Back to the Boat

Characters: Joe, Arthur, Darrurz
NPC: Mazun, Thaedznou, Aerrak, Eddie
Location: The park where the ship's boat landed.
System: Akofitsidano

1202.23.2 - 19:50 IST, 15:35 Local Time (21 hour, 16 minute day)

As the group makes its way to the park, Eddie says, "The other drone is trying to get in touch with the one you shot down."

Joe replies, "Dammit. I suspected they were a pair. Do you think it had a long range transmitter to reach the fleet? It looked too small to me."

"Correct. Its transmissions are too weak to reach very far, though it can extend its range by networking with other drones. However, it can receive broadcasts from orbit if they're strong enough. Like I did."

Joe picks up the pace. The sun is lowering in the sky. There only appears to be about a half hour of daylight left.

As the group nears the park, Eddie says, "The other drone is broadcasting to other drones that it has lost contact with the drone parked at the cruiser."

Joe replies, "I was afraid of that. We need to get clear of this area ASAP." He can see the park up ahead.

"Ok, the drone is definitely there," Eddie says. "It's on alert, but it hasn't summoned any other drones to its position."

The group has returned to the park without incident, but there only appears to be about a half hour of daylight left.

As they make to enter the park, Joe silently holds up his fist for half a second then crouches down. The rest of the group mimic his actions. The group follows Joe as he scampers over to a pair of rusted cars for cover. Joe gestures for everyone to be silent. The vargr hear the drone first, but the humans do, too, soon after.

Hovering above the ship's boat, a mere 30 meters away, is a drone like the one back at the cruiser. It doesn't appear to have seen the group yet.

On the other side of the cars is a sidewalk three meters wide. The park perimeter is lined with dead tree trunks spaced three meters apart. Each tree trunk is roughly 15 cm (6 in) in diameter.

Joe uses the cover to get back to the group and whispers, "One drone, but no way it didn't recognize that our ship's boat is a target of interest for the fleet. How'd you want to slag it Arthur?"

"I'll take the shot," Arthur says as he brings his LAG to bear. "Darrurz and Thaedznou back me up."

"What's the likelihood that it got a message off to something that's going to come looking for us?" Darrurz asks while he preps his laser rifle.

Joe sighs. "Pretty good."

As soon as Darrurz and Thaedznou are in position, Arthur takes the shot. A single shot is all it takes. The round shatters the drone in midair, and the pieces tumble to the ground.

Joe quickly looks around. "We're clear; let's go!"

Arthur reminds the group to stay in formation and keep their eyes and ears open.

Joe sprints over to the ship's boat while trying to comm the Orruengoerr. The channel is finally clear of interference. He re-sends the same cryptic message he tried back in the cruiser. Upon reaching the boat, he looks over at Thaedznou. "Sorry, I'll explain later."

Darrurz says, "We can't run in the ships boat, so what's the plan? Hide?"

Joe replies, "Yes. Hide."

Darrurz heads inside and goes straight to the pilot's chair. He starts to prep the ships boat for launch. "Joe, am I safe to fire her up?"

"Probably," he says, climbing into the co-pilot's seat beside him. "We've only got 20 minutes til they could make orbit. We need to move to a hidey hole before then." He begins to flick through the sensor logs, switching from screen to screen at a blinding pace.

While the engines warm up and systems run through a pre-flight checklist. Darrurz looks at the scans of their incoming flight for somewhere to hide the boat.

Despite Joe's insistence for radio silence, the Orruengoerr replies, "Too late. Swarm of fighters cut off our escape. I'm sorry...I've failed the pack. We'll use our remaining teeth to take as many with us as we can. Orruengoerr out."

A momentary silence comes over the group while the news of the Orruengoerr's fate sinks in.

Joe breaks the silence and the mood. "Ok, I've got three possibilities. The best is a series of warehouses located at the seaport, which is only three blocks north of the cruiser."

Arthur and Thaedznou squeeze into the cockpit to look over the display while Aerrak stands watch at the air lock and Mazun stows his gear.

Arthur pipes up, "We'll probably need to go deeper than that. With no ride out of the system, we'll need to make alternate 'jump arrangements', and I'm not confident of stayin' outta the reach of these new players if we don't get some serious 'hide' between us and them."

