Act VII - Submerged Suns

Since there's no land to be seen anywhere, the crew decides to head south towards the nearest edge of the deck. The hours go by but still dawn doesn't come. Only stars light the ship's passage. After a full day of travel the Windwalker reaches an area where it becomes increasingly difficult to move forward until finally the ship comes to a complete stop. Unable to penetrate what must be a forcefield, the crew changes course 90 degrees and heads west.

Two days have gone by (without seeing the sun even once) when a sentry spots something in the distance. It turns out to be a group of large bulbous creatures, floating about 10 meters above the ocean-surface, with long tendrils that trail through the water. Telepathy is used to try and make contact but the creatures only have a rudimentary intelligence.

Tula uses an envirolyzer to examine the area where the creatures were first spotted and discovers a concentration of planktonlike lifeforms. Stranger though is the fact that the water is saturated with oxygen to the extent that you could actually breathe it. What's more, there's no pressure difference below water, something which is a natural impossibility. Tuco decides to go for a swim but quickly changes his mind when he discovers the water is freezing cold.

The Windwalker follows the rim for an entire week without encountering any further signs of land or life. By this time, the ship has crossed so much distance that the crew has actually wound up somewhere to the north of their original entry point. The crewmembers decide to try something else and head south-west. Later that day, an analysis of the water shows that its temperature has gone up slightly.

Hours go by and the water temperature continues to increase slowly as the ship moves on. The crew also notices that it's beginning to get a little lighter somehow. As they travel further, they discover that the illumination is coming from somewhere beneath the ocean-surface. In the steadily increasing light they can spot dark shapes far beneath the waves.

More hours go by and the water has now reached a comfortable temperature. It has also become clear where the heat and light are coming from. A sun is glowing in the far depths. The crew watches in stunned silence, the only sounds coming from the waves beneath the ship.

The crew decides that this is a good place to try and take a dive. The water is a reasonable temperature and more of the dark shapes can be seen directly below. Drabor, Tuco and Scotty submerge themselves. For Scotty it's easy, since he breathes through his skin. Drabor and Tuco however have to inhale the water. Despite Tula's assurances that they won't drown, they find it nearly impossible to bring themselves to take a breath. In the end, they force themselves to do so, discovering the horrid sensation of drowning as they gag on the water in their airways. The rest of the crew watches anxiously as their friends squirm underwater.

It takes a while, but finally Drabor and Tuco start to get somewhat accustomed to the feeling. They slowly grow more comfortable and start experimenting with moving around underwater. After about half an hour of this, they decide to go down all the way. The three friends propel themselves downward. Drabor discovers to his delight that his phobia isn't as strong underwater.

 

 

After about fifteen minutes the three arrive at the dark shape they saw from the surface. The thing resembles a huge and overgrown asteroid floating underwater. Weeds wave gently in the currents created by the giant rocks slow rotation. Here the three divers encounter shoals of colorful and strange fish. A small group of those takes an interest in Scotty, nibbling on him a bit until he shoos them away. The divers swim nearer to the asteroid. Occasional outcroppings of rock stick up from the weeds, bare except for large tubelike plants. Scotty gets a couple of loose rocks from the asteroid and aims them at the opening on top of one of the plants. He scores a direct hit and is mildly shocked when the plant spits the rock out again, missing him by mere meters.

The divers continue their exploration until they suddenly notice that all the fish have disappeared. They decide to hide in the weeds (disturbing some of the fish that were also hiding there) and wait. Then a gigantic, segmented creature swims into view. The leviathan continually sucks in huge amounts of water through the cavernlike orifice in its large frontal segment, which it then expels through its other segments, which grow smaller towards its tail. The divers cling to the weeds in an effort to keep from being sucked from the rock. Then the leviathan has passed them by and disappears into the depths as fast as it appeared, but not before something has detached itself from the largest segment. A long snakelike creature coils through the water towards the three crewmembers and as it comes closer, they notice that a humanoid rider sits on the serpent's back. A net-like harness with many sacks and items attached to it covers the serpent from front to back.

The creature comes to a halt about twenty meters from Tuco. The rider takes of the rifle-like device he had slung over his shoulder and attaches it to the serpent's harness. Then he swims directly towards Tuco for about ten meters, obviously having spotted him. Tuco comes out of hiding and swims over to the man. The humanoid is completely hairless and has a light skin with irregular darker patches. Apart from that, he looks surprisingly ordinary, showing no obvious mutations. He is wearing a simple pair of trunks and something that looks a lot like the serpent's harness to which tools and small items are attached.

Tuco uses telepathy to make contact. The man is obviously surprised at being able to communicate in this way but shows interest rather than fear. Tuco introduces himself and the man does likewise, naming himself Razil, a Jalu'ir from the city of Val-Ellan. In the meantime, Drabor and Scotty try to sneak to a more strategic point but Razil spots the movement in the weeds. Tuco quickly explains that these are his friends and introduces them. Razil is obviously surprised, especially about Scotty.

Tuco asks how Jalu'ir normally communicate and Razil explains that he can speak in air. Tuco suggests they all go to the surface. After a moment of consideration, Razil agrees and suggests they all ride with him on the water-serpent. Somewhat tentatively, the three take place on the creature's back and take hold of the harness with a tight grip. The ride upward is a wild yet graceful one, the serpents coiling motions fluid and powerful.

