Science Fiction The Oracle
#1
Video 
I'm starting a new thread. Sci Fi this time.


Episode 1 - Beginnings (see below)
Episode 2 - Anomaly 
Episode 3 - Planetside
Episode 4 - Bravo
Episode 5 - Charlie
Episode 6 - Activation
Episode 7 - Secrets
Episode 8 - Paradise
Episode 9 - Discovery
Episode 10 - Softening
Episode 11 - Survey
Episode 12 - Message
Episode 13 - Coils

About the Setting
For the Setting, I've always loved Jack Cambell's military sci fi books. So, I'm borrowing loosely from that, but many things will be different because I can't remember everything. Think of it as a rough approximation / alternate universe around the time period of his Genesis Fleet series. Colonies are going far and wide and lots of exploration, and little oversight the farther away from Earth that you get. 

There are jump drives, but no hyper drives. That means you have to get to an established jump point in a star system for the jump engines on the ship to work to take you to another system. The jump points are bi-directional, meaning they're like tubes that connect system to system. All other speeds in planetary systems are done at sub-light speeds. There is no teleportation or cloaking (at least not known to humans). This is where human space travel is currently at for this setting.

(Disclaimer- I'm not much of a sci fi writer and have never been in the military so this will be a bit of a challenge. I also don't know that much about science, so... well, you're going to have to voluntarily suspend your disbelief in major ways. But what the heck... It's all for fun and it's mainly for me anyway.)

The RPG System
I'll be trying out the OneDice system, specifically the Space source book. OneDice was on sale via PDF on Bundle of Holding recently and I snagged a copy. Seems like a fast system (and I like fast systems). But then nothing is as fast as just using the buttons and asking questions. I might switch to something else if OneDice isn't my cup of tea.

My Character
I'm playing Ardelle Leath. She's with the Space Navy, and over the last five years, she's gone through basic training and officer school, but this is her first real mission. She's attached to an exploration vessel called The Oracle. She works closely with the captain and the bridge as an assistant to the Science Officer. She often takes the science station. She is a member of the "backup" bridge crew, not the main crew. 

Here are her stats:

Ardelle Leath
Strong 2
Quick 2
Clever 2

Health 6
Defense 6
Move  20

Science 1
Research 1
Lore 1
Shooting 1
Sneak 1
Analysis 1
Stunt Points: 6 

Our vessel is The Oracle, a large exploration spacecraft with enough crew quarters to house up to 120 people and enough food and supplies to last for several months in the great dark of space.

The Oracle (US-106)
Large Exploration Spaceship converted from a military vessel.
Strength 9
Quick 8
Health 25 + 3 (military hull) = 28 
Defense 11.
Movement 5
J
Jump ability -/4
Cargo Capacity 100
Crew optimum number 12 (skeleton) /120 full complement
Size large
Lv Basic/E
Wp (weapons) 6 Conventional Torpedoes/Conventional 
Weapon Array/2 shuttles 

The Oracle has just exited a jump point. (Jump points are areas where the space time continuum is particularly thin, allowing for jump drives to activate. Jump points tie only to one other jump point.)

Why am I attached to this vessel?

Change / Fame

Life was going nowhere for Ardelle Leath. She was in a dead-end navy job that involved only theory and not a lot of real-life research. When a military science/exploration vessel named The Oracle put out posts seeking applicants, she put in for a transfer and was accepted aboard as a junior officer. She's pretty fresh in the space navy though, only an Ensign, but she's anxious to prove herself and wants to get a ship of her own someday to sail the stars.

Is the vessel in good shape when it leaves jump space?

(Likely | 9[d10]) Yes

Did I leave family behind?

(50/50 | 8[d10]) Yes

Do I have siblings?

(50/50 | 5[d10]) No, but...

So I'm an only child, but have some nieces and nephews that I treat as younger siblings.

I'll say I'm in my early 20s.

On a scale of 1 to 100 what's my appearance with 100 being among the super models and most loverly of ppls?

95 = 95[d100]

Wow... okay. OneDice doesn't have a stat for charisma or appearance, so that's why I asked that. I'm pretty darn good looking I guess. That could cause problems when you stand out like that. We'll see.

Interestingly this could also explain the Change / Fame answer above. Perhaps I was super model status and needed a reality check and so joined the Mil. Sure. Why not. Smile

Appearance: muscular (toned), green eyes, shoulder length reddish brown hair, tied in pony tail usually, and of course beautiful.

Do I have a boyfriend back home?

(Somewhat Likely | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

And it's progressed more than just boyfriend status. It's getting serious. Are we engaged?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

Yes, but there's no formal date. The idiot has cold feet. Men these days! Justin Stevens is his name if it matters.

And here we go...

---


Episode 1: Beginnings



The strange colorless gray of jump space finally disappeared with a lurching sensation as we twisted back into normal space and the jump drives cut off with a dull shudder.

Ardelle never felt more grateful. Being in jump space felt decidedly odd. Her skin started to itch and it felt rubbery like it wasn't her own. The longer she went, the more odd it felt. Thankfully most jumps had only lasted a few days but this one was longer it being a jump to an unknown destination. They had been getting to the the edge of explored space for a month now and just ten days ago had entered the jump node at Crocsos. Crocos had been mapped a year earlier but no one had been beyond it. That was all changing.

The military, of course, had a vested interest in knowing what was down the spiral arm of the galaxy. Hence the reason for this mission to map out new star systems. While the existence of alien species was statistically rare, statistical anomalies did occur and the upper brass wanted to be prepared should anything untoward be out there.

Time to roll up a random star system using OneDice space source book...

3 = 3[d6]

Solo star.

4 = 4[d6]

Blue to white star

1 = 1[d6]

Main sequence star. Common type.

1 = 1[d6]

Special Location

2 = 2[d6]

Meteoroid Shower

The location is subject to constant meteoroid storms 
which pose a danger to any vessel entering it. All piloting TNs are increased 
by 1 in this square, with any failure resulting in one dice of damage to the 
ship from a meteoroid impact.

(Blue to White Solo Type F)

Number of orbits:

7 = 2[d6]+5

7 orbits

3 = 3[d6]

3 = 3[d6]

4 = 4[d6]

1 = 1[d6]

5 = 5[d6]

1 = 1[d6]

Standard Planet
Standard Planet
Standard Planet
Empty
Gas Giant (maybe with habitable moons)
Empty

Main World:

3 = 3[d6]

on a planet

I'll say the planet in orbit 3.

