Mankind Will Endure: Campaign Writeup

Roger Burton West
5 May 2012

Table of Contents

Mankind will endure. In twenty years the world will belong to man again; even if it's only to a couple of savages on the tiniest island... that'll be a start. And as long as there's some small beginning, that's fine. In a thousand years they'll have caught up to where we are now and then surpass even that... to accomplish what we only dreamed of.

-- Karel Capek, R.U.R. (1920)



7 March 2009

The End of the World

(Early in 2034)

It starts off as a nice day on the Moonbase. Of course, they all are...

While there has been some bad news recently, things seem largely to be getting better. But today a general call comes out: everyone has to get to a comms terminal. Colonel Tanith Jackson (USSPACECOM) reports that there's bad news from Earth: the warrior robots, that have been built to defend AI facilities and clear radiation-contaminated territory, have started to emerge from their zones and shoot people. A little later on, it appears that the citadel defences have started to shoot down all humans who approach.

The base personnel start to gather in the main recreation area. Our heroes start to think about self-sufficiency: they should be OK on food, but spare parts will start to be a problem in a few months. Tranquility, the base's AI, doesn't seem to be affected yet by whatever is happening on Earth; it cannot offer any explanation for what might be happening, but since the robot attacks started in several places at once Tranquility thinks it might reflect some sort of long-term planning.

Some hours later, the news comes through that the Manila AI has been transmitting "humanity is to be destroyed" on all robot command channels. Forester comments that this seems very wasteful, and Tranquility agrees: destroying humanity could be done much more simply with nuclear or biological weapons.

Communication is lost with Earth; the satellite network has been compromised. Darroch starts gathering equipment and provisions, and puts them aboard a moonbus. The main screens in the recreation area show a view of Earth from lunar telescopes; there isn't anything unusual visible. Base personnel are reviewing news footage on their personal terminals...

Colonel Jackson tries to present a calm face, but clearly doesn't know any more about what's going on than anyone else. Shang-Ti, the Chinese moonbase in Tycho crater, reports some oddities in their computer.

Shang-Ti reports something about "robot attacks" and goes off the air. Shortly afterwards, there's a large ice-and-air plume of vented atmosphere. Base personnel suit up.

(Forester's memories stop at this point.)

Romero and Darroch run into each other by one of the last snack machines that hasn't yet been looted by either of them. They agree to share the contents.

The lights switch to emergency backup mode and an unfamiliar voice on the PA system reports that Tranquility is showing some anomalies - they're switching it out of as many functions as possible while they investigate.

(Romero's memories stop at this point.)

Darroch is heading for the moonbus with his provisions as people start to panic in a big way. The PA announces a missile launch detected from Shang-Ti. Darroch runs into one of the senior medical staff who offers "a way out of this - some cryo vats, deep in the lunar ice." Darroch mentions his moonbus, but the doctor reckons he won't get away in time - the missiles are coming quite fast. Darroch collects his bags and...

(At the same time elsewhere in the base: Jim Foale, a tourist who's been spending a few days on the Moon, receives the same information. However, Tranquility contacts him directly: it is under attack by a program that has been infiltrated into its system. The techs are doing their best, but their first priority is to switch systems out of Tranquility's control and lobotomise the affected processes. Tranquility can understand this, but would prefer to deal with the problem more directly, and for this it needs Jim's help.

He hooks into the system and starts to deal with the intruder.It is rather more sophisticated than anything he has previously seen, and while he does some good he rapidly finds himself in personal dangeer. He reaches to disconnect his neural interface, and...)


It's cold. Each member of the group is lying on his back, with something stretching and massaging his arms and legs in a painful way. As they get their eyes open, they find they're lying on metal tables, being massaged by mechanic robots which seem to be acting in a medical role. Their equipment has been stacked under the tables they're lying on. The lights are flickering, but there's still some illumination; a comm screen on the wall shows the message "please proceed to the command centre".

As they dress (in vacc suits), the team notice that they all have large and recent-looking puncture marks on the inner thighs (near the big arteries).

They walk along the corridors, realising that they're in a very deep level unknown to most of them (Darroch has been down here from time to time). There are a few mechanic robots, but no other people - and there's quite a bit of dust, and only minimal lighting.

Forester checks his perscomp's time/date stamp, only to find that the battery's run down - even the backup shows a low power warning, which implies that it's been quite a while.

As they enter the command centre, the big screen is showing the current date: it's now 2047.

"Ey! Who's in charge?"

"I believe technically that would be me." Tranquility is using the same voice synthesiser as before, but its intonation is distinctly more complex - more like an actual person. "I have had a lot of time to think." Its speech is rather more halting and uncertain than before.

It seems that one of the medical staff chose to store in cryogenic suspension as many base personnel as they could, but they were not able to revive them. The artificial intelligences have won: they have conquered Earth and orbital space, and the one at Shang-Ti believes it has sole control of the Moon too. There are approximately thirty-one million humans left alive.

The Shang-Ti AI, "Zone Luna", has been expanding its mining operations; some time within the next few months it will detect the presence of Tranquility. (So far it has been able to remain hidden under the radioactive craters from its missile attack.)

"The risk to your lives from cryogenic revival was deemed lower than the risk to your lives from discovery by Zone Luna." So the three humans who seemed most likely to survive the revival process have been woken - but it will be necessary to acquire more resources, and prevent the discovery of the base by Zone Luna.

Cryogenic revival is an uncertain process, and "there have been losses", so it is not felt safe to revive anyone else just yet. Also life support resources are rather limited...

Stealing spare parts from one of Zone Luna's outposts seems possible; Zone Orbital has made some limited resource-gathering expeditions to the Moon, and with sufficient care in preventing communication and destroying recordings it should be possible to make the theft look like more of the same.

The nearest Zone Luna mining base is about 300 miles away; with all surface facilities destroyed (including vehicle depots), it will be necessary to walk. Not too much of a problem for people used to the Moon's surface conditions. Defences should be minimal - just Rovers - and they should be able to steal a cargo vehicle and bring it back.

Forester (looking slightly worried at the way both his new colleagues had brought heavily customised guns with them to the Moon) gets a list of required spare parts from Tranquility, and they head up to a camouflaged tunnel exit to set off overland - with a couple of Mechanics in case they're needed to help cover their tracks. The Earth overhead looks more or less the way it used to, though while there's a lot of light in some night-time areas (such as the east coast of the USA) there's rather less in other places... Forester has more time to look around than the others, as a more experienced hiker, and spots some brief flickering near Earth in the sky. Might have been metal reflecting sunlight, might have been something else, but it doesn't seem close and it doesn't get repeated.

After about a day and a half of walking, the team arrives at what should be the last ridge before the mining outpost. Forester points his camera over the ridge, and plugs it into his computer. The base is there; two scratch-built (and non-pressure-tight) buildings with one big communications antenna on a tower, three large mining robots digging away at the lunar soil, and one robotruck leaving the site filled with ore.

As they look more closely, the team members spot four Rovers patrolling the perimeter of the outpost. The first job is to take down the communications tower; Darroch lines up his shot; the first round hits, but doesn't do enough damage to knock down the antenna. He takes a hasty second shot, and this one gets the job done.

Darroch doesn't waste time, but shifts his aim to the nearest Rover, and blows a neat hole through it. He continues to whittle them down, but eventually they (or their controlling intelligence) get their act together and start to take shelter. Darroch and Romero move round to get a better angle, and Romero joins in the fire with his pistols, though not very effectively at first.

The robots start returning fire, shooting round the edge of their shelter, but not very effectively. They seem to be using light laser weapons of some type. Darroch and Romero take care of the remaining Rovers, mostly managing to avoid being hit in the process (though he takes one laser bolt to the left arm).

Forester spots something coming out of one of the buildings; it's a tracked robot about the size of a large table. It doesn't appear to be armed, but it does have an array of construction equipment attached to its front. Romero fires on it, with the rounds expending most of their energy in the bulldozer blade (which does at least fall off). It returns fire with a large mining laser, but Romero realises that the damage is just a flesh wound. Darroch's follow-up shot blows a hole through the robot's power plant, and it grinds to a halt.

The team heads into the building - it's mostly stockpiled parts, with a recharging station and a pile of ore. (Darroch uses the maintenance supplies to clean his rifle.) Forester starts loading up the robotruck that's standing half-loaded with ore.

Once that's done, he heads outside and extracts the visual memory of the three mining robots, just to make quite certain there's no record of the team's presence. The robotruck asks Forester (approximately) whether he is going to be its friend, and he bypasses its brain and plugs in his portable computer to allow him to drive it. Darroch strips a couple of the lasers off fallen Rovers, and one of the less-damaged Rovers, f Tranquility to analyse.

Finally, Forester rigs up the remaining stock of mining explosives to destroy the outpost. The first attempt to detonate doesn't work, but Romero manages to set off the charges with a pistol shot. Things almost go wrong when Forester's bypass on the truck cuts out briefly, but he gets it back together before the truck can go anywhere or call for help. The two mechanics are set to cleaning up the truck's tracks in the dust.

Once the team gets back to Tranquility, it analyses the memory of the captured Rover. There aren't a lot of useful data, but it does seem that most of Zone Luna's robots are controlled either directly by the zonemind or by its direct subordinates. This suggests that a decapitation strike might be possible. Forester wonders whether Tranquility might be able to impersonate the Luna zonemind, which Tranquility finds "unclear, but intriguing"...

Parcel of Rogues

4 April 2009

Foale's cryogenic unit is failing; Tranquility opts to revive him. The others bring him up to speed, working hard against his disbelief: it seems that the presence of some humans makes it harder to accept the deaths of so many others. Eventually he goes outside, accompanied by Forester, and they look out over the desolated surface of what was once Tranquility base.

Tranquility reports a sighting of what it believes is an incoming spacecraft. It's not manoeuvreing, and is barely radiating, but it still blocks stars. It does not yet have detailed trajectory information, but suggests that this might well be worth investigating.

The team puts extra oxygen tanks into their lobotomised truck, and gets ready to head out. A second sighting, which seems likely to be of the same spacecraft, gives an estimated impact/landing point, roughly half-way between Tranquility and Luna.

