Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Red vs. Blue

The crew found themselves suddenly teleported into a new, strange place; this time, it only took NOA a moment to find just where the Oncoming Storm landed: just inside the newly explored area! According to the system map, this is the Haroona system. The star system seems, at first glance, fairly habitable; the star is a fairly sun-like, and supports two planets in the habitable zone. Two two planets seem to be covered in some kind of reddish liquid; scans show it is organic. Occasionally, the surface of one of the planets shoves upward, erupting in a gout of flame, so violently that it flings material into space (no mean feat for a nearly Earth-sized planet). The second planet is less violent, and dotted with occasional islands. Two of the larger islands - only a few miles across - show dense vegetation on one, and a number of tightly-packed life signs on the other.

Just as they were considering what to do, NOA sounded an alarm! A change in his file system lead him to believe that he was being hacked! Quickly, Nix scanned the file system, and found the deeply buried file. As NOA stated, and Nix verified, the file was actually harmless; it had unlocked itself upon the ship entering the solar system. NOA said it would take him some time to break the encryption on it, and suggested perhaps now would be a good time to investigate the planet - if nothing else, the ship needs supplies.

Rodney elected to stay aboard and help provide more "percussive maintenance" to any broken or stuck equipment, leaving Nix and Tevye to travel down to the planet. As Tevye steered the shuttlecraft out, the two droids noted the damage to the ship. Luckily, none of it was venting atmosphere into space, sparking, or leaking fluids, but it was still in obvious poor repair. A great, charred scar ran along the side, where the ship had dropped out of jumpspace prematurely.

The two elected to visit the rockier of the two islands first, to investigate the life signs. After a smooth landing, they headed towards the largest concentration. Spotting some caves, they headed inside; after looking around, they spotted one - a nearly man-sized ape, somewhat chimpanzee in features, with blue fur and skin. Advancing, they were stopped by the creature, who blocked their way. Nix noted that the creature was nearly starved, and while it was stubbornly blocking their way, it also seemed rather terrified. It was also wearing a fur jacket of some kind. They attempted to communicate with it, but it didn't seem to understand, eventually making some hooting and grunting noises.

Returning to the ship, they found an old translator with "Frosty Fire" scrawled on the nameplate, as well as some old MREs (mostly granola bars). The blue ape was still there when they came back; Nix scrolled through the six language options, hoping one of them would work. The first was Kchk'Trrs; the second English, and the third Du'ul Tlak. He skipped to the last language - success! This was one of the early planets that the Shifting Horizon visited, and the crew had "borrowed" the translator from the head engineer, a Kchk'Trrs named Frosty Fire, and decoded the alien language. Excited and confused, the ape responded; the two droids offered him a couple of the MREs, and after a little trouble opening the package, he took a bite, then dashed off. He returned empty handed, and had a long discussion with the two. Whatever the red goop was, it landed some 20 years before, and proceeded to engulf the world, consuming everything. The ape showed how his hand was burned by what looked like acid. Most of his people had died; only a thousand or so remained, and they had eaten everything available, living on nothing but the few patches of ice here and there. The apes seemed to be in the stone age, with barely more technology than fire. The two droids asked if he would like to leave, and perhaps move to the other island that has trees and food, which sparked a discussion on exactly how that would happen, and Nix struggling to explain fusion drives to a resident of the stone age via a translator.

Eventually, the ape (his name is Hooda, that is, hoo-dah) lead them deeper into the cave, to meet the council of elders, three white-haired apes dressed in thick furs. The leader stated that if the droids could ferry his people to the stars in the flying hut, that they would help fight against the red goo, and serve the not-quite-gods in any capacity required. Nix asked about the other planet, phrasing his statements well; the second member of the council, and old woman with shells and beads on her thick mantle, stood and told the story of how the fast star in the sky (the other planet) used to be blue, many generations ago, but over the course of a few generations, turned blood red. That omen lead to the red goo coming and eating their planet. She sadly touched all the shells and beads, explaining that they were gifts from other tribes, all lost to the goo.

Nix and Tevye asked to see the goo up close, and Hooda took them and a pair of his friends to see it. The goo was slowly crawling up a flat stretch of rock, the smell of acid heavy in the air. Nix took a sample. Then, Tevye flew the five of them to the other island; two other two apes didn't seem to enjoy it, but Hooda was quite interested, staring out the window.