The serpent comes up only a few hundred meters from the Windwalker and then lets itself drift on the surface. Razil stands up and with practiced ease purges the water from his lungs. Drabor and Tuco have more difficulty and have to briefly re-enter the water. Finally, after much coughing and hocking up water, they breathe air once more. Razil taps a soft sequence on the serpent's head and it languidly begins to move towards the ship. Razil watches the Windwalker in amazement, while Tuco and Drabor sit back and try to feel not quite so ill and wrung out.

Razil is welcomed aboard the Windwalker. He is deeply impressed by the technology and explains that once his own people had such devices, but that most of those were destroyed in the distant past. The crew, thinking of all the artifacts they themselves own, inquire after the way in which the Jalu'ir artifacts were lost. Razil explains that in the past, his people relied heavily on such devises. Ownership of weapons, vehicles and production facilities meant power, money and prestige. As time went by, more and more artifacts began to malfunction or to run out of power. Spare parts became increasingly scarce. Almost all scientific research done in those days was aimed at finding ways to fix broken artifacts, but even that could not prevent the decline. As functional artifacts started to become rare, conflicts started breaking out for ownership of the remaining items. In the end, Jalu'ir society fragmented into families and power-groups, each desperately trying to keep hold of their advantages at any price. It was then that a group of renegade scientists formed the organisation that became known as the Kadar. The basic precept of the Kadar was that no society should be dependent on items it could not produce on its own. Little more than a year after their formation, the Kadar movement was strong enough to launch a massive sabotage campaign which caught Jalu'ir society completely by surprise. Up until now, Jalu'ir conflicts had always been about gaining ownership of artifacts, not about their destruction. The Kadar had no such qualms. They destroyed or crippled whatever artifacts were within their reach, making much use of a chemical substance known as Vuel, an invention of one of the leading Kadar. Vuel reacts violently with water and in a concentrated form it can be used as a powerful explosive. As the war of entropy went on, artifacts were nearly eradicated from Jalu'ir society. Since the Kadar inventions were the only available alternative that could fill the vacuum, the Kadar gained even more influence, which in turn gave them more leverage to find and destroy artifacts. As time went by, the Jalu'ir became fully self-sufficient and the Kadar, having achieved its primary purpose, slowly disbanded and reintegrated into society. Since then, the few remaining artifacts that have been found have been kept for study.

The crewmembers ask Razil what the current Jalu'ir opinion would be about the artifacts they carry. Razil asks them if they were found within Jalu'ir territory (which basically consists of the asteroid belt circling this underwater sun), because if that was the case, the artifacts would be considered property of the Jalu'ir government and the crew would only be entitled to ten percent of the items' value. The crew tells Razil that all artifacts were acquired elsewhere. Due to their own obviously alien nature, they have little trouble convincing him.

The crewmembers talk some more with Razil about the Jalu'ir and Val-Ellan and decide to ask him if they could visit the city. Razil says he would be honored to have them as guests in his home. The crew does request that he keeps the existence of the Windwalker to himself as much as possible, since they are not as convinced of the Kadar's disbanding as the Jalu'ir themselves seem to be. They also ask him if they can safely leave the Windwalker here on the surface and Razil says he knows of nothing living here that could threaten the ship. The crew inquires after the strange bulbous lifeform they met on the surface. Hearing this, Razil worriedly asks them how close they came to the creatures. The crew says they tried to make contact and came quite close. Razil explains that the creatures expel spore-clouds when in their mating season. If inhaled, these spores will grow in the lungs, eventually killing the victim.

As it turns out, the Jalu'ir have a cure for this, so the crew decides that everyone will have to visit the city, Denna included. The girl's first try at breathing the water is successful, but Mmrrrghnhra's is not. The wet cat clambers back onto the ship and has to make several tries before finally succeeding. When everyone is finally in the water, they all take place on the serpent's back (the Jalu'ir call this species of waterserpent 'Snevrai') and it begins its journey towards the sun.

As time goes by, the asteroids the Snevrai passes become larger and larger, and occasionally man-made structures can be seen on them. Also, the temperature of the water continuously rises and plant and fish-life become more prolific. After about two hours, the crewmembers see a huge asteroid in the distance and the serpent heads directly towards it. As they pass into the day-side of the asteroid, they notice that the smooth plains they spotted on large areas of the otherwise jagged rock have large holes in them through which Jalu'ir enter and leave. The crew watches as a caravan of Chudra (Orca-like creatures, only much broader) leaves the asteroid behind.

The serpent reaches one of the entrances and Razil dismounts to talk to the guards present there. The sentries all carry a Jalu'ir-made rifle and a large pole with forked endings. One of the guards leaves to inform the City Council. Razil explains to the crewmembers that the forked poles are used against a poisonous species of snake known as the Svalur. This snake is green in colour, with black flecks and can become up to a meter in length. Usually it lives on a diet of smaller animals, but when it is about to lay eggs, it searches for larger prey. After paralysing its victim, it lays its eggs on him. These hatch after mere minutes and the larva immediately begin eating their way into the host.

Razil remounts and guides the serpent through the entrance, into a large hall that is lined with holding pens, mostly filled with more Chudra. The Chudra react aggressively to the Snevrai and its riders, but not to their own handlers who swim amongst them unharmed. Razil explains that Chudra are hostile to all creatures not of their own herd. The handlers, whom they have been raised with, are considered to be part of the herd.

Razil leaves his Snevrai in a reserved pen and sends someone ahead to notify his house-staff to expect visitors. The crewmembers follow Razil out of the hall and across the large smooth plain until they come to another entrance where they enter the city itself. The deep waterfilled streets are full of people, most of whom stop to watch the crewmembers in wonder, conversing amongst themselves with rapid handmovements. Razil leads the crew through the streets, obviously heading towards one of the better neighborhoods.