Darrurz nods his head in agreement. "I agree. If that drone sent off a message and all we can do is a series of warehouses at the port, this boat is going to get found." Darrurz calls out over his shoulder. "Mazan, what's going to happen if I land this thing on its tail?" He quips to Joe. "Look for tall building that I can hide the boat upright in, or lakes, or rivers, of forests that I can get under in a 15 minute flight time from our current position. Think outside the box, anything that I can get this thing in or under physically, at any angle."

"Don't do it!" Mazun shouts back. "You risk damaging the drives. This boat's meant to be on its belly."

Joe replies, a bit flummoxed, "Yeah, I was planning on a short stay only! My other options were an old factory or a offline power plant over on the other side of the city, but if you really want to sink the boat, the other side of the warehouse is the maritime port." Joe blinks three times, "Looking for some further afield destinations, but that's going to push our max flight time."

Thaedznou says, "Time is short. We should take the quick hiding spot. I prefer the warehouses by the port. They'd give us a chance to spy on the vakh and see what they're up to. But I can see the advantage of parking in the harbor next to or beneath one of the ships."

Darrurz says, "Ok Joe, give me a flight plan for the seaport, and we have five minutes to decide whether I drop you off and then put this in the water, or we put it in that warehouse. I say if they are going to get it, make them swim for it and hope they rust!"

From the airlock, Aerrak lets out a bark of approval.

Joe says, "Just head due north up this street over here." He points out the cockpit window. "You can't miss it."

"Buckle up, everyone. We're on the move."

Everyone finds a seat as Darrurz fires up the thrusters. He counts to five then lifts the ship's off the ground. He keeps the boat low, intent on using the buildings as cover from any sensors that, assuming they're in range already, may be looking their way. Being that it's less than a kilometer away, Darrurz keeps their speed down. Maybe if there are any eyes out there, their speed will be conflated with local transport tech and not something worth a serious look.

Along the way, Joe says, "We can compromise. Head to the warehouses, drop off an observation team—me, Arthur, and Thaedznou—then the rest take the ship's boat into the harbor and sink it. If the Vakh start probing the area aggressively, the shore team can start a distraction and lead them away from the harbor. After that we can start working on a long term plan."

The boat passes through the intact neighborhoods, the bombed out blocks, the wreck of the cruiser, more intact neighborhoods, and then they're at the seaport. There are a few ships in port, freighters and tug boats. One tug boat and freighter appear to be floating normally, but the rest are either listing or are half sunk. There's plenty of room to land the ship's boat on the piers. They're all concrete embankments built into the shoreline, so they will easily support the weight of the boat.

Swinging the boat around to look at the warehouses from the harbor side, most appear intact. About half have doors open that are big enough to drive a scout ship in, so a ship's boat will have room to spare. Passive sensors aren't detecting any thermal signatures, so they're likely abandoned.

Darrurz barks in the direction of the boats. "We'll need to check the floating ones out, and I can put this under that bigger one that's half sunk. So decision time: warehouse or freighter?"

Joe unbuckles and heads out of the cockpit. "I'd say freighter. Vakh and water don't mix." He then heads to the equipment locker and reloads his ACR.

Thaedznou says, "I'd prefer the warehouse for ease of access, but until the threat moves on, the freighter would do a better job hiding the boat's thermal signature."

"Freighter it is then," Darrurz replies. He sets the boat down on the pier.

Joe asks Darrurz, "So how are we going to communicate with you without using the radio? Some sort of light signal from a torch? Like three short flashes followed by one long flash, perhaps?"

Thaedznou says, "Or we can drop one of those bricks," he points to a pile of rubble, "when we want him to come up. Two if we want him to come up fast."

"Ok, now go," Darrurz barks. Joe, Arthur, and Thaedznou to hop out and then he gently submerges the ship's boat beneath the water.

Darrurz maneuvers the ship into position on the harbor floor, ten meters down beneath a half sunk freighter and kills the engines. He then initiates the shutdown cycle on the power plant. He says to Mazun and Aerrak, "We'll run on batteries while we wait."

Meanwhile, Joe, Arthur, and Thaedznou enter the warehouse in front of them through a sapient-sized door. Instinctually, they follow entry protocols. Inside the warehouse, there are dozens of crates of various sizes, most of them open. There are piles of garbage around the open crates, but there aren't any other signs of habitation. Joe spots a steel switchback ramp near the wall that leads up to a catwalk nine meters up. The catwalk connects to a steel terrace at the far end of the warehouse where there appears to be an office. There's also a steel ladder that leads up to the roof.