On the other island, the apes stepped out, and were met by shrieks and screams, as three more apes bounded out! Hooda called for them to stop, and after talking with them (fast enough and with enough overlapping speech that the translator couldn't keep up), told the droids that three on the island thought they were the only ones left in the world. The island was a mountain peak, and used  to have a sister peak; their tribe had stored food on the peak, but were moving farther up, when the second peak collapsed into the goo, leaving only the three apes behind.

Loading up some of the food, they headed back to the rocky island to feed the apes there, then back to the Oncoming Storm, to analyze the red goo. After careful research, Nix realized the red goo had already been catalogued - Biothanata, the Eater of Worlds. The Shifting Horizon had found it on the other planet and destroyed it... or so they thought. It seems they hadn't been as thorough as they thought. At first, the crew thought it might be possible to teach the apes how to fight the goo and destroy it, but they realized that all that was left were the mountain peaks; little more than some grass and trees and a few saved seeds remained. Instead, they decided to take the blue apes with them. It took 50 trips to bring them all in the shuttle, plus several more trips to gather all the food, grass, trees, and other plants that remained, carefully planting it all in the greenhouse on the civilian level.

And then... then they taught the apes how to shoot. Refueling at the sun and harvesting some asteroids, they let the apes burn their planet free of the Biothanata, and the second planet as well. They scanned the system, and destroyed every last speck of it, purging it with laser fire and high explosives.
After three weeks of cleansing the planets and solar system, they were ready to move on. The blue apes - the Haroon - took to space life quickly, learning how to operate the elevators and intercoms, and helping clean up the ship. While they can't program consoles (yet), they can certainly hold a wrench and swing a mop; by the time the Biothanata was purged, the ship was in much better condition, cleaned and oiled, with the food stores full of food from the second island.

NOA finally managed to break the encryption; as it turns out, it wasn't as difficult as expected. Inside the file was a message for the crew of the Oncoming storm - a woman's voice:

I'm sorry I left you, but it is safer and faster for me to travel alone. Something is wrong. I need time to understand what! By my calculations, if nothing goes wrong, you should wake up in about 25 years. I doubt NOA will survive that long without power, so I am resetting him to his vanilla state. I am hiding these messages inside. Ask the right questions, and NOA will find them. Travel to the nearest star to refuel, and DO NOT go back into cryosleep. You need to organize the ship, and more importantly, you need to prepare for your return to Earth. I have programmed a jump pod to take a message to the dim planet with the dead shell. I hope you know what I mean. I will retrieve it from there; I will meet you, once this message is verified. I will send messages as I can.

Eliza out.

While NOA had no information about the location of the "dim planet with a dead shell", there is a planet in the database that seems to match that criteria, though he has no idea how he came by the information. However, with the first message unlocked, a second message also unlocks. It's the same woman's voice:

You will need all the allies you can get. You will find a few survivors on the planet Pyl'nyy, but it will not be easy to get there as it once was. Time is of the essence.

Eliza out.

Nix, having read through more of the ship logs, remembered something about the planet - the first that the Shifting Horizon encountered, in fact. With little other direction, it was agreed that they should travel to Pyl'nyy, and find these allies the strange woman spoke of.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Rip Van Winkle

The Shifting Horizon returns! Once again, we visit that old ship, this time through the eyes of the crew that was lost during their journey outside the Wall (see There and Back Again).

Of course, life takes its toll - many members of the original campaign are no longer available, and with the 'Rona, who even knows if we can meet in person. That being said, I'm going to give it a go, and we'll see how it turns out!

2nd Lt. Rodney Kariuki awoke with a start. He sat up, then immediately lost the entirety of his lunch - a rotted, nasty pile of deep-fried cheese curds with chocolate and raspberry cream. Hacking and coughing, he barely managed to crawl out of his cryopod and into the hallway before he collapsed, unconscious. Knowing he'd need help, when he awoke again, he staggered to the droid storage at the end of the hall and popped some fresh batteries (or rather, fresh-ish - the batteries didn't seem to be entirely charged) into the two droids waiting there. While one of the droids seemed to be mostly ok, the other was suffering from low batteries and corroded joints. They introduced themselves as Tevye Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene Nixon. As it turns out, they were from the same warehouse, and their first thoughts upon being turned on were about the same. The robot with the navigation bent decided to go by "Tevah", as he pronounced "Tevye", while the other decided to go by "Nix".

Together, the three took inventory of the ship. In cryo, where they wake up, the pods are open and empty. Written on the wall in a dried paste is the phrase: "Icy sleepers, gentle-rested, safely frozen... or nightmare infested?"

