Tarantulas; the grenade knocks them off their feet, but doesn't do noticeable damage.

The team heads back to the safe house. Moon asks whether it's always this exciting; on being given an affirmative answer, she replies "Great! Call me if you have more computer jobs." (When Franks asks, she says that she was an information warfare specialist in the US Army; she doesn't know if any others have survived, but certainly not any from her own company.)

2 December 2009

Judd has a message back from the UK - more or less "good work, more information is welcome". Franks considers that there's no way to be sure it came from there rather than from somewhere else that also had a view of the relevant bit of space debris... and all one-time authenticators have potentially been compromised by her and Bennett's capture.

The team tells Judd about the two (and possibly more) sleeper agents, which he'll pass on. He says that Paul Revere has asked for an urgent meeting, at ten o'clock that evening. As before, Syracuse and Franks will go along in person, while Thorne takes top cover (slightly trickier than before, as the meeting is in a mall, but he hides by a skylight with Five-Three) and Bennett stays nearby to follow Paul.

As before, Paul is followed by a moderately-disguised robot - probably a Bishonen. Paul apologises for not having been able to find any more arms shipments, but has come across an FBI operations order - one Mike Jowett, a Department of Labor bureaucrat, is due to be picked up by the FBI for dispensing contraceptives. They're planning to go in at 2am, so turning up beforehand and getting him out would make them look fairly silly...

Paul agrees that he'll try to get more information on weapons shipments, and Franks asks him for design and manufacturing information; he says he'll see what he can do. After the meeting, Bennett follows him (or rather, follows his tail); rather than heading back to Washington, he goes into a small hotel attached to the South Station. The robot joins him in the room. Bennett listens outside, and hears a quiet snap followed by the flowing of liquid, cursing, and footsteps coming towards the door. He hides; Paul comes out, goes to the ice machine by the elevators, comes back, and judging by the sounds settles down to drinking and watching 3V.

The team reckons that this is likely to be a trap of some sort, particularly given the short notice, but just what sort might be useful to know. Thorne and Bennett with Five-Three and Judd head out to Pinehurst, where Mike lives, while Franks and Syracuse go to talk to Izzy and see if she knows anything about him. She does; he's well-known for taking bribes (cash and otherwise) to avoid putting people into bad job assignments or give them good ones. She hasn't heard about him in the context of contraceptives.

Meanwhile Bennett has climbed onto the roof of the house, which is generously provided with skylights, and disabled the security system to make it easier for him to move around. Mike is in bed, with company (though she doesn't appear to be enjoying it much). There are no lights on elsewhere in the house, though a domestic robot is sweeping up downstairs. The whole place is very expensively furnished and even the building is somewhat out of style for the area, with its high peaked roof and double-height main room.

Around 1.30 an electric van rolls up and stops just short of the security system's perimeter (though Bennett has turned it off anyway); five people get out, and they have a quick conversation. One of them gets out a spotlight and sets it up on the roof of the van. The team reckons that if these people are FBI they must be pretty new to the job, since the time for tactical discussions is usually before the mission; moreover only three of them are wearing sunglasses.

The spotlight is pointed at the bedroom window and turned on, and one of the newcomers calls through a loudhailer "This is the FBI, come out with your hands up". The three with glasses break in the front door and pile up the stairs; Bennett has a slightly limited view through his skylight over the bathroom, and can't hear much either, but they go into the bedroom, there's a quick burst of gunfire, and they come out again leading the woman (who's now wearing a dressing-gown, and who looks terrified and slightly blood-spattered).

As the intruders are leaving the house, there's a sound of turbine engines rapidly followed by rocket fire; missiles land and burst all over the property, some of them going into the house through windows, and clouds of gas cover the area. Bennett gets off the roof and retreats to the trees that border the property, but is now on the far side from the rest of the team; he starts to work his way round to join them. This new attacking force consists of two Wraiths and five Vultures; one of the Wraiths drops into the gas cloud next to the house.

The team starts to retreat, but the other Wraith heads towards them with a two-Vulture escort. It's only about fifty feet up, and Thorne shoots it down with a burst into the air intake; it hits the ground, smoking heavily, and robots start to boil out of it. Franks arms a missile and gives it a look at the first Vulture, while Syracuse puts a shaped-charge grenade through the open door of the Wraith; it goes up in a fireball, though this doesn't seem to discommode the robots much as they advance towards the team. They seem to consist of Myrmidons and Stalkers.

A firefight ensues, with the team frantically evading the massed incoming weapons fire while taking down robots one by one. Franks manages to evade the gatling laser fire of the Vultures with a perfect acrobatic dodge (still in the business suit and high heels she wore to the meeting with Paul); she shoots down both Vultures, the second one with Syracuse's ready missile as she doesn't want to take time out of the fight to reload. Five-Three lacks heavy weapons but concentrates its fire on the Stalkers. Bennett sweeps fire across the Stalkers, taking out three of them with one burst from his laser pistol. Syracuse and Thorne take out the more-heavily-armoured Myrmidons.

The second Wraith lifts out of the gas cloud (which Five-Three has identified as an anaesthetic), and the remaining Vultures leave with it. In the light from the burning Wraith, the WASP markings on the attackers are clearly visible.

Judd isn't in much of a state to do anything; he hasn't been trained for combat. Bennett locates Mike's PDA in the house, and there's one in the van too. Two Myrmidons and one Stalker are potentially repairable, and they and the other Myrmidons' dropped storm carbines are thrown into the van, which the team takes away as well as the two cars in which they arrived.

Examining the PDA from the van suggests that the "FBI" team was in fact with the Human Liberation Army. Quite who was being betrayed or set up by whom is not at all clear. But the team knows where Paul Revere is sleeping tonight...

13 January 2010

The team drops off Judd, and the various salvage, at a Free America chop shop; the hand weapons can go to the resistance, though they're planning to come back and collect the robot parts. They arrange with Judd to borrow a "safe" storage unit for the interrogation of Paul (and for him to send along an interrogator who knows more about the resistance groups, and thus what questions to ask, later on).

After some planning, the team goes to Paul Revere's hotel. There's a bouncer in the lobby and a receptionist behind the desk; Bennett finds the service entrance, though there's no obvious way of opening it from outside. He heads for the roof, gets in there, and heads downstairs, passing through a kitchen and storage area and opening the door from inside.

There's a small locker space, and Thorne and Franks manage to find staff uniforms to fit them (though Franks looks somewhat odd with the armoured suit protruding from the uniform's short sleeves and skirt). The team heads up in the lift, with a trolley concealing their heavy weapons.

Thorne knocks on the door. There's no immediate response, but then a quiet beeping starts from inside the room. After a few seconds, Paul's voice asks who it is; Thorne claims to be from room service, and Paul replies "I didn't order anything. Go away." Thorne says that he'll have to sign to confirm it. There's a sound of footsteps from inside the room... heavy footsteps.

The door is opened by the Bishonen; Thorne dodges quickly out of the way. Franks has her missile launcher ready, with a SEFOP warhead loaded on the basis that this should kill the robot in one shot without doing too much damage to the team, Paul, and the surrounding environment. She fires at point-blank range, and the self-forging projectile detonates almost immediately. It blows a substantial hole in the Bishonen, and through the wall behind it. Everyone is somewhat deafened, and soft furnishings start to burn.

Paul is sitting up in bed, very stunned, and Bennett hauls him away, then passes him to Five-Three to carry. Bennett also grabs Paul's briefcase; there's no sign of any other luggage.

The team pelts downstairs and out through the service door; there are Wraiths with WASP insignia approaching, but they manage to get away without attracting attention. They drop Paul's phone down a drain and head for the storage unit.

Paul recovers slowly, and Bennett takes the lead on his interrogation. "You were in a hotel room with a robot" seems a fairly damning piece of evidence, but Paul admits that he works for the FBI... the Sons of Liberty are a faction within the FBI that's trying to return it to human control. (As far as the rest of the FBI is concerned, they're a sting operation to try to locate rebels and terrorists.) When Franks, as bad cop, explains that all the data Paul has supplied have been tainted in some way, he gets very concerned: it's quite possible that someone in the FBI is onto him, and has been deliberately running information past Paul to see where it will pop up. Paul certainly claims not to have known about any of the problems that the team has encountered when using his tip-offs.

Paul is quite happy to go into some details of the FBI's current methods, and does so at length (among other things, there are rumours that up to one in ten FBI agents are in fact infiltrator robots). The Sons of Liberty are headed, he thinks, by Vincent Webb, the Assistant Director for Counterterrorism; at least that's who gives him orders, and if the current Director (Arnold Maddox) can be made to look bad, Webb will be in a good position to take over. The other SoL he knows well is his partner, Annabelle Meier.

That rings a bell with Syracuse. It seems like a bit of a coincidence to have two Annabelle Meiers working for the FBI... it seems quite possible that this is the woman whose brainwashing records the team found in the Mental Health Center. She seems to the team like a very plausible source for the bad data, though they don't mention this to Paul.

Paul accepts that he can't do much to prove that the SoL really is a human-supremacist movement rather than a sting operation: by design it is set up to resemble either. He is prepared to try to set up a meeting, though he'll probably need to go back to DC to do it unofficially - now that he's vanished for a while, and particularly with his bodyguard robot destroyed, he'll need a good story when he pops up again, and even with one he'll probably be debriefed for a while before he gets to talk to anybody.

The rebel interrogator arrives; it turns out to be Izzy. She quizzes Paul intensively on current FBI operations while the rest of the team gets some much-needed sleep. She reports that what he's told her matches what she knows about from the other side; whether or not he's playing a deeper game, he's giving up genuine and valuable information at this point.

The next stage seems likely to be a meeting with Annabelle.

Dead Bossbot Chantey

27 January 2010

Short side adventure occasioned by absence of players.

In order to sort out transport back to the UK, Izzy reckons it will be necessary to break into the Port of Boston and extract shipping manifests from the supervisory computer there. In order to make it a bit less clear that this has happened, causing a few explosions and damaging some cargo seems indicated. Thorne and Franks will take Moon on this job.

The port is a transport hub for road and maglev shipments as well as waterborne ones; it's about 95% containerised, and 100% automated. There's quite heavy security, mostly set up to prevent robots or humans from getting into the Protectorate without being detected. It's surrounded by a double fence: the outer one wire, the inner laser, with a ten-foot gap between them patrolled by Rovers. Franks rigs up three semi-tamped explosives and affixes them to the outer fence, aimed carefully at the laser posts on the inner one.

After a bit of discussion, the best bet for getting inside seems to be to throw some debris into the path of an inbound robotruck on one of the feeder roads: if it's big enough, the truck should stop and call for help, which will give the team time to hide on board.

This succeeds: the truck moves on after a short delay, and comes to rest after a few more minutes. The back starts to be opened, and Thorne, Franks and Moon bail out of the side door. They're in a part-covered loading dock area, connected to the main cargo-handling building. It's the largest solid structure on site (though some of the cranes are taller), so it seems likely to house the admin computer. The team heads in, dodging Mechanics (a model they've seen before) and Loaders (a new one) which take no interest in them. The building is constructed with wide corridors and large open spaces; Moon reckons it most have strong foundations, and the server room is probably below.

There are no stairs, but Moon manages to activate a cargo lift and takes the team to the lowest floor the lift knows about. The lighting is rather dimmer here, and there's less robot traffic - it looks as though this area is used mainly for spare parts storage. After quite a bit of poking around, the team spots a network socket in an otherwise-blank wall, and Moon downloads a partial building schematic. (There's also radio packet traffic, of course, but getting onto that net means breaking the robots' encryption.) Judging by traffic flows, there's a major data nexus behind this wall, though the thing seems quite solid. There's some mention of "maintenance access", and checking the storeroom to one side suggests that one wall might be able to be moved. Thorne (aided, in theory, by Franks) shifts a storage rack away from the wall, but none of the team can see a way to get it open. Franks lasers a cardboard box to create a small fire; a Rover arrives with a fire extinguisher to put it out. Thorne shoots out the Rover's communications; it spins and fires a tangler round, but all the team manage to get out of the way, and Thorne blows off one of its wheels. It goes down, and Moon plugs in to try to read any access codes it may have. While Thorne and Franks are watching her, Thorne catches a sound from behind him (in spite of the ringing in his ears caused by recent large-calibre weapons fire); the wall has opened, and a large tracked robot is emerging. He manages to get the others' attention, and sends a burst into its sensor/communications turret, blowing it off. Franks takes out the arm with the disc saw, which leaves it with only blind ramming; it attempts this, but without much success, particularly after Thorne drops a storage rack onto it. Sirens have been going off, and there's a sound of approaching robot feet outside; Moon leaps aboard to plug into and subdue the Overseer. After a few seconds' pause, it speaks in a metallic voice: "I have control. Help me get this thing plugged back into its landlines."

Franks connects the robot to the cables that it shed when it emerged from its cubby, and Moon forwards the detonation signal for the first of Franks' fence charges. The robots outside retreat, to deal with this higher-priority alert. Moon gives them plenty of time to get far away, then pulls the Overseer's memory core (to be poked through later); Franks sets demolition charges on what's left. They rapidly make their way back out of the building and suborn a robotruck; Franks sets off a second charge as they approach the fence, but it doesn't do a complete job, and Thorne's grenade misses; the truck takes some laser hits from the fence, but continues through. The team bails out, caches weapons and gets away via the T (subway) at the first opportunity.

Mirror Maze (continued)

24 February 2010

Paul is willing to send a message to Annabelle - using code phrases, and to her personal email account. He suggests a meeting in the same construction site where the team has met him before - a relatively open space, without a lot of bystanders.

While they're waiting, the team gets some sleep. In the afternoon, Syracuse gets hold of some medical textbooks from Izzy (via a GRRL medic); Franks spends her time at the chop shop, working on the basics of robot mechanics, and manages to isolate the Stalker's brain and get the shell up and running as a teleoperated unit. Judd provides some technical manuals; he's still working on the bootstrap fabricator.

Around 4pm, word comes back: the meet is on, for ten o'clock that night. Franks and Syracuse are the people the FBI knows about, so they'll go with Paul to the meet; Bennett will stay by the site entrance, and Thorne will be in the adjacent tower with his rifle. The plan is simply to kill Annabelle as soon as she appears.

Bennett and Thorne head to the site around 7pm to lie up. While Thorne's setting up on the tenth floor, he spots a pair of large tool-bins that don't look quite right: they're the usual sort of size and shape, but they don't have any obvious lids or catches. They're too heavy to lift, though he's able to haul one a few inches.

Thorne looks around a bit further: there are two more bins on the levels above and below this one. At 8pm, he makes a coded warning call to the rest of the team. Franks and Five-Three show up, and join Thorne in his tower; Franks plants small shaped charges on the boxes, two each, in the hope that these will be able to destroy whatever's inside them if she sets them off soon enough; she keeps the radio detonator, and gives Thorne a wired detonator.

Franks goes to investigate the other tower, where the meet is to take place, and finds a total of ten more boxes (four on the tenth floor, three each above and below) and mines them too, using the remainder of her explosives.

At 9.50pm, Syracuse arrives and heads up. Five-Three stays in the tower with him and Franks, though out of sight.

At 9.55pm, a car pulls through the entrance to the site and stops, out of view from the street. A woman gets out, carrying a thin document case; Bennett can see that a driver (apparently human) is staying inside. Bennett stealthily follows the woman upstairs.

As the woman reaches the tenth floor, she nods to Paul, and he nods back. That's all Thorne needs: he's been aiming since her head became visible, and puts an armour-piercing round through her left eye; she is killed instantly. Franks sets off the explosives, which send hot metal jets through all the boxes; robot parts and smaller fragments fly around the place.

Bennett, Syracuse, Franks and Five-Three start to head down the tower, with Franks pausing to grab the folder from Annabelle's body and Syracuse towing Paul, who's comprehensively stunned by these events. Bennett gets down very fast and acrobatically; the others will take longer. Thorne keeps a lookout; he spots Wraiths moving in, clearly alerted in advance, and Myrmidons dropping from them (without parachutes) into the first tower. He manages to kill the first Myrmidon as it drops, and Syracuse gets the next one; he's tagged by its machine-gun. Five-Three, which has been taking up the rear, swings over the outside edge of the next floor up and leaps onto the Myrmidon from behind, slicing with its monowire claws.