The Oracle heads in system. Sensors immediately pick up a LOT of celestial bodies.

Is the ship's helmsmen particularly skilled?

(Somewhat Unlikely | 9[d10]) Yes

Right on! We'll say his name is Jayme Drav. 

Who is our captain? Male?

(50/50 | 1[d10]) No, and...

Okay. Female she is, and her name is Cpt Marsa Alestranda

Is The Oracle at optimum crew size?

(Somewhat Likely | 7[d10]) Yes

2 = 2[d6]

2 x 2 = 4 days / move of 5. = .8 days to travel between planets/orbits in this system.

Ardelle had just been on her way to the mess for breakfast three hours after existing jump space when when the alarm started to blare. The alarm started high pitched, dove down low in pitch and then went back up. Companion to the audible alarm was a flashing red that filled the hallway. 

Captain Alestranda's voice came over the comms, precise and clipped with urgency, "All hands, collision alert! Brace for impact!" 

Arelle was worried. Collision? With what? Another ship? Space was a vast ocean of emptiness, with sometimes hundreds of light years between planetary systems. But she grabbed a hand rail anyway, painfully aware that even ships moving at sub-light speeds could end up as a bright cloud of space dust if they hits something coming the other direction at sub-light speeds.

She felt the ship shiver under some of the smaller impacts. Probably some sort of debris in space, and certainly not enough to punch through its armored hull, but still, it worried her. She knew she was green. Outside of training and simulators, this was her first real on-ship assignment into space.

The pilot, Ens. Jayme, on the bridge will try to slow down and hopefully dodge some of the larger space debris.

Is it hard to avoid the debris?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

Target Number (TN) to beat is between challenging (6) and hard (8). I'll say 7.

Does Jayme have a 3 in pilot? If no, he has a 2.

(50/50 | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

9 = 6[d6]+3

When we rolled up the planet, it said that all piloting rolls are at -1 in this sector. So 9 - 1 = 8 so he still beats the difficulty TN of 7. There's just a lot of space debris in this sector, but it makes for some beautiful looking meteor showers if any one ever makes it down onto a planet's surface with an atmosphere to see them.

Is The Oracle a new ship?

(50/50 | 4[d10]) No

Ardelle felt the reaction-control thrusters first and she guessed the ship was turning. Then she felt The Oracle's main engines light off with a shuddering creaking sound that groaned through the deck plates. Inertial dampeners kicked in to compensate. Had they not, the crew would have been a pulpy mess on the innards of the ship. Ardelle remembered doing combat maneuvers in training, and this felt very much like that. She clung to the railing. Other crew around her in the hall did the same.

Can she hang on? TN 5

3 = 1[d6]+2

Nope...
It was too much. Her hands were sweaty and she slipped and went careening across the hallway.

Does she hit another person?

(Somewhat Unlikely | 9[d10]) Yes

She'll try land well. TN 5 on Quick to land gracefully and not take damage.

8 = 6[d6]+2

With the lurching jerking of the engine her grip broke free and she hurled down the hall into another person who was hanging onto another railing. She spun, and managed to plant both feet into his chest, knocking him away from his railing before she rolled to a half. The man fell on the floor and rolled several times.

Then it was over. The engines cut off, and she knew they were heading in a new vector now. She picked herself up and didn't take any damage, other than some minor bruises and scrapes.

The man she hit went to pick himself up and she helped him to stand.
 
Is he angry? 
-2 because she's obviously hot stuff and it's hard to be angry at pristine beauty.


(Unlikely | 4[d10]) No

The young man stood and a grimace passed over his face. He was of average height, average build, and average looking. She watched his face and waited. And yup, there it was. The response was almost universal in the XY chromosomal half of their species when they saw her. The slightly raised eyebrow, the eyes that widened, the slight intake of breath.

Is he a shy type.

(50/50 | 9[d10]) Yes

They both wore the standard-issue uniform. The gray one-size-fits-all shirt and pants that, while the uniform didn't go out of its way to accentuate her curvaceous form, it did nothing to hide it either.

She smiled kindly, took his arm and gave him an apology. He just nodded his thanks, ran a hand through his red hair, and his face flamed up nearly scarlet in color. He gave her an up and down look and then stammered his own apology when his eyes finally settled on her face. 

She looked at him and he looked away. His name tag, read "Walker" his rank was a fresh recruit.

"Crewman Walker," she said.
"Yes ma'am," he answered.

Does he try to get to know her anyway (shy -1).

(Somewhat Unlikely | 8[d10]) Yes

"You okay?"
"Yes ma'am. I'm fine."
"Very good." She turned to leave.
"Uh, you new around here Ma'am?" he asked when she didn't immediately walk away. 
"Umm... no." she said pointedly and gave a gentle smile. 
He shook his head slightly as if not believing he was talking to her, and scrubbed at his regulation hair cut again. "I'm... So-so rry, Ensign Leath," he finally manged noticing her tag above her breast. "That's stupid. I've seen you before. Everyone has." And he winced the minute he said it.

Inwardly she sighed at the truthfulness of it. She knew she stood out. There were many days when she wished she were just average or even just a tad ugly. But her parentage had blessed her with unusual genetics, and the glances of both genders tended to settle on her, whether she liked it or not, the men in thinly-masked adoration, and and women in thinly-veiled jealousy. Sometimes they weren't masked at all.

"Quite so," she said, folding her arms.

He looked taken aback. "I--I--"

She sighed. "I mean that I was agreeing with you that we've all seen each other by now, and it looks like we'll all be here on this same boat for quite a bit yet."

She knew that with fully-stocked larders and fuel cells, the ship could stay out for several months at a time. This would likely be a long tour of duty.

He nodded, and his glance flicked up to her face again before he glanced away down the hallway past her. It was painful, knowing he both wanted to stay around her but couldn't feel comfortable around her either. She knew with one up-turned look or glance she could wither the man. But she wouldn't. She wanted to be more than just a pretty face and an alluring figure. She had to be. She desperately hoped she had moved beyond the embarrassing shallowness of her last five years before her decision to join the Mil.

"Oh," he managed a weak smile. "Well, that's good. Maybe-- maybe I'll see you around."

"That's quite likely. Where are you from, Ensign?"

Earth?

(50/50 | 1[d10]) No, and...

He shuffled his feet. "One of the lunar colonies. My parents were total space nerds and sunk everything they had into buying a little place on the barren rock. I couldn't wait to get away. They somehow loved it." He shrugged. "Me? I wanted to go earth side, or anywhere with a a real atmosphere. But the Mil sent me here, instead," he shrugged and gave a dramatic breath. "Recycled atmosphere. Tastes great."

