Wednesday, February 3, 2021

A Time To (Fungal) Bloom

With the information from Eliza, they now had a map into one of the nearly-impossible-to-navigate areas of the galaxy: the Black Zone. However, NOA needed some time to compute the jump, and a helpful side quest popped up - a 25 year old distress call.

The planet wasn't too far away, and they were able to get to it in a day's travel. Nix, Rodney, and two other crew members, Deege (a hypochondriac Comms officer) and Elise (a cyborg engineer). Down on the planet, they found two landing sites: the wreck of the ship in distress, the Suzie Maze, and one of its emergency escape pods, about two miles distant. The crew decided to head over to the escape pod first.

While the planet had a decent atmosphere and gravity, the makeup of the air made it rather denser than that of Earth, which meant the crew had to wear EVA suits. Rodney, unwilling to part with his armor, stuck with punching the air into his own lungs, his breathing a little more labored than most.

The closer they got to the ship, the more strange, tan and purple plants grew. They seemed soft, and somewhat vine-like...

Not far from the pod, the encountered three strange people - humanoid, wearing shredded EVA suits, and very, very angry. Nix bounced up, as the three attacked the humans; Rodney shrugged it off, Elise managed to tank the blow, but Deege came dangerously close to getting knocked out of the fight! Thankfully, the creatures didn't get much more chance to fight; Nix took out the one going after Deege with his sonic shotgun, Elise gunned another through the head with her SMG, and Rodney gleefully splatted the third. Then took out the unconscious one for good measure.

At the pod, Elise headed inside. She realized the cyberjack in her arm was... not exactly accessible, but hoping the air wouldn't be too bad, she popped off her helmet, coughed at the dust floating around, and hacked into the black box. It gave up its information easily, revealing that 25 years ago, it had left the Suzie Maze in atmosphere, and landed here. After 24 hours, the door was opened, and it had been broadcasting the signal ever since. Elise turned it off, and pulled her EVA suit back on... though not without suffering a fatigue from something that really irritated her lungs.

Outside, battle was joined! The crew spotted two dog-like creatures; they attacked immediately, hammer-splatting one, and spraying the other down with the SMG. Then, a huge creature stepped out of the brush; ugly, disfigured, with one huge arm and an extra thin appendage with claws at the end, it launched a crazed attack on Rodney, but only managed to hand out a couple love taps before being taken out. And then its body started to expand, and the crew dove for cover, just before it exploded in a puff of what they later learned was spores!

They headed back to the shuttle, and had their pilot land them close to the wreck. Deege, grossed out by the spores, dust, and general bloodshed, stayed behind to take a quick shower (in his EVA suit, of course). Elise, meanwhile, cut the arm off her EVA suit and patched it air-tight against her metal arm, so her cyberjack would be accessible.

The crater was a loss; Rodney dug through it, but didn't find anything of use. Whatever was in there was incinerated. Elise, with the help of Nix, broke into the bridge, which seemed to have survived a bit better - these old freighters were designed to drop cargo and air-brake in case of structural failure, so the bridge survived with an intact seal. Breaking the seal revealed a horrifying sight - what looked like a human, stuck to the wall, with fungus growing out of every pore and orifice!

Elise hacked into the ship. It seems that the ship was hauling live dirt, likely from Earth, for growing; however, they stopped off at a rogue planet to pad their payload with some dust, hoping to make some extra money from the extra weight. Unfortunately, the dust was infected with some kind of fungus, not terribly unlike the Cordyceps fungus - a strange plant that rewires the brains of ants to spread.

Or in this case, the brains of whatever creature it infects - such as the humans aboard the Suzie Maze, and some of the animals of the planet it crashed on.

Luckily, both Elise (who was infected in the pod) and Rodney (who was infected because he refused to wear a sealed suit) were able to shake off the effects of the virus, with the help of medication derived from the Shifting Horizon's earlier interaction with the fungus. And, a nice bath in some medi-gel got the last of Deege's wounds healed, too, so the crew is ready for action!

Next up: Who is this Eliza? And what does she have to do with the Entity?

Into the Maze

The knife, as it turned out, is a small, inconspicuous cyberdeck; it can't be upgraded, but it does allow hacking computer systems at a +2.

Nix managed to get into the air duct unseen, thanks to the Red Queen's distraction - a huge gasoline-fueled fireball, followed by some - if you'll pardon the pun - guerrilla warfare, as the red apes kept up small arms fire on the guards.

The trip through the air ducts was fairly simple; once Nix reached the AC system, he lobbed a grenade into the system, and climbed out the hole. He made his way out to the hallways, and managed to avoid the guards until the last corridor. There, using the spy drone he got from Rodney, he distracted the guards, and was able to get past and open the outside door.

Outside, Rodney engaged the two guards at the door, and quickly, er, subdued them. Back in the hallway, the two took on the other guards, and cleared a path: Nix, laying down some non-violent sonic shotgun blasts, and Rodney, killing even the guards Nix knocked out. Up a set of stairs, the pair ran into a little trouble - a beefy War Bot and two human fighters. The War Bot managed to land a couple wounds to Rodney before he caved in its chest.