Thorne takes a shot at the first Wraith, but misses; since it's apparently dropped its load and is moving away, he concentrates on the second Wraith that's moving in. He gets a shaped-charge round into its turbine intake, and it plummets, striking the first tower around the fifth floor and exploding when it hits the ground.

Franks and Syracuse shoot two more Myrmidons, and Five-Three manages to slice something important in the one it's riding. The last one fires, but Franks and Syracuse manage to evade.

Up above, the third Wraith is turning away; three Vultures move in, dropping to try to get a line of sight for their anti-armour lasers. Thorne aims on the first.

On the ground, Bennett reaches the outside just in time to see the driver start to pull away; he shoots with his laser, but the vehicle is sufficiently armoured that while the driver is clearly wounded he manages to stay conscious. Bennett switches to a rifle and takes out the car's back wheel at the last moment, leading to a low-speed crash.

The Vultures release nanoburn; it starts to sink towards the ground. Bennett sprints away to get out of the danger zone. Thorne kills the Vulture he's been aiming at; as he's aiming up on the next, there's a sound of laser and rocket fire, and a Vulture in WASP markings engages the two remaining unmarked Vultures. He's able to observe it quite closely; it seems to move rather more fluidly than the Vultures he's seen before, suggesting that it's being flown by a more experienced computer. Thorne misses his last shot at the un-engaged Vulture and backs away into the core of the building.

Syracuse realises that the building's drains have been put in, and they're just about big enough for humans and reasonably airtight; he, Franks and Five-Three manhandle Paul into the riser, and plan to get away via the sewers. Bennett stays nearby, hoping to be able to help. Thorne also spots the possibilities of drains, and starts to head down the one in the second tower.

Things Fall Apart

10 March 2010

Bennett hears a couple of explosions in the distance, from the direction of downtown. More explosions follow over the next few minutes. He heads towards the team's car, safely parked a little way away from the construction site (outside the WASP cordon that's now being established by Myrmidons and Tarantulas; more of them are pouring into the two towers). The other members of the team head down their respective drain pipes, meet in the sewers, and surface near the car.

They plan to drive back to the safe house, but traffic seems to be stationary; from the main road, plumes of smoke from downtown are clearly visible, and weapons fire can be heard from rather closer (including, Franks realises, at least some explosive weapons). People have abandoned their cars and are taking shelter in the nearest buildings.

The team cleans and abandons the car, then heads towards the safe house on foot. It's necessary to dodge a small riot; Bennett takes a closer look to pin down its position. It seems mostly to have degenerated into looting, but a couple of robots have been destroyed (killing several humans each before it happened). "Peekskill, never again" seems to be a common theme in the shouting.

Paul explains that Peekskill NY was a town that revolted against work assignments - there was a perception among the residents that they were getting more than their share of dangerous jobs. It was put down hard by the WASPs, and the information suppressed; clearly it has now leaked. Five-Three mentions that all normal broadcasting is off the air, though some channels are broadcasting a static frame of "Remain Calm, Stay In Your Homes". There are occasional bursts from transmitters claiming to be HLA; the message seems to be "rise up and throw off your shackles", and it's clear that quite a few old scores are being settled.

The team detours round the riot and gets to the safe house, where Paul is locked away; he doesn't seem too unhappy at this. Franks examines the document wallet taken off Annabelle; the front page is a summary of the Sons of Liberty sting operation, signed by Vincent Webb, but the other pages are blank padding. It doesn't appear as though this was ever intended to be inspected closely.

Five-Three monitors signals: the WASPS and FBI are both talking on their internal networks, but apparently not saying much to each other. Going by some of the HLA video, someone's set off sticky bombs - giant tangler rounds, in effect - on WASP HQ, stopping their remaining forces from getting out at least for a little while. The FBI office has simply been destroyed by mortar fire, and there seem to have been a lot of attacks on data processing centres; there's some sign of EMP weapons having been used.

The team steals a large car to get on to the Free America chop shop, where some of the spare kit was left behind. As they're about to leave, a passer-by shouts "Hey, they're with a robot! Get 'em!"; Bennett drives on the sidewalk, and occasionally barges through a line of abandoned cars, to get away.

At the chop shop (around 2am), they give a coded knock, and are let in; the place is clearly battened down. Judd is present, and says that while Free America is taking a couple of shots against prominent targets the organisation is mostly lying low. He had no idea there were so many active HLA agents in Boston; this is clearly something they've been planning for at least a little while. GRRL have been a bit more active, setting off EMP devices to wipe records of Reproductive Statue compliance. It's not at all clear whether this uprising is going on in other places as well; there's been no communication with the rest of the country.

The general feeling is that this isn't going to end well. The Zonemind probably won't nuke Boston, but WASPs will be on the way from elsewhere, and there may well be a general dusting with nanoburn or similar agents. On past form, news of the uprising won't be allowed to get out to the rest of the country. Franks checks the records stolen from the port; there's a ship due to leave for Felixstowe later that day, carrying a mixed deck load of palletted iron and steel and containerised small manufactured items, which seems like the best bet. Judd suggests that the best place to get a fabricator would be the hospital; when the team balks at that, he suggests a large shopping mall, the sort of place that offers customised PDA cases and such like. The general plan seems to be to stock up on kit and food for the trip at the mall, then pick up the remaining kit from Izzy's place, and head for the North Station; passenger services have been stopped, of course, but some cargo maglevs pass through the station on their way to the port, and the team hopes they may be going slowly enough to be got aboard quietly. (Anything that alerts port security is likely to lead to their ship not leaving on schedule.)

The Corner Mall is shuttered, and the keypad at the service entrance has been torn off the wall; Bennett manages to hook up to it and get the door open. He shoots a Rover which approaches them (saying "I'm sorry, we're closed at the moment; please head for the nearest exit"). Syracuse and Bennett find a small suitcase fabricator in a PDA-customising shop, and the team then splits up; Syracuse picks up food and drink (mostly fast food from the food court), while Bennett and Franks head for a sporting goods store that does customised grips for golf clubs and rifles, to dismount their fabricator. They also pick up warm clothes, basic life jackets, a camping stove and other essentials; Syracuse grabs motion-sickness pills and painkillers from a pharmacy. The heavier kit is loaded aboard Franks's remote-controlled Stalker, but quite a bit of it is split between the team.

When they return to their vehicle, they find it's been pushed over and burned; they walk a few blocks, then steal a pair of cars to get to Izzy's. She's loading magmortars with EMP bombs, getting ready to head out and hit a few more records centres; Syracuse explains what they're up to, and "if it all goes wrong we'll see you in a few hours".

24 March 2010

Just as the group is finishing up the generation of a new set of one-time pads for the laser communicators, Moon arrives with someone else in tow: Talan Fitzpatrick, a buddy from her days in the Army. He's been doing good work for the resistance down in New York, but the FBI's got on his tail, and a change of continent seems like a good idea. They agree to take him along.

As the group heads towards the North Station, Bennett and Syracuse (in the lead car) spot someone staggering along the sidewalk in front of them, hauling along two heavy suitcases and apparently injured. Syracuse gets out to see what's going on. The woman is dressed in nun's habit, somewhat bloodstained; she's desperate to get the suitcases to Government Centre to "sort out the robots". She seems sincere and on the right side, so Syracuse gets her into the car and patches her up. (She looks at these heavily-armed professionals and decides not to ask questions.) Her luggage is a large one-shot EMP device.

Once she's dropped off, the team clears out fast - a large EMP is likely to stop their cars, to say nothing of affecting other equipment. There's a small WASP guard at the station, five humans in powered armour plus two Myrmidons; they're stopping people from trying to get in, rather than shooting, but they're certainly equipped for the latter.

Overhead there's a fresh wave of Vultures, and Franks thinks that some of them aren't firing the usual anti-tank lasers - apparently some other weapon has been swapped in, though she can't identify it by sound. Some but not all of the WASP Vultures are displaying the higher manoeuvrability that she observed earlier at the construction site. Off in the distance there's a rumble - not another explosion. This sounds like a very heavy vehicle, perhaps one of the Juggernaut autonomous tanks that did so much damage in the Final War.

Cargo maglevs are still running: the team can see them coming across the road/rail bridge, braking hard as they descend into the station. They're coming off the bridge at around 60mph, but there are also (conventional rail) commuter tracks there, which look like giving a better way into the station than getting past the WASPs - and with no trains on them, it should be safer than walking along the maglev tracks. The team heads up to the bridge, abandoning their vehicles when they can't get them any further through the chaos of abandoned cars.

They start to climb down from the road to the rail level, with Bennett carrying the heavy load of the large fabricator, but the Stalker presents a problem: the basic control program that Franks has come up with isn't really up to the job. Fitzpatrick says he'll help; his eyes unfocus for a minute or two, and he gets to Stalker's own balance and movement routines back on-line. (He doesn't appear to have an external interface socket; perhaps it's wireless.) Even with this, the Stalker fails to climb effectively, but its armour is able to protect it from the fall. Fitzpatrick himself doesn't make a great job of the climb, though Thorne is able to grab him.

Bennett goes ahead down the tracks to see what's going on inside the station. There's no movement there, but the cargo maglev track is guarded by five Myrmidons. It'll be necessary to get inside the station, go down internal stairs, then take out the Myrmidons and climb out over the cargo track to jump aboard the train.

The team heads down to the passenger platform. The Myrmidons are spaced at twenty-yard intervals, and could take cover behind concrete support pillars. Bennett risks being spotted to aim up with his carbine (using the HUD link, he only has to expose the weapon, not his head). When a cargo maglev is visible on the bridge, some twenty seconds before it gets to the station, the team members make their moves.

Bennett shoots the most distant Myrmidon with a three-round burst of APEP; it goes down. Thorne, Franks and Syracuse shoot the nearest three with shaped-charge grenades: two of them are hit and go down, but Franks' grenade misses and takes a chunk out of a support pillar. Fitzpatrick and Five-Three don't have large weapons, and stay out of sight for the moment. The Myrmidons return fire, shooting at Thorne, but aren't able to aim accurately enough to hit him. Thorne and Syracuse snap-shoot again, but both miss their targets; Franks and Bennett take aim. The surviving two Myrmidons shoot at Syracuse, but he frantically throws himself behind a pillar to avoid the machine-gun fire.

Thorne takes down one of the Myrmidons with another shaped-charge grenade, and Bennett kills the last one with another burst of carbine fire. A bolt of lightning blasts through the platform, not particularly close to any of the robots or humans. This looks like a strike from a Juggernaut's main gun - though it's clearly not very precisely aimed.

The team doesn't take time to grab salvage, but climbs immediately to the gantrywork over the track as the maglev approaches, doing around 20mph through the platform. Fitzpatrick and Bennett jump aboard the first container car without any difficulty at all; Thorne, Franks and Syracuse get aboard the second with a bit less elegance but just as effectively. Five-Three drops onto the third car, and Franks' Stalker attempts to follow, but bounces off and drops over the side of the train onto the platform. Franks frantically works her remote controller, and the Stalker jumps again, managing to cling onto the side of the fifth car.

The maglev heads down into the tunnel towards the docks...

7 April 2010

Franks looks through the Stalker's night-vision optics to get some idea of what's going on; there's enough space in the tunnel that the team isn't in danger of being swept off. The train emerges into a marshalling yard, and comes to a halt between two other trains. Cranes start to move in at once to offload some of the containers; the team climbs down quickly. There's a noise of movement from inside the car they were riding on; Thorne looks over to check, and sees a group of Rovers and Stalkers unloading themselves and heading towards the front of the yard.

The group moves sideways through the stationary trains; not all the tracks are full, and not all cars have containers on them, but there don't seem to be any roving patrols. At the edge of the tracks, they get a better view of the situation: ahead of them is a long pile of train parts, behind which is a large stack of containers, presumably with waterfront beyond it. To the left is the boundary fence, clearly heavily guarded; to the right is the main working area of the port, with large gantry cranes and smaller loaders shifting cargo around. On the far side of that is the ship they want, a human-built bulk container carrier.

The team crosses the open ground into the parts pile, then turns right and works along the narrow gap between that and the containers - which, on closer inspection, seem not to have been moved for a while. Thorne, in the lead, spots movement low to the ground just ahead, vanishing into the container stack; he moves quietly through the parts pile to get a closer look, and spots a camouflaged hatch about a foot wide by six inches high cut into the base of a container. There's no further movement, so the group sneaks past; Franks, bringing up the rear, points the Stalker's IR optics at the hatch and carefully pushes it open with a pole. Inside are five small robots, design obviously inspired by a scorpion; they're plugged in and recharging. These aren't a model that any of the team has seen before, and they could belong to any of several factions, but the team's first priority right now is to get out of Boston; they don't hang around to investigate further.

At the end of the parts pile, the team has a better view of the main cargo-handling area. It seems chaotic, with gantry cranes, smaller mobile cranes, flatbed robotrucks, and pickup-truck-sized loaders shifting everything from forty-foot containers to individual breakbulk items. While the containers have two-dimensional bar codes, there are no human-readable labels except for the standard load and tare markings. Suddenly something clicks for Syracuse and the layout makes sense: since the location of every container is known at all times, their disposition can be set up to minimise the number of crane movements rather than to simplify inventory. With that in mind, he can start to guess at where the containers for their target ship are likely to be - or at least how deep in the stacks they are.

Note: Critical Perception, followed by critical (unskilled) Freight Handling.

Armed with that information, Fitzpatrick listens in on the port's radio network, trying to correlate the load identifiers on the stolen manifest with the container identifiers - particularly, trying to find a container that will be loaded somewhere that the team can break out of it without too much trouble. He can't get the full details until loading of the ship has actually started, but at that point he finds one that's going to end up at one end of the deck; the team gets inside. Just as they're closing the door, Five-Three picks up a Zone Zaire recognition code - disguised as legitimate radio traffic, but recognisable if one knows what to listen for. This implies that there are multiple Zairean robots here...

After a long wait, the container shakes violently and is whipped aboard the freighter. Five-Three scrapes away some of the rust and uses the container as a crude antenna; it seems that the riot has mostly been suppressed, with heavy use of paralysis gas and microwave pain weapons. (Since at least some of the team were expecting nanoburn, or even heavier weapons, there's some sense of relief.) The "subversives" are being rounded up, but it'll be a while before all the fires are out and things get back to normal.

Once they're safely outside Boston Harbor, the team starts to explore a little. There aren't any mobile robots on board, though there's a group of deactivated Rovers in a box just aft of the superstructure, presumably for dockside security. The human-habitable parts of the ship have been stripped for salvage, but the rooms are intact, and with the team's camping gear the trip is moderately comfortable.

The trip goes smoothly: weather is variable, but the cargo is well secured and the ship can handle storms. As the ship is coming up the English Channel, the engines suddenly cut out, then start again ten seconds later; the ship changed course a few degrees to starboard. Fitzpatrick plugs into the ship's systems: apparently it is now going to Calais, and always has been. A bit more digging shows that it received a routine navigational update through the satellite uplink just before this change. He gets Felixstowe put back into the system, while Thorne climbs the superstructure and unplugs the satellite antenna.

Some hours later, as the ship approaches Felixstowe, the team hides below decks: there's no way of knowing which container is going where until they have access to the port's systems. There's a visual inspection pass by a pair of Vultures, but the ship is allowed into port. During the docking, Fitzpatrick finds that most of the bulk freight and containers are heading north, while a few containers are going into London; there's nothing for Bristol, which would have been more useful. However, the northbound containers will probably be switched through the Ebbsfleet yard, where the team has been before and found security relatively loose; they stow away in one of those and wait to see what happens.

15 April 2010

The train slows down in about the right place to be approaching Ebbsfleet. Fitzpatrick pokes out a camera and sees that the cars have been split apart; they're now being switched independently onto different tracks, moving at about 5mph. The team jumps down and heads for the nearest fence.