They finally reach a huge and broad pillar with entrances in the lower end. They swim inside and surface in the lower floor of the air-filled house. The plant-members of the crew look around while the others struggle to hock the water from their lungs. The walls of the large floor are completely covered with a strange species of plant, which Razil explains provides air to the house. Lighting is provided by whiteglowing glass lamps, just like it was in the streets. When asked about these, Razil tells the crew that the lamps contain a mix of water and diluted vuel, which provides bright light for about 6 hours after which it slowly begins to dim. Lights are replaced once every 24 hours.

Servants were awaiting the crew, but are obviously a bit apprehensive of approaching the mutants. Scotty uses his allurement mutation to ease the tension a bit. One of the servants points out the changing screens, which have towels available. Scotty and the others (well, those who have managed to leave the water) also receive robes.

Scotty, Leaf, Denna and Drabor go up in the house, while Tuco and Mmrrrghnhra remain behind for a while. Upstairs, Razil introduces his twenty-five year old daughter Marilla and invites everyone to dinner. During the (somewhat plain) meal, Scotty answers Marilla's questions, presenting himself as a wise and learned traveller. After a while, Razil sends out his daughter to go find a doctor for the crew's possible ailment. Reluctantly, she leaves. At about the same time, a messenger arrives with greetings from the City Council and an invitation to the celebration that is to be held tonight for the Remembrance Day, honoring the genius of Tarkosal (who invented Vuel and thus laid the foundation for Jalu'ir science).

In the meantime, Tuco has swum out into the streets to recover a bit from the so far failed attempts at surfacing. He runs into Marilla on her way back to the house. She is accompanied by an old Jalu'ir carrying a great many items on his weblike harness. The old man observes Tuco with unconcealed interest until Marilla motions for them all to return to the house.

When the older man surfaces and spots Mmrrrghnhra he begins spewing questions, all the while sketching feverishly. When he is finally introduced to the others, his eyes nearly explode. It takes Razil a bit of effort to get the old man, whom he introduces as Teacher Su-Rava, to concentrate on the problem at hand, which is the spores the crew might have inhaled. Su-Rava brings forth a flask of red liquid, which he explains must be inhaled with water and in an enclosed space. The non-plant members of the crew groan.

When the everyone has finally clambered out of the bath in which they inhaled the fluid (Scotty has only stuck his head underwater to flush out the air-tube he uses to speak), they spend the remaining hours before the feast trying to recover a bit and trying to avoid thinking about having to breathe water again.

Later that day, the lights have begun to dim and the part of the city the crew is in begins entering the night cycle of the asteroid. Under great interest, the crew heads towards the Grand Hall where the festivities are to be held. The name is not an exaggeration. After the crewmembers have surfaced in the lobby, where they are handed stylish robes, they enter the Hall itself, which stretches out in twilight gloom. Many platforms, connected by elegant bridges, float on the waters. Other platforms are attached to the walls at higher spots, and some of these have musicians on them who fill the hall with soft music. The only lighting comes from vuel-lamps underwater and from lamps hanging from the dark ceiling in the patterns of star-constellations.

The crewmembers are soon the centre of attention. They meet Teacher Su-Rava again, who is here with his wife Shuril. The crewmembers mingle with the crowd, some of them trying out the various recreational substances available. Val-Ellan's main export is chemical products, and that includes narcotics. Scotty tries out a substance called Sulvur, which comes in the form of a small lump that resembles arabic gum. He ingests it with his tendrils and discovers it increases awareness of whatever part of the body he concentrates on. He concentrates on his head (eager to find out if the spore treatment was successful or if it did any harm). The more he concentrates, the more clearly he feels his arteries pumping, the plant-juices streaming through his flesh. He feels even the slightest breeze on his skin. Then he concentrates on the places where normally his flowers would bud in his reproductive season and he can feel the buds underneath the skin.

Other available narcotics include Vraan, which you have to rub on and which increases the sense of touch in the area where it was applied (comes in the form of a wrapped cube) and Azur (a blue substance in a glass vial), which you have to breathe in with water and which gives a warm pleasant feeling much like being drunk. Leaf tries the Vraan, but it has no effect on him.

Scotty is introduced to the chairman of the council, Valdis Soi-Malev and his wife Vehdia. Valdis welcomes him to Val-Ellan. Scotty hints to the chairman that he has things of great interest to tell him and they set up a meeting for the next day.

Scotty discovers that Razil was a former member of the City Council. This council, known as the Vu-Dala, consists of twenty-one people and elects its own members. The councilmembers also act as judges. Though the people of Val-Ellan don't vote, there is an understanding: the council doesn't elect or keep unqualified members and the people don't riot. To have popular support is very important in Jalu'ir politics. In his days as a councilmember, Razil made an unpopular judgement, which caused him to lose so much support that he chose to resign. After that, he made his fortune in trade and later accepted a post as ambassador to a neighboring community.

Scotty, really getting into his role as the wise and experienced traveller, climbs up onto a high platform and begins orating about the crew's adventures for about an hour and half, drawing a great crowd. Finally though, the evening comes to an end and the crewmembers leave for Razil's home, who has provided lodgings for them.