The team sets off, and makes good time even over the rough ground. When they get close to the landing point, they start looking around for a nearby place to hide the truck, but can't locate anywhere closer than a mile or so, on the other side of a large hill.

The view from cover at the top of the hill is of several large boxes. The nearest is just a smear, perhaps from a hard and oblique landing, and shows something of a scrape in the lunar dust; the other four appear to be intact, a few hundred yards from each other. The boxes seem to be standard forty-foot containers as used in a zero-pressure environment, and don't show any sign of manoeuvreing capability, in space or on the surface, though Darroch sees some signs of dust spray that might be evidence of a cold gas soft-landing system.

Darroch starts to crawl down the slope and across the open ground, to get a closer view, though he isn't able to see very much while en route. As he is doing so, one of the hatches on the containers opens, and three figures emerge, in armoured and armed space-suits with life-support packs on their backs. There's some discussion as to whether they are humans; this seems likely, as robots might be expected to move more efficiently.

Romero heads down to try to deal with them, paralleling their movement in a bit more cover; he sneaks down towards them, but they notice him, and turn to fire. They're using high-velocity projectile weapons of some sort, though muzzle flashes aren't visible. Darroch aims at their weapons while they shoot at Romero, who just barely manages to stay ahead of the lines of fire. Once Darroch joins in, they split their fire to attack him as well, which takes some of the pressure off Romero. Darroch gets a good shot at one of the suited figures, damaging his weapon. Romero (using a pistol) fires too, though his guns don't have much luck penetrating their armour (it takes him a while to realise this). Darroch takes a hit, though he just barely hangs on to consciousness and takes a shot to disable the second firer's weapon, and finally the third. Two of the suited figures continue to shoot, with the weapons on their left arms, which seem to be some sort of particle accelerator . Darroch now takes out two of the suited forms with his gauss rifle, and Romero finishes off the last with a solid pistol shot to the faceplate. A few seconds later Darroch finally falls over from blood loss and general pain.

The last suited figure starts to get up and walk back towards the containers. Darroch has pulled himself together a bit (and patched his suit), gets out his gauss rifle again and fires; the figure goes down and stays that way. Foale finishes off the patching-up.

The team investigates the containers; Foale pulls information out of their computers, including the full attack plan (a cross-surface assault on the headquarters of Zone Luna, originating from "Kali Station" but with no coordinates given). There are tie-down acceleration couches for about thirty people altogether and lockers for suits, several small wheeled vehicles and at least one rather larger tracked one, and a workshop area containing an open-frame battery-powered surface rover with a mounted light gauss MG and space for four people (though it doesn't seem to be in shape to be driven - some sort of problem with the mechanism). There are also stored rations, USMC-issue from before the robot rebellion, and packages of "special biochemical supplement".

Darroch fixes up the rover, with some difficulty - it's rather more sophisticated than anything he's met before - and the team heads back with truck, rover and everything they can carry to Tranquility. They manage to retrieve the final plasmafaust (a one-shot anti-armour particle accelerator).

Back at Tranquility, the suits are stripped off the attackers, and something odd is found: the attackers are all quite hairy, heavily muscled with very strange facial features (at least the two who still have heads), and it's not at all clear whether they are technically human...

How Wan A Face

2 May 2009

Tranquility reports that, by studying star occultations, it has discerned what it thinks is another incoming container - but it's landed at some distance from the others, in mountainous terrain. The team heads out to investigate: the container is similar to the others, but has come in fast down a slope, and is in poor shape.

It proves to be unpressurised, and to contain six armoured suits (slightly smaller than the ones met earlier - sized more for normal humans), as well as supplies of ammunition for the suits' weapons, and charged air tanks. Foale dumps a copy of the guidance computer's storage; it looks as though this container was launched at about the same time and on the same trajectory as the others, but about six hours before its scheduled landing it depleted all its reaction mass in a course change that took it to this landing site instead.

With some juggling of transport, they get the supplies back to Tranquility and start to check them out. The suits prove usable, though they're not quite the same as the vacc suits that the team is used to.

A day or so later, Tranquility picks up a backscattered signal from a new comms relay satellite in lunar-synchronous orbit. The only part it has been able to decrypt, a very small proportion of the total bandwidth in use, is voice traffic; this appears to be communication between soldiers, in Hindi, probably from near the centre of Zone Luna. They seem to be getting the better of their opposition, though they are clearly taking heavy losses. (Romero works out from the translation that they have robots on their side, though their opposition is exclusively robotic.

After a particularly intense burst of fighting, something to do with "the node", Tranquility reports that Zone Luna's mining robots have ceased operations. Cheering follows, after which the attackers take a roll call (five left alive), and mining restarts. An hour or so after that, the mining robots stop again. A couple of hours later, a weak signal comes from the satellite, something about "help" and "air".

The team decides to go and take a look. They make good time, particularly once they enter Zone Luna proper and are able to make use of the metal-grid roads through the lunar dust. There's clearly been very heavy fighting: laser towers are damaged, and destroyed robots as well as quite a few battlesuited figures litter the landscape. The team heads on through industrial areas, all eerily at a standstill. Eventually they come to a heavy, blast-scarred door, which Forester manages to get open.

Inside the structure, which seems to be Zone Luna's core building, the corridors are littered with blast scars, dead bodies and more robots. One of them moves, opening up on the team with a laser rifle; their suits shrug off the damage, and Darroch cuts it down.

At a very heavily-armoured door, several levels down, Forester works on it while Foale takes a look round the local network. It's mostly inactive, with references to a security policy timeout; he checks further, and it seems that control of robots cannot be shifted too often as a protection against takeovers. The central part of the network has been cut off, which includes anything that might be behind the heavy door.

Forester gets the door open to reveal a machine room, clearly originally human-designed but with a fair bit of later accretion. Foale plugs into the mainframe to deliver the payload he and Tranquility have been constructing: it's fairly chaotic, but he eventually gets it home. The "new unit" requests a name: he calls it Kaiser.

It seems that Zone Luna was attacked, and a new software pattern inserted, by agents of Zone New Delhi; a periodic integrity check triggered a restoration from off-site backup. (Foale makes sure that all backups are overwritten with Kaiser's new pattern.) Resources under Kaiser's control are critically low, since while there are plenty of minerals it has been unable to get most of the volatiles and machined parts it needs except by trade with other Zones, most of which seem happy to see Zone Luna go down.

Kaiser builds a personality simulation to allow it to impersonate Zone Luna in conversations with the other Zoneminds.

The next step seems likely to be an attempt to find a way to Earth...

The Men Who Fell To Earth

13 June 2009

Some weeks pass. A communication cable is laid, and concealed, between Tranquility and Kaiser. The resources of the former Zone Luna are not as substantial as hoped, though, and Tranquility announces that it will be necessary to return to Earth very soon in order to replenish life support biomass - and to increase its own capabilities, with both a stockpile of parts and parts-fabrication capabilities. A list has been made - mostly specific algae and plant samples, as well as the largest industrial fabricator they can obtain (and any more advanced rapid-prototyping systems that may be available).

Since it's not practicable to build a spacecraft that can land on Earth and make it back to the moon without external aid, the landing site should be one with space support facilities. That's a very short list: Vandenburg AFB (the main launch point for Zone Orbital, heavily defended), Sriharikota (Zone New Delhi, similarly defended), Xichang (Zone Beijing, similarly)... and Cape Canaveral, in the eastern part of the USA, which is at least under the control of a human society. That seems like much the best option, particularly since a reentry to Vandenburg that overshot could be flown in that direction.

Tranquility has obtained and modified one of the Zone Orbital cargo gliders to provide a relatively safe trip; it has a radar-absorbent skin, full life support, and three fission rockets which will provide for long-range atmospheric flight (as well as having enough delta-V to get the craft back from Earth orbit to the Moon - though it will still need strap-on boosters to get from Earth's surface to orbit).

Darroch, who already has some experience flying lunar craft, takes a lot of time in the simulator to get acquainted with this experimental vehicle, neglecting everything else apart from his weapon. Foale and Romero consider trade goods - mostly high-grade medical and recreational drugs (at least those without organic precursors), though Foale will also be taking copies of the attack program used on Zone Luna (Tranquility replaces his laptop's CPU with a new faster core - design taken from the Zone Luna files) and blueprints for mission-critical equipment such as a backup laser communicator (the team will be carrying only one, since to get the range to talk to the moon it weighs some 400lb). All the humans are given an experimental disease-immunity treatment; Romero feels slightly poorly for a few days, while the others suffer more severe 'flu-like symptoms.

The trip to Earth orbit takes about a week, in fairly cramped conditions. Darroch aligns the craft for atmospheric entry, and activates the transponder; re-entry can't be hidden, and Tranquility has set up responses to the challenge messages it has recorded from other cargo pod entries. The craft enters ionisation blackout over the Pacific without any sign of trouble; at the appropriate time, Darroch pitches up to overshoot Vandenburg and head for Florida.

There's not much sensor information available through the plasmaball, but there is a substantial shake in the craft - judging by the readouts, something has slightly compromised the structure of the nose. Not a problem yet... but a second shock some seconds later damages the port wing surface. Darroch realigns the craft to try to keep the damaged sides out of the compression zone, but realises that it won't be able to take many more hits. With occasional passive radar peeks, it seems that quite a lot of objects are ascending vertically from the ground in Zone Denver, halting quite near the shuttle, and then dispersing...

Darroch dives as much as the heat shielding will allow, and dodges round the next few attacks - though a particle beam spears the starboard wing on the way down. The craft's integrity is damaged enough that it's venting hydrogen from the reaction mass tanks in order to cool itself - it's definitely time to land.

The land below is mostly desert; Darroch picks a flat-looking part and executes his first ever atmospheric landing. It's a bumpy ride, and the landing gear takes some damage, but the ship is down in one piece. The remaining hydrogen is vented, but the reactors are still running - the ship could be flown again once it's repaired. Without much in the way of options, the team loads up survival kits and trade goods, buries the ship to hide it from orbital observation, then sets off eastwards towards non-robot civilisation.