Five-Three cannot detect any electricity in it, but since the last time the team was here there have been monowire edges added to the barbed tape. Syracuse works out the best spot for getting through with only one cut, and the team gets away before any robots respond to the breach.

The nearest vidcom is likely to be in Gravesend, about three miles away. The team heads that way; Bennett heads in first, to be followed by Thorne and Syracuse (in uniform), while Franks and Fitzpatrick wait further back with the robots. The first sign that things are not entirely normal is the sign by the road reading "keep out"; Bennett then spots a tripwire on the road, linked to a signal flare.

Bennett gets in with no further difficulties; he takes up a covering position as Syracuse and Thorne approach. As they do, a church bell starts tolling, and a frightened voice from the outermost of the surviving houses tells them to keep back. "Do you need medical assistance?", calls Syracuse after he's identified himself. "No, and we want to keep it that way." It seems that many coastal towns and villages have been suffering from disease outbreaks, mostly old wartime plagues, and the government has recommended isolation.

Syracuse asks the sentries to pass on a message to Bath via the vidcom, that the operational team FUSCHIA SHRUB wishes to return to base, and they agree to do this. Bennett follows one of them back in as he returns to the pub; there's some discussion, but it does seem the message has been sent. That local returns with a packet and a fishing rod; he's clearly quite nervous, but he approaches Syracuse and Thorne (with a cloth mask over his nose and mouth), drops off the packet from the end of the rod once he's got as close as he dares, and retreats. "Food. They say there'll be someone here tomorrow."

The food turns out to be mutton sandwiches, which Syracuse and Thorne share with the rest of the team (though Bennett, who remains on station by the pub for an hour, misses out). The team spends the night sheltering behind the wall of a ruined building.

Around noon there's a sound of engines, and several Land Rovers approach; when they see Syracuse, soldiers in NBC suits emerge and establish a perimeter. A decontamination van, possibly the last one still working, is parked nearby. The officer in charge is friendly enough, but clearly doesn't want to give anything away at first: the team is stripped, purged and scrubbed, while all their kit (including the robots) is hosed down with nanoburn. Once that's done, he goes into a bit more detail: plague outbreaks have mostly been along the south coast, with some into eastern Kent and Essex. It's assumed that this is some new Zone Zaire operation, but there haven't been any more infiltrator robots spotted.

The team heads back to a farmhouse a few miles away from Bath for a very intensive debriefing. For Bennett and Franks it is uncomfortably reminiscent of their interrogation in St John's, though it goes on for longer (and now that it's possible to compare, the simulations got the flavour of hothouse-grown NAAFI tea just subtly wrong). But overall the powers that be are very happy: they have a lot of medical and technical data as well as people who can teach those skills, have fabricators which can be used to bootstrap small-scale manufacturing, and communications with Iceland and resistance groups in the Washington Protectorate. There will be medals.

(Season 3) Second Chances

The team splits up for a bit of rest and recuperation. Thorne is having a quiet pint in a pub in Bath when he notices one of his fellow customers looking a bit twitchy - as though he's nerving himself for something. As Thorne keeps an eye on him, he pulls a sawn-off shotgun and shouts to the landlord to give him all the money. Thorne knocks over his table and gets behind it, while the robber grabs the barmaid as a hostage. Thorne spots someone else sneaking up behind the robber with a spade, and gestures "no"; instead he takes a leisurely aim while the robber is concentrating on the barman, and uses his own sawn-off (something he's tended to have with him at all times since an unfortunate incident involving a robot and a closed door) to shoot the robber's gun. This knocks it out of his hand, and the other man hits him with the spade.

Thorne gets the landlord to call for the police, and the next couple of hours are spend taking statements. The robber is hauled off still unconscious; nobody's seen him before, and he's not carrying any identification, but he's definitely human. Steve, the man with the spade, is a farmer from Overdale, a few miles out of town; he was in to get some supplies (indeed he'd just bought the spade, and it still has a price tag on it). Annie, the barmaid, is slightly shocked, but shrugs it off with "that's life in the big city".

5 May 2010

The robber turns out to have been an advance scout for a Welsh bandit group that's moving east - not this far, but he decided to strike out on his own.

The team members have a few days off the job - passing on the information they've learned in the Washington Protectorate, replacing equipment, and relaxing.

The police call them: there's been an incident at one of the farms a few miles away. There's been a missing person report, and the police were informing the places that aren't on the vidcom network; when they approached Overdale Farm, their car was shot at and disabled. The police retreated to the nearby village of Tunley, and called for help.

The team heads out there, and talks to the police. They get the details of the missing person - Annie, the barmaid - and of the farm (a small cluster of buildings, now mostly abandoned, but of which one is being used as the farmhouse).

Overdale is only about half a mile down from the edge of Tunley, with a road between then; Bennett goes ahead beside the road (on the other side of the hedge that borders it). He's crawling through a transverse hedge near the buildings when he feels a "click" from under his left hand; he's put it on a landmine.

He twists himself round to fire a laser pistol burst back towards Tunley, catching the top of a hedge and setting it briefly on fire. The others take cover, then when the shots are not repeated advance cautiously. Franks crawls over Bennett, and recognises it as a late-war anti-personnel mine (of originally human design, but probably robot manufacture, since it's no use as an anti-robot weapon). She works in the safety wire, then excavates around the mine to disassemble and disarm it.

The team is just about level with the police car on the road. Bennett leaps over the hedge to get to it, and is shot at before he gets to cover behind the car.

He scans the buildings with a scope and spots a small movement three or four buildings up, on the left. Five-Three reports "two heartbeats, one slow and one fast" in the same general area.

Franks goes through the hedge to join Bennett; looking with the targetting scope on her storm carbine reveals a weapon in the window with a slight heat signature behind it (not really enough to be a shooter). Franks takes a careful shot at it, knocking it out of the window and down the side of the building.

Five-Three carves a tunnel for the others. Bennett stands up and advances slowly; he gets into a shouted conversation. The gist of this is that the shooter doesn't want "them" to take his daughter Annie away again; he's been looking for her ever since the Final War, when he lost her in the confusion. He claims that she's happy about this situation. He gives his name as Steve Carter, which Thorne recognises as the name of the man with the spade in the pub. He sounds somewhat unstable; Syracuse reckons that he believes what he's saying, but that this may not bear much relation to reality.

Bennett continues to walk forward until he's in a courtyard area near the house from which the shots were fired, and tries to keep up a conversation. Thorne takes up a sniping position behind the car, while Franks, Syracuse, Fitzpatrick and Five-Three advance cautiously under cover of the roadside hedge, keeping a careful eye out for more mines.

On the corner of abandoned building nearest to the road is a claymore mine, rigged with a camera and laser communicator. Fitzpatrick fools the camera into sending the same frame (of empty road) continously; Franks disarms the claymore. At the back of the row of buildings, they see that there's another camera covering the area, so they decide to go in through the two abandoned buildings that separate them from the farmhouse from which the shots were fired. The windows are boarded up, but this doesn't present a significant challenge. The ten-foot gap between the first two buildings is covered by more cameras and mines, which can't easily be reached from inside the building; Bennett has clearly walked past them without being attacked, but it's not at all clear when Carter might choose to set them off.

The best way across seems to be to jump at first-floor level; the windows on the other side are boarded up, but this isn't a problem for Franks, and the others follow. The second building has been rigged for demolition, with ANFO charges placed against structural points on both floors. Franks looks around and reckons it would take at least ten minutes to disarm; this gives the impression of having been done exactly according to a (well-written) manual rather than by an expert allowing for local oddities.

Fitzpatrick and Franks disable the final camera and claymore combination, which gives the mobile part of the team unobserved access to the back of the farmhouse. Steve Carter, who has grown increasingly irritable, calls out "stop messing around with my cameras, and clear off", and detonates two of the claymores; Bennett retreats out of sight.

The mobile team members head in quickly and quietly through the back door (locked, but Franks finds it not too hard to pick). They come into a kitchen/dining area and head cautiously for the front of the house; there's another claymore on the stairway, but Franks shoots it from a safe distance, knocking out the detonator. Franks and Syracuse pile up the stairs; in the front bedroom, Steve Carter is pointing a second rifle at Annie, who's tied to a chair. Franks fires a short burst to get the gun out of his hands as quickly as possible; stray fire hits Carter, and even Syracuse is unable to stop the blood loss in time to save him.

Downstairs, Fitzpatrick hears a humming sound that seems very reminiscent of old computer kit. It seems to be coming from a cupboard or utility room off to the side of the kitchen. The others come out, with Annie, aiming to get clear in case any of the remaining explosives are on a dead-man switch; Fitzpatrick gestures, and they glance in on their way past. Inside is a lash-up of old computers, probably originally three or four separate machines, connected to a woman's head, torso and left arm: an infiltrator robot?

The team continues to retreat. As they're running down the road, the ANFO charges go off, levelling the second building and mostly demolishing the farmhouse too; Fitzpatrick, Syracuse, Franks and Annie dive for cover as flaming debris falls around them.

Everyone heads back to Tunley, and the team calls for more EOD specialists to go over the remnants of the farm (and pick up any more landmines that may be about). They salvage the robot torso and computers, hoping to dig into its memory to find out what's been going on. Steve Carter's neighbours say he'd been getting gradually less sociable over the last few months, though they had no idea things were getting so bad.

As part of the salvage, the team turns up what looks like a grave marker, which was probably leaning against one of the buildings a little further down the hill. It reads:


19 May 2010

Fitzpatrick analyses the scattered parts of robot memory (much of it, in fact, on the hard drives of the old computers); it's very damaged and fragmented, but suggests that this is an early Zairean infiltrator, from shortly after the end of the Final War and the establishment of the zone system. It was inserted by air, and badly damaged on the way down. There's a short video clip of Anne Carter's gravestone. It looks as though the Lilith got its start by whispering to Carter, and took advantage of his unstable state to insinuate itself into his life, keeping him fixated on his daughter and encouraging him to obtain explosives and weapons.

The scenes-of-crime team report finding the buried skeleton of a young girl; they can't tell much, but they're fairly sure she died of a broken neck.

Network Management Protocol

Most of the team takes some time off; Franks works on building armour-piercing ammunition for the team's high-tech weapons.

The next mission comes from the vidcom network administrators. It seems they've been receiving some unexpected network diagnostic packets: they're from an unknown node, directed to the control node at Bath, and state that the Southampton node has gone off the net. Only one problem: there is no Southampton node, since the city was one of those taken over by the London AI during the Final War. This isn't stopping the rest of the network from working, but they'd like to know what's going on.

Half-way to Southampton is Salisbury, still a reasonably large city. The network admins there can confirm that the packets are coming in off the south-eastern cable, irregularly, every 2-4 hours or so. The cable serves a number of villages down to Romsey, a market town that's the last human settlement short of Southampton; from there it turns north-east to Winchester. After tapping in at various points and waiting for the packets, the team finds that the packets are coming in from somewhere near Romsey; a walk of that section of the cable reveals a lightly-concealed junction box and a separate cable running south, roughly towards Southampton. This runs for about a quarter of a mile, lightly concealed but not fully buried, then dives underground.

Tapping this new cable reveals, first, that it's of robot manufacture. It seems to be carrying only diagnostic packets from the vidcom network, no actual data packets, though it would easily have enough capacity to do so.

Fitzpatrick, Franks and Thorne go back to the northern junction box and take a look at it; Franks opens it up and reckons this is definitely robot tech. It's powered by a small battery, and has enough computer to act as a packet filter.

Meanwhile, Bennett and Syracuse look around by the southern end of the cable, where it goes underground. There's no obvious surface obstacle for it to avoid, though the earth is slightly disturbed immediately around it; there are also some human-sized footprints, though rather deeper than would be consistent with human weight. They excavate, and once they're down six feet find a large plastic-composite pipe, with a sealed junction into which the cable has been inserted.

When the team meets again, Franks reckons that this large pipe is probably a pre-war data trunk, certainly now being used exclusively by the robots.

The cable is running through boggy waste ground; the team asks a local farmer where would be a sensible place to dig a drainage ditch, and does so, making sure the cable gets cut in the process. They hide and wait for a maintenance robot; nothing happens for the rest of the day or overnight.

Fitzpatrick decides to splice into the southern end of the cable. There's one device responding to network packets, and it's not offering to route them anywhere else. He prods it with diagnostic packets requesting extra information, and it responds that the physical link to Southampton is intact, but nothing is answering. Its device identification is from Zone London.

The team reports in, then heads to Southampton to see what may be going on. On the way, they pass a maglev route: each track is blocked by a train that's stopped and grounded. As far as they can tell, they're fully powered down.

Getting a bit closer in, Five-Three reports an odd communications broadcast: it's trying to activate its remote access hardware (the components that it burned out back when it first became conscious). It's not sending a Zone Zaire code or anything like that; it seems to be sending oddly-misformed packets, possibly attempting to exploit some sort of vulnerability.

The team hides from a patrol (two Myrmidons and one larger robot of a model they haven't seen before, though Franks identifies it as a Hoplite, a new fire-support design) and gradually works towards the centre of Southampton. As with most robot facilities in Zone London, the human buildings are largely intact, with pipes and conveyors linking them. The central processing tower is new construction, however; as it comes into view, the team spots the back half of a Morag submarine (which is capable of slow movement on land) protruding from it at ground level.

Bennett advances while the rest of the team takes (limited) cover. As he gets closer, he sees that the hole has been repaired with the Morag in place; it won't be possible to get in by squeezing alongside it. A laser blast tags him, and he bolts for the nearest cover, a low stack of cooling vents. Thorne fires back with his payload rifle, damaging but not destroying the laser turret. Franks scans the area, spotting three more turrets that are coming to bear on the team. Thorne shoots a second one before it can fire; Bennett kicks in a wire screen and swings himself inside the cooling duct, hoping the warm air will confuse his infra-red signature.

The two turrets Thorne has shot don't fire, at least for now; the other two, mounted on the central tower, do, one at Franks, Syracuse and Fitzpatrick as they sprint forward to cover, the other at Thorne and Five-Three as they continue to pick off point targets. Everyone manages to evade the blasts.

From nearby comes the sound of Vulture turbines spooling up...

2 June 2010

Thorne shoots the first tower turret and Five-Three hits the second with its gauss rifle. Bennett braces himself in the duct and pokes his storm carbine sight out to see what's going on. Franks, Syracuse and Fitzpatrick move between the cooling stacks, and spot Bennett's entry hole.

None of the turrets fires, so Thorne and Five-Three move up. The Vultures are heading in, and the main tower door is starting to roll up, so they all enter the ductwork, with Bennett last in narrowly evading a Vulture's laser. Once they get away from the entry hole, it's dark, so the torches come out; with NVGs, these are enough to spot and avoid the maintenance bot that is crawling along, ignoring them.

After a certain amount of underground travel, the team gets to a grille in the ceiling, with a fast-spinning fan ahead. Poking up cameras reveals a large industrial space, apparently taking up most of the ground level of the tower. There are conveyor belts and overhead rails moving items around, and several static multi-armed robots acting as production line workers. It's not clear from here what they may be working on, but the individual items aren't huge. Franks reckons that at least the large hardware has been here for rather longer than the couple of days since the network signal was received.

The team climbs out, replacing the grille. There's even more activity visible now that they can see down to ground level. Franks and Syracuse look at the items passing by on the conveyor belts: some of them are pressurised canisters suitable for dispersing gas, and others are more of the scorpion-like robots spotted at the port in Boston.

The front of the Morag is visible, and they head towards it. The loading-ramp "jaw" is open, but there's no sign of activity. Franks and Syracuse head inside to examine the cargo bay for some sign of what might have been in it; Fitzpatrick attempts to get the Morag to talk to him, via infra-red communications. He's successful to an extent, in that it reveals its serial number (ZAIVAU-03-NOU-117, so definitely Zone Zaire); but it also closes its ramp and starts to twist to bring its laser to bear on him. Syracuse and Franks leap out as the jaws close; Franks also manages to unlimber her rifle and fire a grenade upwards as she's rolling out. It detonates just as the "mouth" closes completely, and the Morag stops moving.