She gave a genuine laugh. "There's certainly nothing like the sweet morning smell of stale scrubbed O2." And it was true. There was nothing like it. The air always had a faint stale smell of wires, electricity, and air ducts.

"What about you ma'am?" he asked warming up to her now, apparently realizing she wasn't going to bite him.

"Call me Ardelle. Earth. I grew up in Arizona," she said. "Snowflake."

He raised his eyebrows. 

"No, that doesn't mean it's cold there. Anyway, as a little girl I always loved layout on a blanket at night and seeing the night sky. I hiked to the observatory to take tours. Anyway, as I grew older I turned into a mess. But my uncle set me straight."

"What was the problem?"

"I was the problem. I was a total jerk. No offence, but I wouldn't have given you the time of day five years ago. It was all about looks and status and partying."

He frowned at that seeing some image of her in a new light.

"But my best friend died. Drug over dose," she added with a sigh. "And, well, that was the wake up call I needed. I'm happy I answered it. I know the Mil isn't for everyone, but I needed it to set me straight and now I owe her and my uncle a favor to do my best here."

"Huh," he said. Then His eyes flicked down to her name tag again and his face blanched. "Wait... no. Really? You're THE Ardelle Leath?"

"In the flesh," she gave a mild mock bow complete with a sardonic grin.

"But... you are on the magazines and in the vids and..." his voice trailed off seeing her in a new light.

"Yeah," she cringed a little. "But that was version 1.0. You're looking at 2.0. Upgraded model."

"Upgraded model, huh?" he smiled. "I like that. Hey, you wanna get a cup of coffee together."

She flashed her engagement ring at him, and he fairly wilted and slapped a hand to his forehead and color rose up in his face like the collision alarm. 

"Sure, Crewman Walker. I'm bored, why not." And she was. She hadn't received any mail for weeks now. She loved Justin back home, but... well, Justin was Justin. Sweet. Adorable. But he wasn't what was the word. Down to earth quick like this young gentleman was. She shrugged as her reasoning ran full circle... and plus she was bored.

She followed him to the mess hall.
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#2
Episode 2: Anomaly

The mess was full of other sailors eating and drinking and generally abuzz with excitement over the close encounter with the space debris. The captain had explained what had happened 

"And they call this coffee," she said swirling the black liquid in her cup and giving it a disparaging look.

"Hey, it's black, and it has loads of caffeine," Crewman Elliot Walker said. "That's enough for me."
"You're waay too easy to please," she said taking a tentative sip. It was hot, and it reminded her of something called coffee. But it wasn't coffee, not by her definition. It smelled too much like the recycled atmo they breathed.

They talked until her duty shift arrived. 

She found out that Elliot Walker is an Engineer. He'd always loved building things, repairing things, tinkering with things, improving things, testing things. When he talked of those things his eyes shone with a special kind of love. Elliot had an twin sister who was a Marine aboard this very ship. The ship's crew complement could field a platoon of Marines, if needed, though it would take multiple shuttle launches from the two shuttles The Oracle carried to get them anywhere. Elliot's sister was a grunt private, named Krissa. Same last name of Walker. Same shorn red hair. But he claimed that she was way tougher than he was.

---

After breakfast ended, he headed aft to the Engineering section, and she headed for the the bridge. The bridge wasn't precisely on the front end of the ship, but it was in that region, armored and buried deep in the bowels of the ship. A marine sentry saluted smartly when she approached to the bridge. She returned the salute and looked at the name tag. Pfc Ruiso. The man's eyes tracked her then looked straight ahead. She wondered if he would be taller than she in full powered combat armor. Probably. But only on missions did they issue those. But he was armed and carried a small pulse rifle across his chest and a sidearm at his waist. 

She passed through the narrow door to the bridge, the door sliding open and locking with a click behind her. The bridge was dimly lit, the light settings on a comfortable low-light intensity. It was a now-familiar semi-circular room filled with monitors and displays. Some displays revealed tactical screens revealing small colored icons representing their ship and the surrounding terrain. Others showed visuals of the ship's rounded, sloped, sleek exterior, while others still displayed visuals of anything the ship's cameras were pointed at. Those last gave the illusion of them looking out an an actual bridge screen into outerspace. But that design wasn't practical. Objects in space were typically far to distant to see with the naked eye, and a glass screen, even armored glass being the only protection between you and the cold outside of space presented a weak point to an enterprising enemy. The bridge was the nerve center of the ship.

Ens. Jayme Drav's spot was empty and someone she didn't know, a short man, young, was at the helm station flipping through navigation screens. The others that there were were Captain Marsa Alestranda and Lt. Morgan, the science officer. Cpt. Alestranda looked up when she entered and nodded when Arelle saluted returning the salute. Lt. Morgan, the Science Officer, and her direct superior ignored her at first, but as Arelle drew near the older woman tossed her an exasperated look and raised an eyebrow. 

"You again."

"Me again, Lieutenant. Ma'am." Ardelle saluted crisply.

"I can do my job without you underfoot," Lt. Morgan said lifting her chin and waiving a airy salute her way. The other woman had a hard set of features, a blunt pointed nose and gray at her temples. Ardelle didn't like her any more than Morgan liked her, but she didn't show it. She forcefully maintained a cheery attitude, mainly because she knew it annoyed the other woman.

"Yes Ma'am. I'm sure you can. But I can't do mine without being underfoot. Sorry Ma'am. I'm just trying to do my job."

"You insist on taking that tone with me Ensign. I assure you that if you need another lesson, I can arrange--"

The captain gave them both an exasperated look. "Both of you, please. Lt. Morgan, that's enough. No need to hound her. Just let her do her job."

"Yes, captain." Lt. Morgan said, biting off the words. Ardelle knew the older woman chafed at having to "babysit" her as the other woman had called it. Ardelle did have a lot to learn and it was standard procedure to build redundancies not only in equipment but also in personnel.

Lt. Morgan rattled off a few instructions to Ardelle then left the bridge.

Ardelle studied the displays, tapping one of them and looking at the data coming in on the new star system The Oracle was passing through. "Ma'am, what are you going to call it?"

"Ensign?" The captain said, looking up from her own display in front of the captain's chair.

"The new star system," she waved at her monitor. 

"How about the Ardelle system," The captain said, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

"Ma'am?" Ardelle said almost choking.

"Well, you are somewhat of a celebrity, I hear. We like naming things after celebrities."