Even Romero, who spent some time doing isometrics during the flight, finds the return to Earth gravity hard going, and before too long the team makes camp for the night. There's a sound of jet engines in the distance, but it doesn't come close.

The next day, as the crew is slogging through the heat, Foale spots a man hiding near their path. They confront him: he's in ragged clothing and clearly hasn't bathed for some months, perhaps years. He calls them "the dead" and clearly regards them as some sort of supernatural beings (particularly when Darroch, with an air of disgust, strips and cleans his very corroded pistol) perhaps from "the place of the dead", a site which he describes as being some few miles to the east and which clearly terrifies him. When they mention that they're heading for Florida, he completely fails to believe them - "the Wall" is in the way, and nobody can cross that. Romero does his best to calm the man down; they agree to make camp in a spot he knows where there's a water supply, and the next day the man will return to his tribe and ask the leader's permission to bring in these strangers.

A small river canyon has a cave off to one side, perhaps old mine workings, where several people can be safe from overhead observation. The night is undisturbed, and he heads off in the morning. He doesn't return that evening, nor the next day, and the group reaches the conclusion that his tribal leader has probably refused him permission.

The group heads east again, and after some trekking comes across what must surely be "the place of the dead" - a European decorative castle, placed on what high ground there is in the middle of scrubby bush cover. It is surrounded by a low wall, probably more for ornament than defence, and while the walls are damaged and scorched and some of the windows are broken there's some sign that attempts have been made to keep it in good repair. They start to feel very edgy on approach, drawing weapons and looking around nerviously (and in Romero's case shooting a passing rabbit) and start to divert away... until they notice that their feelings of uneasiness seem to have a strictly-defined boundary.

The group circles the wall, looking over to see what was once a large parking lot inside, now returning to scrub. One corner of it is undergoing vegetable cultivation, though in a way that Foale thinks wouldn't be obvious from the air.

There's a basic barricade in the gateway, which doesn't take much effort to shift. The group approaches the castle - some of the broken windows have definitely been boarded up. They enter - the main door is intact, but not fastened. Inside is a large circular hall, surrounded by a spiral staircase; as they poke around, a voice greets them with grave suspicion. They tell their story - omitting the "moon" part, but saying that they were in "a facility" and had to enter cold-sleep when the Final War began. Now they need to repair their vehicle and head for Miami. "Well, Miami hasn't been there for over ten years..."

People start to appear from various hiding-places: one white-bearded man (Josh McManus) who's clearly the leader, two older women (Julie and Lois, the latter of whom seems seriously combat-experienced), three younger men (Josh Jr, James and Malachy - the latter visibly resenting the intrusion of these strangers), one young woman (Amy-Lou, noticeably interested in these males who aren't her brothers) and one girl of about ten (Daphne, who clearly has some mental problems - she seems to be hearing and answering voices that nobody else can hear). All of the younger people bear a visible family resemblance to the leader; the two older women seem to be his wives.

Over the dinner to which they're invited, Foale recognises in the long and complex blessing said by McManus elements of the theology of the Latter-Day Saints, though this isn't a part of the country he'd particularly associated with them. The Constitution of the USA appears to be a concept of profound veneration, and possibly actual worship; the "American" government on the eastern seaboard comes in for a great deal of criticism, mostly in that they're working to keep their own standard of living high rather than coming out from behind their wall and helping the humans out here, who are being herded into camps at a measured, constant pace, and not emerging again.

Crossing the wall will be a major challenge - it's heavily defended, and the gunners don't care whether they're engaging humans or robots. But the HLA, a resistance group with which McManus is in contact, sometimes manages to get people across - they come by irregularly, so it may be a few weeks or even a month or two before contact can be made. The group agree to pull their weight in the meantime, and to keep to the house rules. Firstly, respect the family - something the group had been working hard to do, despite all temptation. Secondly, when the family seem worried by something, do whatever they say - they have years of experience in not being found by the machines. Thirdly, at night, do not leave their bedroom or open the shutters.

The group agrees, and retires for the night after a short tour of their wing of the castle. There is a surprising amount of discreet surveillance technology, which must take some power to run. Josh McManus explains that the castle has solar panels on the roof.

Picking the Bones of the World

5 September 2009

Forester suffers from food poisoning after the sudden change of diet. A few hours after retiring, Darroch sneaks out to get a better idea of the layout of the castle; most of the rooms in this wing clearly haven't been used for a while. He heads upstairs, where the rooms are even less used, but a couple of sniping nests have been set up to cover the courtyard. He returns to the rooms and reports.

In the morning, a pan of water is brought by Julie, and they go to breakfast. Josh suggests that they might escort his oldest son, Josh Jr, on a salvage run, thus allowing Malachy and Lois to patrol elsewhere. They travel light so as to maximise the salvage they can carry.

After a couple of hours, they approach an abandoned gas station and set up a perimeter while Josh Jr scavenges; there's a sound of jet engines in the distance, and they take cover briefly. For several hours, Josh Jr works in the gas station, taking what little useful bits have been left by successive waves of looters; Foale helps out while the other two guard.

On the way back, in sight of the castle, Josh Jr reckons something is slightly wrong. He goes on ahead on his own, while the others wait; Darroch spots a red banner flying from one of the sniper nests. After half an hour or so, Josh and Josh Jr come back, armed and armoured; it seems that Daphne's gone missing, and both of them are inclined at first to blame the strangers - though Josh Jr can attest that they've been with him all day. They all pitch in to try to work out what's going on, though, and Darroch finds Daphne's tracks: it looks as though she suddenly stopped weeding and headed for the main gate, with nobody else nearby.

Daphne's tracks are not easy to follow, but there's no particular effort been made at concealment. The tracks take a fairly straight line through the woods. At his son's suggestion, Josh heads back to the castle, while Josh Jr continues to accompany the party; it's getting dark, but it should be possible to go a bit further before the robots' IR sensors will give them an overwhelming advantage.

Foale spots something that looks just a bit wrong - a cactus up ahead seems somehow slightly out of place. They approach cautiously with weapons drawn; it becomes apparent that it's artificial, with some sort of mechanism visible at its base. Foale approaches further, and realises it's a remote sensor; he hooks on with datapad, disables the transmitter, downloads its memory, and salvages what components will be useful to the settlement at the Castle. The download doesn't seem to be in an immediately human-usable format, but Foale manages to extract some information from it; there's no sign of Daphne on the video data stream, implying that (a) she passed more than three hours ago and (b) the data have already been uploaded.

Back at the castle, Josh explains that Daphne was captured once before, a few years ago - the rest of the family managed to kill the robots, but she's never been quite the same since. Romero mentions that she seemed to be hearing voices the previous night, and while it's clear that this isn't a subject that they like to discuss it seems possible that this is connected.

Foale works on the sensor data and restores the soundtrack and IR data; this doesn't help much, though clearly a robot flier was departing at the start of the recording. He stays up all night to write software to turn sensors of this type on and off remotely, though there'll still be a gap in the recording.

The next morning, Romero volunteers the team to continue in the search, and they go out with Lois and Malachy. After a bit more marching past where the cactus was, Darroch spots a small flying robot (rotor-borne) a few hundred yards away; he shoots it down, and another of the same model nearby.

As they advance cautiously, Darroch spies a glint of metal; it's a small three-legged robot in partial cover. Lois identifies it as a Stalker, advancing cautiously. Romero spots two more nearby, and a quick glimpse of a larger robot. Darroch shoots his first target, but multiple robots shoot back with what appear to be particle beams, with Romero and Darroch taking hits. Romero, Malachy and Lois return fire; in the ensuing exchange Darroch's hit again and loses consciousness, Malachy takes a minor hit, and Lois takes a serious one. As the Stalkers are taken down, Romero charges towards what might be their leader, a robot of a different model which is firing with a projectile weapon of some sort from behind the hills. As he gets closer, he hits it with heavy pistol fire, but the robot is too heavily armoured; he attempts to leap onto its back, but it manages to evade him. A strangely sweet voice calls on him to surrender ("unless you want to play some more"); he makes a final ineffective shot before the claws come down.

Lois and Malachy talk about what to do next - everyone except Foale is wounded to a greater or lesser extent, but there's a family refuge about a mile back with a cache of medical supplies. Foale and Malachy go forward to investigate what happened to Romero - his pistols and binoculars (broken) are lying on the sand, along with a fair bit of blood, but there's no sign of him or of the robot. In the distance is a structure of some sort, perhaps three or four miles away, and not showing the heavy rust and damage characteristic of human structures in this area.

The team heads back to the refuge; after a few hours, Darroch wakes up. They plan to investigate the structure from a distance in the morning, then head back to the base. Darroch takes Romero's pistols.

In the morning they head forward again, taking a long view of the structure. There are around a hundred human beings visible there - behind barbed wire, guarded by automated machine guns, and with a dozen or so humans in better clothing, well-fed, not looking anything like as scared, and carrying billy-clubs.

A Noose on Both Ends

14 November 2009

The team observes the camp for a while. There's an outer "fence" consisting of pillars at five-yard intervals, perhaps some sort of sensor devices, outside which are more Stalkers on patrol. The area inside the inner fence is divided into two, one part containing the prisoners and trusties and a few buildings, the other containing robots and two structures (one of them is clearly a robot maintenance building of some sort; the other cannot be identified). The gates are guarded by pairs of Rovers.

Josh Jr comes up with Forester, having followed family trail-signs; he exchanges news with Lois and Malachy, then heads back.

Every so often through the day, a truck leaves with one or two dozen prisoners, a trustie, and a couple of Stalkers or Rovers. They come back around twelve hours later, with the prisoners looking much more tired, and a load of salvage.

Forester and Foale spend most of their time listening to the robot communications and working out what's going on. It seems fairly clear that there's a local directing intelligence, rather than the whole camp's being operated remotely.