The big door, which has been closed until now, starts to roll up, and Myrmidon feet can be seen on the other side. Bennett shoots the door motor, and while the robots are deciding what to do the team heads for a lift platform and starts to descend. (The original plan had been to get to the transmitter on the roof, but there are't any immediately-obvious ways up, and presumably all those cooling ducts are being fed by something important.) On the lower level, the lift platform arrives in a stock room; passages lead in various directions, but the big armoured door blocking off access towards the centre of the tower seems worthy of attention. Fitzpatrick persuades it to open, and the team enters a much colder room with a three-foot crystal-and-metal cube in the middle: the Overseer. It's surrounded by ancillary processors, storage and networking hardware; there are also a couple of Scorpions lying inactive off to the side (Franks and Syracuse pocket them, having first bent the hypodermic needles built into their tails).

Fitzpatrick closes the armoured door to prevent interruption, then unplugs the Overseer's built-in radio antenna; it speaks, in a clearly artificial but nuanced voice. "I don't think you should have done that." He and Franks disconnect its other data cables.

Quote: (Overseer) I really don't think you should have done that.
(Syracuse) Why not?
(Overseer) Because now I can't prevent the reactor from melting down.

The Overseer clearly considers that its mission has been compromised, and self-destruction is the only remaining option; it has set the factory zone's fission reactor to overload its cooling system. Fitzpatrick tries to open the door, but can't: there's some secondary hardware holding it closed. Franks builds a set of charges on the inside of the door, aiming for weak points. Meanwhile, Syracuse and Bennett talk to the Overseer, trying to get what information they can; it doesn't say much, but they get the impression that it received a new software payload from one of the Scorpions and it now follows the Zairean orders that were included: to build more Scorpions, and to brew up Nanoburn.

Fitzpatrick checks the auxiliary systems for schematics of the tower, and finds that the reactor is on the bottom level. Franks finishes with the charges, and the team takes cover behind the Overseer cube while she sets them off; the doors are torn loose, mowing down the Myrmidons that were getting ready to burn through them.

The team heads for the nearest lift, wistfully (at least in Bennett's case) bypassing the open maintenance shaft. Down in the reactor room, Franks hits the big red SCRAM button on the control panel, with no effect: core temperature is still rising. It looks as though this panel is not directly connected to the reactor's controls; Fitzpatrick hacks in, and gets access to the actual controls. They're not at all clearly labelled in the back-door interface he's using, but Syracuse manages to find the right sequence and thus shut the reactor down. Everything goes dark, with only the pale blue emergency light patches providing illumination.

Fitzpatrick disconnects all the control interfaces, so that the reactor can't be restarted without someone physically coming in to the control room, and the team heads up again, climbing the maintenance shaft. Back in the Overseer's room, they salvage some of its SQUIDs, then head back to the surface, at which point they can verify that the takeover signal is no longer being broadcast.

The main door is still closed, but the front end of a Juggernaut has pushed through it, and it's now blocking the doorway. As the team spots it, it swivels its particle-beam turret away from them. (Syracuse waves to it; it doesn't visibly react.) The team heads out via the air tunnel; outside there are quite a few more robots, mostly Myrmidons with a few Hovercats and some larger models. They seem to be moving through the various buildings of the factory complex, though it's not immediately clear what they're doing there.

The team gets clear of Southampton, and returning to the buried communication cable puts together a package of evidence: the Zairean serial numbers of the Morag and the Scorpions, the conversation with the Overseer (which is probably intact enough to be salvageable), Five-Three's recording of the override signal, and a variety of apologies and excuses for entering a robot zone. Fitzpatrick sends this out as a broadcast signal. Franks keeps the interface box that was attached to the vidcom line.

Back at Bath, there's a certain amount of grumbling, but it's generally accepted that the team has done well. Zone London's compromise of the vidom network had been suspected, but now it's confirmed; one-time pads will be used for important communications in future.

No Bot Is An Island

9 June 2010

Someone's turned up at Cullompton, a village about twelve miles from the Exeter robofac complex. He claims to be Corporal Oscar Pitman, who's been listed as missing in action since the end of the Final War. The local doctor has taken his DNA, and it matches his Army records. Apparently there's a small community of humans on a peninsula on the south side of Exeter (Countess Wear and Topsham), who have been cut off from outside contact since the robofac complex was built; every time they try to send someone out, he gets attacked by robots...

The team heads down the M5, avoiding robotruck convoys. Corporal Pitman is somewhat wounded, having been shot up during his escape; he's getting decent treatment, but he won't be at all mobile for a few days at least. Syracuse checks his wounds, definitely bullet holes from rifle and larger calibre, and verifies that he's human.

Pitman explains that his unit, led by a Captain Claybourne, was evacuating people from Exeter as the robots moved in; more robots started to shoot up their boats, and they were stuck. (This is consistent with records.) They've been confined to a small patch of land ever since, cut off by the new estuaries of the Rivers Exe and Clyst on two sides and by the Exeter robofac on the third. Fortunately this included the Exeter Golf and Country Club as well as the residential suburbs, and they had enough tinned food to manage until they got farming up and running, but they know it won't be sustainable in the long term. Unfortunately, whether they try to get out by land or across the rivers, they get shot at...

This is the first time anyone outside has heard of this community. The immediate suggestion is to bring in a boat, but it's not clear what form the defences may take, and getting hold of a boat large enough to shift a hundred people would be a challenge in itself. Taking a look at the site first seems like a good idea. The team heads round to the eastern bank of the Clyst and observes from high ground a mile or so back.

There's certainly a settlement on the peninsula, with humans moving about and apparently not being coerced. There's a clear fence demarcating the robofac zone, and the usual defences behind it, but nothing visible on the river-bank.

Bennett goes ahead to get a better view; on the bank he sees a couple of people with fishing lines, who don't look as though they hope to pull much out of the scummy water, but there's no sign of weapons or robots in the human-occupied area.

Franks and Fitzpatrick go down to try to establish contact by shouting, on the basis that if this provokes a response they'll have to be very careful about taking a boat in. Franks calls out, and is answered by a short burst of gunfire that strikes the mud near her feet; it's not possible to spot just where it came from. Fitzpatrick reports no change in short-range radio chatter from the robofac, but the burst is repeated. There's not much cover, but going flat decreases their target profile.

Thorne, back on the hill with Syracuse, hears the gunfire and starts to scan across the shoreline. He picks up a slightly anomalous infra-red trace, consistent with a hot gun-barrel, in a ruined building near the tip of the peninsula, and starts to look for a target behind it.

Franks and Fitzpatrick continue to move evasively, and everyone looks for the shooter. Five-Three reports "Target acquired on audio, can lase" and Thorne responds "Do it". With the laser designator active, Thorne spots the shape of a Myrmidon in the building; just as Franks is working out where the shots came from, there's a flare as it launches a missile. Thorne fires two rounds of 25mm shaped-charge at the Myrmidon, and thinks he's hit it. Bennett, who's half-way between the two groups, aims up with his storm carbine. Franks puts distance between herself and Fitzpatrick, so that the missile can only attack one of them. Syracuse readies his own missile launcher (armed with Franks' newly-built seeker heads).

The missile heads for Franks, who dodges its final attack and is about three yards away when it realises it can no longer see her and detonates. She throws herself flat and is banged around by the blast, but her armour stops the shrapnel. Five-Three reports "coughing and choking" sounds from the building for a few seconds, followed by silence. (On request, it plays these back to Syracuse, who thinks they sound like someone with a very serious chest wound.) The humans on the far side of the river have panicked for a few seconds, but take cover quickly; this is clearly something they've practiced.

The team regroups behind the hilltop, and considers what to do next. This isn't at all typical behaviour for a Zone London robot.

The next day they try to get in on the landward side of the settlement. They start off heading down the M5, but there's a gate across it at the entrance to the complex, and robotrucks are being stopped and inspected by Myrmidons and Rovers. They head away from the road, further inland, and Fitzpatrick puts one of the fence cameras on loop while he disables the pressure sensors and the team gets across.

There are some patrols further inside the zone, but most of the security effort seems to be focused on the perimeter. Bennett leads the team from building to building, staying clear of patrols and gradually working south towards the settlement. When they're about two hundred yards from the boundary fence, with the settlement's farmland in sight, Five-Three reports that it is being painted with a UV laser from somewhere ahead. The team takes cover, and Bennett climbs the nearest building to spy out the land. There are several structures inside the zone which could well be the origin of the laser, as well as what looks like the ruins of a clubhouse in among the farmland. He concentrates on the latter, and is rewarded with a glint of sunlight off optics...

30 June 2010

Bennett aims on that spot, while Syracuse uses his laser comm to request a talk. There's no response, nor any sign that the signal has been received.

Franks sets up a missile for vertical launch: it'll guide onto Bennett's laser spot. The others sneak up closer to the fence, near the clubhouse; Syracuse steps out into the open, and a shot passes well to one side of him. He calls out "We're not sure what's going on - could you explain?"

A nervous voice from the clubhouse responds, and there's a brief conversation. Whoever it is seems convinced that Syracuse and his colleagues are "traitors to humanity", in league with the robots. Syracuse mentions Corporal Pitman, who according to the other was "trying to find some real free humans" - but he's not present, and "by the time you bring him here you'll have brainwashed him".

When Syracuse asks "was that a Myrmidon that shot at us earlier", he's answered with a spray of gunfire, and rapidly gets behind cover. In the clubhouse, a bell starts ringing.

Thorne, using the advanced sights on his rifle, reckons there are probably two warm bodies inside the clubhouse. Bennett lases the window where he saw the optics, and Franks locks a missile onto the spot and launches it. The detonation seems a bit weak, but both targets go down, and the bell stops ringing (though a few seconds later a church bell starts in the distance).

Fitzpatrick confounds the fence's cameras and capacitance alarms, and the party climbs over swiftly. Bennett sets up in one of the old bunkers on the golf course to keep watch, while Syracuse and Franks head into the clubhouse. There's some sign that there have been booby-traps here before, though they're not present now. On the first floor, they find what seem at first to be Myrmidons. This rapidly turns out not to be the case, though: the body in the window, which was firing a chaingun at Syracuse, is a human in an old power-armoured suit, which has been decorated with scrap plastic to look roughly like a Myrmidon. He was instantly killed by the shaped-charge missile though his chest; the other seems to have been killed by blast and fragmentation, since his Myrmidon disguise is not armoured. In fact it's a heavy loader, the replacement for forklifts and some light construction vehicles: it's unarmoured except for its roll-cage, but again it's been decorated to resemble a Myrmidon. The loader itself is relatively undamaged.

Franks disables the weapons the men were carrying, then the team heads towards the church bell, with Five-Three staying out of sight behind the party and Bennett scouting ahead. He spots the source of the sound: a church in a shopping street, set a little back from the road. As he approaches along that road, he can see the front door of the church, which is half-open with a barricade and a nervous-looking sentry behind. He reports back to the others.

The team spreads out, using the shops and back gardens to take up positions along the street opposite the church. Syracuse opens conversation: the theme is much as before, with the sentry claiming that the soldiers are traitors working for the robots, while Syracuse tries to explain that if the robots wanted to take them over they'd simply have done it. After a few increasingly-futile exchanges, the sentry ends up saying that the church is rigged for demolition and "you'll never take us alive"; someone from inside calls to him, and he backs away and closes the door.

Bennett, directly opposite, has been able to get some sight of the inside of the church; there are quite a lot of people, quite possibly the whole population of this place, and sacks and boxes stacked about. He moves round the church, making sure he's not observed through the windows (boarded up inside the glass), and climbs the tower, then enters through the belfry and heads down stairs. At the bottom, by the door that leads into the main body of the church, he writes a note starting "I am not a robot" and asking to talk; he folds this and pushes it under the door, then backs off to see what will happen. There's no sign of explosives in the section of the church he's explored so far.

Franks and Syracuse walk round the church, not trying to be stealthy. There are several doors near the far end, which appear to have been secured from the inside. Waiting inside, Bennett hears conversation; he can't make out the words, but from tone and phrasing it sounds like a pep talk.

Bennett stays on site, while the others head back to the golf course. They clean out the helmet of the powered-armour suit, and Fitzpatrick gets the communicator back up and running; there's another unit active using the same channel, but there's no answer when he calls it.

The team heads for the southern tip of the island, to the point from which they were attacked yesterday. It's been cleaned out, but clearly someone lost a lot of blood here in an explosive way.

Bennett climbs along the church roof and drops to the top of one of the windows. He can't make out much through the boards, but with infra-red can work out roughly where people are. He gets the feeling that there's definitely a hierarchy involved, with one person moving from group to group and probably giving them instructions or encouragement, and three or four others who seem to have minor authority.

Fitzpatrick throws his gun (loaded with EMP shells) and a fibre-optic camera up to Bennett, who peels away the leaded glass at the top of the window and inserts it through a crack in the boards. There are food supplies and what definitely seem to be explosives in the church; the door to the bell-tower has explosives piled against it, which explains the lack of reaction to his note. The leader is carrying what looks like (and Franks confirms it, looking at the images) a standard radio detonator.

Meanwhile Franks strips the Myrmidon-disguise off the loader, and fires it up. It's big and clumsy, but her experience working in NBC suits comes in handy. She walks it down to the church, getting ready to break in the front door. Meanwhile, Bennett peels away more of the stained-glass window, making a hole big enough for him to swing through.

Franks steps up to the door and kicks it hard. It shudders, but doesn't immediately break. Bennett swings in through the window, drawing and firing the pistol as he drops into the church; he hits the floor next to where the leader is standing, the EMP shell goes off, and though the leader frantically presses the button nothing happens. Franks kicks again, but has trouble getting the loader to do what it's told. The leader starts to run away towards the back of the church; Bennett shoots again and misses, while Syracuse shoots a likely hinge spot and Franks takes another kick, this time bringing down the door.

Bennett draws his laser and sprays the detonator and the leader's hand with fire. He goes down. There's a general panic; Syracuse shouts in a military manner "out of the church, now", and people slowly obey. (Franks takes the opportunity to strike a hip-shot pose in the loader, before powering it down and dismounting.) The leader - "the captain", as it turns out - is unconscious; Syracuse patches him up, and the panic gradually subsides. Once he's revived, it turns out that he's been playing both ends: three of his most loyal men have been imitating robots to keep the populace scared, and anyone who seems likely to give trouble is sent out "to look for free humans" and shot down once he's left the village.

The next step seems likely to be a boat to get the hundred or so people out of here...

22 July 2010

Fitzpatrick, Thorne and Bennett run the gauntlet of the robofac zone while Syracuse and Franks stay behind to try to prepare the villagers for their re-entry into society. The mobile group returns to the vehicle and heads for Sidmouth, the nearest town of any size; there are a few boats there, though not enough to shift the whole village at once. The team reports in; Bath will send several trucks to take the villagers and their belongings to Bath, pending a decision about their eventual resettlement. Bennett talks to the mayor, who's happy to help, but thinks that some of the fishermen will be reluctant; he calls the fishermen together and encourages them, and this seems to get the job done even among the relatively suspicious people who are successful fishermen in robot-infested waters.

As they're setting off, Fitzpatrick and Thorne overhear one of the locals talking about the number of boats that have gone missing recently. An older man points out that all the boats that vanished had their nets out and were fishing rather than just ferrying along the coast.

Meanwhile, back at Countess Wear, Syracuse and Franks talk about the ground rules of living with the London AI. The locals are used to thinking of robots as deadly menaces, so they aren't too concerned about having to stay away from them; on the other hand, they're amazed to learn of the vidcom network, and even more so that television is still being produced. Syracuse works on the captain's hand, and reckons it should be salvageable; he also talks with the local "almost a doctor", who seems to have been doing a reasonable job. There are some cases of early-stage deficiency diseases, but nothing that can't be fixed with a good diet. Both Franks and Syracuse get the impression that the villagers are very much used to looking to the captain to make any sort of major decision.