"P-please," Ardelle blanched with a slight stammer. "No thank you, Ma'am."

"The Leath system?"

"Again, No, thank...you."

"You're hard to please Ensign." The captain said drumming her fingers on her arm rest.

"It' just that... Well, Ma'am, I don't need any more fame at the moment."

"Indeed?"

"Life is... difficult enough with the 'legacy'," she twisted the word the bitterness rising in her mouth, "that I already have."

The captain studied her for a moment, gave a brief and sudden smile and nodded. "Very well," she said. "What do you recommend I call it then?"

Her first thought was to name it after her boyfriend, Justin, in some way, but the more she thought about it, and the more she thought about him, he didn't need anything added to his legacy either. He was fun and exciting and... well to be truthful, infuriatingly attractive to a fault, but... he was so... Justin. It's like he walked around through life with blinders on. Like she had done, before the mil entered her life... or she entered its life. 

Then she thought about her Uncle Spencer and about other normal, everyday people who made real differences by just being who they were and doing what they loved. Like Crewman Walker. Theirs was a chance meeting, but he already had more substance to him in one hour-long meeting over stale coffee and staler donuts than did all the famous friends and elites she had growing up. Did that include Justin? It made her uncomfortable and she shied away from the thought.
 
"How about Spenalk," she finally said, smiling up at the captain. It was a crude blend of the Spencer and Walker two names, but it would do.
"Spenalk?" a frown tugged at Captain Alestranda's mouth as she mulled over the name. "Sounds Russian. Why Spenalk?"
"It just reminds me of some people that I want to be more like. Good people captain. Real people."

The captain seemed to accept that and eventually nodded. "Spenalk it is. Ensign, please open a comms channel shipwide and I'll make the announcement." 

----

The Oracle continued to move further in system collecting data as it did so. 

The first planet, closest to the sun, dubbed, Spenalk 1, was little more than a large planetary barren rock cooked to perfection by the flaming gasses of the sun as it twisted and hurtled through space on an erratic orbit. It had been mauled by something larger once upon a time that had left a huge crater on on its surface and formed gigantic trench-like chasms and mountains the sprouted like jagged rocky waves. Whenever that was it had likely knocked the planet into it's current elevated orbit when compared against the system's center plane.

The Oracle's sublight drives allowed little under day to traverse between planets. And from the distant jump point to the orbital path of Spenalk 1 near the sun took about four days. Scans were running the whole time on their approach, recording data from all nearby planets, and the ship's on board computers were churning away on the data, creating 3D topographical maps and targeting mineral rich areas.

Spenalk 2 was either a very-small planet or a very large moon. It was caught in a gravitational tug-a-war between the larger Spenalk 1 and even larger Spenalk 3.

Spenalk 3 is the main world. We'll roll it up now.

2 = 2[d6]

Size small (~5000 km)

5 = 5[d6]

Atmosphere is Dense (Breathable oxygen dense)

4 = 4[d6]

40% of the world is covered in water

2 = 5[d6]-3

Two moons orbit the main world Spenalk 3.

Resources...

1 = 1[d6]

2 = 2[d6]

Radiactive ore.


2 = 2[d6]

6 = 6[d6]

Chemical compounds.

Do scanners pick up anything unusual about the world, Spenalk 3?

(Unlikely | 2[d10]) No

Is there anything of note on Spenalk 2?

(Unlikely | 9[d10]) Yes

Oookay. What? I'll use the CQ and see if it gives me anything interesting...

Take / Home

Ah hah... okay. I can run with that. Smile

Let's create another NPC: Sensor and comms and signals specialist - Jackston Ross

Ensign Ross was a tall, lanky young man with eyes that twinkled with lively mischief when he wasn't obsessing about signal data. He has his shift at the same time as Ardelle so it was natural for them to often share the same screens.

Is he immune to her natural charms?

(Unlikely | 1[d10]) No, and...

...and he takes every opportunity to be by her... Great...

It was on day five in the system that they noticed the anomaly. 

Let's see if Ardelle notices it.

4 = 4[d6]

Or Ensign Ross.

1 = 1[d6]

The captain had left the bridge three hours ago, and it was nearing the end of Ens. Jackston Ross's and Ardelle's shift. Other watch standards were hovering over their own consoles.

"Hey Ardelle," Jackston leaned over her console and pointed. "Did you see Spenalk 3?"

"Don't loom," she warned giving him 'the look'. 

"Sorry," he flashed an easy grin down at her, but didn't remove his arm from the back of her chair.

"Spenalk 3?" she asked a frown on her face. "Of course I saw it. You can't miss that." 

"She's a 'beut' ain't she?" Ross was looking at her when he said it.

"I assume you're talking about the planet?" She said swiveling her chair and finally dislodging his arm.

He gave a feigned pained look easily overshadowed by his easy smile.

She punched some keys and brought up Spenalk 3. The planet was smaller than earth but larger than both Spenalk 1 and 2. It loomed on the main view screen, it rotated slowly against the inky black of space, a pristine jewel of green and blue, clean and unmarred by human involvement. She was sure it wouldn't take some enterprising human colonists long to settle there and begin to foul things up. Not just from a pollution standpoint, but humankind tended to do a good job at messing things at least as much or more often than they did at fixing things. 

Some of the other watch standards looked up and chittered among themselves about the new find. Associated sensor data was scrolling up on her screen.

Jackston had put his arm on her chair again.

"Hey, why don't you get back to YOUR seat and do a diagnostics on the signal data coming in."

"You just don't want me by you."

"How astute. And I want you to make sure the data is correct."

"Of course it's correct."

"Then why does the it show this," she flicked a switch, and numbers flashed across the giant screen giving gravitational readings.

His grin slowly faded. "What the hell?"

"Exactly. So check your diagnostics."

"I always run my diagnostics."

"Run them again then. Please."

"Don't get snippety. I'll run them," his long legs carried him over to his console in a few strides, and he tapped several commands in to the display. The sensor's self diagnostics program flared to life and after a moment of scrolling numbers, progress bars, and graphs, it came back nominal. "It's nominal."

"Nominal?" Ardelle said, and she leaned over her own console, running her own diagonostics on the sensor package. "Like hell it is. You don't get gravitational readings like this with nominal. They're all over the place --- how could they be..." her voice trailed off as the readings on the view port suddenly shifted wildy again. "Something isn't right."

Jackston was all business. "You can say that again," Jackston agreed, a frown creasing his face and furrowing his brow as he rapidly typed more commands at his own console, running the diagnostics again. He stared at the screen, confusion spreading across his face. "Nominal. Again."