Thaedznou gestures that he's headed up, and the others cover him. After searching around from his vantage point, he gives the "all clear" sign. Joe and Arthur join him.

A quick check of the offices on the upper level reveals that they too are empty. They head up the ladder to the roof. There's a small steel platform that offers a good view of the city, the harbor, and the skyline. The sun has set, so the light is fading fast. Planets and stars are already making their presence known.

Rooftop Surveillance

Characters: Joe, Arthur (Rooftop), Darrurz (Ship's Boat)
NPC: Thaedznou (Rooftop), Mazun, Aerrak (Ship's Boat)
Location: Waterfront of ruined city
System: Akofitsidano

1202.23.2 - 20:20 IST, 16:05 Local Time (21 hour, 16 minute day)

Joe is antsy, worried that their heat signatures out in the open on the rooftop will betray their presence. He keeps his eyes on the skies, looking for signs of ships making orbit or entering the atmosphere.

Thaedznou's ears perk up.

Joe asks, "What did you..." And then somewhere to the south there's a rumble of thunder, only it isn't. There aren't any clouds, much less a storm.

There's a flash of light in the southern sky and then a meteor trails across the sky towards the southwest. Its final descent is obscured by the city skyline, but a bright flash appears in that direction, silhouetting the buildings. There's another rumble.

Thaedznou looks as if he's about to howl, but buries his muzzle in his armpit instead.

A swarm of lights emerge from the same part of the sky as the meteor, but their descent is obviously controlled. They follow the same course to the impact site.

A few minutes later, Joe points out several lights in the night sky high above. Magnification reveals that they're decel burns. After several minutes more, two of the lights wink out, then suddenly come back in short-lived bursts.

Joe says, "Those two are coming down."

The rest of the group of ships appear to have completed their decel burns and are probably in orbit.

Meanwhile, Eddie relays what he can pick up to Joe. "The vakh fleet has sent down two ships to investigate two anomalies. One: the wreckage of the Orruengoerr—I'm sorry about the loss of your packmates." He pauses. "The other ship is talking to the drone network. It has learned from them that two of the drones have gone offline. ETA for both ships appears to be about an hour."

The trio keep lookout for a couple more minutes, then Joe says, "Two ships incoming. One heading to the crash site, the other towards us to investigate the drones we neutralized. If they do a normal orbital insertion, they'll probably be here in under and hour."

Thaedznou turns to look at Joe.

Joe continues, "I'm sure that, once down, they'll perform a search for the wreckage. It's not going to take them long to determine that they were taken out recently and with advanced weapons. After that, they're going to start a search for offworlders and offworld technology. How extensive their search will be depends on the size of the ship they send and how long they plan on staying in system. Unlike the Vakh we've encountered before, the boss of this Vakh fleet will be no idiot; keeping so many discrete Vakh ships in check and allied will take a master of politics and intrigue."

Thaedznou chews his lip.

Joe adds, "I think we should take a look around and see if we can find a hiding place and hope the Vakh forces overlook us."

Thaedznou says, "We could hide out in the warehouse below us. There's plenty of stuff in there that we could hide among, re-arrange to suit our needs. And we'd still be close to the boat."

Joe adds, "They'll have IR sensors, but perhaps we can find something that will serve."

"I'm sure that there's plenty of material that can block a thermal scan. They're not that difficult to screen."

Joe moves back to the ladder and descends, starting to look for a suitable hiding place. Once he reaches the steel terrace, he scans the room below with an electric torch. There are lots of wooden crates, both open and intact, and even a few aluminum ones. It would be easy enough to make a small encampment that would block out probing scans. All it would take is a bit of re-arranging.

Arthur and Thaedznou join him on the steel terrace. Joe points out the useful materials that could be used to make a small encampment.

"Then we'd better get to work," Thaedznou says. "As you said before, we have less than an hour."

Setting Up Camp for the Night

Characters: Joe, Arthur (Rooftop), Darrurz (Ship's Boat)
NPC: Thaedznou (Rooftop), Mazun, Aerrak (Ship's Boat)
Location: Waterfront of ruined city
System: Akofitsidano

1202.23.2 - 20:40 IST, 16:25 Local Time (21 hour, 16 minute day)

Joe wants to get the camp set up and any traces of their presence erased (scuffs, dust trails, dirt voids, vine growth etc). Meanwhile, Lakir grabs some cardboard to dampen his IR signature further and returns to the roof.