The villagers are taken off in the boats, in three relays. The loader is winched aboard on the last trip. The captain asks to be the last man off, and the team goes along with this; as he comes aboard, the team spots robots taking down the boundary fence from the factory zone.

Back at Sidmouth, the trucks have arrived, and the villagers are getting on board. The team's asked to come back straight away, though, as something urgent has come up.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

The briefing officer slides over a grainy photograph; Bennett spots at once that it's been taken through a long lens in poor lighting conditions. It appears to show something floating in water.

"This was taken this morning by a foraging party from Inveruglas. It appears to be a submarine. Note in particular the forked tail" (which is more a matter of faith than of clarity, though a bit of contrast enhancement helps) "which is distinctive to the Bellerophon-class ballistic missile submarine." The vessel was seen under tow, heading towards the former Royal Navy base at Faslane.

(The Bellerophons replaced the Vanguard class, coming into service a few years later than hoped in the early 2030s; the latter two were commissioned after the start of the Final War. They carried sixteen elderly Trident D5 missiles, which were planned to be replaced with newer weapons as development permitted, four torpedo tubes, and a very sophisticated sonar array; they operated with a crew of sixty.)

The class was designed with a full-life reactor, which may still be able to produce some power. All four of the boats were lost in combat against robots during the Final War, but it's not clear whether they all fired their missiles.

It's theorised that the zoneminds have some sort of treaty regarding the construction of nuclear weapons. If the missiles are still on board, the warheads can easily be re-tritiated and may well substantially increase Zone London's arsenal; this seems likely to destabilise things between the zones.

Therefore the mission is twofold: put the warheads beyond immediate use (mechanically damaging them will be enough for this, since they'd then effectively need to be rebuilt) and, if possible, retrieve or at least wreck the submarine. If she could be brought back into commission, this would be a huge gain for communication among surviving human communities. The command codes for all four Bellerophon boats are supplied.

The team packs SCUBA gear, NBC suits, and whatever else seems likely to be useful, and sets off for Scotland. The route is a winding one, to avoid robot exclusion zones; up the M5, but diverting to the left before reaching Birmingham. As they pass Shrewsbury, there's a sound of jet engines; they take cover. Approaching from the east, though not directly overflying them, is a flight of nine Vultures. As the Vultures approach, they can be seen to be flying in very close formation, with stub wings nearly overlapping; they change formation frequently, with some of them breaking off to loop and do other aerobatics. They appear to be painted red, and fly off to the west. Quite why Zone London should be imitating the Red Arrows is not at all clear...

The team turns north-east into the Peak District, and works cross-country to get between Liverpool-Manchester and Leeds-Bradford. Shortly after crossing the M62, they're crossing a valley with an east-west road when a rock hits the vehicle. Scanning around, they see someone on the ridge ahead of them, about to throw another. They make haste up the side of the valley, and stop at the top; Five-Three can hear several humans off to the left, talking about how this target must be well worth attacking given the amount of stuff being carried. Five-Three and Bennett set off to circle below the ridge-line and come up on the bandits from behind; Syracuse and Franks advance to meet them, while Thorne stays in the vehicle ready to snipe as needed.

Bennett and Five-Three spot five people, one of whom has a big crossbow which looks as though it was probably made from a truck spring; the others are carrying slings and rocks. They're all poorly-dressed and look somewhat malnourished. Bennett shoots the crossbow, causing it to release its energy and bloodying the wielder; Five-Three leaps forward, one of the bandits throws a rock at it, and it disassembles him with its monofilament-edged claws.

Syracuse calls on the survivors to surrender, and they do; he patches up the crossbow-wielder, and sets them to taking down their road-blocking deadfalls. Bennett points out that the team expects to be coming back this way some time soon, and they'd be very disappointed if they heard of any more attacks...

The team presses on to Carlisle, where they spend the night. There's something of a border town mentality about the place, and some of the more official-looking locals make a game attempt to extract "tarriffs". Bennett and Franks both go out to scratch their itches, with Bennett being regarded by the others as rather more successful - or at least more discriminating.

The next day, having refuelled the vehicle, they set off for Glasgow; the trip goes smoothly, and they circle the town to head up the west bank of Loch Lomond to Inveruglas. The town is dominated by the Loch Sloy hydroelectric plant that has kept it alive; there's not much room for anything else on the narrow strip of ground between Ben Vorlich, the hill that provides the water for the plant, and Loch Lomond into which that water drains.

The locals take them to a spot with a reasonable view of Faslane, half a mile away across Gare Loch. The submarine seemed to be being taken that way, and even at low towing speeds is likely to have got there by now. There's one pier with a robotic cargo submarine tied up at it, and a larger pen with closed doors, easily large enough to house a Bellerophon. There's significant robot activity, mostly Mechanics and other technical models, though there seem to be at least ten exterminator models including two Vanguards and one Hoplite, rather a lot for a small facility like this. A maglev line links the base to the Glasgow robofac complex.

Taking, or even sinking, the submarine looks as though it will be a major undertaking, likely to invoke substantial reprisals from Zone London. The team heads back to Inveruglas to talk to headquarters.

4 August 2010

On reflection, since the London zonemind can break any encryption short of one-time-pad and the use of the latter would be conspicuous, the team decides to go ahead. They can see no microwave horns or other signs of long-range communications in the base, so they travel round to the maglev track and investigate the cabling there. There's not much traffic, either on the track itself or on the communications fibres that run beside it. Fitzpatrick whips up a box that, when it's triggered, will respond to pings from either end (making it look as though the cable's still working) while blocking actual traffic. On a second signal, or when a twelve-hour timer expires, it'll detonate, severing the cables and destroying itself.

The team heads back to the other side of the loch. One of the locals will remove their Land Rover; they don SCUBA gear. Syracuse notices that Thorne is coughing a bit more than usual; it might just be the weather, since it's now snowing and quite windy, but he runs a quick check just in case. Thorne is showing early signs of Ebola Zaire B, and the other team members seem to have picked it up too. Syracuse has some of the antidote, which he administers, but it's a long course of treatment and he's not carrying a full supply for everyone.

The team swims across the loch, and spots a net cutting off the base. It's strong monofilament, cuttable by Five-Three but quite possibly damaging to a ship that pushed through it. For the moment, Five-Three cuts a hole at the bottom, bridging it with wires; the team is hoping to look like Zone Zaire infiltrators, which would probably be walking across the bottom rather than using SCUBA.

They pass the net, and head towards the submarine pen; there's a gap at the bottom of the doors to allow water flow, and they squeeze inside. There is indeed a Bellerophon-class missile boat in the pen, nose out. Bennett pokes a gunsight above water level to see what's going on: there's quite a bit of glare from lighting, but he can make out a gantry crane over the submarine with something hanging from it, and a gangplank stretching from dockside to submarine deck. There are Mechanic robots moving around, but no sign of security apart from fixed cameras.

The team, led by Bennett, climbs up the side of the dock, then swings underneath the gangplank and climbs out to the sub. Bennett works his way up to the deck, slides back a panel, and starts entering hatch codes; the one for HMS Barham works, and the aft escape trunk opens. He secures a rope inside, then brings it back to the others, and they all get aboard. A little further aft, they can now see that one of the missile hatches has been prised open, and a missile is hanging from the crane.

Once they've all cycled through the trunk, the team moves forward to the control room. There's minimal lighting. Fitzpatrick gets the computer started, entering more command codes, and it brings up low red lighting in the control room, in which the team can now see several skeletons in Royal Navy uniforms. The computer shows "log entry timeout"; Franks replays the most recent entries, in which Captain Rotherham reports that the vessel is being attacked by saturation nuclear depth bombing. Syracuse checks over the bodies; it's hard to tell at this remove, but they might well have died from concussion.

There's very little power left in the batteries, possibly not enough to start the reactor. There's an emergency diesel, for which the team brought fuel, but it's been sitting unattended for quite a few years and might well not fire up; even if it does, it's going to be very noisy. Bennett and Franks head out in search of dockside power; Syracuse reads the logs, while Fitzpatrick checks the computer. There are twelve Trident missiles on board out of the boat's complement of sixteen, as well as several torpedoes and cruise missiles. The remaining ordnance was fired during the latter days of the Final War, and the boat was caught in the Irish Sea during a land-attack mission.

Bennett and Franks continue to be ignored by the Mechanic robots, which generally show little initiative. They bring a cable along the gangplank and attach it to a receptacle in the sail (the boat is designed to be started on American or British power, so it can easily cope with the robots' standard). Franks then heads out to plant explosives on the pen doors; the charges above water are easy enough, but to be on the safe side she plants more on the lower hinges, holding her breath to do so; this is tricky, but she hopes it should reinforce the idea that the team consists of Redjack and Lilith infiltrators.

After about half an hour, the batteries are charged enough for two tries at starting the reactor. Syracuse fires it up; it can't produce full power, but should still be good for manoeuvre and travel.

Fitzpatrick activates the landline communications blocker, and Bennett starts the sub moving slowly towards the front of the pen, the power cable falling loose.

Thorne goes to the top of the sail and (wearing his SCUBA gear to avoid inhaling any plutonium) aims up on the missile that's been extracted and shoots it several times with his payload rifle, to make it necessary for Zone London to reprocess the warhead completely rather than just add more tritium. Franks blows the pen doors, then she and Five-Three broadcast the subversion signal they recorded in Southampton. As expected, this has no effect on the robots, but again it should reinforce their Zairean credentials. (While setting this up, Fitzpatrick looked at the signal; it has a lot of markers of the typical Zone Zaire coding style, rather more than Five-Three has, to the extent that between them they think this might be a deliberate attempt by another zonemind to implicate Zaire.)

Bennett closes the missile hatch and allows the tube to flood to retain balance. Syracuse tells the sub to charge and load two Spearfish Mod 3 electric torpedoes, then takes his missile launcher up to the sail: most of the robots here don't have radios with enough range to reach Glasgow, but if there are Vultures on the pad they can certainly communicate that far.

As the submarine leaves the pen, Syracuse hears a Vulture turbine spinning up, and as it takes off he shoots it down. Franks fires torpedoes at the netting, fusing them for a set distance rather than impact; they go off in about the right place. Syracuse, Thorne and Five-Three get below, and Bennett dives the sub.

HMS Barham turns down Gare Loch, moving quite slowly in this relatively shallow water. Within about ten minutes, sonar picks up sounds of low-flying vertol aircraft, but fifty feet of water provide an effective barrier to whatever weapons they may be carrying. The submarine soon reaches the Firth of Clyde, and is able to go a little deeper; two torpedoes hit the water, but they're both some distance away and neither manages to lock on.

Over the next few hours, the submarine travels past Belfast and into the Irish Sea; it might be safer to go the long way round Ireland, but given the Ebola-contaminated state of the crew the day that the direct route will take seems quite long enough. There's some jet noise, but nothing seems to be coming very close. Franks passes the time by replacing the oil and filter in the emergency diesel, making sure the crankshaft still turns, and generally getting it ready for use.

After the team has passed the Isle of Man, sonar reports an impact on the water: it's not a torpedo, though, since it seems to be sinking and breaking up. The team worries about miniature seekers, but there doesn't seem to be anything moving in the area.

Further south, between Dublin and Holyhead, there's a transient marine mammal sound; the sonar rig classifies this as a killer whale, noting that it's unusual to spot them this far north. The team assumes it's a cyborg like the one they met before, and steers well clear; their sonar is rather longer-ranged than its own senses.

Rounding the curve of Wales, there's a sound of pumpjets moving out of the robot base at Milford Haven, classified as a robot attack sub. The team decides to cross the Bristol Channel and work up the Devon coast; it seems that the attack sub is doing the same thing, and they make a slow wide circle to get away from it and up the channel.

Further up the channel, there's hull noise from small unpowered boats; Franks raises the periscope buoy, and sees several sailing vessels, probably fishing boats, flying hand-made "FOLLOW ME" flags. She signals with a blinker light to the nearest boat; the crew gestures back, and turns south-east. The submarine follows, now moving very slowly, into the lee of Brean Down, a tall lump of rock near Weston-super-Mare that sticks out into the channel. On the north shore is a jetty, clearly recently constructed; Bennett pulls Barham alongside, and a folding cover is lowered to hide the sub from observation.

Syracuse sends a plague warning, and asks for more supplies of the Ebola cure, disinfectant, and body bags; over the next few days, the team stays isolated, recovering the bodies of Barham's original crew and cleaning up the Ebola contamination. It seems there's been an outbreak in Carlisle too, though it's not at all clear whether the team might have picked it up there or from the bandits in the Pennines.

Into the Darkness

18 August 2010

The team is given strong antivirals for a couple of weeks; Barham will be in refit for rather longer. There's nothing obviously distinctive about the captured Scorpion, but the command keys can be recognised if they're spotted elsewhere. Fitzpatrick will stay in Bath for now and poke at the code further...

Meanwhile, Syracuse is called in for an oddity: a truck arrived full of salvage from Cardiff, where picking over the un-assimilated parts of the city is good business for freelance junk-collectors. This one also had a recently-dead body in it; the police surgeon took a look and called for help.

The (male) body appears to have died around midnight. When he examines it, Syracuse spots a number of artificial implants: a storage container of some sort replacing a lung (with no connection to anything else), the left optic nerve completely removed, and a coiled device of some sort wrapped round the top of the spine. This last appears to be the cause of death: it has flooded the victim's system with immunosuppressant drugs in an attempt to prevent rejection, and the conflict has just been too much for him.

Franks takes a look at the device: it contains a very simple computer, certainly not enough to run more than the most basic robot mind. It does have connection sockets for a radio, but there isn't one present. She and Syracuse theorise that it might be meant for remote-control of the spinal nerves. Syracuse checks for part and serial numbers; there are some, but they're quite short, looking more like someone's private inventory tags than any sort of official codes.

The body has been suffering from mild malnutrition over a long period. Syracuse takes fingerprints and other measurements to build up a biometric profile.

The team heads for Cardiff, with Five-Three looking like another piece of luggage. With the Severn bridges destroyed in the Final War, it's evening by the time they arrive; they talk to Chief Superintendant Logan, who doesn't recognise the photograph they show; he checks records, but is pretty sure this man hasn't been arrested by the South Wales Police. (His Eastern Division was once the Cardiff City Police; now that the survivors of Cardiff have been pushed out to the northern suburb of Coryton, he has only a dozen or so men. This may explain why he's somewhat on edge.)

Logan explains that the current "mayor of Cardiff" is a relative newcoming, Huw Moran, who came in about eighteen months ago to set up a "Food for Families" charity centre. This was popular enough that six months later he was chosen as mayor. The team has heard of the charity; this is a large operation for them, but not unheard-of.

The junk-pickers tend to congregate in an outdoor market, which at this time of the evening is deserted. There's a lamp burning in a building on the edge of this, however, which is apparently the shop of "Neil the Saes". Bennett climbs to look in through a window while Syracuse knocks on the door; Neil, who is poking at something on a work-bench, is eventually persuaded to come out and talk by the offer of money.

Neil recognises the victim as Simon Abernethy, a junk-picker who's been somewhat down on his luck lately. He hasn't seen Simon recently, and is shocked to learn that he's dead. He mentions that Simon's sister Lily has been looking for him, and gives both of their addresses. It seems that Simon is not the only person to have gone missing recently; there have been quite a lot of people who've suddenly vanished, whether moved away or been taken nobody really knows...

The team goes to Lily's flat; it's easy to find, as the door has been torn from the hinges and broken into three pieces. It's been trashed pretty thoroughly; Syracuse pokes about, and reckons probably at least three different people were involved, and that it was just destruction, not a search. Checking further, he thinks that someone else with slightly smaller feet may have come in after this was done; it looks as though some clothes and other small items are missing.

Bennett talks to the neighbours, who have learned the value of silence in a place where the police don't seem to be much help; they're willing to admit that the destruction happened last night, but none of them heard or saw anything more.