Ardelle tapped her lip, remembering something. "Rewind the orbital path of Spenalk 2 to where it came near Spenalk 3 yesterday, then bring up those readings."

Jackston grunted and did so. Soon the screen shifted to show the orbital paths of the two planets. Another key press rewound the display, showing the planets moving in reverse trajectories until Spenalk 2 and 3 were near each other. 

Then he pressed another key and the main view split vertically and columns. He tapped the play button, and data began scrolling down for both planets as they slowly inched towards each other. The data revealed that Spenalk 2 and 3 were interacting as they should, gravitationally-speaking as the two bodies came closer together. Strong gravitational forces from Spenalk 2 caused tremendous tidal disturbances on Spenalk 3. But that was about it. It was what she expected.

"What are you getting at?"

"Now forward time to just ten minutes ago," she said.

He did so, and the data on the screen showed the screwy results. Screwy if the planets were apart, which they were, but nearly identical readings to when the planets were close together." 

"It's as if..."

"As if Spenalk 2 is still affecting Spenalk 3 when it's not even by it."

"That's not possible," Jackston murmured, rubbing his chin.

"Well, if your diagnostics are working correctly--and I've confirmed that they are--then what we're witnessing is something very odd."

"We had better let the Captain know," Jackston said reaching for his comm switch.

---

Five minutes later Captain Alestranda and Lt. Morgan were both on the bridge. The ship's clock read 2 am. Both women did not look pleased to have been awakened in the middle of the "night", but once they saw the data, and the readings were explained to them, they were somewhat mollified, even Lt. Morgan was interested enough that she behaved almost normally toward Ardelle. But Lt. Morgan always liked a good intellectual challenge. It was too good to last.

"Well done, Ensign Ardelle," Alestranda added looking at the results of her findings.

Lt. Morgan glared at Ardelle and Ardelle pretended not to notice. Clearly the Lt. was not pleased that Ardelle had discovered the anomaly.

Ensign Jayme Drav, was also at the helm station playing rapt attention to what was happening.

"So let me get this straight?" the Captain asked. "Some gravitational force is affecting Spenalk 3's tides even though it's not nearby."

"Yes maam," Lt Morgan said sourly. "The data clearly shows that."
 
"And could our data be wrong?"

"Well, Ens. Leath here 'claims' she ran the diagnostics. I suppose she could have botched something, untrained as she is." Lt. Morgan sniffed.

Typical witch behavior, Ardelle thought and instead smiled as if patiently explaining things to a child. "I can assure you we botched nothing Lt. Morgan. Both Ensign dross and myself cross-checked our diagnostics," Ardelle rejoined. "Twice. Then again before we called you and the Captain. At least according to the diagnostics the sensor equipment is functioning perfectly."

"Can we trust the diagnostics?" Captain Alestranda asked.

"Yes," Jackston said slowly.

"Is there something we can do to be sure."

He nodded. "Yes, Captain. But I recommend that we don't go too far down that road," Ross said. "We can run diagnostics on the diagnostics. But where does it end? What do we trust? If we run diagnostics on the diagnostics of the diganostics... well..." his voice trailed off. 

"I understand, you start doubting everything, including what your own senses," Cpt. Alestranda said.

"Exactly." Ross nodded.

"Do we have any idea what might be causing the anomaly?"

"The only thing we can think of is that it's behaving as if Spenalk 2 is right by it, but it's not even close."

"Ensign Drav," Cpt Alestranda commanded the helm officer after consulting her own display. "Can you bring us into orbit around Spenalk 3 without draining too many of our fuel cells."

Jayme Drav trapped commands on his own console, swiped some screens and brought up an orbital solution on the main screen.

"Yes ma'am, according to my calculations, if I move us off this vector so that we're no longer passing by, I can use Spenalk 3's gravitational pull to slow us down enough that Spenalk 2 should capture us with minimal fuel cell drain."

"Very well, make it happen and then put us into a low equatorial orbit."

"Aye captain. Slowing to enter orbit around Spenalk 2." Ens. Drav keyed in the commands, and the main engines kicked in with a dull shudder beginning to nudge the ship ever so slightly off it's course. After that burn, he plotted another maneuver to put him in front of Spenalk 3, using the gravity of the planet to cut their velocity even further. A plotted course appeared on the screen. "We'll reach orbital periapsis and can burn for an equatorial orbit in three hours, Captain."

"Good," the next bridge shift was just entering. She nodded at Lt. Morgan. "Lieutenant, this might be a dangerous mission. We don't know what's down there. How would you rate Ensign Leath's ability to lead a mission onto Spenalk 2?"

Ardelle could tell she was at war with herself whether to put her junior assistant into a dangerous situation possibly relieving her of a tiresome burden, against the risk of Ardelle actually accomplishing something and making even more of a name for herself. In the end, Ardelle decided that it was probably Lt. Morgan's own sense of self preservation that made her decide to stay.

"She may very well botch it, Captain. She is very junior you see."

"But she did find the anomaly."

"Anyone could have done that," Lt. Morgan grimaced. "I'd happily volunteer but I need to run some critical equipment checks and diagnostics of our science lab for whatever she may bring back. I'm sure you understand."

"Indeed," the captain said blandly.

The captain finally nodded making up her mind. "Very well. All of you get some sleep. Ensign Leath you'll be leading the crew. Ensign Ross will go with you. Ardelle, you will be granted provisional command authority for this mission. You'll be taking a shuttle to Spenalk 2 tomorrow morning. Ens. Ardelle, please put together a team from among the crew. Lt. Morgan and I will be watching your progress from here."

"Yes ma'am," Ardelle said and soluted, trying to hide the spike of excitement that jolted through her. She was more than excited about getting out from under the thumb of Lt. Morgan, and it would be a chance to prove herself.
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#3
I swear to God, I'm going to end up reading everything you post at this rate. It's really not helping my sleep deprivation..and general life but it's kinda worth it  Heart Smile
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#4
Video 
(Nice! I'm glad you're enjoying it Zandra003, and thanks for sharing your comments! I love hearing from readers. I know I prob won't be able to keep up this rate of posting. So, enjoy it while the getting is good.)

Episode 3: Planetside (Notes)

The next morning, Ardelle's "team" showed up at Hangar Bay 1. The Oracle contained two hangar bays, on both the starboard and port sides. They were used for launching smaller craft such as shuttles, of which, The Oracle had two. Ardelle had spent half the night organizing the team, requisitioning equipment and transportation, throwing the weight of the Captain around to get the needed supplies scrounged up in time. 