While Joe works, he gives Thaedznou the promised tale of his Vakh skill. "Ok Thaedznou, I told you I'd fill you in when we get chance. It looks like there's not going to be a perfect time for a while. So now will have to do.

"As you know, I have insider knowledge on Vakh operations as I was aboard a Vakh ship coerced into being crew. For many years I served the ship, and it revealed to me many secrets.

"As part of being crew, what has not been mentioned, is that I was altered. The ship inserted technology into my body. Some enhanced my abilities to operate on behalf of the ship, and some provided two-way communication with Ship. When I was rescued, my rescuers operated and removed as much as they could, but they couldn't remove it all. They managed to scramble a lot of my memory when they did too.

"I was told they had removed all the communication tech, so I was surprised when I encountered my first Vakh and realized I could hear some of its private conversations. Sometimes all I can hear is noise—but I know it's Vakh—where other times I can understand what they are saying. That is why I sometimes seem to know what the Vakh are thinking and why I knew this fleet had arrived.

"Let me assure you, I can't communicate back—I've tried. I don't want them back in anyway. Any Vakh that knew of me would stop at nothing to capture me—and after that..." Joe shudders. "I'll fight to the death before going back. And I'll fight equally hard to free any others if the chance arises.

"I probably should have said something about this sooner, but it is kinda personal and the time was never right. Anyway, I thought you should know before we face these visitors."

Thaedznou keeps quiet during Joe's reveal, assisting in the gathering and assembly of materials to construct a shelter within the warehouse. When Joe is finished, he says, "Yes, you should've said something sooner. It would've...alleviated my concerns. Your packmates don't appear to be concerned by your condition, so I will have to assume that you're speaking the truth and not barking up a great hunt. And you've proven yourself these past few weeks while we've been on the hunt. If you were truly corrupted by the vakh, you had plenty of opportunities to exploit. Still, I'm not entirely confident that you won't get infected in the future. If you do, I won't hesitate to terminate you."

Joe laughs. "You might have to wait your turn. I think Arthur is at the head of that line."

Thaedznou howls with laughter and slaps Joe on the shoulder.

After Thaedznou composes himself, Joe says, "I want to get back to the lookout to see the ship's final approach and initial disbursement and search."

"Yes, the more we can sniff out what we're up against, the better."

Back to the Roof

Characters: Joe, Arthur (Rooftop), Darrurz (Ship's Boat)
NPC: Thaedznou (Rooftop), Mazun, Aerrak (Ship's Boat)
Location: Waterfront of ruined city
System: Akofitsidano

1202.23.2 - 21:00 IST, 16:45 Local Time (21 hour, 16 minute day)

Joe and Thaedznou re-join Arthur up on the rooftop, inside his cardboard shelter.

"Did we miss anything," Thaedznou asks.

"No, they're still comin' down," Arthur replies.

The first descending ship they lose sight of is the one headed towards the presumed wreckage of the Orruengoerr. Being much further away, this vakh ship is soon lost behind the still intact portion of the city skyline to the southwest.

The second ship is visible for far longer. A pair of binoculars reveals the second ship to be a modular cutter. Eventually, it too is lost behind the skyline—there are still two blocks worth of intact buildings between the warehouse and the destruction wrought by the cruiser's crash landing. But judging by its trajectory, it looks like it landed in the park, which is some ten blocks away.

Joe puts his binoculars back in their case. "Time to head in. Unfortunately we are too exposed up here to IR once they start their search."

Joe then asks Ed, "Picking up any chatter with the local monitor network, or insight on what units they brought in that cutter?"

"The cutter acknowledged the local monitor network and told them to upload any data they had to it. No word on what units it brought down with it. If our time with Ship is any indication, it will send out a forensic team with armed escorts."

"Did the cutter identify itself or the fleet as it game instructions?"

"It transmitted an ID code, which the local monitor network recognized, but it doesn't carry any translatable meaning. It was just an assortment of letters and numbers, meaningless without context. After that, the given command was, 'Upload your data to this unit.' "

"So no idea if the ID code belonged to the cutter, the ship it came from, the fleet designation, or the vakh in charge?"

"No. Sorry."

"Well, keep monitoring, and let me know if anything changes."

"Will do."

Joe puts his binoculars back in their case. "Time to head in. Unfortunately we're too exposed up here to IR once they start their search."

"Go on ahead," Thaedznou replies, "I'm going to stay up here a little longer."

"Don't take too long," Arthur says.