The team looks at the only accommodation on offer - the Coryton Hostel, which appears lively mostly in a fungal sense - and decides to drive out of town and camp for the night. In the morning, changed out of uniform, they come back and ask around in the market to see if anyone's met Simon lately. They notice in passing that the police foot patrols ignore the blatant drug dealers, but decide not to make a fuss about this for the moment. Franks picks out some slightly unusual robot parts and pays for them, and this helps break the ice somewhat; Syracuse asks about Lily Abernethy, who's a consulting electronics specialist (electronic junk can be sold for more if it's identified, and even more if it's working). Nobody's seen her for a day or two.

There's a pub in town, The Dragon, which seems a logical next point of investigation. It's pretty run-down, and the customers are readily divided into three groups: those drowning their sorrows in alcohol, those drowning their sorrows in other substances, and those providing those other substances. Asking about reveals that Simon spent a great deal of time in here, but nobody's seen him for two or three weeks.

The team heads on to Simon's flat, and finds someone hiding behind his bed: it appears to be Lily. She's thoroughly frightened, but after a bit of calming down - telling her that Simon's definitely dead causes her to slump in relief, as at least now she knows - tells her story.

She's rather ashamed not to have known he was missing for a few days; he's rather lost his nerve for junk-picking in the last few months, and has been drinking up his meagre savings. She tried to report him missing two days ago, and talked to Logan - who seemed angry at first, then frightened, and made her swear not to talk about it. She spent that night here at Simon's flat in case he came home - and when she went back to her own flat in the morning, she found it trashed. She picked up a few things and has been hiding here, trying to work out a safe way to get out of town.

The team promises to get her back to Bath - there's nothing to hold her here - and for the moment takes her to the nearby village of Castleton, on the outskirts of Newport. As they're dropping her off, she mentions that Simon's usual drinking mate was Bevan Griffiths, and she last saw him up at the church.

The team heads back into town, and Bennett follows Logan for a while; he spends some time walking around the town and drinking (on duty) in the Dragon. At the end of the day, he drinks some more and goes home.

Meanwhile, Syracuse and Thorne go to St Dewi's, where they are struck by the smell of tallow candles - what looks like two or three hundred. Father Jones, who seems more bibulous and frightened than like a strong leader, tries to deny that he knows anything about Bevan, but his eye-twitch to the vestry makes it clear that Bevan is hiding there.

Bevan was with Simon on the night he vanished; they'd been drinking, and got into a scuffle with one of the drug sellers in the Dragon. Nothing too serious, but Simon got a cut on his chest; after they'd been thrown out, Simon insisted on going up to the charity centre to see if he could find someone to patch him up. Bevan didn't like it - he seems to have an objection to food being given away rather than worked for, though some of this is camouflage for a general sense of unease - and headed home. He hasn't seen Simon since.

The team meets again after dark, and the charity centre seems worthy of immediate investigation. It is showing electric lights - the only building in town that is - and Bennett scales the three-story building to see what he can see through the windows. The building itself is quite ornate, though it's clearly fallen into disuse of late.

The skylights, and windows into about half the top floor, are covered with frost and condensation - on the inside, even though it's been cold and wet the whole time the team has been in Cardiff. Looking through the other windows reveals three sheet-draped human-sized forms on trolleys; there's one person lying in a bed, clearly the subject of recent surgery, hooked up to highly-sophisticated machinery.

The first floor appears to be offices, most of them unused for a while, though one of them seems to have been occupied recently; to one side of that, there's a heat trace that might be a sleeping human.

The ground floor doesn't have anyone in it; there's a kitchen and storage area, a large dining hall and a grand entrance hall. Bennett picks the lock on the front door, and the team heads straight up to the first floor, tracking down the heat trace. On the way, Bennett, who's in the lead, spots an IR trace coming down from the third floor; it's slightly cooler than a human body. As it comes into sight, he sees a human figure, with metal claws over its hands and some sort of sensory booster either worn on or implanted in its head. It charges towards him, and he shoots it with his laser pistol. It falls, but attempts to keep crawling until he shoots it again; Syracuse catches up, and reckons that it's been given the same sort of implants as Simon, though rather more extensively (there's a great deal of bone bracing and replacement).

The team kicks in the locked office door, then enters the side room, a very spartan bedroom converted from a supply cupboard. Syracuse and Bennett are in the lead, and as the occupant reaches for a gun Syracuse shoots him. He's very badly wounded, and Syracuse patches him up enough to keep him alive.

Meanwhile, more IR traces start to appear upstairs, warming up from background temperature and swarming towards the stairwell. Franks and Thorne prepare to hold them off, and they do indeed seem to be more augmented humans like the last one; Thorne shoots the first in the leg, exposing a steel "bone", and it starts to roll down the stairs towards them. Franks sprays automatic fire into the next two, and they go down. Three more climb over their fallen comrades and start to leap down the stairs, but Thorne kills two and Bennett, returning from the bedroom, gets the last one. Franks and Bennett shoot at the ceiling where the last two are strangely hesitant to join the fray, eventually weakening the structure enough to drop them onto the stairs. This leaves just the first, now one-legged, one that was rolling down the stairs; Thorne tells it to "stop", and it slashes its claws feebly at him...

1 September 2010

He puts a couple of rounds into the creature's head, and it stops twitching. Bennett starts to head up the stairs to the top floor; Franks and Syracuse pay more attention to the booted feet audible below. These turn out to belong to ten policemen, the majority of the local force, who shout "you're coming with us" and then open up with tangler rifles - weapons they shouldn't possess. Franks and Syracuse manage to evade them, and Syracuse calls out "we're the SAS". This doesn't seem to stop the police, and Franks, losing her cool, sends a burst of laser pistol fire into the front rank; they aren't armoured, and half of them go down. The rest back away, dragging their fallen comrades, with a muttered "mind how you go, then". Franks and Syracuse close the front doors and stack some furniture against them; this won't keep out anyone determined, but should at least give audible warning if the police come back.

Meanwhile, Bennett has reached the top floor, backed up by Five-Three. There are two corridors leading into the building, draped with plastic sheeting in place of doors; he sees the live bodies he spotted earlier through the windows, apparently being kept alive by sophisticated machinery, and several sheet-draped dead bodies. There are jars on shelves by the windows apparently containing extracted organs.

At the end of the corridor, with the others catching up, Bennett finds a larger reception-style area, with an open-cage lift-shaft in the centre. On the far side is a heavy armoured door, noticeably cold on infra-red. He attempts to open its electronic lock, but it's highly sophisticated and he doesn't get very far. Franks plants charges on the door, aiming just to destroy the locking mechanism rather than blow the whole thing off its hinges (quite possibly dropping it through the floors below); Bennett heads out through a window and up to the skylight, to provide a second front of attack.

Franks blows the door; the others stand with readied weapons. Inside is a scene that must surely have been set up in direct imitation of the classic mad scientist's lab: vats of coloured fluids, chambers large enough to hold a human body (mostly empty), and in the centre a table surrounded by an array of surgical equipment. A man is strapped down to it, looking terrified; his rib-cage has been opened, and his heart is visible. Stooping over him is a tall and spindly humanoid figure, with a silver hummock on its back. It turns as the door opens, and in a very poor-quality synthesised voice says something about "more meat for harvesting"; while it's clearly robotic, its face appears to have originated on a human woman. The hump leaps off its back, extending spidery legs, and hurls itself towards the group.

Thorne puts a three-round burst into the spider-bot, doing only minor damage. Bennett shoots the edge of the skylight with laser fire, causing it to shatter. Franks fires a shaped-charge grenade into the spider-bot, destroying it in a shower of disturbingly organic-looking shrapnel.

Syracuse aims on the humanoid robot; Five-Three shoots without aiming, throwing sparks off its armour but doing no damage. The robot shoots a built-in laser at Franks, apparently wounding her badly, though this turns out to be a flesh wound. Thorne fires back, achieving minor damage; Bennett plunges through the window, spraying laser fire towards the robot. Sadly, this has no effect other than to kill the man on the operating table.

Franks fires another shaped-charge grenade into the robot, and blows out its chest cavity in another spray of blood. It falls; the team rushes to put out the fires started by stray laser shots (and Five-Three scavenges laser parts from the two fallen robots). All the technology here seems to be a disturbing meld of standard robot kit and organic parts, many of them clearly harvested from humans. Some of the fragments of the robots bear Zone Denver serial numbers.

Syracuse and Franks start looking through the computers, but something goes wrong, and a warning beep starts to sound. The team gets out and swings the door back; it's nearly shut when the explosion goes off.

The computers that were keeping other victims alive seem to have shut down too, though they're worth salvaging. In part of the first floor not previously explored, there's a small drug factory, again with many organic components, set up to produce saleable recreational chemicals; there's no control software, but the hardware may yet prove useful.

Searching the mayor's office reveals some correspondence from a couple of months ago, from the headquarters of Food for Families, acknowledging that Coryton is now back on its feet and they'll be stopping food shipments.

Thorne and Franks go to fetch the vehicle; there's one policeman keeping a nervous eye on the place, but he runs away when they emerge. Meanwhile the others gather up more salvage, including the tangler rifles dropped by the wounded policemen; they're rather odd-looking, being made largely of organic components (bone, tendon, etc.) rather than the usual plastics.

The salvage, and the badly-wounded Moran, are ferried to Castleton, where in the morning the team reports in via vidcom. An ambulance for Moran, and a truck for the salvage, will be sent at once. It turns out that, shortly after the team left Bath, Fitzpatrick was kidnapped - by parties unknown, though they took care to use sleep drugs rather than killing anyone.

Meanwhile the team asks headquarters to look into the charity, and send some new policemen - the locals appear to have been Moran's own recent hires, except for Logan.

Back in Bath, Moran wakes up and screams - he no longer has something constantly telling him what to do and think.

Looking into Fitzpatrick's kidnapping reveals some telltale camouflage blurs of stealth suits on CCTV footage. The bootprints are human, as far as can be determined. Extensive interviews with locals find some who saw a group of people, one of them apparently very drunk, crossing town on the relevant night; tracking times and places leads the team to the river Avon, where Syracuse finds the marks of a medium-sized inflatable boat having been beached.

Tracking up and down river reveals nothing, nor has there been any activity on the Bristol Channel sonar line.

Ddraig Alpha

But talking of sonar... the Ddraig Alpha former gas platform in Caernarfon Bay, which is used to monitor and pre-process sonar data from the Irish Sea, has dropped out of communication. The sea-bed fibre appears to be intact, so the team loads up a RHIB on a trailer and drives to the far western coast of Wales.

The platform, which was used to pump gas ashore until reserves became too low for useful exploitation, lies around twenty miles off-shore. Weather is moderate, but the team still has to get quite close before they can see anything. Through targeting scopes, it appears there's been a firefight, though it looks like small-arms rather than explosives. Infra-red shows at least two people on board, but there's no boat visible.

As the boat comes closer to the platform, someone comes out on deck and calls down "ahoy!". He's Myers, one of the technicians on board; he shouts down that there's been a minor robot attack, which they managed to repel, but they're still working on the equipment.

Franks, Thorne and Syracuse climb the ladder openly from the platform's jetty; Bennett and Five-Three switch to camouflage mode and head up a different ladder...

16 September 2010

Franks, Thorne and Syracuse talk to Myers, who describes the robot attack. It turns out that "repel" is putting it a bit too strongly; Tarantulas and Stalkers (he doesn't use those names, but describes them reasonably accurately) swarmed out of the water and shot at them, and they hid. The robots trashed the control room and various other bits of the rig, then left. (Franks is surprised that none of the crew was injured, and suspects that the robots must have been deliberately firing to miss.) Myers, Wilkes (the other crewman) and Lieutenant Manning all seem to have been more concerned with not getting shot than with noticing details, however.

Syracuse looks at the control room: it's a mess, with equipment cabinets overturned and broken components everywhere. Thinking about his own approach to searching, he reckons that this looks more like the aftermath of a very careless search than like a deliberate attempt at destruction. He can't see any sign of claw-marks on the deck, but that's not necessarily indicative. He goes back outside, and keeps an eye out towards the shore.

Meanwhile, Bennett has conducted quick searches of the other two blocks, the old pump-house and the accomodation area. There are similar signs of destruction (or search) in both; it's clear that only three of the cabins are in regular use. He climbs onto the roof of the main area that's in use - the old admin block, now mostly converted to sonar data analysis - and looks through skylights.

Thorne heads up the platform's crane, to keep a lookout for further attacks.

Franks goes to work with the crew on getting communications up and running; she notes that they don't seem as competent as she'd expect for someone in this job. Wilkes is better than average-looking, and she gives him the eye; it's not long before they have an opportunity to "check one of the workbenches". As they're preparing to do the deed, however, Wilkes pulls a knife; Franks isn't as surprised as she might have hoped she'd be, considering her intended activities and current total state of undress. They scuffle back and forth, Franks attempting to kick and Wilkes continuing with the knife.

At the same time, Manning and Myers pull pistols on Syracuse, who's come back into the main workshop looking for Franks. He attempts to talk them out of it, but Myers takes a shot as Syracuse is readying his weapon; return fire into Myers' arm, crippling it, instantly takes him out of the fight, and Manning is not willing to die today.

Bennett, having lost sight of Franks, is concerned by the sound of shots, and worried by the violent movement that he can dimly make out on infra-red through the thin metal hull. He flips himself down from the roof to the back entrance of the admin block, and hurls himself in... only to find that Franks, though bloodied, has managed to grab Wilkes' arm, throw him into a workbench, and give him a solid (if barefoot) kick where it hurts most.

Interrogation, mostly by Bennett and Franks, ensues; Manning is the most cooperative of the three. All of them are bandits who killed the platform's original crew, and have been looking for a circuit board that they've been told is somewhere in the rig's structure. Apparently this, and the other one, will tell them where to find a real treasure - the victim who was trying (unsuccessfully) to buy his life with this knowledge claimed it was something that would still be valuable even now after the collapse of civilisation. And this was meant to be the easy board to find - the other one is somewhere in the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, inside the Milton Keynes robofac complex.

Franks spends the next several hours cannibalising components to get the vidcom up and running again, then asks for a repair team to be sent out. Syracuse meanwhile spends the afternoon and much of the night searching the rig; eventually he spots a glint of something around twenty feet deep inside a box girder. Franks cuts a hole at the appropriate spot, removes the board that's inside (being careful of fingerprints), and welds it up again.

As a circuit board, it makes very little sense - there are components mounted all over it, most of them unconnected to anything else, and even the etched surface connections don't seem to go anywhere.

Once the repair crew arrives, the team heads back to Bath with the prisoners.

Checking the board for fingerprints reveals a set that match the old criminal records database - Alan Meggitt, who worked for the Bristol company that built the rig, was arrested shortly after construction began for a variety of jewel and securities thefts.

Bennett checks the old manifest of the National Museum of Computing - it seems that the CAD and stress-analysis rig used by the construction company was donated to the Museum in 2028. That certainly seems like a sensible place to start looking...

Rare Earth

6 October 2010

The first obstacle comes two miles from the edge of the Milton Keynes robofac zone. Rather than the usual open ground, perhaps with a human-placed sign or two to mark the area into which human intrusion is unwelcome, there's a wire fence, patrolled occasionally by spybots. It looks as though it's only been up for a couple of months.

Working around the perimeter reveals several gates: a spur off the M1 motorway, northern and southern entrances for the A5, and the double-tracked maglev line. The last of these seems like the best bet: the fence clearly post-dates the maglev, and the gates open automatically when a train is about to pass. After a night's rest, the team heads in on foot, getting away from the fence as quickly as possible.

There's significant robot activity inside the zone: the team spots patrols of Myrmidons in jeep-like small robotrucks, and once crosses what's clearly the track of a Juggernaut. The maglev line leads directly to the Bletchley junction, and Bletchley Park is nearby; it's not fenced, but there are constant ground patrols by Rovers and a few Myrmidons.

The team lies up to the west, and Bennett sneaks down to see what he can make out of the place. The structures seem to have been left mostly intact: Block H, the old computing museum, has some sort of activity in its southern wing that's producing a great deal of heat. The mansion and the visitor centre (which has a maglev spur running into it) are apparently more conventional robotic industrial facilities; the huts have been sprayed in some sort of preservative, and are not in use.