Crewman Elliot Walker and his sister, Pvt Krissa Walker, in her armor, were both inside the hanger bay when Ardelle arrived. It was early "morning" according to ship time. Jackston, of course, had showed up at her cabin, insisting on walking with her. She yawned as she approached the twins. Her pony-tailed hair felt mussed (she wondered again, how could you muss a pony tail). Her eyes felt gummy. Thankfully, the cup of hot almost-coffee brought her up to speed...almost. Her excitement had dampened somewhat from yesterday when the enormity of the task weighed on her. Find the anomaly, and figure out what it was. Was she good enough? 

Both the Walker siblings had both been eager to come--not that they had much of a choice since she outranked them--but it helped that they had been eager. Although she reckoned that anyone probably would have been eager to get off the cramped confines of the ship and go planet-side. Krissa walker had recommended two other marines who were loading gear onto the shuttle. 

"So... what's this about, Ensign?" Elliot asked Ardelle when she drew near. The excitement was evident in his voice. The space suit he wore looked too large and bulky on his average frame and he wiped his nose on his sleeve while cradling the helmet under his other arm.

Word had crept out that a special mission was underfoot, and rumors had been flying, though what it was hadn't been explained yet to the rest of the team. That would be done once they were en route via the shuttle. The captain had explained to the crew at large that The Oracle had stopped traversing the system and gone into orbit around Spenalk 2 to run some studies.

"Rest easy. It's just science stuff."

"Really?" Krissa asked you could have fooled me. "You don't usually don't bring Marines to an egg-head party." Krissa, like the other Marines were dressed in sleek powered combat armor, with a completely self-contained atmosphere and form-fitting plates of advanced metal alloy. Krissa's armored face plate was up and the armor looked somewhat bulky, but that was necessary due to all the engineering that went into them. But the armor were much less bulky than the armored suit Ardelle, Jaskston, and Elliot wore. Then again, Marines always got the fun toys.

"I was going to just bring you, but you suggested the others," Aredelle countered.

"Well, one grunt in a pod is good luck for anyone, I say, so three is even better, right?"

"Right..." Ardelle said with half-hearted agreement. She wasn't convinced. Her experience with marines was that they were crazy mud eaters who ate bullets and drank danger like it was the best booze there was. And it seemed they loved every minute of it. The only thing as bad as a marine with a pulse rifle, was a pilot jock with a live warhead in a gunship's missile bays.

"So... Spenalk system? Weird name. Wonder who came up with that?" he said. 

She only shrugged. 

"And you're not going to say where are we going are you?" Elliot asked her. 

Krissa just grinned at her brother. "Does it matter, little brother? We're going planet-side! Maybe they'll have a bar where we can get drunk. I haven't gotten drunk in forever."

"Last week doesn't count?"

"Like I said, forever."

He chuckled and Ardelle smiled. 

"Little brother? I thought you were twins," Ardelle asked as she started struggling into her own bulky space suit. The marines loading the shuttle easily moved the heavy equipment cases and crates multiple anti-gravity sleds and into the shuttle, the armor lending them strength for the task.

"Nope," Krissa said at the same time that Elliot said, "Yup."

The two siblings looked at each other, and Krissa's grin widened in amusement while Elliot shook his head in silent yet mock exasperation. "She was born a minute before me," he said. "A single minute. She acts as if that one minute gave her a life-time of experience to lord over on me."

"It's a scientific fact that girls mature faster than boys. Ask the egg head," she said nodding to Ardelle. "Ain't I right? So, I AM your big sister. And you better remember that. I gotta keep this snot-nosed kid alive and kicking."

They grinned, and he tried to punch her arm, but when he saw her armored bulk he decided to settle for a brotherly shove, not wanting bruised knuckles most likely.

Ardelle silently enjoyed the lively banter and proffered a slight smile. She had, once-upon-a-time, been grateful to the stars that that she had been an only child. She had thought then she'd be eternally grateful that she didn't have to share her clothes, her room, her vehicles (yes plural, compliments of her doting father). But... lately, once she'd grown up, she began to envy those who had less material things but closer familial ties.

Ens. Jackston Ross introduced himself as the "wizard of all things sensor data" and he introduced Ardelle as "My humble assistant." Ardelle just rolled her eyes and told him to can it. She had been given provisional command seniority for this mission by the Captain but she didn't think that meant much to Jackston.

"It's all loaded ma'am," one of the other Marine's said saluting crisply. The name and rank on his armor read "Pvt Dummond". He jerked an armored thumb over at the other Marine and the shuttle. "Me and Winters got it all loaded. We can leave when you're ready."

Does the planet Spenalk 2 have an atomosphere at all?

(50/50 | 1[d10]) No, and...

She nodded and finished struggling into her suit. From the scans and the data, the small planet was a forsaken and blasted rock, much like Spenalk 1, except even smaller. Thankfully it wasn't as hot. She hoped the armored space suits held up under these extreme conditions. They had been used by construction engineers and explorers. She saw the scrapes and scuff marks on the armored knee pads, elbow pads. The suits were rated to withstand high temperatures, and even had built in armor plating. But she knew from personal experience using them on the moon that they were clumsy to move in and would be nearly impossible to use with earth-like gravity given the extra weight. They weren't powered after all. Luckily, this planet's gravitational rating was not going to be as strong as earth's, but would be stronger than the gravitational pull from the moon. 

Orbital scans since The Oracle had reached low orbit last night had showed that Spenalk 2 was seismically active. It was also tidally locked, which meant that the same side of the moon always faced the sun. It's dark side of the moon would always be dark and bitterly cold, while the side facing the system's would be a sun-crisped crater-filled nightmare of brightness.

"Let's go," she said and led the way to the shuttle's ramp. The lettering on the side of the vessel said "The Egg Crate". As she clomped up the ramp with labored metallic steps, she saw that aside from the four of them and the two marines, half of the shuttle's carrying capacity was stuffed floor to ceiling with sensors, electronics, mini-drones, a small science lab, and...weapons. Had she asked for that? Must've been Krissa's doing. 

Soon they were belted into their seats aboard The Egg Crate. It didn't look like an egg. The shuttle looked vaguely like an insect with large mantis-like engines that swiveled with VTOL capability. It was a military shuttle, and while it had once had more weaponry, most of that was removed to to supply the room for the equipment. Even so, it boasted two rapid-fire pulse guns on the short stubby side panels near the swivel engines. Unlike the parent starships that berthed it, the shuttle did have an actual cockpit with armored plasti-glass. 