"You pinkies go on in and keep warm," Thaedzou says jokingly. "I'll be down soon."

Arthur and Joe climb down the ladder and head inside. Joe leads Arthur through the maze of boxes, crates, cardboard, and scraps designed to keep them hidden from all but the most thorough of searches.

About 30 minutes later, Thaedznou comes inside.

"What took you so long?" Arthur asks.

"Enjoying the view."

"Anything to report?"

"From what I could hear, I'm pretty sure the cutter moved on to the wreckage of that cruiser. Hard to know with certainty with all those buildings in the way, but it makes sense."

"Ok, it's 17:40 local time. Three-hour shifts. I'll take the first shift. You two grab some shuteye."

"I'll take second. Joe, you can have third."

Things That Hum in the Night

Characters: Joe & Arthur (Rooftop), Darrurz (Ship's Boat)
NPC: Thaedznou (Rooftop), Mazun & Aerrak (Ship's Boat)
Location: Waterfront of ruined city
System: Akofitsidano

1202.23.3 - 00:45 IST, 20:30 Local Time (21 hour, 16 minute day)

Arthur is sitting in the darkness with his nightvision goggles on. Other than the occasional scurry of some small rodent foraging and the breathing of his packmates, it's terribly quiet. His shift is nearly over, and he won't mind getting some shuteye, if only to pass the time.

He notices Thaedznou's ears twitch, and then the vargr growls in his sleep. His ears go straight up, and both he and Joe bolt awake nearly simultaneously.

Arthur is about to say something, but then he hears it: the hum of contra grav modules. They're faint at first, but soon grow in volume.

Joe and Thaedznou start to wash out, so Arthur flicks up his goggles. Backscattered light has filtered into their hideaway. Someone is shining a searchlight in through the warehouse windows.

The trio keep perfectly still. They barely breathe for fear of making any noise.

Joe has his eyes closed, a strained look upon his face. Arthur taps him on the leg, and Joe's eyes open. Arthur asks with hand gestures if he's ok. Joe nods affirmatively.

On board the ship's boat, Aerrak has woken up Darrurz and Mazun. Although they're hidden in the shadow of the half-sunk freighter, Aerrak noticed the glow of light in the water around them.

"I thought that you should be aware of this," he says.

Mazun rubs his arms against the chill. Darrurz chose to minimize their signature further by powering down the fusion plant and relying on emergency batteries for minimal warmth. Mazun agreed, though not anticipating the side effects. While Darrurz and Aerrak aren't bothered, the "hairless" Mazun had to resort to wrapping himself in emergency blankets to stay comfortable.

Mazun says, "I see the search party has arrived."

Aerrak asks, "Do you think the others are ok?"

Darrurz nods. "Yes. I'm sure that they're well hidden."


The wait seems interminable, but the light gradually fades, leaving only the hum on the contra grav units. In time, it too fades away. When it seems as if it's safe to breathe, the trio exhale in relief.

Thaedznou is the first to dare speaking aloud, but even he speaks in hushed tones. "Llallaeknuez was certainly watching over us that time. It would seem the vakh aren't interested enough in their dead drones to thoroughly search each and every building."

Joe replies, "Yeah they were probably hoping to flush the 'perps' out by fear and intimidation. Hopefully that means they’re on a short timeline, just passing through. It's going to be hell trying to move about with the thought of that entire fleet sitting in orbit ready to pounce on any misstep we make."

"Then we'll just have to be smart about it. Stealth is an ally to both hunter and prey." Thaedznou checks the time. "It's my turn to keep watch. You two go ahead and nap, if you can."

Joe adds, "I'd love to go upstairs and watch their search pattern, but it would be too exposed if they have any ground units following the cutter, and I'm not sure I'd learn anything worth the risk. Better to wait till dawn and see what they are up to then."

"That would be wise."

Arthur and Joe get to sleep. When it's Joe's turn to keep watch, Thaedznou nudges him awake. "Nothing to report. Make sure you keep put. They could have drones posted, and you wouldn't find out until it was too late."

Joe nods.

Thaedznou lies down and is soon asleep.

Joe sits in the dark, keeping an ear open for signs of vakh activity or anything out of the ordinary. About an hour and a half through his shift, he hears a couple of small craft rocket across the sky. Judging by the volume of the sound, they had to be at least several hundred feet up.

The rest of the night proceeds without incident and gradually dawn comes.

[ be continued...]