Bennett takes a closer look at the museum building: it's covered with overlapping cameras, and disabling them would present a significant challenge. There's a limited view into the southern part of the block: there's a vacuum-tube computer in operation, with robots (Mechanic units) controlling it.

The team decides to head in under cover of one of the loaders that occasionally moves between the computer museum and the other buildings. They don't provoke any immediate reaction. There's a better view of the southern room from here: the Colossus Mark 1 and 2 rebuilds, as well as the Harwell dekatron computer (later known as WITCH), are all running. There's a lot of other equipment in here too: a hundred-foot-long synthetic ruby covered with strain gauges, an early laser ring gyroscope, what seems likely to be a small magnetic anomaly detector, and other sensors which are too abstruse or high-tech for the team to recognise. Looking at the cabling and patterns of movement, it seems that a single supervisory computer is talking to the outside world and allocating data both to the vacuum-tube machines and to the other hardware here. (Since even a Mechanic has more spare CPU than the vacuum-tube machines, it's not at all clear why this commitment of resources might be thought a good idea...)

Bennett, who's become rather bored with all this, heads off to look for the CAD server; the rest of the team joins him as he finds it, in a room that's filled with neglected hardware. Franks takes it apart and locates the other circuit board, which is bracketed in place but not connected to anything; she then reassembles the casing, and Syracuse spreads dust over it. Bennett looks at the two boards together and gets the idea that the component numbers are the most important element - XORing them together reveals a pair of approximate latitude and longitude coordinates, somewhere around the South Coast, and what's probably a rough vector map.

The team sneaks out, reversing its previous routes, and heads back to Bath. A more detailed analysis suggests that the coordinates are in Newport, on the Isle of Wight, which as far as anyone knows has been abandoned by both humans and robots. The team takes a boat on a trailer to the nearest convenient fishing village, then with Thorne at the helm sets out across the Solent. There's a disconcerting moment as the boat runs into something solid just below water level - Bennett tries to photograph it, without success, while everyone else bails - but the team gets to Cowes and finds a spot to beach the boat and repair the hull crack.

They continue upriver past the swampy shores of the Medina. Bennett spots that the plant life to the east is rather more blighted than that to the west - indeed, there seems to be a circular area that just about touches the river bank; Five-Three identifies a nanotech agent, and Syracuse samples it. This seems worthy of fairly immediate attention, so the team beaches the boat at the ruins of Newport, dons protective suits, and climbs to what's left of Carisbrooke Castle (mostly untouched by the war, but thoroughly neglected and becoming overgrown).

Off in the distance is a cluster of three containers, not very overgrown, more or less in the middle of the blighted area. The central one shows an infra-red trace. Syracuse marks the edge of the blighted zone, to gauge how fast it's expanding.

Since there's no immediate threat, the team returns to following the map. Five-Three's inertial platform gets them to the right general area, and Syracuse works out the correlation of landmarks with the map. The target is a lorry carrying a forty-foot container, clearly abandoned for many years, though with a long-term parking permit attached to its windscreen.

Bennett opens the container's doors; inside is a mound of polystyrene foam, the cardboard boxes that surrounded it having long since rotted away. Inside them are metal ingots: mostly not gold or platinum, but yttrium, lanthanum, samarium, and other rare earths which were starting to be in short supply even before the war. If the container's at its load limit, this is probably thirty tons of elements which are otherwise unobtainable. Unfortunately this is rather too much to think about shifting...

The team returns to the centre of the blight, which looks as though it's growing at about a foot per day; Five-Three tracks a radiation signature which suggests the central container is a radiothermal generator. All the containers are covered with Zone Zaire bar codes, to the point that Five-Three feels compelled to comment that its components are not thus labelled...

Franks cuts a hole in the side of one of the containers; inside is a basic nanofactory. She disconnects the power feed from the RTG, and it shuts down; she does the same with the other factory container, then tapes over both holes to keep the weather out. After all, this might be adaptable for producing useful drugs...

The team heads back to report in and get a support unit with heavier equipment. Once they're back in Bath, there's news: the laser communicator has received an offer from someone in south-western Zone Moscow who claims to want to defect, and that he knows how to build robot-style small fusion reactors. Combined with the rare earths needed to construct them, this could mean a restoration of electrical power across Britain.

Unfortunately the government has no idea whether he's genuine or trustworthy, but it seems a risk worth taking...

Voyage of the Barham

13 October 2010

The actual message was sent by a VIRUS agent in southern Spain, Jorje Segovia; it seems that VIRUS has been having a great deal of trouble crossing the Mediterranean in boats lately, and he'd like himself and several other agents around the shoreline picked up and brought back to England. He's given a location and recognition phrases for his own pickup, and (knowing the laser com can be intercepted) will reveal more details in person.

A few ex-Navy crew have been located and reactivated: Commander Michael Sullivan is in his late fifties, and had commanded attack submarines before the Final War. Lieutenant Commander Philip Kennet is in his seventies, but had worked on HMS Vigilant's reactor before her loss; while he's not familiar with the Barham's reactor, he does at least have naval experience. Lieutenant Paula McDonald was a very junior naval intelligence officer, and speaks most of the languages that the group's likely to encounter. Ten other sailors with some idea of submarine skills have also been found, and will be coming along.

Barham has been thoroughly decontaminated and made as serviceable as possible. The Trident missiles have been removed, since getting their warheads back into use will be a long-term job (and the government doesn't foresee a situation in which using them would be a good idea); the torpedoes and smaller swim-out missiles are available, though. The missile tubes are packed with supplies, including three RHIBs; since the sub will be running short-crewed, there's room for a fair bit of gear inside the pressure hull too, including SCUBA gear, a hard diving suit, and Five-Three - who is introduced to the crew with a certain mutual reserve.

The ship sets sail under cloud cover, never hard to find in the Bristol Channel, and turns south past the Isles of Scilly. Commander Sullivan takes things slowly: there's no specific schedule to be kept, and idling along at nine knots keeps the boat quiet. There's a constant listening watch: there are noises both from the Bay of Biscay and from further out in the Atlantic, including active sonar and torpedoes being fired - but no pressure-hull collapses.

Nothing comes too close, though, and four days later the ship has reached the Strait of Gibraltar. She stands off for a while, listening to try to find out what's going on; there are sonar pings from the strait, apparently at random intervals and locations, but no engine sounds. Commander Sullivan brings her in along the undersea current, with just enough way to maintain steering authority, while Syracuse maps the emitters - a wide-spaced network across the surface - and uses echoes of their own signals to spot the wrecks that partly obstruct the channel.

Barham turns north-east towards Malaga, where the rising sea level has hidden some of the worst tourist-hotel excesses (and many of them have in any case collapsed); there's no visible surface traffic, so she surfaces briefly for the team to get away in a RHIB, then submerges to wait for news.

Most of the buildings and vegetation have been stripped away and replaced by antenna farms; Zone Paris, which controls this area, is believed to take a very strong interest in radio astronomy. The team treks a mile or so inland to the roadside shrine that's Segovia's rendezvous point, spotting occasional robotruck tracks en route. Bennett goes ahead to check the small building, which is empty; Syracuse waits inside, while the rest of the team hides. After a few hours, a figure appears on foot, not obviously armed, he comes up to the shrine, sees Syracuse, and gives the recognition phrase, then starts to speak rapidly in Spanish. Syracuse doesn't speak this, and the man's English is fairly broken, but he manages to get his point across: he's Carlos Martin, a local recruited by Segovia, who was picked up by a Zone Paris random sweep just after he'd sent his laser-comm. Segovia is now in a slave camp some five miles away, and will probably be executed when the slaves' current job is complete.

The team scouts out the camp: it seems to match the standard pattern they've heard about, but this is the first one they've actually encountered. There's an outer laser fence, cleared ground, and an inner wire one; Stalkers patrol across the dead zone between them. Inside the wire are two areas, the slave barracks and the robots' maintenance and recharging facility. Towers at each corner of the wire hold Myrmidons with machine guns. There's a gate on the east fence into the robot area, and another in the western end of the southern fence into the human part; each is guarded by Rovers.

After some discussion, the team develops a plan. Franks sneaks to a section of the laser fence close to the south-east tower - discovering as she does so that outside the fence is a minefield, but managing to step between them. Thorne moves west and aims on one of the corner towers; Syracuse, Bennett and Five-Three move east, with Syracuse ready to shoot the north-eastern tower gunner.

Franks takes a few minutes to plant charges on two pillars of the laser fence, but is apparently spotted as she finishes up; the south-east Myrmidon moves to shoot her, but misses. Bennett shoots and destroys its gun; Thorne fires and hits the leg of the north-west tower, but although the metal strut is broken, the tower doesn't fall. Franks dives through a momentary gap in the laser frence, and Syracuse shoots the north-eastern tower gunner with a grenade - it dodges, and the grenade falls into the northern minefield where it sets off a couple of charges. Five-Three shoots the two eastern gate Rovers with its newly-installed laser rifle, taking them down. The laser fence switches into continuous-curtain mode.

The north-eastern Myrmidon returns fire on Syracuse, and the two western ones on Thorne, without success. Thorne shoots and kills the south-western Myrmidon, Bennett takes aim on the north-eastern, and Franks detonates the explosives on the laser fence while hurling herself forwards to the base of the south-eastern tower. Syracuse kills the north-eastern Myrmidon, while Five-Three shoots the south-eastern, damaging but not killing it.

The north-western Myrmidon shoots at Thorne, who just barely manages to evade its fire. There's a sound of motors from the robot maintenance shack, and a pack of eight Stalkers starts to move out. Thorne returns fire, but the Myrmidon also manages to evade. Bennett sprays the Stalker pack with storm carbine fire before it can disperse; although several of them manage to evade (it seems likely they're being teleoperated), he kills three of them. Franks hastily sets explosives on the base of the south-eastern tower, hoping that its collapse will also take down the (possibly electrified) razor wire; Syracuse sprays some of the surviving Stalkers, killing one, and Five-Three gets another, leaving three. The south-east Myrmidon leaps out of its tower, attempting to land on Franks; she evades, but it's still right next to her...

27 October 2010

Two groups of four Stalkers, which had been patrolling between the fences, appear; the northern group fires out in the rough direction of Syracuse and Bennett, while the southern ones shoot Franks, doing minor damage. Thorne shoots his last Myrmidon, but doesn't quite do enough damage to finish it off; Bennett puts a burst into the one next to Franks, but again it barely survives. Two spybots rise out of the maintenance building; Syracuse shoots at the closer one, without success.

The south-east Myrmidon charges and grapples Franks, apparently intending to push her into the laser fence. Bennett shoots and kills it with a burst of automatic fire, but its momentum still carries Franks through the laser fence; she's badly wounded, falls into the minefield and loses consciousness.

Syracuse continues to kill the middle group of Stalkers, while the northern group returns fire on him, singeing him slightly. While he's distracted by this, however, something leaps on him from behind, slashing at him with more-than-razor-sharp claws; it's an enemy Tarantula.

Thorne finally kills his Myrmidon, and looks around for more targets. Bennett kills a Stalker. Syracuse shoots at the Tarantula point-blank with the last grenade in his launcher, but it dodges the slow-moving projectile. Five-Three, having taken time to aim its newly-installed laser, knocks the eastern spybot out of the sky; the other one moves to hover over Thorne. The Tarantula slashes at Syracuse again, and a hissing sound suggests it's started to deploy nanoburn.

Bennett shoots and kills the Tarantula; Syracuse backpedals to get away from the small nanoburn cloud. Thorne downs the last spybot with his pistol. Only the Stalkers are still active at this point, and Thorne, Bennett and Syracuse quickly finish them off, while Five-Three takes down the camp's long-range radio antenna and sneaks forward.

Bennett heads into the camp, noting that the east gate is carved apart by a flickering shape just before he gets there. Syracuse runs towards Franks' unconscious body. Bennett heads into the northern building, a maintenance and recharge facility; he kills the eight Mechanics there, and disables the generator. The laser fence goes down.

Syracuse hauls Franks out of the minefield, then patches her up. As Bennett investigates the other robot building, he's run over by a Bossbot smashing its way out; Franks triggers the explosives on the tower, but while this makes a mess of the building it doesn't reach far enough to damage the robot. Thorne, who's been moving round, shoots it with his pistol, giving Bennett enough breathing-room to get off a burst of laser fire and kill it.

The team releases the slaves, including a somewhat shocked Jorge Segovia. They make quick introductions and return to the coast; Segovia, who was expecting a Morag, is surprised to see the boat, and even more so when Barham surfaces. (The team explains that the Morag is now radioactive debris on the Canadian coast after its reactor malfunction; "that was my fault" interjects Five-Three, deactivating its chamaeleon skin.)

Segovia isn't sure why there's been so much more trouble moving around the Mediterranean lately; VIRUS' best guess is that the robots have stopped shooting down each other's satellites. There are four more agents to be picked up: Ornella Vitellini on the southern coast of Sicily, Ibrahim Haddad in Libya, Paul Gorich in Greece and Mustafa Tarabya in Turkey. Gorich has the full details of the Zone Moscow defector, but it seems likely that they'll have to take Barham into the Black Sea.

3 November 2010

Barham sails for Sicily. The meeting point for Ornella is another roadside shrine - they're small enough that the robots usually leave them alone - and the team sets out as before.

The southern coast of Sicily is very distinct from other areas the team has visited - it's covered with vegetation, rather than having just a few scrubby plants or nothing at all. The team takes samples: anything that can cope with the level of pollution in the sea and atmosphere might well be worth looking into.

In the shrine there's one human visible on infra-red, and Franks approaches; the woman's in her fifties, matches Segovia's description, and has the recognition phrases, so (once both sides prove they're human, and with Five-Three remaining camouflaged) the team returns to the boat.

Unfortunately the boat mostly isn't there; a swarm of glass insects is reducing it to half-inch-wide strips and carrying it away. The motor housing is still mostly intact, so Franks goes in to try to retrieve it; half of the insects immediately set off along the coast, while many of the remainder swarm onto her, stinging repeatedly with some sort of neurotoxin. She moves away, drops, and rolls, crushing the insects as they continue to sting; Bennett gets in close and destroys one with his laser pistol, but it's a tricky shot to avoid hitting Franks; one swarm moves onto him. As Syracuse loads up a clip of HE grenades, Bennett crushes some of the insects on him, and Franks jumps into the water - which doesn't help much - before finishing off the last few on her. Syracuse fires a grenade into the remaining insects by the engine, and Bennett destroys his last few.

The group moves out quickly and takes cover; a few minutes later comes the sound of turbines, but the team isn't spotted. Clearly another boat is needed; the best bet seems to be Ortygia, a few miles along the coast, which used to be part of the city of Syracuse and now supports a few hundred surviving humans.

As they walk, there's some discussion of how the settlement manages to survive; they've planted vegetation along all the shorelines, which fools the Jagerswarm patrols, and they have a treatment derived from nanoburn which suppresses trace of human pheromones. The team approaches the causeway, and is greeted with laser-sight dots on the chest; Vitellini is recognised, and translates. Five-Three has remained out of sight, and sends a lasercommed giggle to Franks' earpiece as they enter the settlement.

The settlement is clearly only just hanging on to existence; the team offers to trade for the use of a boat (explaining that they need to get back to their "ship"), but there's some reluctance to go out beyond familiar waters. Diesel would be very welcome, but the team knows that Barham doesn't carry much spare; on the other hand, Syracuse and Franks work on repairing various seized-up engines, and Franks and Bennett work on the settlement's firearms (a motley assortment in wildly varying states of repair). Syracuse offers some of his supply of torpene, though Zone Berlin tends not to use nanoburn anyway; he takes a sample of the pheromone suppressor (to be used on places, rather than on people).