The cargo area of the shuttle where troops would wait to face enemy gun fire was completely air tight. When the ramp slid up and out of sight and the door shut it, it sealed like a tomb with a hissing noise. A dull orange light flickered to life in the gloom.

Voices came over the comms. The pilots seemed professional enough, though they garnered considerable enjoyment from the jokes about the available puke bags and making sure the chairs were in the upright position and all luggage stowed. Ardelle never trusted jocks. Cocky to fault, they had been the cause of more than one training accident. Uncle Spencer had shared with her too many stories about the the "glory seeking flyboys of derring do."

Ardelle began to sweat inside her suit when the shuttle door had shut. Enclosed spaces were never her forte. A slight hiss and hum let Ardelle know that air was flowing inside the gloomy interior and the feel of it on her face eased her concerns somewhat. Four screens embedded into various walls flared to life as the shuttle's electronics and sensor packages turned on. They provided a closed-circuit view of different video feeds coming from cameras outside of the shuttle. They saw the engines swivel, and heard them belch to life, saw them swivel up then down, then up again finally settling onto a 45 degree angle. Then the engines jerked and turned on even higher to a dull rumble and roar, blue flame from the engines playing across the smooth metallic deck plate of the hanger. The deck beneath the shuttle began to swivel even as a large hangar door closed behind them, sealing off the rest of The Oracle from the vacuum of space. 

Then the large outer doors cracked open, a half ball of metal splitting in two. Breathable vapor that had surrounded the ship suddenly vented into the blackness of space. The crack opened wider and wider yawning wide to release them. Then metallic magnetic clamps released, and the shuttles engines really kicked in leaping the shuttle from launch pad into the darkness beyond. 

The screen showed the hangar doors start to slowly close behind them. 

Ardelle got another good look at the outside of The Oracle. It was a beautiful ship as ships went. The exploration vessel was large with four decks that housed over a hundred people. The Oracle boasted a sleek armored hull, and the multitude of rounded protrusions that were arrayed along the hull bespoke a wealth of sensors and cameras. It was, in fact, a Warrior-Class Destroyer that had been converted to less-destructive missions with less hull-penetrating equipment. Indeed, gone were the racks of missiles and the large grape shot cannons. The only remaining weaponry were two large pulse cannons. Those cannons were arrayed on swivel rail mounts, one atop the ship and one beneath it. On its aft section, four huge engines gave it the get-up-and-go it needed to get the job done. It was a fast ship and could outrun all but the most advanced fighter craft. But, it didn't have any shields. In a fight, it's best defense was likely flight.

The Oracle slowly receded from view behind them. Soon it was a small dot and couldn't be seen with the naked eye.

"This is the Captain speaking from aboard The Oracle," Marsa Alestranda's voice cut through the chatter with distinct . "Your mission is classified. You are to investigate the source of a gravitational anomaly detected by Ensign Leath this morning at 0115 hours. Lt. Morgan, has plotted three possible sites of interest for you to investigate, dubbed as sectors Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. We need to know what's causing the anomaly. Stay alert and be careful. Ensign Leath has command authority. We'll be monitoring your progress from orbit. Alestranda out." 

As she spoke, a 3D terrain map of the surface had appeared and the screen now showed three blinking dots. 

"Where to Ensign Leath?" the pilot's voice crackled over the comm unit.

Silence hung in the air as everyone absorbed the mission specs. It was an odd mix of somber and excitement.

"Take us to Alpha," Ardelle said. "It's the closest."

"Yes ma'am. On our way."

The ETA data and distance-to-target numbers began rapidly decreasing as the shuttle made its way to the the Alpha site.

"Told you," Krissa said, giving her brother and armored nudge that would have knocked him off of his chair had he not been belted in.

"What?"

"The mission. I knew it wasn't a typical egg-head party."

"Yeah," he murmured righting himself and massaging a shoulder. 

"So you found this anomaly?" Krissa suddenly asked Ardelle. 

Ardelle nodded. "It was buried in the sensor data. We have no idea what it is."

Krissa studied her for a moment then finally nodded. "I always like going planet side," she murmured and turned away to watch the numbers count down. "Wonder if they have a bar," she said quietly, almost to herself.

Ardelle noticed Krissa's voice had lost much of it's usual playfulness.

---

Alpha site was on the bright side of the planet. The ground was rapidly approaching. The Egg Crate swiveled its engines and after a flare to bleed off down velocity, settled down in the center of a large crater. The engines shuddered off beneath them. 

"All right ladies and gents, let's get suited up!" Krissa said pointing to their helmets. Krissa's own face plate was down. Once the others had their helmets affixed, and it was verified that oxygen was flowing, the shuttle's back door opened and atmosphere vented onto the airless planet and the ramp descended. The helmet enclosed her and her heart rate started to climb. She couldn't touch her face. Couldn't wipe her nose, couldn't scratch her nose, couldn't breathe very well. She...

"You okay?" Elliot asked her his voice coming through her hearpiece his hand on her arm. She jerked.

"Y-yeah... Sure. It's just space suits," she said. "I always get nervous."

"You'll be fine," he said and grinned at her.

She managed a smile back.

The doors opened wider and the light entering the shuttle was blinding.

Ardelle blinked away tears and closed her eyes from the sudden brightness. And she wasn't even outside yet. She wished she could wipe her eyes. Her face plate gradually grew dimmer as the suit compensated and soon she could look out at the planet without feeling discomfort. 

A large cloud of dust hung in the air around the shuttle kicked up by the engines. Without wind to dissipate it, the small grains of dust arced up scintillating in the bright sun and began to fall back down to the planet's surface to gravity's gentle but insistent call.

The marines headed out first, marching out into the dust cloud, getting swallowed up from view. The others followed and Ardelle was the last to exit. She stepped off the ramp and felt the soft dust underfoot. 

A new planet! The excitement stirred inside her once more. A part of her longed to do this over and over on other planets to see and experience the newness and uncover the mysteries of the galaxy one planet at a time. A part of her couldn't wait to get out of the space suit.

The dust gradually began to lessen. Ardelle noticed large, cliff-like, jutting walls rising above them hundreds of feet, the mountainous walls of the crater. Above them, the orange globe of superheated gasses hung in place. She wondered how long the fiery ball that has blasted this landscape. The crater was huge and stretched out beyond the horizon.