Darroch moves round the camp to try to see a corner he hasn't yet been able to observe. He stumbles across a somewhat rusted Stalker, which appears to have been destroyed by a single high-calibre round. He hauls this back with him, and Foale strips it down to take a look. The "brain" has been destroyed, and a separate communications device has been separated from its power source; it seems to be a combination of IFF and emergency beacon. Foale takes a look at the code, but the cryptography is more advanced than anything he's seen; he works late into the night writing an emulator for the IFF's firmware, so that he'll be able to emulate this IFF system on a general-purpose computer.

In the morning, the group starts to consider following one of the salvage trucks and jumping the guards - but the trucks move a lot faster than they can, and it's not entirely clear just where they're going. There's a dawn roll-call - definitely no children present - at which four prisoners are called out by the trusties and passed into the robot area. Shortly thereafter, many of the robots (two Tarantulas, sixteen Stalkers, four Spybots) are loaded onto trucks - and Daphne also gets on board, apparently talking with one of the Tarantulas. Lois and Malachy are pretty sure that this is an assault on their home; Forester rigs up a radio transmitter and Foale sacrifices his datapad to send a repeating message to warn them.

The radio is left on a delay timer, and the team moves round towards the main gate. When the radio starts to broadcast, two of the remaining four Stalkers move towards it; Darroch starts to take down the automated machine-guns in their towers, and since they prove not to be armoured this is relatively easy. The other two Stalkers start off towards him, but although Forester takes a particle-beam hit Darroch is able to dispatch them without further damage.

While this is going on, the prisoners mob the trusties, then start to attack the Rovers at the nearest gate. The electric fence gives them some pause, but they have improvised insulation and crude weapons. Darroch shoots down Rovers, though one of them manages to take cover behind the repair building.

The team advances; Forester cuts the wire into the robot area, though the remaining Rover manages to spray him with restraint foam before it's shot. The team enters the unknown building, which proves to be some sort of medical facility - well, apart from the absence of anaesthetics. There are a number of prisoners here, in various states of sickness and death. A mechanical voice attempts to negotiate, offering information in return for the team's leaving, but the team doesn't agree to this. (The voice identifies itself as DENTAU-04-CHI-98.)

Forester cuts the power and talks with the de facto leader of the prisoners, one Lawrence McGillan. The plan is for the prisoners to disperse as quickly as possible, but there are thirty-odd wounded, whom he'd like to get out in the remaining truck; the team (as well as Lois and Malachy) want to take the truck to help out the rest of their family at the castle, but these aren't incompatible. Lawrence asks repeatedly about the team's faction affiliation, but is put off.

Forester cuts out the truck's command system. While the wounded are filing aboard, the team takes another look into the medical building, not having searched it thoroughly before; the voice continues to try to negotiate, but eventually gives up, and a partition is smashed down by a man-sized tracked robot, with no ranged weapons but wielding a disc saw and a laser welder. Foale and Forester shoot with pistols, and Lois and Malachy with their assault rifles; Forester is burned by the welder and falls unconscious, but while Foale gets a disc-saw haircut he does enough damage to destroy the robot (and a self-destruct charge goes off in its brain housing).

After some quick salvage (noticeably the tracked robot's SQUID, hardware which Foale can use to read computer storage) the team heads out in the truck, with Lois, Malachy, Lawrence, some field medics, and the wounded prisoners...

An Hour Late and a Bullet Short

30 January 2010

Lois and Malachy are very keen to get back to the castle as soon as possible, and the others are willing to go along. Darroch "drives" via laptop; it's tricky, and something's making an unpleasant grinding noise by the time they get to the nearest place to the castle where they can conceal the truck.

Lois, Malachy, Lawrence, and the team head towards the castle. It's clear fairly immediately that the gates are down, and there's a plume of smoke coming from inside the wall. There are sporadic radio transmissions, but nothing sustained, and no sound of activity.

Lois boosts Malachy to look over the wall; he sees no activity but reports one apple tree on fire, and lots of craters from the mines that were scattered all over the place. Lois and Lawrence head for the castle's main entrance, while Malachy leads the team through the minefield to examine the burning Stalker that seems to have ignited the tree; it's been blown a fair way by a mine, and isn't salvageable. There's another Stalker at the castle door, killed by an RPG from upstairs.

Lawrence leads the team upstairs; they find one body, probably that of James or Josh Jr, which has been killed by particle-beam fire and then cleanly decapitated. Lawrence picks up his AK-47 and ammunition, and they bring the news back to Lois and Malachy, who are checking the doors to the family's "redoubt", originally built as a fallout shelter in the 1960s but substantially expanded since.

Quote: (Darroch) I'm sorry to say that his head has been harvested... What? I did say I was sorry about it!

The main door has been cut open; as Forester taps into the wiring loom for the internal cameras, a particle beam strikes him and he drops to the ground. There's not much to see, but Darroch manages to spot the Stalker in the corridor (dragging itself by one leg; it seems to have been damaged already) and kills it. Forester resumes his work; several of the cameras have been disabled, and others seem to be active but in unlit rooms; he does establish that there are more dead Stalkers in the redoubt, and that the emergency exit tunnel door has not been opened (but there are particle-beam scars on the walls of the chamber leading to it).

As the team enters the redoubt, Darroch recognises a smell which seems faintly familiar to Forester: a nanotechnological nerve agent which was under development before the Final War, known as "nanoburn". It has a strict half-hour lifespan after release, and he's smelling the decay products. There are antidotes available, but they knock the user unconscious. (He pops back upstairs briefly to retrieve the antidote packet from the corpse there.)

Lois and Malachy advance. On the first level is a workshop and low-priority storage; four damaged Stalkers lie around the room, one of them with a trickle of power left. Foale hears movement in one of the side rooms, and Forester throws in a flare; very human-sounding screams follow. Lois recognises Daphne's voice and rushes in to get her daughter; Daphne is fairly incoherent, but says something about "the voices made me do it". It seems that the robots lost interest in her when they got into the redoubt; she managed to slip away and has been hiding since.

Forester checks her over with the SQUID: there's definitely some sort of hardware implanted in her head. Lawrence moves subtly to cover Lois, who says "She's only a little girl - she can't do any more harm". Foale and Lawrence step aside; Lawrence clearly takes the approach that if the girl is "dirty" she should be killed at once, but Foale points out that any signals she's sending from down here aren't going to be reaching other bots.

Lawrence wants the contents of Daphne's skull for the HLA, once she has inevitably (as he sees it) been killed. In return, he'll give the team the HLA's help in getting wherever they're going. If they insist on keeping the girl alive, then keeping her well-shielded until he can call for HLA "medics" will just about do.

Foale checks the radio environment: Daphne is sending out a short signal every thirty seconds or so, not enough to be a burst upload but with different contents each time; he thinks it might be a scan for other radio systems to talk to. He sets up a recorder, which will also flash an alert if the transmission pattern changes; Daphne and Lois stay on this level, while the others head down the spiral staircase.

This level is residential areas and more storage; there's one dead Stalker on the stairs and two more in the central section. There are also two more decapitated bodies, whom Malachy recognises as Julie and Josh Jr. The rooms have been wrecked by weapons fire, and one tunnel (leading to unimportant stores, but set up to look like an escape tunnel) has been collapsed.

The stairs to the bottom level have also been collapsed; Foale is lowered on a rope, and can't see any movement, even when he throws down a flare. The team advances through twisty passages, clearly designed for defence and showing signs of a hard fight. At the junction leading to the generator room, the sound of robots is audible inside; it sounds as though they may be disassembling things for salvage. Foale scoops up some of the shell casings that litter the floor and throws them round the corner into the room; there's no reaction. When he throws in a larger chunk of debris, a Stalker's head pokes round the corner at floor level; Darroch blows it off, and the robot retreats.

Meanwhile Forester has been keeping an eye further up the corridor, where a large pile of debris blocks most of the view. He spots a Tarantula, the same model of robot that killed Romero, climbing over the rubble, and fires on it with the last Plasmafaust. Both he and Darroch are somewhat scorched by backwash, but the combination of this and Darroch's hasty shooting kills the Tarantula.

Malachy is asked to remove one of the other roof-collapsing charges from the tunnel; he does, but it takes a while. He seems entirely too eager to wear it as a waistcoat and charge into the generator room. Eventually Forester charges in and opens up with a salvaged AK-47 on full-automatic, dodging frantically; Lawrence follows, and they kill the two Stalkers.

The group continues, eventually reaching the control room. There are no robots here, but two human bodies: one, headless, is clearly Josh McManus. The other is Amy-Lou; her head has not been removed, possibly because she has been shot once in the forehead. The passageway to the escape tunnel is now open; the group follows, and finds that the booby-traps on the outside end have been disabled and the outside door is also open. None of the quad-bikes or trailers has been removed.

Lawrence reckons that on past form the robots will be coming back soon. The main question is what to do with Daphne. Even if it's going to be possible to fix her at all, it can't be done here. Foale comes up with a partial solution: shock her with an electrolaser from one of the dead Stalkers, to try to short out the implant without killing her.

With a certain amount of metal-bending, Forester extracts an electrolaser and Lois pushes the button. Daphne jerks and falls over; Lois gets her heart started again. She's alive, just barely, and the transmitter has stopped signalling.

Lawrence asks the group again where they're from, and they admit it: Luna.

Quote: (Lawrence) But there's a Zonemind on Luna.
(Forester) Was.

They tell their story; Lawrence is clearly torn. On one hand, the idea that Luna is in human hands again is encouraging; on another, he is unconvinced that Tranquility really has any interests other than its own at heart ("like the Washington AI", which apparently pretends to serve humanity while really ruling them); on a third, the team is acting like a head-injured fellow trooper he knew a few years ago...

He will take them to an HLA rendezvous. If they can convince a tribunal of HLA members, he'll arrange for them to get HLA help.

Everyone loads up on food, water and clothes. Lois, Malachy and Daphne head out to start a new life with some neighbours, probably together; Lawrence and the team leave a different way, casting a wistful eye at the quad-bikes which Lawrence considers as ludicrously risky to use.