The next day, a few crewmembers visit the Alchemist Quarter, where they are taken on a tour by some of the scientists they met at the party. Drabor spends the morning being examined by Su-Rava, whom he has told of his phobia and who has agreed to search for a cure in exchange for being allowed to do some further studying of the crew. In the meantime, Tuco and Mmrrrghnhra visit the Hall of Records. They find several reports about sites of the ancients, but all data indicates that these have been destroyed long ago.

In the afternoon, the crewmembers visit the Council. In the presence of some Jalu'ir scientists, they explain about the nature of the world, and about their search for the entrance to the next level of the Warden. The Jalu'ir clearly have trouble believing all this, but the strange nature of the mutants and the items they own is enough to convince them to keep an open mind. Another meeting is scheduled. This time, Tula will be present, bringing along the projection set the crew owns. Scotty charters a Snevrai with rider and is brought back to the Windwalker, where he remains behind and starts disassembling his laser-pistol for study.

In the meantime, the others busily continue their trade transactions, bartering scientific secrets for goods. They collect copies of books, raw substances including concentrated and diluted vuel, medicines, some custom-made items and whatever other supplies they can think of. Soon, a large pile of water-proof boxes is stacked in the lower level of Razil's house. Also, Su-Rava thinks he might have an answer to Drabor's phobia. The trade families sometimes use a small symbiont, called a Masudra, to pacify the more violent Chudra. These symbionts feed on emotions, consuming the strongest ones first. In the past, Jalu'ir prisoners who had violent tendencies got such symbionts implanted. Su-Rava believes that a Masudra could solve Drabor's problem. The only requirement would be that he occasionally subjects himself to a large open space, in order to provide the symbiont with the sustenance it needs. Otherwise, he runs the risk that the starving symbiont starts consuming less extreme emotions, leaving Drabor with his intelligence intact but emotionally blank.

Drabor takes some time to think it over and later informs Su-Rava that he is willing to try it. A servant is sent to one of the trade-families to obtain a Masudra. The symbiont turns out to be a small black caterpillar-like creature, which is placed on Drabor's neck and immediately begins cocooning itself in.

In the meantime, Tula, who has arrived at Val-Ellan in her old disguise as a mutant, demonstrates the holographic projector to the Council. The crewmembers then try to barter with the Council for some of the remaining Jalu'ir artifacts. They reach an agreement on some broken weapons. Tula fixes an inoperative laser-rifle, in exchange for which she gets a broken plasma-rifle, which she also manages to fix. They fail to reach an accord about some other items however, which leaves the crew bitter and resentful. Returning to Razil's house, they decide to offer him some of Tula's chemical knowledge. They are unsure how he could repay them, but they like him and figure that if he manages to upstage the Council it'll all be worth it anyway.

Arriving back at Razil's house, they learn that an old man came by looking for them, saying he had something to discuss that would be of interest to them. Razil offers the crew to have the old bum barred from the house when he returns, discounting him as an opportunist trying to make a few Jalud (the Jalu'ir coin) off the crew. The crewmembers say that won't be necessary and that they'll meet with the old man. Razil requests them not to bring him up into the main house. The crew agrees.

After a few hours, a servant announces the old man's arrival. Downstairs the crew meets a nearly ancient Jalu'ir, fragile-looking and dressed in worn and shoddy clothing. The man introduces himself as Gol Atek-Maxil and he says he's been following the crew's visit to the city with interest. He tells them he knows the location of a site of the Ancients, one that in all likelihood is untouched. He suggests they discuss this in a more private place. The crew agrees and follows him to a bar, the Golden Seafish, in a somewhat seedier neighborhood. After surfacing inside, amidst other customers imbibing somewhat large quantities of narcotics, they find a spot where they are relatively secluded and get down to business.

Gol explains to them that he wishes to raid the ancient site without having the Council confiscate the items and leaving him with only ten percent. However, the site is located in an inhospitable part of the Jalu'ir territory and he hasn't got the means of raiding it by himself. Since he lives in discord with his family (a son who works in fishprocessing and whom he describes as a useless piece of fishdung with a wife more venomous than a Svalur) he also has no-one to help him and has therefore turned to the crew. He offers to show them to the location of the site, in exchange for half of the recovered items. He suggest that division of the spoils is made by one party making two piles of items, and the other party getting to choose a pile first. If division of the item(s) isn't really possible, then the items will either be sold and the proceeds divided, or the crewmembers get the item(s) and compensate him for half the value. The crew agrees and sets another meeting with him for the next day, in order to give them time to bring their affairs in order.

Back at Razil's house, they offer Razil the chemical secrets as they discussed, and ask him to arrange transport of their acquisitions to the Windwalker. Razil sees to it that everything is brought to the ship by means of Chudra. He also arranges for two riderless Snevrai for the crewmembers, who have told him they wish to explore a bit on their own. Razil turns out to be a Snevrai enthusiast, and they all agree they should go out riding one of these days.

A few hours later, the crew returns to the animal pens, where everything is waiting for them. Tuco tries some telepathic communication with his Snevrai and finds out that the serpent is quite a bit smarter than most normal animals. It quickly learns some of the telepathic 'tap'-signals Tuco tries to teach it. Scotty tries to bond with his serpent by rubbing pheromones over it, but that doesn't seem to work underwater. Still, the serpent is friendly enough and seems to like the rubbing.

The crew sets out after the departing Chudra with only minor delays. The Snevrai are well-trained and forgiving of the crewmembers' inexperience and the ride to the Windwalker passes smoothly. Up on the surface, Tula co-ordinates the transfer of the supplies. Checking things on board, Tuco spots a box he doesn't remember having seen before. It turns out to be the custom-made heavy mace he ordered. He admires the item's steel fangs, happy about its speedy delivery and apparent workmanship. Mmrrrghnhra has also discovered his weapon amongst the supplies, a two-bladed knife which he can send spinning though the air with his telekinetic powers.