The team splits up for the night, several of them finding agreeable local companions. Things go well until about 3am, when the screaming starts. As people are getting dressed and heading towards the commotion, there's the distinctly-audible pop of a gas shell, and a whitish cloud is visible in the street ahead, with crawling and immobile bodies below. Bennett catches a very faint flicker of something running along a wall; Syracuse works out that nanoburn is being deployed.

Franks stops and observes, catching a brief glimpse of a Tarantula with extra canisters on its upper surface. Bennett calls for Five-Three on his comm; there's no answer. The team fires towards the flickering shape, but without much success; Syracuse advances to treat the nanoburned victims. While he's doing that, Bennett and Franks both score hits with storm carbine fire, though it doesn't seem to slow the Tarantula down much; it returns fire with a nanoburn canister, and while Franks took the time to pull on her NBC suit, Bennett didn't want the encumbrance; he goes down, falling on his vial of antidote.

Franks decides that harrying fire isn't sufficient, and rapidly constructs a series of shaped-charge mines, deploying them in the paths the Tarantula seems likely to take. One of them does go off, and the smoking shell of the Tarantula (sans legs, sans gun, sans claws, sans everything) bounces along the street to her feet.

There's not much to salvage; Syracuse gathers up the leaking nanoburn canisters and puts them in the space that's already contaminated. This Tarantula had a gauss grenade launcher attached to its main weapon, which Five-Three (having eventually arrived) mentions is rare for Tarantulas since they're not usually intended as main-line combatants. It's carrying Zone Zaire serial numbers, slightly more subtly than the last infiltration of this type that the team saw, but it still seems likely to have been from the mysterious other party.

The population of Ortygia searches for signs of a Morag; there are tracks where one has come ashore recently, but no other trace. In the morning, the team gets a lift out to sea on a largish fishing boat; Syracuse gets the distinct impression that, before last night's events, the locals might well have tried to take the submarine, but they're now playing things straight thanks to a combination of gratitude and fear. Some spare diesel is pumped onto the boat, and Barham departs for Libya.

Ibrahim Hadded is meant to be waiting in the village of Tukrah, on the coast near Benghazi. As the team's heading towards land, Franks spots a suspiciously recent weld on the tube of the RHIB they're now using; some careful inspection suggests there's a large mass of some sort inside the buoyancy tube. Five-Three looks for electromagnetic emissions, and thinks there's a timer of some sort; using its T-ray vision (linked through to Franks' HUD monocle), they determine that there's a package of explosive, a timer and a radio receiver. The timer is active...

The rest of the team goes overboard while Franks cuts into the cell and disarms the bomb - easily enough to kill everyone on board and sink the boat. It's all standard-issue British kit, and - given that the boat's been stored in a missile tube since leaving harbour - almost certainly planted before Barham set out. On the other hand, someone on board must have sent the radio signal that started the timer...

Franks patches the cell, and the team continues. Haddad himself is where he's expected to be, and very grateful for the pickup (the locals are devout Moslems, and he hasn't had a drink for six months or more). The team returns to Barham without further incident; Franks and Syracuse are keeping an eye out for odd reactions among the crew who help them stow the boat, but there's nothing immediately obvious.

17 November 2010

Bennett checks the computer logs for any record of radio transmissions; there's nothing listed. Franks searches the submarine for illicit hardware attached to the antennae; nothing shows up. On closer examination of the bomb, it looks pretty close to the way the book says it should be done; there are a couple of minor differences, either the beginning of a specific signature or just mistakes.

Syracuse, feeling a bit paranoid, checks the medical supplies; there's nothing missing or tampered with. Franks uses the trigger from the bomb to rig up a receiver that'll alert her if a similar triggering signal is sent again. All of the team starts to socialise with the crew a bit more, hoping to spot unusual behaviour.

Meanwhile, Barham makes her way up through the Aegean towards Mount Athos. There's occasional whalesong, which might be a sign of Zone Berlin's success in repopulating the seas but seems more likely to be more Orca robots; Barham slows down whenever it's heard, and there's no change in the whalesong as she passes.

The team decides to take the third RHIB; Five-Three scans it and confirms there's a package aboard, probably more explosives. As the team leaves and Barham submerges, there's a transmission that triggers Franks' receiver; the team jumps overboard (except for Five-Three, hunkered down in the stern) and Franks disarms the device.

The boat is carried a short way inland and concealed in an olive grove, then doused with the Syracusan anti-pheromone nanotech, after which the team sets off to climb the winding road to the Xeropotamou monastery. Bennett splits off and goes ahead under camouflage. A church bell rings from somewhere above, stopping after about twenty tolls. Bennett continues to climb, then spies the monastery buildings, under a cover of trees and other foliage that has clearly been trained to conceal the outline of the structure. He approaches more closely, and although there's no sign of movement he spies a couple of well-concealed cameras. Moving around the buildings, he finds some sign of farming, with plants carefully not planted in rows or separated from other species but still clearly under cultivation. There's also the occasional goat wandering about.

Syracuse approaches the monastery door and is addressed in Greek; after some exchanges of mutual incomprehension, a new voice joins in, speaking English with an American accent. This is indeed Paul Gorich, and the team's asked in (including "your invisible friend"). (Five-Three is sent back to keep an eye on the boat.) Gorich explains the situation, in case he doesn't survive to the rendezvous: their target is Alexei Popovich, who was a nuclear physicist before the war and has more recently been working as a librarian - i.e. a long-term agent-in-place - for Zone Moscow. He's now retired, and living with his wife in Yalta; enforced idleness is wearing on him, and he wants to put his skills to use again. (Gorich hasn't seen him in person recently, but he's been able to get messages through the robots' communication channels.)

Gorich packs up his few belongings, and the team sets off back down the hill. As they cross a brow, Five-Three lasercomms them: company is coming, two humans on foot. The team gets off the road and hides; Gorich thinks these might be the "followers of Gabriel" whom the monks had mentioned as bad news, though without any details. They're certainly dressed so as to suggest a biblical setting: robes, long beards, and walking sticks, though the large backpacks spoil the image a bit. They walk up to the monastery, and a brief conversation ensues; the tones of voice indicate that they're talking calmly, while the monk on the other side becomes increasingly annoyed. After a final exchange they turn away and head down the hill and away; the team leaves a fifteen-minute gap, then follows.

As the team's approaching the boat, jet turbines become audible in the distance. Everyone scatters and hides, keeping an eye out. Two large winged humans with an unearthly glow about them - probably, on reflection, robots derived from the Hoplite - pass overhead towards the monastery; they go out of sight, and there's a repeated sound of thunder. A few minutes later, the figures return. The team heads back to Xeropotamou, but it's a smouldering wreck with nobody left alive; Franks thinks that this looks like the results of particle-beam strikes.

After checking to make sure Gorich is fully human, the team returns to the boat and to Barham. Gorich is very impressed by the submarine; VIRUS has been building a few smaller craft, but nothing on this scale. He checks that this is indeed a Royal Navy ship and confirms: "That means you've got booze on board, right?"

As before, there are no undue reactions from the crew who help get the RHIB back on board. Once the submarine is under way, the team talks with Gorich; he worked for "a three-letter agency" before the war, not one of the ones that's still in business, and is the only VIRUS agent they've met so far to have had pre-war intelligence training. They discuss the saboteur problem with him; their main theory is that it's someone who regards Barham as too valuable to risk on a hazardous mission, so they expect him to be as much a target as they are.

Bennett, Syracuse and Franks check the logs and antennae again, and still find nothing. They talk to the captain: he's not particularly expert in computer forensics, and their best bet would be Lieutenant McDonald. The Dardanelles passage seems like a plausible time for mutiny; the only firearms on board, apart from the team's own, are in the weapons locker in the wardroom, and the team decides to mount an informal guard there and on the bridge.

Passage through the Dardanelles was always a fiddly business; the sea-level rise helps, but there are plenty of wrecks to confuse matters. Sonar sensitivity is maximised, and Barham creeps through at minimum manoeuvreing speed with blue-green lasers scanning the sea bed for obstructions. Just about as she's passing Çanakkale, another submarine is heard approaching from the north; the computer classifies it as similar to an old Russian Borei-class boat: same powerplant and pumpjet, at least, though not entirely identical in other respects. There's also a "pilot fish" with it, a much smaller submarine (probably too small to be manned) running a few hundred yards ahead. Barham goes quiet, and the Borei passes without reacting to her.

Barham clears the Dardanelles and turns towards Tekirdag. Because of the confined waters, the team waits for bad weather, then heads inshore, taking Gorich with them in case the saboteur strikes again. There's no change to the boat since it was stowed at Mount Athos, and no signal is sent from the submarine as she submerges. As before, the team hides the RHIB in vegetation and heads for the rendezvous point, a ruined building on the shoreline.

Mustafa Tarabya is very pleased to see them, and (in rather broken English, slightly assisted by Gorich's broken Turkish) tells them about a "robot device" that his team of locals has found; it's too big to go on the RHIB, but he's got it on a fishing boat and he'd be happy to bring it out to the team's larger boat. The team takes him in the RHIB a few miles up the coast as he continues to describe the device - it sounds roughly like a large autofactory, which would certainly be useful.

As the RHIB pulls into an inlet, Tarabya asks permission to signal to his friends, which he does with a small electric torch; he then hurls himself overboard as the dozen or so people - half on the shore, half on the fishing boat - aim their weapons at the team. Bennett and Five-Three dive in and grapple with Tarabya, while the others return fire.

Franks fires her ready grenade - a shaped charge - into the group on the shore, instantly killing the man it hits and wounding his neighbours with the blast. They shoot back with rifles, but without much effect. Underwater, Bennett gets a good hold of Tarabya, but then feels him go limp.

Thorne puts a hole in the fishing boat, destroying its engine and allowing it to start taking on water. Bennett returns to the RHIB and joins in the fire; he, Franks, Syracuse and Thorne (who switches to pistol, on the basis that it's not worth wasting robot-killing ammunition on these people) kill the other attackers (a couple of them run away, and Syracuse shouts "surrender" rather than shooting the last one; he dives over the far side of the fishing boat).

The team checks the fishing boat before it sinks (Five-Three, having carved Tarabya into several pieces, climbs the anchor chain); there's something that looks vaguely like an autofactory, though on close inspection it's clearly a mockup. With Tarabya dead, the group returns to Barham.

8 December 2010

The next stage of the trip is the creep through the Bosphorus, made tricker by the destruction of Istanbul in the Final War. It's clear that someone is using this route with some frequency, though; debris has been cleared in the central channel, and as Barham is approaching the narrows Syracuse picks up what sounds like a torpedo or very small submarine, running at low speed.

There's more submarine activity in the Black Sea - there are often multiple simultaneous submerged contacts, and occasional active sonars. It sounds mostly like anti-submarine warfare exercises; much of the activity seems to be centred on Balaclava, the site of a Soviet-era submarine base, though the Russians hadn't been using it since 1993. During the two-day crossing, Franks seduces Gorich, who doesn't object.

Paula MacDonald wants to go along on the trip to pick up the Russians; Bennett takes her aside and alerts her to the likelihood of there being a traitor on board Barham, and she seems appropriately shocked. Bennett and Franks dress in their camouflage suits, which were after all originally taken from an infocommando team; Syracuse, Thorne and Paula MacDonald are in military fatigues, with Paul Gorich in civilian garb.

There's quite a bit of radio traffic in and around Yalta - all encrypted to a level that Five-Three cannot usefully crack. The team goes ashore at dawn in a deserted and flooded village about five miles up the coast, hides the boat, and sets off along the road.

As the town becomes visible, it's clear that it's been thoroughly rebuilt since its days as a Soviet and then Russian holiday resort. Franks, who's studied architecture as part of her demolition training, notes that support pillars and structural members are narrower than they "ought" to be; this is clearly robot-level technology. While there are plenty of people about, there are no robots visible; the menial jobs are being done by humans, dressed in jumpsuits with bar-codes on the back rather than in the mixed clothing of other people here. People nod as the party passes; Five-Three attracts some attention, but mostly along the lines of an interesting curiosity rather than a serious threat.

Gorich leads the group to the Popovich's flat, the top floor of a three-storey inverted ziggurat. Franks and Bennett wait below, while the others go up. Alexei is in his sixties, and his wife Tanya in her thirties; they're fairly ready to go, and need only a few minutes for final packing.

On the street, Franks spots some suspicious patterns of movement among the other people loitering in the area; assuming that this group is connected with that group, and putting things together, it looks as though they're being surrounded. She mentions this to Bennett, who walks up to the notional perimeter and back again; the loiterers don't react.

Alexei and Tanya end up with a medium-sized backpack each; Syracuse heads down to the ground floor to check the situation, then comes back. Thorne stays up top to cover the others; Bennett heads out towards the sea-front, past the perimeter, without interruption, then returns, and the whole group starts to move.

One of the loiterers says something sharply in Russian; Paul replies, and they keep moving. All of the loiterers open their mouths very widely, in what seems pretty clearly a threatening manner; Thorne sprays one of the groups cutting off their retreat, and the rest of the team draws weapons and opens fire as Paul and Paula hit the deck and the Popoviches follow. A siren starts to sound in the distance.

The ensuing firefight is short and brutal. Thorne and Bennett spray groups of attackers with storm carbine fire, gradually wearing them down; Syracuse and Franks empty their grenade launcher clips, since one hit with a shaped-charge grenade is a definite kill. The enemy returns fire with mouth-mounted electrolasers; the team mostly manages to evade fire, and their armour helps them stay conscious. Five-Three vanishes almost at once. A few seconds into the fight, Paul's voice calls "hey, where'd Paula go?"; Franks glances round but can't spot her.

As the robots are being whittled down, there's a creaking and groaning, and part of a wall slides off to crush the last ones blocking the escape to the seafront. One of the rearguard breaks from its group and runs for Franks; she sprays it with fire until it goes down, at which point it explodes. None of the team is injured, though Tanya Popovich catches a bit of shrapnel.

Once all the robots are killed, Syracuse gets people up and moving; he offers first aid to Tanya, but she declines. Bennett and Franks decide that, since Paula is clearly the traitor and knows where the boat is hidden (and the rendezvous point for Barham), she can't be allowed to get away to report; they chase her into a nearby building. They lose her trail at first, but Five-Three picks up the sound of her fleeing footsteps; they chase her across a courtyard, through a laundry room, and eventually out onto a parallel street, just as three Myrmidons close ranks round her. Franks lets her carbine fall on its sling and hauls out a missile launcher, giving the round just enough time to lock onto the front Myrmidon before she fires; the warhead, designed to take out tanks, barely slows down as it kills the Myrmidon, and overpenetrates enough that Paula is killed by the fallout.

The other Myrmidons are firing at Bennett and Franks; they haven't taken time to reload after the firefight, and Bennett's clip is empty. He therefore grabs Franks' weapon as she's stowing the missile launcher, firing without sighting to kill one Myrmidon; Franks takes the weapon back from him to finish off the last one.

Meanwhile, Alexei and Tanya have been having a serious-sounding conversation in Russian. Alexei explains to Syracuse that it won't be possible to take all of Tanya with them - some years ago she ran into a particularly unpleasant war plague, and she's been living in a cyborg body ever since, but its computer is about to start overriding her own actions. With her consent, Syracuse cuts her head off, and removes the small pod that holds her brain.

The group rejoins, and sneaks out of town; Franks steals a truck from beside the market, so that they can get away faster. There's a little bit of other traffic on the roads, and they manage to remain unmolested, though Franks has a bad moment when a small hill on the edge of town turns out to have been the camouflage shell for a Juggernaut.

They get to the boat without being fired on, and make top speed for Barham, with Thorne swerving out of the way of the particle-beam blasts that follow them until the Juggernaut goes below the horizon. With an unknown amount of grace before air support arrives, they abandon and sink the inflatable as they get aboard Barham, then quickly submerge and head for home.

On the way back, Franks wires up Tanya's brain-pod to the Stalker chassis, so that she can at least move around and get some sensory input. She also talks with Popovich, who seems to be the real deal, and quickly sketches plans for small proton-boron fusion reactors that in theory should be able to bring the lights back on across England.

This campaign is now on indefinite hiatus.