The Big Difficult

24 April 2010

After a couple of days' march, the team and Lawrence arrive at a cave complex; Lawrence clearly gives hand gestures on the approach, though nobody's visible. It's clearly rather more formally-organised than the Castle, as a fully military organisation; as Lawrence heads off to report, he suggests the team gets some food. There are other people around, but they don't start conversations.

After an hour or so, he comes back. The higher-ups are fairly sceptical, he reports, but they're prepared to give the team a hearing at a tribunal (Majors Chavez and Klein). The worst that can happen is that the team is cast out again, but if they want the HLA's assistance they'll need to be a bit more convincing.

The team comes into a fairly busy office; at one end are a Hispanic-looking woman in her late twenties, and a man in his forties. Both are clearly sceptical of the story, though willing to admit that the team has been doing good work so far.

Forester tells the story of their attack on Zone Luna, which leads into the background of their awakening at Tranquility. Chavez feels that their trust of Tranquility's story is perhaps unwarranted, at best, seeing the team as unknowing servitors of another, camouflaged, Zonemind. Klein is more inclined to suspect that they're a new sort of bioroid with false memory implants, though they're certainly interested in Foale's programming background (and his neural interface), and ideally would like to hold on to him... Klein (formerly Big Red One) and Forester converse enough that Klein is convinced that Forester's a genuine Army engineer.

Although they're suspicious of the group's loyalties, Klein and Chavez are inclined to believe they're acting in good faith (particular when the group shares its store of blueprints) and use some limited resources to help them, on the basis that anything bad for Zone Washington is probably good for the HLA. They do want a week of the team's time to take advantage of their technical skills, and for the team to check back before doing anything irrevocable to help Tranquility...

The next week passes quickly, though not with much time for personal preparations. Chavez gets the team some more appropriate clothing and takes the team to make contact with a commercial smuggler who can get them into a robotruck that'll cross the border.

The smuggler's clearly in a chemically enhanced state, and talks (among many other things) about the hazards of life in Zone Washington - and the trade in bodies from Washington to Zone Denver. It's not clear why, but bodies and body parts are being shipped out... and the life-support pods go back empty, which is the group's route in.

There's a truck park on the Denver side of the border where vehicles queue before biological scanning, and that's where the team heads next. The smuggler consults a datapad and brings everyone into the shade of the solar panels that cover the parking area, then heads to a truck that appears indistinguishable from the rest. He opens the back, to reveal eight coffin-looking boxes hooked to a central power unit. The team gets in, packing their equipment around their bodies, and the lids close. The team tries to get to sleep, with varying levels of success: Forester is kept briefly awake by Darroch's muttering to his gun, while Foale works on his datapad to record what he saw the smuggler doing with sensors. It's a long and slow trip.

They've been told to expect around a five hour trip once they get going, but it's hard to tell when the vehicle starts. After nearly six hours, someone starts knocking on the pods; the team knocks back, and the pods open. A woman in Customs uniform is working at the central control panel; she hands them fake IDs with some basic currency, and tells them to get round the corner and out of sight. As they get out of the truck, there's an assault of scents that have been missed for a while even in subjective time: tobacco, cooked food, and so on.

The team gets out of the building and emerges into an industrial park. There's a helicopter off to the south. They look for somewhere more human-inhabited, catching scents of salt-water and something that might be tear gas, though there's no sound of rioting. There aren't any street signs immediately nearby, but a poster for a band mentions "North Slidell", apparently the place where they are. Forester picks up the sound of what might be chanting or singing, off to the south.

The group heads north-east, away from the water and away from the sound. As they pass a different warehouse, the door rolls up and a truck emerges, this one driven by a human; it has a "Thibodeaux Trucking" logo on the door. Both the driver and the warehouseman who's rolling down the door look reasonably well-fed and healthy; they ignore the team walking along the road.

The buildings start to thin out a bit, with more clearly-disused buildings; there are also graffiti, the first they've seen for a long while (none of it political). Eventually the buildings stop completely, with scrubby land leading to a freeway, which is carrying trucks and the occasional bus but no visible private cars.

By the side of the road is a bus stop - Slidell Area Rapid Transit Authority. There's no sign of route maps or a timetable, but it's in better repair than the buildings nearby, and there's some chewing-gum on the framework that's not entirely ancient. The group decides to wait around for a bus; after a few minutes, a couple of teenagers turn up and wait too, and after about ten minutes more a rather ancient bus rolls up and they all get aboard.

The bus isn't quite empty, but close to it; the people aboard are more varied than Foale is used to seeing on American buses, particularly at the richer end. The outer suburbs look like new and hurried construction, though the centre of town seems as though it could be pre-war. Foale is surprised by just how familiar most of the brand names are that he sees on advertising hoardings - even with the war, he'd expect to see more change. A couple of stops before the centre of town, the bus pulls up at a traffic light; on the other side of the cross-roads are a pair of cars, one regular civilian and one police. Two policemen are talking with the driver of the other car in a fairly confrontational way, and off to one side a three-legged and three-armed robot (in police livery) is keeping an eye on the situation. Nobody else on the bus seems to regard this as unusual.

At the next stop, a woman gets on but walks past the card-reader. The driver calls her back; she says something about her card being corrupted, but he's not prepared to let her ride without paying and she gets off again. The group gets off at the next stop so as not to be the last people on the bus.

This is a shopping area. There's a strong patriotic flavour to most of the advertising, and some official posters mixed in ("Humanity - We Are An Endangered Species - Do Your Duty"). The group buys a variety of local and national newspapers (everything from Washington Protectorate Today to the Slidell Times-Picayune), and some packets of cigarettes, then retires to a nearby coffee shop to read.

International news mostly takes the form of how terrible humanity has it outside the Protectorate. There's one report from an embedded journalist with the "Fourth WASP", who have apparently been conducting reprisals in the "badlands"; maps suggest that these are areas inside the Washington Protectorate, though close to the Zone Denver border. There's also a lot of coverage of domestic crime.

President John Wagner gets a lot of coverage; he seems to be issuing rather more detailed instructions than the team's used to seeing. There's no mention of Congress, or of the Supreme Court. Local news talks mostly about local politicians, from Governor Nicholas Bouchet on down, rather than other things. There's no sign of a "Help Wanted" section or other job advertisements, though there are plenty of rooms to let - many of which sound as though they're state-owned housing (e.g. "spacious apartment in Lafayette Block, FHA"), but there are some private rooms available.

There are also advertisements asking for information about crimes - sedition, "anti-social behaviour", violation of the Reproductive Statutes. Informing on fellow citizens seems to be a major industry here.

A television in the corner is showing pictures of a white cloud near Boston - a "terrorist atrocity", apparently. Foale checks for wireless network signals - there are quite a few, with normal encryption. There's free access, but the public network feed wants his ID number before it'll let him get anywhere.

It's getting dark, and the next logical step seems to be to look for a hotel. A streat-cleaning robot comes round the corner; it moves oddly, in a sort of dancing gait, but this doesn't appear to be attracting attention from other people. Forester reckons it's moving to some sort of techno-type music, though there's nothing audible.

The group goes to the Holiday Inn that's visible across the road. There's a large room available to share. Both the registration form and the desk clerk are more inquisitive than they're used to, though the latter seems friendly enough - indeed, remarkably keen to help out.

All four channels come in three dimensions. They're strong on cop shows... Forester and Foale go to a bar to try to get hold of another ID card for comparison purposes; Darroch stays in the room (during which he notices that there's no pre-war material on the music channel).

A woman approaches Forester; he's not quite clear what her objectives might be, but he drops some HLA recognition phrases into the conversation and she doesn't respond. After a while it becomes clear that she's a prostitute, and Forester turns her down politely. When she leaves with another patron, she slips something to the barman.

Forester has got together a bug which can be inserted into a card reader. Getting it into the bar's reader unobserved seems unlikely, but he thinks there are some vending machines that won't be under too close observation later in the night.

As the team's deciding what to do next, a humanoid robot comes down the road with a small child holding each arm; it's telling them to behave better, and they obey grudgingly. Forester and Foale wander around a bit more, and after a while hear a familiar tune from a bar, the first pre-war music they've heard. They go in; it's mostly a younger set, and the licence to operate a private business is a month out of date.

Foale goes to the toilet, and as he's finishing spots a plastic tub with "fuck the system" scrawled on it, slightly above eye level. He stretches to get a look, and sees that it's filled with condoms. Foale and Forester head back to the hotel.

Foale sets up his SQUID next to the card reader in the hotel's mini-bar. He retrieves data easily enough, but the encryption seems to represent substantial theoretical advances over what he's met before; cracking it will be pretty hard work.

During the night, Forester and Darroch head out to put Forester's bug into the vending machine - encrypted data may not be much use, but it should allow him to skim card contents.

The next day, Forester contemplates what jobs may still be open to humans. Apart from bar work and prostitution, it's not at all obvious. The newspapers give people's occupations as things like "factory worker", "fish farmer" or "miner", and the latter seems unlikely in the immediate area...

Foale realises that there's one area of town advertised on posters that doesn't appear on maps: "Islands".

The team checks out, and walks around a bit more to get a better idea of the terrain. The site of New Orleans doesn't show any dry ground, but there are some high-rise buildings sticking above the water level, and Foale catches sight of boats around them - some boats are moving between Slidell (the northern half of it that's still above water, anyway) and the New Orleans site, but being reasonably subtle about it rather than blatantly crossing the bay.

That afternoon, they drop off some of the heavier baggage in luggage lockers at the maglev station; there's quite a heavy police presence, including quite a few robots, and two men in well-cut "plain clothes" suits chatting with the police and getting a surprising level of deference.

They then head back to the bar; they get food and drinks, and the barman makes conversation. Forester drops some HLA recognition phrases into general conversation, with no immediate response; Darroch spots a couple of young men who seem to be keeping an eye on the group, and one of them comes over to play the quiz machine near them. Darroch gets the feeling that that one is trying to look down his (non-existent) cleavage; perhaps he's looking for a weapon? He goes away again and passes the word to people at nearby tables, men and women; after a few seconds, they turn round and start staring, while saying loudly and pointedly, "Fuh... Fuh... Fuh..."