The bridge was barely working; the consoles only noted that the bridge was operating on backup power, and the main generator needed to be brought back online. Other rooms they passed through has messages similar to the first; in the exercise room, thick paste smeared on the wall read, "I'm weighting for you!!" In the kitchen, the few drawers were open, and all the food fridges are empty. A phrase was scratched into the wall: "Come on in, the water's fine, but it's ALL WE HAVE LEFT!"

Dehydrated, Rodney tried the kitchen faucet, but only managed to get some rather stale, brownish water. It was enough to wet his throat, but not much more than that. The crew quarters were in shambles, with: "Can't sleep now, you slept so long, stay awake! Sound the gong!"

Eventually, they made their way to the power core, and after some "hands-on troubleshooting" from Rodney, and some actual repair work by the droids, they managed to restore power to the ship, and returned to the cryopods to see if they could rescue any more of the crew. Only a handful of crew remained; specifically:

Ensign Alec Panyanouvong (navigation), 2nd Lt. Lynn Ibe (weapon systems), Ensign Tamera Stradley (comms), Ensign Josep Soler (engineering), Ensign Darien Kundert (security), Ensign Hugo Weaving (security), and 2nd Lt. Marianne Falk (medical). With Lt. Falk assisting, they managed to wake the rest of the crew, and send Weaving and Kundert off together to explore the ship.

Meanwhile, they gathered on the bridge, to try to discover what happened to the Oncoming Storm while they were asleep. NOA, the ship's AI, seemed to have been wiped clean. Still, he tried to help by bringing up the last recordings from the black box:

The Oncoming Storm is moving through jumpspace. Suddenly, the featureless black of J3 jumpspace is replaced with a spiderweb of cracks that flash across the viewscreen; the cracks flash again, closer, as the navigator tried to steer clear of the anomaly and drop out of jumpspace. The ship twists, alarms blaring from the sudden shift in inertia, but for a moment, everything seems to be successful. Space returns... but there is no sign of the crew on the bridge. Or anywhere, for that matter. Power flickers, and dies. The ship drifts. After 25 years, a seal cracks on one of the cryo pods, and as an emergency measure, the pod is opened.

Whatever left them stranded seemed to have taken the crew, as well - and 25 years of drifting in space did nothing good to the ship. There are quite a few systems down or damaged from micrometeors, along with the damage sustained from the original incident.

NOA tried to get a fix, but realized he would need more time - he has absolutely no idea where they are. It took a full 24 hours (during which the robots managed to recharge, and the crew were able to recover from their long stay in cryo). Eventually, he came back with an answer: he had their position, but it looks as if the universe is millions, if not billions, of years older than it should be. And not only that, but best-guess places the ship outside The Wall! It normally would take about a month in Jumpspace, but that wouldn't include the Wall.

There's a star system that may be within reach, but it will take a while to get there, and will use up all the energy to make the trip. Food stores are critically low. Production can resume, but it will take at least a month until that point. As unfortunate as it seems, the crew may have to go back into cryo, or face starvation.

After some talk, it was decided to head towards the planet to refuel... but before they could get underway, an enormous ship jumped in front of them! As they scrambled to hail it, it fired a slow-moving torpedo at them, that somehow managed to break through their shields entirely. A moment later, they realized someone was standing on the bridge with them - humanoid, but obscured under a cloak.

The man (?) spoke with a grating voice; it seems that they were in the right place at the right time, give or take, to help with a problem the creature was facing. In fact, a problem the Oncoming Storm originally faced: the Entity, a creature who had been meddling in the affairs of Earth. The creature spoke. "I do not trust you. But, you have had no contact with the Entity, and as such, you are a rare alloy in unmined earth. You struggle against a force you do not know. Now you will know it."

The creature the Oncoming Storm originally was sent after is known as the Entity. It was trapped inside a bubble, a dead shell surrounding a dim world, inside the Black Zone, which is itself inside the bubble around the systems. The Entity has been enacting a slow plot to free itself, and as yet has gone unhindered. The powerful organization that the dark figure works for is a police force of a sort; they jailed the Entity over 10,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the Entity is likely looking for the crack in the outer shell, while the creatures it created are trying to find him. The creatures outside the bubble are unlikely to find their way in, but the Entity may soon be running the asylum, as it were.

With that, the dark figure vanished... and the Oncoming Storm was somehow teleported back inside the Wall. It left behind a tool - a "crowbar", which supposedly punches through jumpspace exclusion zones, such as the Wall itself.