On the second floor, they found an office, not too far from a armored room marked "Security Office". After some careful discussion, the two decided to try a bit of a con. They waltzed into the security office, and Rodney attempted to convince the deck sergeant that he and Nix were black ops agents, sent to reinforce those there. The desk sergeant wasn't exactly someone who "convinced"; he listened, followed orders, and didn't make decisions. The security commander was summoned, and lead the two into a room "for discussing". The two happily followed her into the interrogation room, not even stopping when she slammed the door shut behind them...

She had a few questions, such as what happened to the war bot and the guards, or the AC vent, or indeed why they were there. Nix left the talking to Rodney; Rodney, meanwhile, attempted to intimidate the commander by... licking the interrogation room's doorknob.

After a bit of waiting around, the commander returned with two guard-bots - war-bots equipped with crowd control and non-lethal weapons. Rodney launched into them; Nix knocked out the commander, then headed for the vehicle laser. As the desk sergeant tried to engage it, Nix dove for the laser, hacking into it with the knife they found earlier. As Rodney went toe to toe with the two bots and the commander, Nix battled the hardened laser, never quite managing to take it over, but very effectively managing to keep it out of the fight. And knocked out the two guards, as well.

Rodney, meanwhile, held his own with the bots. After getting zapped several times, he was really, really hurting. He was missing hits as the two bots tag-teamed him, but finally, he managed to take them down, bashing the chest in on one, and crushing the skull of the other. Beaten to within an inch of his life, he staggered over to the desk sergeant and added a new hole to his torso.

The laser no longer fighting the hack, Nix zipped over to the computers, and restarted his hacking from there, finally successful in taking it over. Rodney, noting Nix was busy, decapitated the commander, and stuck her head on his vibro-spear. Then, he had Nix download the security tapes, for his own personal library.

After trying to add some smart targeting, which failed, they hid behind the desk and turned the laser to shoot anything that moves. The first few guards didn't make it; they opened the door just as the guards rushed in, and the two bounced into the room and were immediately turned to Swiss cheese - though a little melty. Behind them, two war bots tried to rush the room, and were incinerated by the laser. More guards tried to rush the room, tossing in grenades, but the explosions didn't do much to damage anything or anyone. Finally, two heavily armed guards rushed the room; one ricocheted a grenade into the room, while the other stayed out of the line of fire of the laser, and lobbed a fireball into the room. That did some damage!

Realizing there wasn't much for it, Rodney bull-rushed the door. He raised his hammer, hit the flamethrower guy, and... it bounced off.

Rodney took a deep breath, raised his hammer... and slammed the flamethrower out of the man's hand! Nix followed up by launching a quick sonic-shotgun attack, taking out the marine next to him. Between the two of them, they took out the flamethrower fellow, as well as the two lighter-armed men behind them.

Finally, they returned to their main task: rescuing the Mayor.

In the Mayor's office - you know, the room next to the security office - they frightened the living daylights out of a junior lieutenant. They freed the Mayor, and got him to the first floor, where he was able to escape - but not before handing off a holo-map. Next they headed to the main event: the maze under the city.

The maze is a hive of passages, gleaming and white, light shining through the translucent walls, floor, and ceiling. The holographic map pointed the way ahead, seeming to double back, twist around, and generally not follow the rules of linear travel.

The destination ended in a room with metal walls, solid stone floor, and a dark ceiling. In the center they found a diesel-punk fractal computer. After a bit of fiddling around, Rodney went exploring, and found a skeletonized corpse; he had a small holo-map, as well.

Using it to explore, Rodney realized that there was some... weird glitch. Following the map back to the room, it found... nothing but more hallways. Heading down a hallway, the map flipped, pointing back the way he'd come. As they later discovered, only the holo-map from the Mayor could locate the room - because without it, the room simply didn't exist! That explained the three skeletons they found, anyway...

Finally, they decided to give the computer a try. It started up, and on screens wrapping around the device (getting smaller and smaller as they went around), a single question blinked in green text on a black background:

Begin the Procedure? _

After much hemming and hawing, they finally pushed the green button, and the machine began its work... The walls melted away, as they were borne up into the city; they witnessed the denizens of the world screaming and running, melding into each other, morphing into new shapes, as the machine did its work. The machine - a fractal regenerator - converted the mass of the people, places, and things in the world into what they had once been: the Littlefinger!

Aboard the ship - though sadly lightened of many of their collected weapons, including the commanders head, but (much to Rodney's relief) not the tape of his massacre - they watched the ship's android take a blast meant for the Captain. As had happened once before, the ship's AI had done all it could to save the Captain and his pregnant daughter - but this time, 25 years had elapsed. The AI burned every last circuit to save its Captain, leaving nothing but a smoldering wreck.

However, just as the Littlefinger was reborn, and the revolt aboard put down, the Dark Horizons received a message from the mysterious Eliza:

All the pieces are in place. With the help of the Littlefinger, I should be able to delay the Entity long enough for you to complete your task. The Entity has yet to learn of your presence, though it has begun to suspect mine. Time is of the essence. I hope you and your crew are prepared; you will need all the help you can get. Bring the sample of Biothanata to the prison planet — and hurry. Spies are everywhere.

I will see you soon.

Eliza out.

The jump pod that delivered the message also had some physical cargo for the Littlefinger; a new AI, this one a military AI rather than a civilian one, one that wouldn't burn its circuits to save the ship.