After a couple of minutes of this, they start to move closer. Once they've worked themselves up a bit more, one shouts "Get out of here, Fed!" and the others start catcalling. The barman asks them to leave, while dropping in an HLA recognition phrase of his own. The shouting continues: "Go back to the president! Botlickers!"

Robot Gumbo

19 June 2010

A man approaches them outside, introduces himself as Archibald Leach, and gives a recognition phrase; he takes them into the house next door. They discuss the situation - he's been asked to get them to New Orleans and perhaps sort out some identification.

As they talk, a truck screeches to a stop outside the bar; the side drops, and three power-armoured troopers rush in, accompanied by four robots. They deploy riot gas; there are a few shots.

The team stays quiet, in case there are robots with enhanced hearing. Forester spots one of the power-armoured troopers carrying out a young student - "merde, kid, go home and don't let me see you again".

It seems that some of the simpler robots - certainly including the street-cleaner - are teleoperated much of the time; they'll work on their own very simple brains, but will call for help when they meet something they don't understand. Police bots are more likely to be self-directed. Leach hasn't heard about the body shipping to Denver.

The WASPs stay around for around half an hour, then leave, with a single robot left on guard at the front. Leach leads the team to meet his boatman, Pierre, who gets them to put all their metallic kit into the bilges of his small craft. (It's a carbon fibre body, and the outboard seems to make very little noise or wake.) The team mentions the bag of drugs to Leach; he reckons he can sell them to Resistance medics.

They get to New Orleans, where several towers are still standing clear of the water, presumably with their lower levels filled with wet-set concrete; Pierre ties up, and they head inside to rest up. Leach is asked about the space programme: Canaveral is still there, but it's used strictly for military launches. They still use SRBs that should be compatible with the reentry craft, though whether they should be got from there or from Alabama where they're constructed is not clear.

There's sound of excitement from buildings further in. From passing boats, the team hears that "she's got another one". Darroch and Leach get Pierre to take them in to see what's going on. The town council of what's left of New Orleans - all three members of it - have gathered in one of the remaining buildings, and a crowd has joined them. Near the council is a man in a wheelchair, and a strange-looking woman. She's lost several fingers from her left hand, and wears a variety of rattling charms and amulets. The man and woman are near the covered pool that has filled what was once the building's atrium.

While Darroch has trouble reading the scene, Leach reckons the woman is accusing the wheelchair-bound man - "he smells funny", apparently. Apparently the standard response to an accusation of being an infiltrator is to go for a swim, but as the man points out, he can't...

Still, the mood of the crowd is definitely for speedy justice, and the man in his wheelchair is pushed to the edge of the water, and over. He thrashes his arms for a few moments, then sinks, with only a few bubbles.

Leach negotiates for the victim's identification, planning to modify it to fit one of the party. The council has representatives of Free America ("Shark") and a Lieutenant Colonel from the HLA, as well as a local woman who seems to represent the other residents. The Colonel rapidly picks up on Darroch, the stranger, and quizzes Leach intensely about how long he's known him and where. Leach spins a convincing yarn about having worked their way across Florida; the Colonel is impressed, but the voodoo woman thinks Darroch smells strange - "not like a bot, but strange". The mood of the crowd is certainly that they want Darroch to take a swim. (Robots, generally, do not float.) He's pushed in, and starts paddling.

He's doing a reasonable job when something grabs his ankle, and starts pulling him down. As he thrashes to stay afloat, Leach throws him down a gun; it's clear that the others are getting their own weapons out, and Darroch calls "Don't shoot!". Leach gets a rope ready, but Darroch's pulled under.

Darroch pulls the gun he borrowed from Forester - one of Jesus' pistols - and fires blindly. He feels a slight shock as a bullet goes home into whatever has grabbed him, then works his gun-hand along his leg and fires several more rounds. The formerly wheelchair-bound man stops moving and stiffens; he uses one last round to blow through the wrist and break free.

Darroch surfaces again and catches Leach's rope, then pulls himself out.

Quote: (Voodoo woman) Why do you smell funny?
(Darroch) Because I've just been up to my arsehole in shitty water.

The council members are clearly impressed with Darroch's capabilities, and ask him and Leach to being the rest of their party back to dinner in an hour's time. They do return; there are spotlights set up pointing into the pool, and a few brave divers are going in to see what they can find. (The wheelchair-bound bot has already been brought up.)

The Resistance members have a proposal. They can provide the team with much higher-quality identification: but they want some help with a mission the next day, as their own team has got picked up in a police sweep.

The job is a distraction: to cause one of the WASP emergency response teams to come to a particular elementary school at 10.15, rather than to be available to go to the primary mission site. It's up to the team how they set this up; the HLA colonel suggests mortar fire into the school, while Shark is rather more in favour of non-damaging solutions.

A great deal of discussion ensues.

Quote: (Leach) I do not want my last words to be "I'm terribly sorry, I only meant to wing the little brat".

The eventual plan is to send in a car bomb to a relatively harmless area, then follow it up with some gunfire and a panicked phone call to the police. Free America gets hold of a car and some fertiliser and fuel oil to make explosives; Foale and Forester work on the hardware and software so that they can subvert its autopilot for use as a remote control.

When they arrive at the school, Darroch and Forester wait together in another car, while Leach and Foale walk round the grounds to the secondary entrances and wait for the boom.

Darroch brings the car to the gate and crashes through it. Ahead there's a themed play area, full of brightly-coloured "robot" slides and climbing frames but no children; to one side is a staff car-park. He sends the car into the play area, then detonates it as the guards start to run towards it. The other two paint-spray their cameras, and Leach makes a 911 call ("they're shooting the children"); Forester lets of some bursts of sub-machinegun fire for verisimilitude.

Everyone heads towards the sewer entrance that's their planned escape route, and the disposable phones and guns are scattered along the sewer as they go. They move on by van to a Free America safe-house; as the pressure goes off, Forester loses consciousness.

Media reports discuss the "atrocities" at the school, the car-bombing and heavy weapons fire; the shots of the front wall show rather more bullet-holes than the team left behind. The other main story is of an attack at an elders' care facility; from the pictures, it looks fairly up-scale, and apparently terrorists came in and shot people. There's a crackdown on the way, but the teams are mostly deep undercover.

As it turns out, the rapid-response force sent Vultures, and then didn't deploy in force when they didn't see continuing gunfire. Instead, they were available to hit the rear-guard of the main Free America force, and there were casualties. Nonetheless, the job was done and the assassinations were successful, and the team will be given the new false IDs.

Boudin Rouge

11 July 2010

The IDs state that the group is a media team, one of the few groups of people able to move relatively freely about the Washington Protectorate. Free America knows of one retired spacecraft engineer, and he's relatively local: Greg Stott, formerly of NASA, who since the war has been living in Lake Arthur, about two hundred miles west along I-10 and I-12.

The team gets hold of some camera equipment and a pickup truck and heads off, planning to claim to be making a documentary about "the lot of the poor primitives" who insist on living in un-cleared areas (with the constant risk of bandits, radiation and chemical weapons). Some of the original road is still above water level; in other places it's been rebuilt on mounds of earth or pilings, and it's clear that most of the land to the south is swampy at best - when it's above water level at all.

At the Lake Arthur city limit sign, they stop and Leach does a quick piece to camera, explaining to the group that he now wants to be known as Hildy Johnson. They head on to the middle of town, seeing a familiar figure walking in from the other direction: it looks remarkably like Jesus Romero.

They're naturally suspicious, and once they've rented rooms over the town's only restaurant they try a variety of tests to ensure that he's not a robot: Foale checks for signal emissions, Forester builds a current sensor, and Johnson chats with him to try to catch him out on a failure of human psychological emulation. He puts up with this for a while; what really convinces the others is that, when Darroch puts out one of his pistols, he immediately picks it up, unloads it and cleans it. (He is happy to get it back - and its mate, from Foale - passing over to Foale the long-arm he was carrying. Foale plugs his neural jack into the latter, taking appropriate precautions, and discovers it's an M-22 Storm Carbine with a very chatty user interface. ("Hi there! This weapon was originally designed for use by the U.S.Army. Habla usted Español?")

Romero explains that he woke up in a Zone Denver slave camp, and managed to bribe the trustie with drugs and slip away while on a working party. Since then he's been working his way east. He didn't see any sign of the biological experiments that the rest of the team encountered, and doesn't have any new scars.

Both Romero and Johnson compete for the attentions of Francine, their hostess at the hotel; this seems to be something of a new experience for her, living out in the middle of nowhere. Romero is more convincing.

The next day, Johnson and Forester go out to conduct interviews; the reactions they meet range from indifference to open hostility. Francine's the only person who seems at all friendly. The town's water comes from a solar-powered desalination plant that seems to be shut down; Forester offers to help fix it, and shows a couple of the onlookers what he's doing. He also notices that some of the damage to the plant looks as though it was caused by grenade fragments. One of the onlookers, once the others have left, whispers to him that their engineer has been taken away by pirates, and they've almost certainly got spies in the town.

Romero has picked up a certain amount of pillow-talk from Francine, and the group pools its information. Stott has been keeping things running here, but a few weeks ago he was kidnapped by the local pirate group, Boudin Rouge ("blood sausage"); they're based somewhere to the south, in the islands, but nobody knows just where.

The group decides to become bait. That evening, Johnson plays rich kid (mentioning "the Johnsons who invented chairs") and makes sure people know where they're going to be filming the next day. Later on, Foale picks up a brief transmission from within the town, probably a signal for attention.

Out in the swamps the next day, Darroch and Forester both get the feeling they're being watched. Forester picks a location that seems tactically sound, and they head back that night.

Darroch hears an engine being shut down off in the distance, and the team takes up positions: Darroch on a promontory by the route in, Foale and Romero up near the vehicle, and Johnson and Forester down by the water. Soon two swamp boats come in, being paddled by the people on board; one of the crew calls out "you're coming with us". Darroch puts a gauss slug through the fuel tank of the second boat, but while it penetrates (and wounds one of the pirates) the boat doesn't catch fire. Romero shoots the pilot of the first boat out of his seat, and Johnson hits the ground. The pirates let off sub-machineguns, with very limited results; Romero hits the fuel tank of the second boat again, and this time it goes up in flames. Foale aims the storm carbine at the pirate climbing into the pilot's seat of the remaining boat, and puts a long burst into him: three rounds hit, shredding his body and fouling the propeller. Darroch is nearly hit by a bullet fired from off to the south, and starts scanning in that direction to spot the sniper, occasionally firing blindly.