And of course there's the plasma rifle. Drabor takes the power cell from the recharge socket in the ship and clicks it into the weapon in the way Tula instructs. The weapon comes to life and hums softly in his hands. He goes to the upper deck, aims at the water below the ship and squeezes the trigger. With a high roaring whine, the weapon discharges a stream of incandescent blue-white plasma, which immediately flash-heats the water into an exploding cloud of steam.

Only one thing left to do before departure. During the past few days, Drabor's symbiont has fully dug itself into the flesh of his neck, snugly shacking up against his spinal column. Drabor decides to try flying again. He throws back his hood and stands on the Windwalker, staring at the wide horizon. A panic begins to form, but it suddenly levels off, leaving Drabor his old self. Joyfully, he leaps into the air, and spends as much time as possible doing aerial maneuvers.

Leaf decides to stay behind on the Windwalker. He will home in on others summoning signal once they have reached the ancient site's location. Tula will go down with the crew instead. The crewmembers climb back on their Snevrai, pick up Gol, and set out for the outer rings of the asteroid belt. The water continuously gets colder and the light from the sun grows dimmer. The mood becomes more tense and the crewmembers start feeling a bit on edge.

Suddenly, Tuco senses that his Snevrai's attention has perked up. He signals the others. The Snevrai continue to swim forward but are clearly restless. The crewmembers look around, their weapons drawn, searching for the cause of the alarm. Suddenly, they spot creatures in the depths below. A group of five large man-sized 'shrimp' are coming up at them with great speed. Those crewmembers with distance weapons take aim and manage to score a few hits. The Snevrai are becoming more aggressive every passing moment. When the crustaceans are nearly on top of them, Scotty spurs his Snevrai to the attack. The serpent launches itself at the lead monster with a vengeance, nearly ripping it apart with the force of its jaws.

Tuco quickly gets off his serpent, leaving it free to attack. Mmrrrghnhra, whose hind-paw is stuck in the net-harness of the Snevrai, bravely remains on the serpent. The following battle is short but furious, the two Snevrai tearing through the attackers, though Tuco's serpent receives a gash on its head. A wounded crustacean tries to flee but Tuco's mental powers leave it helpless in the water and Scotty's serpent tears it apart. When things have calmed down, the crewmembers tend to the wounded Snevrai as best as possible in the circumstances. Gol, who was sitting behind Scotty and who couldn't get off the serpent in time, looks like the wild ride is going to cause him a heart attack.

After a while, everyone gets back on the Snevrai, and a still decidedly pale Gol resumes his duties as navigator in these dark and inhospitable waters.

The water gets colder as the journey progresses, the light of the sun growing dimmer all the time, until an asteroid comes into view in the distance. Spurring on their Snevrai, the group moves closer. However, Tuco notices that the Snevrai are beginning to become uneasy again. The crewmembers keep a careful watch on their surroundings, weapons at the ready, but there are no enemies to be seen anywhere. Tuco telepathically contacts his mount, trying to figure out what's wrong, and discovers that there is one thought occupying the worried mind of the Snevrai: territory.

Tuco tries sending mental images of various creatures the crew of the Windwalker has encountered in these regions, but the Snevrai doesn't seem to be worried about any of them, nor does it seem to believe that the territory they are entering belongs to another Snevrai. The group decides to move on, but they are soon forced to stop as their mounts are rapidly becoming so terrified as to become unmanageable. The riders dismount and examine the asteroid. From this distance, the vast rocky surface reveals little more than wide green fields of seaweed between rocky outcroppings and crevices. Drabor uses his summoning ability to attract a small shoal of fish and sends them towards the asteroid. As the fish approach one of the fields of seaweed, a group of large exotic creatures comes out of hiding. Some of the small fish flee, but others remain where they are, hanging motionless even as their attackers devour them. Tuco tries sending a picture of this new species to his Snevrai, but the Snevrai isn't worried about these creatures either. Tuco is puzzled. What could possibly be scaring the large and powerful Snevrai?

The group decides to circle the asteroid at a safe distance. In doing so, they discover a large crevice which looks like a promising location to start looking for sites of the Ancients. Before going down, Drabor uses his telepathic summoning ability to allow Leaf, who is still back on the Windwalker, to home in on the site of the asteroid.

Leaving Tula and Gol-Atek behind with the Snevrai, the four crewmembers swim towards the asteroid. Scotty sends a lightcube down into the dark maw of the crevice and then starts swimming after it. Following Scotty, the other three mutants unpack a few more lightcubes which they keep hovering closeby with the use of telekinises. Thus illuminated, they descend until they reach the bottom of the fissure.

The crewmembers travel the length of the crevice, searching for anything out of the ordinary. Along the way, Scotty uses his telepathic abilities to scan the area for intelligent life. As soon as he starts sending out his mental probe he becomes aware of a presence. a mind so powerful it seems to distort the very aether. Scotty carefully probes further but is unable to learn anything more specific. He does however have the distinct feeling that the mind is currently dormant.

The crewmembers move on, and are just about to reach the western end of the crevice when they spot movement in the light of the outer cubes. Four of the large creatures they spotted before are moving towards them, apparently drawn by the light. The crewmembers brace themselves as the creatures' mental attacks begin to wash over them. Tuco and the others open fire. The group's superior weaponry quickly brings the monsters down, but not before their mental attacks have bludgeoned Scotty into unconsciousness.