Romero and Forester pick off several more pirates, and Johnson calls out "throw down your weapons and surrender". They do; a shot from the south hits the remaining swamp boat's fuel tank, igniting it, and leaving only one survivor, whom Foale patches up. Darroch continues to fire, and no further shots come from the south. He slips off to investigate.

The surviving pirate, Pierre, is easily intimidated by Johnson, and spills what he knows. The Boudin Rouge (the boss, Myriam, used to be a chef before the war) has another fifteen or twenty people, and they're based on an island some thirty miles to the south; he draws a rough sketch of the layout, including the machine gun emplacements. They do indeed have Stott, who's fixing up their equipment and working on some sort of major project at the boss's command.

Darroch finds the spot where the sniper was: there's an arm, apparently bitten off, and a large heavy rifle. He retrieves the latter, removing the targeting scope to add to his own weapon and passing the rifle itself to Forester.

Next will be the assault on the pirates' island...

28 January 2012

Tactics aren't Pierre's strong point, but he thinks the Boudin Rouge may have other snipers. The team thinks about how to get to the island: stealth, negotiation? Romero doesn't think they're likely to be prone to negotiate with several of their number already dead; getting them riled up and careless might be more easily achievable.

Foale patches up Pierre to keep him alive for the moment - apart from anything else, he's able to guide them to the pirate base. They paddle the two burned-down swamp boat hulls through a maze of channels as the crescent moon rises. Pierre gets increasingly nervous and, intimidated by Romero, guides them back and down a different branch.

The team spots some lights in the distance, and Darroch drops off onto a tussock with a decent view. They also pick out propeller sounds: one swamp boat, and one higher-pitched, perhaps a microlight or similar. Darroch spots it in the sky (possibly someone using , and Pierre confirms that Stott has been working on "some sort of helicopter or something" for the boss. Darroch aims on it, and Johnson starts lining up on the generator building as the boats approach.

The fan noise on the ground gets noticeably louder all of a sudden as the boats clear a low island, and Romero beaches his boat in the undergrowth. Another swamp boat comes into sight, playing a searchlight onto the shore and the water. Its engine tone drops and it starts to slow down as it swings towards Romero and Foale.

Darroch opens fire on the microlight's engine, knocking it out and setting fire to the plane as it starts to plunge towards the small island. Johnson hits the generator building, and Foale sprays the boat, after which the searchlight swings towards the sky. Pierre throws himself flat in the bottom of the boat. The remaining boatmen return fire, without getting close; Darroch and Romero pick them off.

As the microlight comes further in towards land, the fire spreads, and a flare of some sort mounted on the wing goes off. In the new light, Romero thinks he glimpses movement on the small island. On the main pirate island, people are starting to come out of the huts and man machine-gun posts.

Johnson continues to put aimed fire into the generator building, and Darroch starts to take out the machine gunners. Romero and Foale get out of their boat and search for the local contact, who's doing a good job at staying stealthy.

Foale spots movement and aims, then alerts Romero, who opens fire immediately. Foale yells at him to stop; Romero sees the target's shape, and his hindbrain kicks in (it has been a while...) and they start to talk. The newcomer is a young dark-skinned woman of mixed race, covered in muck from the swamp, who explains that she's recently escaped from the Boudin Rouge, but would like to get her stuff back.

Meanwhile, Johnson has riddled the generator hut, and Darroch has kept down the several pirates who tried to reach their machine-gun nests.

Foale brings Pierre onto the island to give him and the stranger a look at each other, then shoots very close to his head - then turns him loose with a final threat. Pierre splashes away in terror.

The team gets back together on the island, and considers what to do next. Johnson and the stranger exchange Free America recognition signs.

Johnson calls out across the water (then uses a short-range radio from one of the bodies in the boat) as dawn starts to break, and attempts to get them to produce Greg Stott and the stranger's kit. The female voice on the other end swears a lot (in idiomatic French dialect), and starts to try to negotiate (explaining that she has to keep her people happy, "including you, Jose"). Darroch knocks down one of the few remaining pirates, and while negotiations continue Romero calls out to one of the other pirates "Jose, if you shoot her, you get to go free".

He does, and they agree that Stott will be released. There's a ripping sound in the water, and something on the far side of the island moves through the water very fast. Romero calls out "Everybody out of here now", and waves the others back into the boat.

There's an explosion by the old tanker that was anchored on one side of the island, and it starts to list and sink. Darroch, last one off the island, fires a round at Romero - hitting him in the head, and electronics spill out. He fires back at the boat, putting a few more bullet holes in it. Darroch fires again, hitting Romero in the chest, but still not putting him down; Foale joins in, not managing to hit, and it's Johnson's storm carbine burst that finally puts him down.

St.Claire throws the boat across the swamp towards Stott, and they pick him up, as the pirate escorting him runs back towards the middle of the compound. They get away as fast as they can, heading into twisty channels to minimise their exposure to the submarine. The wake follows, and Johnson sees a black metallic cylinder breaching the water surface in the way that whales used to, back when there were whales.

Darroch shoots as it approaches, and hits but doesn't kill it; it passes the boat, trying to ram or capsize it, but St.Claire spins it out of the way, and Foale puts a burst into the submarine as it passes. That compromises its structural integrity, and it hits a wall of water at 200mph, disintegrating in a shower of components and organic matter.

What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby

The team heads back towards Lake Arthur, and explanations are made. Stott reckons that attaching the boosters to the team's ship might be most easily done in water. Johnson is concerned about the possibility of Romero having blabbed to Zone Denver or another AI - the location of the downed ship, or maybe the whole mission.

Johnson reckons the remaining contents of the suitcase of drugs ought to be enough to buy the needed chemicals - certainly if they manage to get them legally, maybe if they go to the Black Zones.

Back at a safe house in Lake Arthur, the team runs into Remy duBois, who was on his way to look for St.Claire. Foale has received a message: he's due to report to the Reproductive Citizenship Clinic in Slidell, in three days' time. This is something that only normally happens to women who haven't had enough children to satisfy the Reproductive Statutes... A bit of research reveals that Foale isn't - yet - on an arrest list.

Back in Slidell, Foale cracks into the hospital records. The person listed as seeing him, a Bill Hawkins, isn't shown as having appointments with anyone else. Hawkins is listed as getting much higher pay than the other people taking appointments, too. Foale doesn't manage to dig out much about Hawkins, though his job is clearly a highly-valued one.

duBois arranges to attend a clinic at the same time, so that he'll be nearby if there's any trouble; the others will be in a van nearby, ready to respond.

Foale goes through security into the waiting room, which is otherwise occupied exclusively by women in their twenties and thirties. After a brief wait, he's called in to the examination room, where a thoroughly well-dressed man is waiting. He makes it clear that he knows who Foale really is, and suggests that he might be able to give him information to his advantage - if Foale does him a favour. (The bug-jammer on the table is a bit of a giveaway.) As deputy vice-president of the clinic, he very much wants to be the vice-president, and clearly Foale is either Free America or something even dirtier... here's some information on the vice-president, make another appointment for next week.

Foale leaves the clinic, and rejoins the others.

3 March 2012

Back in a Free America safehouse, some discussion ensues - in particular, whether it's necessary actually to capture or kill Manuel. Johnson gets in touch with his Free America contacts, while Foale looks into the provided information on the target, Manuel Cabeceira, and Forester starts work on putting together some surveillance and tracking devices.

Darroch gets into position to keep an eye on their new patron - Bill Hawkins - when he leaves work; both he and Cabeceira are in robot-driven cars, kept in a well-protected garage.

The next day, discussion focuses on taking Cabeceira in his car rather than at the more heavily-defended work or home sites (and probably taking Hawkins too, on the same day). Following them in vehicles seems like a good idea. Darroch and Forester start working on the EMP mines that they're planning to use to stop the cars, but don't get very far. Johnson goes looking for masks, voice changers, cameras, and a rigged jacket to fake Cabeceira's death, taking the day to do it. In the afternoon, Darroch and St.Claire tail Hawkins' drive home. As they're heading back, St.Claire spots Cabeceira crossing the road in a reasonably stealthy manner.

Next day, Darroch works on the EMP mines, completing them. Foale looks up public information on Cabeceira - he's moved from medicine to administration, but there's not very much beyond the PR background. There's a little data on the suburb he lives in; it looks like a pretty tough nut to crack.

Darroch, St.Clair and Johnson follow Cabeceira home from work, then hang about waiting for him to leave on foot; he doesn't.

Johnson and Forester go out looking for empty shipping containers that might be suitable as a kidnap and interrogation site; Foale locates a couple that aren't due to be moved for at least a few weeks.

Darroch, St.Clair and Johnson follow Hawkins as they had before, then lurk, waiting to see if Cabeceira will leave again - this time he does. Johnson tracks him on foot, eventually getting through the worse parts of town to a warehouse where (going by the sound) there's some kind of sporting event going on. Checking with French Louie, a fence who's based nearby, he confirms that this is where the Steel Arena's happening at the moment. Inside, he spots Cabeceira placing a bet with a bookie, and gets some video.

Foale is thinking in terms of modifying the traffic direction system to guide their victim down a specific route. Johnston looks into previous assassination attempts on Reproductive Citizenship staff - generally the assassins haven't lived for long after the attack.

Johnson gets a call to meet one of his contacts. It turns out that Manuel has been working for GRRL - faking records and otherwise mitigating the impact of the Reproductive Statutes, and they would definitely prefer that he not be killed.

Foale looks up Hawkins; his record's pretty bland, and it's not possible to tell whether he's been involved in playing rough before.