When Scotty wakes up a few minutes later, his head still pounding, the others suggest returning to the Snevrai but Scotty refuses. He insists that he is ready to travel on. And so the group continues, until they reach the point where the walls of the crevice converge, barring any further passage. The group turns around and travels back along the length of the crevice, this time searching the other side until they finally reach the other end of the crevice. Careful investigation of the rocks and smaller fissures turns up nothing. The crewmembers decide to move higher and search the upper rim of the crevice. As they are swimming upwards, Mmrrrghnhra suddenly notices a reflection. Moving in to investigate, the crewmembers discover a long smooth black area running along the upper edge of the crevice. The material reminds the crew of the one-way glass they encountered in one of the cities of the Ancients, a fragment of which even now lies in the cargohold of the Windwalker.

Swimming a bit further along, the crewmembers come upon a large breach in the wall. As they near the gaping hole, the calm waters suddenly transform into a rushing torrent, dragging the four mutants towards the hole. Drabor manages to grab the edge of the hole and tries to grab hold of Mmrrrghnhra as he comes rushing by. Drabor's lunge succeeds, but causes him to lose his hold on the edge. Both mutants are swept into the hole, Drabor being sucked right onto the maw of a giant crab! With Drabor 'plugging' the crab's mouth, the waters return to normality. The crab immediately starts attacking Drabor with the two large pincers that line its mouth. Drabor, unable to break free, slashes frantically at the pincers with his vibroblade, barely keeping them at bay. Tuco swims over the crab and starts firing on it from above, while Mmrrrghnhra attacks the crab's soft underbelly.

The crab, wounded from the combined assaults, realises it's in trouble. It suddenly swivels round on its rows of stalklike legs, trying to make a run for the deeper darkness of the cavern. But before it can make its getaway, Drabor plunges his vibroblade into the crab's shell, hitting a vital nerve cluster. The crab's legs buckle and it crashes to the floor. Drabor, now freed, nevertheless continues slashing at the crab's body. A shroud of blood and gore drifts in the water by the time Drabor is finally satisfied that the creature will never be getting up again.

Once things have settled down a bit, the crewmembers take a closer look at the cavern, which in the glow of the lightcubes turns out to be the upper floor of a station of the Ancients. The crewmembers go and get Tula and Gol. Once the group has been reunited, the crewmembers take a closer look around, discovering what seems to be a small restaurant in the far end. Several skeletons lie on the floor. A couple of dysfunctional foodreplicators line the walls and beneath the bar Drabor discovers bottles of liquor so ancient that they are covered in algae, their labels all but rotted away. A nearby room appears to be some sort of sports and exercise area, though the rules of the games that were once played here have been long lost to the sands of time. Exploration of the other far end of the floor reveals a cluster of three transparent tubes leading down. Scotty remains behind to try and disassemble a replicator. Drabor, Tuco and Mmrrrghnhra swim down the tubes, arriving at a three-way junction on a lower level. They split up, each going down a different passage.

Tuco investigates the first door he encounters. It isn't locked, and inside he discovers an apartment, its furniture covered with algae and mostly rotted away. Tuco searches the apartment for anything useful, taking a few old but intact kitchen knives and a corkscrew. Meanwhile, Drabor's en Mmrrrghnhra's explorations are not going quite as well. Both of them have run into a swarm of tentacled pod-like creatures. Drabor attacks, but Mmrrrghnhra faces a somewhat larger group and decides to make a run for it. While making his way back to the junction he gives a mental alarmcall to Tuco, who immediately ceases his explorations and hurries back. Tuco tries to telepathically warn Drabor, but discovers that the birdman is in similar trouble.

Mmrrrghnhra reaches the junction with the creatures following close behind. At the junction, Tula has just come down. Together they make a stand, Tula kicking and punching with superhuman strength and coordination. Drabor, having dispatched his own assailants, soon joins up with the others. The creatures don't stand a chance against the combined might of the two mutants and the android, and soon the water is churning with their blood and guts.

Further exploration of the level goes more smoothly, the group methodically searching the various apartments. Though most items have decayed beyond repair, the crewmembers nevertheless make a few interesting discoveries which they store for later examination. The bulkier items are moved to the upper level, where they are left in the care of Gol. Then the crewmembers go down again, exploring a tube which leads them to a hall which has been mostly demolished by a cave-in. The remains of a grav-vehicle can still be seen under the rubble. It's unclear to the crew why this grav-vehicle apparently had wheels. A fire-extinguisher is taken from the trunk, and the group swims back into the tubes, this time going all the way to the bottom where they emerge in a long hallway.

The only passage to the rest of this level seems to be a large and solid set of doors which are currently closed. Weapons barely scratch the surface of the doors, but Scotty's ability to produce acid brings the solution. The acid burns a hole which slowly becomes big enough to look inside. The room on the other side appears to be some sort of intermediate room, with tiled floors and showers, lockers on the side wall, and another set of doors in the far wall which are standing slightly open. A skeleton lies on the floor. Scotty burns his way further in, making a hole big enough for a man to pass through. Inside the room, they open the lockers and find two radiation suits.

Pushing the second set of doors wider open, the group emerges into a large hall, eerily lit from a golden glow which is coming from a hole in the wall to the left. The room runs on until it turns left at the far end. Glass mansized pods, lined with banks of consoles, stretch the length of the room. Inside the pods drift objects which the passage of time has rendered unrecognizable. Carefully, the group makes it way forward. The crewmembers look into the hole where the light is coming from. Inside they see a tubular passage which splits up into four similar tunnels, one of which leads further down. The walls of the passage are lined with what seems to be glowing circuitry, bathing the pc's in light. A check with the envirolyzer reveals raised radiation levels. Though the amount of radiation is not yet dangerous, the group decides to avoid this section for now and explores further. They turn the corner, discovering the room runs on further with more pods lining the walls. A smaller hallway with several doors branches off from the main hall.

The crewmembers investigate the first room in the smaller hallway. Here they discover what seems to be the remains of a makeshift camp. The bones of a human lie in the room, amidst the remnants of food packets, medkits and other items. A crutch lies next to the skeleton. This is the first skeleton which the crewmembers have discovered where the deceased apparently didn't die instantly. The crewmembers search the room carefully, and discover a set of four optical chips set in a dysfunctional reader. They grab the chips and move on to investigate the next room which turns out to be a simple showerroom. Moving on again, the group comes to a room which appears to be a guardstation. Sitting behind a desk is a skeleton whose rags can just barely be recognized as those of a guard uniform. The crewmembers quickly relieve the guard of the laser pistol he was still carrying and then they take a closer look at the rest of the room. There is a large metal cylinder standing on the floor to the left. In the far wall is a large open door which leads to an elevator shaft running up. The platform of the elevator is currently at floor level. The crewmembers ignore the elevator shaft for now and instead investigate the large metal cylinder. They discover small lines in the sides, tracing the outlines of panels, which they attempt to pry open.

Then, suddenly, the telepaths in the group are stopped dead in their tracks by a feeling that something powerful, something closeby, is waking up. The telepaths scan the area for intelligent life and discover a growing presence in the direction of the glowing tunnels, somewhere deep down below. Scotty goes back to the tunnel-entrance to take a closer look while the others try to quickly get the cylinder open. At the tunnel-entrance, Scotty hesitates. This close, there can be no doubt that the awakening mind lies somewhere in the glowing tunnels below. Scotty hurries back to the others, who have by now decided that they're never going to get the cylinder open in time. The awakening presence has become detectable by even the non-telepaths in the group. They decide to swim up the elevator shaft, hoping to find it open at the end. While swimming up, they telepathically contact Gol, telling him to gather up as much stuff as he can carry and to make his way back to the Snevrai.

Drabor is swimming up front and is the first to reach the top, where he discovers that the elevator shaft is indeed open but shrouded by a dense cluster of seaweed. As he is making his way through the long green strands, he feels a stinging sensation in his side. Moments later he feels an alien presence taking control of his mind, ordering his body to swim away. But Drabor is a mutant, and one of his many unusual features is the fact that he has two brains. While the strange attacker orders Drabor's body to start swimming away, Drabor's secondary brain is giving frantic orders to the contrary, leaving Drabor's body twitching in the water, caught between conflicting orders. This is how Mmrrrghnhra discovers his friend as he emerges from the weeds a few moments later. Mmrrrghnhra spots a small insectlike creature that has attached itself to Drabor's side. A quick slice with his blade removes the parasite, and Drabor regains control of his body.

The group quickly moves on, eager to be as far away as possible before the thing that lurks beneath fully wakes up. They join up with Gol, whom they discover swimming towards the Snevrai, dragging along (with a great deal of difficulty) every single item the group left in his care. Greed is a wonderful thing. The group hastens to load up the Snevrai, who are becoming more restless by the moment. Once loaded, they head directly up, making a run for the Windwalker which should be hovering right above the location of the asteroid by now. As the distance between them and the asteroid increases, the sense of the alien presence slowly lessens, until it is finally disappears completely.

It is with a sense of great relief that the group finally surfaces. Nearby, the Windwalker is waiting for them. The crewmembers are greeted by Leaf, who lowers the ship and opens one of the side doors to the cargo hold. Once everything has been hauled aboard, the crewmembers examine their finds with the aid of Tula who can name and explain the functions of most of the items. A locked box reveals an ancient violin. Another box contains a round disc and a set of trodes. This last item is unfamiliar to Tula, but she does know the trodes are meant to go on the head. Tuco tries it on and manages to activate the disc. It hovers a few feet above the deck of the cargo hold. Tuco's attempt at controlling it is somewhat less successful. The disc shoots off, impacting with the wall of the cargohold. The crewmembers quickly inspect the item, but it seems to be undamaged. They decide to go to the open upper deck where there is less change of damage. The next few attempts at controlling the disc go somewhat better, until Tuco inadvertently sends the disc flying off into the nighttime sky at high speed, where it soon disappears from sight. He quickly cuts the power, hoping that the disc will hover, but a splash off the port bow soon shows this not to be the case. Fortunately, the disc floats and it is soon recovered. The crewmembers decide to store the disc for the time being and examine the other items. A small cube is identified by Tula as being a sound generator that can produce various background sounds, such as crickets, ocean sounds, etc. Other notable items include a small handcomputer and a bicycle stored in a waterproof bag. Once their inventory is complete, the crew hammer out a deal with Gol about the division of the spoils. An equitable agreement is soon reached.

Meanwhile, Tula has busied herself studying the optical chips. She tells the crew that most of the chips contain valuable analysis data of the disaster that struck the Warden. But there is one chip which contains something else. Tula plugs it into a projector, calling forth the personal log of of a survivor. The crewmembers huddle closer together to bear witness to a voice from the distant past. 