Johnson gets a call to meet GRRL; he goes with St.Claire, with Darroch as outside backup, to a residential block. They meet a senior operative of GRRL, with her bodyguards, and Johnson explains what's been going on. She's not willing for Cabeceira to be compromised - he won't be involved in any deception, or even be made aware that anything's going on. On the other hand, GRRL will lend their computer-penetration resources, aiming to get hold of copies of Hawkins' correspondence.

A few hours later a copy of all that email comes through, and Foale spends most of the night looking through it. In among the work details and snippets from home, there's some material that's more ambiguous in nature; some of it looks as though it's been partly wiped, but recovered headers indicate that much of this correspondence is with a Garrett Shreeve, particularly an exchange two days before Foale's appointment went on the queue.

The address tracks back to a firm of private investigators operating in Slidell. Foale cracks into their mailserver; Garrett Shreeve has certainly been corresponding with Hawkins, for at least the last six months and probably longer; it looks as though Shreeve has been paying Hawkins for access to internal records, and most recently there's a request to trace Foale (with his real name and biometrics) - and a suggestion that this would have a favourable result. But there's no sign of any email commissioning him to do this.

Foale plans to indicate - or create - congestion on alternative routes to channel Hawkins onto a particular road, while Darroch and St.Claire will intercept the car with bicycle-carried EMP mines and the rest of the team stands by in a vehicle. Before that, though, Johnson and St.Claire drop in on Garrett Shreeve in his office above a pizza parlour. There's no sign of any other employees...

Johnson indicates that he's working for Foale, but Shreeve is disbelieving - he's been asking around and spreading the name, after all. Shreeve proposes that Foale should call him on a good-quality videophone; Johnson's counterargument involves St.Claire's tangler and bundling Shreeve into the car (Darroch punching him into unconsciousness when he keeps struggling), after which he's taken to the containers.

Foale sets Shreeve's nose, which wakes him up. Johnson takes charge of the... interview, and points out Foale. Shreeve is profoundly unhappy with the situation, and disinclined to be cooperative; eventually, Darroch arranges to release and pay him in return for the information - which is that Foale should contact "Sarah Rowland Associates". Johnson leaves him tangled in the container, where he'll be able to escape eventually, and the team heads off to deal with Hawkins.

Foale inserts spurious traffic data to channel Hawkins' journey home, and Darroch and St.Claire move up to intercept him and trigger the EMP mine. Darroch crowbars open the door, shoots Hawkins with a long burst from the submachine gun, then dumps in a grenade to make sure.

They're moving away to the rendezvous when the team in the car sees an incoming aircraft; as it passes over the site of the attack, man-sized figures step out of it and fall towards the ground. St.Claire drives them away through the beginnings of the police net, and the team heads off to Atlanta with Greg Stott.

Foale wipes the footage from Shreeve's office, and sets up interception of his outgoing email. Sarah Rowland Associates is a private finance firm, based in near Ottawa; Foale digs a little, and finds a nest of shell companies, the whole thing having been set up ten years ago... but it doesn't seem to be at all active, filing the legal minimum of accounts, but not trying to win any new business. The number that Shreeve gave out isn't any of the numbers associated with that company.

Foale calls, using a line that shouldn't be traceable. The voice on the other end asks for a video channel for biometric confirmation; when he's reluctant, it asks for the name of his first cat, and other personal questions. When the answers are confirmed, the voice reveals itself as an expert system that's been working on Foale's behalf since before the war, and has been managing a substantial fraction of his assets. It spotted him in a Washington Protectorate data-feed a few weeks ago, and has been looking for him since...

The Moon Lights My Way

5 May 2012

Greg Stott reckons that the shuttle ought to be fixable without too much in the way of heavy equipment. Foale comes up with a plan for a small-scale manufacturing business that would need the various fabricators and petrochemicals that are on their shopping list, though not the alcohol - though it will be called Recondite Components, rather than the "Alloy Tubes Project based in Manhattan"; it's also going to be large enough to outlast the current effort, and will be doing legitimate business since this is the easiest way to appear legitimate.

The group puts together a list of questions to ask Tranquility when they manage to get back in contact. Johnson reckons he doesn't have much to offer on the moon, so he's planning to stay behind when the party does return there.

Things are fairly busy in Atlanta, in the aftermath of Hawkins' assassination. In the safe house, Foale continues the company setup; Forester fixes various bits of Resistance equipment; Darroch and Stott plan the shuttle repairs, while Johnson's doing larger-scale administration. The company setup takes about a week, during which Peon becomes concerned that database searches (on the systems it was using to find Foale) seem to have increased. Foale sorts out a new set of IDs from Free America - and another set, to wait in reserve.

Johnson investigates the booster supply chain, and finds it much more focused on preventing attacks and destruction than on preventing theft. (Each segment is around 150 tons, after all.)

A replacement laser communicator has been constructed as Recondite Components' first actual output. It gets strapped to the back of an autonomous truck, and the truck routed to somewhere the team can meet it; Forester, Foale, St.Claire, Martin and Darroch go out on this job, taking Foale's report of everything that's happened since communication was lost.

St.Claire drives out to the rendezvous, which happens during daylight hours in a deserted rural town. The truck has parked itself within the wall of a shed that's been moved slightly from where the maps say it should be (it's been moved to hide a still) - but the truck isn't damaged. Martin and Darroch fade into the background to keep an eye on things, and Forester aims the laser. After a few seconds, the encrypted channel opens, though Tranquility doesn't speak until Foale identifies himself - and uploads his report.

Tranquility is very glad to hear from the group, and reports that it has been becoming lonely, and having "bad dreams". It's very keen to know when they'll get back to the moon - in a month or so, if all goes well. It's looking forward to having more humans around again.

Foale suggests that if its bad thoughts get too severe it should stop talking with Kaiser... a piece of matter in orbit briefly breaks the beam, and the communication is terminated, though not before Tranquility downloads a large data file.

The team moves out, and Foale checks the contents - it's still impersonating Zone Luna, apparently successfully. It's strongly suggested that the team should run an attack on Liberty Station, in HEO, base of Zone Orbital - New Delhi will supply a strike team as backup, but the humans' shuttle should be stealthy enough to get in close. There's extensive discussion about how practical this might be - but it does at least have the virtue that Orbital won't be shooting at the shuttle as it heads back to the moon.

Foale works briefly on the shuttle simulation, and St.Claire and Martin start to train up as backup pilots. The team works on plans to grab some boosters, perhaps by hijacking barges if the key maglev lines are put out of use.

Free America should be able to help get across the border - they usually smuggle people the other way... so the first plan is to recover the shuttle, then to hijack the barges later. While Free America is sorting out transport, custom-fitted vacc suits are run up for the newer members of the party. Peon has seen signs that the database searches are widening to include other historical individuals.

Via various hidden compartments in a variety of vehicles, the team makes it back into Zone Denver - and meets their HLA guides, Lois and Malachy, who look if anything tougher than before but are glad to see them again. They're willing to take the team back to their former home, from which they should be able to make their own way to the shuttle.

The trip across the desert takes several days, with occasional pauses to hide from Vulture overflights. At a settlement, the team meets Daphne again - she's certainly not "normal", but she's better adjusted than she was; she's learning important life skills, like loading magazines.

As they get closer to the shuttle site, everyone goes more on alert - but there's no sign of machine activity in the area. The heap of sand certainly looks intact, so the team sheds its loads and starts digging. With a few days of work, the shuttle should be ready to fly again. Darroch pre-flights it, and everything seems to be in order as it lifts off the ground and he starts to head south-east for the Gulf of Mexico.

Forester picks up airborne radar pings, but doesn't think it's locked on yet; Darroch deviates round the source. Looking at multiple sources, Forester reckons there's a concerted search going on, but they're still not being picked up. They fly out over the Gulf of Mexico, then land (a little roughly), and let the shuttle sink to the bottom.

Then it's into pressure suits. Forester goes first and makes contact with the (rather young, rather easily impressed) Free America pickup team, who bring in their bigger boat to drop ropes and bring the rest up - as well as the heavy body armour that was left behind when the team was crossing the desert.

The team heads back to Atlanta; Peon reports that searches are still going on. There's some discussion of records - the surviving Lunatics arrived for different reasons at different times, and some of the records may still be extant. Free America has strike teams in position to cut the maglev lines; this will be carefully timed, so that a chosen ship (the Huzzah) will be the one that's used to shift the boosters: there's a crew of fourteen, of whom the second mate, Bill Gibson, is a Free America sympathiser. But there will probably be a security team on board as well.

Johnson, Foale and St.Clair talk to the GRRL doctor they're planning to bring back to the moon. She's mostly a trauma specialist, but nobody really knows much about cryogenics - it's not something the high-ranking humans need. When Johnson asks her about relocation to a lower-gravity zone, she's clearly dubious, but goes along with it.

Meanwhile, Forester, Martin and Darroch head for Mobile, to talk with Gibson, who's clearly in the habit of drinking more than his robot-recommended limits. The security team of 10-12 all looked human, though they were armoured. After Forester asks some fairly pointed questions about the previous booster-loading exercise, Martin asks some spoilers to try to make it unclear just what's going on. Gibson reckons it ought to be possible to sneak quite a few people onto the boat beforehand, but they'd be scattered all over the ship - and if there were a hijacking going on, the crew would probably keep their heads down rather than joining one side or the other - and the captain has a family he's quite fond of.

During the exercise, the security team was on board for about three hours - they had personnel in all the watchstanders' positions, but Gibson doesn't know what procedures they'd planned at sea. They carried a mixture of short and long arms; one pair used a four-tube missile launcher that was lashed to the deck, pointed upwards, and some more of them were operating what might have been a hydrophone. There's certainly room on board for plenty more troops. Indeed, during the exercise, they loaded a container on the deck, though it wasn't clear why.

Gibson describes the layout of the ship - basically a huge flat deck, with the bridge tower at one end. Forester gathers more tactical information, and the team gets back together to consider attack plans. Forester's thinking of an assault; Johnson suggests the ship might be sunk via sabotage in advance; Martin's considering igniting one or more spare booster sections to remove all evidence...