 

May 21st 2341

My name is Thomas Marshall, bio-engineer 3rd class aboard the Colony Vessel Warden. I am the only surviving member of monitoring station Gamma 3, Subdivision C, 4th Quadrant.

On May 19th, at 3:57 in the morning, our station was flooded by a radiation of unknown type and unknown origin. I was at work in science lab 2 when it happened, analyzing captured specimens for genetic drift. All I remember of the moment itself is a blinding flash of extreme brightness. When I regained my sight, my four colleagues were lying dead on the floor, burnmarks all over their bodies. I blacked out only moments later.

The pain of my own burns woke me a few hours later. After applying a med-kit to my wounds I tried to contact someone through the intercom but received no reply. On my subsequent exploration of the station, I discovered I was the only one still alive. All the bodies I discovered had radiation burns, though most of them more severe than my own. I have second degree burns over ¼ of my body, my left leg is paralyzed and I occasionally experience uncontrolled muscular spasms which can last for up to half an hour. So far, treatments have only succeeded in reducing the pain. I have searched the medical databases but other than the burns, my symptoms are not normal for exposure to radiation.

Currently, half the station's systems are inoperative. My attempts to link to Comnet have failed, though I'm not sure whether this is the result of damage to the communications gear or due to other circumstances. I do know that the emergency beacon is working as it should, but it has now been two days since I activated it and no response has been forthcoming.

My current medical condition is stable and since the replicators are still functional I am not without food or water. I think I'll be able to hold out until help arrives.

 

May 24th 2341

The personnel carrier that should have brought a new workshift to the station has not arrived. Since the carrier was also bound for the Symmetry, perhaps there will be some response from there when it doesn't arrive.

Comnet is still down.

 

May 26th 2341

The Sol systems have begun to fail. The focus is wavering erratically through the sky, changing in brightness and intensity almost hourly. I can only guess at the damage needed to produce a malfunction in such a major system. But even more worrying is the fact that no one seems to be responding to the crisis.

May God have mercy on us all.

 

May 28th 2341

The local Sol has ceased functioning completely. If my calculations are correct, this eco-system will be damaged beyond repair in less than 40 days. All our work, everything we created, will be lost.

 

June 4th 2341

I dragged myself out to the top of the station today and what I saw has distracted me from the pain more than any painkiller could. There is light, but it's coming from beneath the waters!

A Sol focus has appeared in the ocean itself. I'm not sure if this is another malfunction or an attempt at damage-control. Either way, it should give the algae- and planktonstrains a chance at survival. From there, we should be able to rebuild. Question is, will there be anyone left to do so?

Despite the new Sol, temperatures are still dropping.

 

June 7th 2341

Temperature has reached 0 degrees centigrade and continues to drop. I have prepared as best I can.

I'm starting to run out of painkillers.

 

June 15th 2341

I can hardly believe it, but I'm writing this while underwater! The entire island has sunk beneath the waves with astounding speed. It has currently joined with 3 of the nearby atolls which also sank and together they have formed what I can only describe as a sort of asteroid which is suspended underwater.

Currently, this asteroid has moved just close enough to the submerged sun to prevent me from freezing. I can see dark blotches in the far distance, most likely other surface pieces that have sunk. I wonder if there's anyone left on them, and whether they are as shocked as I am.

When the waters first rushed in, I tried to find a pocket of air in the station but only managed to open a gash on my shoulder through an unfortunate fall. In the end, I held my breath to the last possible moment until I couldn't hold back any longer. I drowned. And yet I live. The water is saturated with oxygen well beyond normal levels. Equally strange, at the depths I'm currently at, my body should have been crushed by the pressure, but I have not been able to detect even the slightest change.

I have my suspicions about what is happening and if I'm right, then the Atlas Project has succeeded beyond all our wildest dreams. I believe the local Grav-station is showing itself to be capable of far more extensive manipulations than was thought possible. The station's main computer, though no AI, should also be able to handle the complex ecological logistics needed to create a stable environment.

I wonder if we were wise in always maintaining Earth Standard when we created the Warden. When I see the strange new world that is forming outside, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps we have forgotten how to dream.

 

July 3rd 2341

The new order appears to be stable. It's a pity I won't be around to see the long-term results. The water has badly affected my burn wounds and I'm almost out of medication. I am still hoping for help to arrive, but I fear it's an empty hope.

Should this log ever be found, I ask that a copy be sent to my family, all of whom reside back on Earth. Jacky, my love, I'm so sorry. It seems you were right after all.

Your's lovingly,

Thomas

 

log ends…

 

The crew sits in stunned silence for a few moments. but there is more shocking news to come. Though Tula has not yet had time to do a thorough analysis of the data, the files do suggest that the radiation was capable of piercing even the most heavily shielded systems. If this is correct, then Tula believes she might know why the Warden's Master Computer has not responded to the disaster. The Master Computer, being the most powerful system on the ship, had something other computers didn't have: arrays of biochips. The biochips were the most heavily shielded equipment on the ship, but from the data it seems likely that the radiation would have sliced through those defences like a hot knife through butter, thus effectively lobotimizing the Master Computer.

Tula believes it should be possible to reactivate the Master Computer. If the crew can find a memory core of sufficient capacity for the Master Computer to resume some rudimentary functions, such as self repair, the colonization might yet be completed. Memory cores with such capacity are rare, but some of the larger stations should have one. Trouble is, where to find such a station, and how to get a recovered memory core all the way to the Master Computer.

To be continued...

 

 

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