"That's a sight you don't see every day," Jackston murmured, his voice rattling into her earpiece. "And you know, I'm suddenly very glad for these suits. I wasn't so glad earlier today, but that's all changed now. You seen these temperature and radiation readings." He patted the breast of his suit affectionately.

"Yeah," Ardelle breathed rapidly, her eyebrows rising up in alarm. She had used this suit model before on the moon base. But there the sun was far away and distant. "I see them. I hope--" 

"We'll be here if you need us ma'am," one of the pilot's said, giving her a salute and then a thumbs up. "Just call us if you need us."

"So what's next?" Elliot asked after a few minutes of just staring at the silent dead landscape then turning back to face her.

"Let's get the equipment set up," Ardelle said, getting her breathing under control again. She could do this. 

The team started pulling out boxes and crates.
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#5
Episode 4: Bravo (Notes)

The team spent an hour getting the equipment set up. Then they ran tests for a solid two hours in various locations around the landing site. Then, after verifying that the sensitive gravitron sensors were indeed working (again diagnostics for again another hour), and after discussing and carefully examining the reported results for another hour, and after getting confirmation from Lt. Morgan aboard The Oracle, including the delays in communications another hour, the conclusion was obvious:

There was nothing at Alpha site. And the team was not happy.

The team spent another hour packing everything up and then re-boarding The Egg Crate before heading off to Bravo site. Ardelle was grateful and eager to get her helmet off and breathe in the pressurized atmo from inside the shuttle. The stale air felt heavenly by comparison. While en route to bravo, the shuttle recharged their space suits automatically through power jacks that inserted into the at the back of each suit, topping off their internal batteries.

She sat down heavily and couldn't help but feel let down. She knew there had been something going on. But where exactly was the question, and was it still happening and would it happen again so that they could detect it? There were too many unknowns.

Once they were all seated and belted, the shuttle's engines kicked in and in another cloud of billowed dust, the shuttle leaped up from the surface of Spenalk 2. The ETA showed a dot with it's trajectory, a graceful parabolic blue arc that carried it up and over into the dark side of the planet. There were a few minor adjustments made to their course before they settled in to wait for the approach to the second site four hours difference at: Bravo.

She knew they could have gone faster, shortened that parabolic arc to something more like a line with a slight curve and arrived much sooner, but that would have expended more fuel.

Ardelle was glad to be out from the blinding sun. Even though the suits carried their own coolant just seeing the sun for so long and so brightly, made her hot. She considered whether they'd find anything as she watched the meter on her suit go from orange to green on her power levels and after about fifteen minutes, all the bars were maxed out. The bulky, industrial, non-powered spacesuit that she wore could last about 12 hours on a full load of power. The powered combat armor lasted much less, perhaps two to four hours based on the amount of activity. But unlike the industrial suits, the the power suits could recharge from portable power cells. These power cells were much much smaller versions of portable fuel cells used aboard ships. Power cells and could also be manually inserted into the power jack of a space suit to provide portable power for your average infantry grunt. If power ever ran out.... Well, she didn't like to think about that.

"Well that was exciting," Krissa Walker said. She had pressed a button and removed her own helmet with a hiss, setting it on her knees. She massaged the back of her kneck. Her short-cropped red hair was damp with sweat.

"Tell me about it," Pvt Dummond said removing his own helmet and he stretched his arms, careful not to hit anyone.

"I guess we can't always be eating dirt and dodging bullets," Pvt Winters said. He just had his faceplate up and was chewing some gum.

"Too bad," Pfc Krissa said with a heavy sigh, and their conversation drifted to other topics, mainly retelling of war stories. There was no shortage of those. Humankind were notorious for being good at blowing each other up to get their own way or to protect their own way from being blown up. Wars and conflicts had dotted the tapestry of humankind's history and Ardelle suspected they ever would, or at least until mankind was able to turn off whatever was inside of him that made him want to kill and hurt and exercise control and power over others.

Ardelle leaned back and shut her eyes thinking over the reports from Alpha's scans and half listening to the other conversations. Krissa was serious wasn't she? Dodging bullets? They must really get off on that stuff. Marines...they were all crazy. She drifted in and out of sleep until the shuttle's engines kicked back on, lurching the shuttle's deck beneath them, bleeding off their descent speed and bringing them into another soft landing.

---

Where the crater at Alpha was bright and filled with light, the dark was deep and somber as jagged peaks surrounded them when Bravo set down on slope with a fairly steep, 30-degree incline. There were large jagged rocks that jutted knife like out of the crust. These had never seen the touch of wind or water erosion on this alien landscape. Landing lights lit up the area. The sun never reached here. This time it was a little easier to get the helmet back on. Ardelle still hated it. She pressed a button and an external light from the head plate clicked on, illuminating the barren terrain.

The marines exited first again, soon after the ramp came down. Again, their pulse rifles were ready and their postures were alert for any sign of danger. They didn't have external lights. Instead their illumination was provided by night vision and infra-red optics built into their face plates and rifle scopes.

Ardelle stepped off the ramp onto hard rock her breathing coming fast and shallow again until she mentally closed her eyes and did a few deep breathing exercises. She looked around, and while there wasn't any sun or moon lighting up the night sky, there was no atmosphere blocking the magnificent array of stars the bedecked the velvet sky overhead. The universe, she decided again, was a very very large place. The billions of stars overhead offered a pale light to the jagged terrain around them. Massive peaks stretched high overhead, and in their shadow was inky black darkness. Shortly down the incline there appeared to be a drop-off that led to a valley below. How far down it was she wasn't sure.

"Let's get it setup." Ardelle said.

They repeated the equipment setup again, and again ran more scans with the gravitron sensor spikes in the soil. Ardelle and Elliot, after setting up the equipment, sat down on some crates next to the computers that chewed on the data and watched the numbers, data, charts, and graphs come into existence on the monitor they had setup. After a solid hour the results were in. 

"Nothing," she moaned. Nothing about the anomaly anyway. Nothing at all. "Everything is behaving normally, like every good little planet should." 

Up the incline from her, the Marines were sitting on some other crates of gear near a gravitron sensor spike that Ens. Jackston Ross was driving into the ground. One of the marines dropped some dice from his hand onto the crate and they bounced for a while before settling in, revealing their results. One of them, Winters she though, slapped Dummond on the shoulder and received a rude gesture in return.

"Should we run diagnostics?" Elliot asked her. 

She shook her head, "I'm sure it's fine. I've stared at enough diagnostics to last me a month."

He nodded in silent agreement. Indeed, nothing had changed. No drops, no damage to the hardware. The equipment should be fine. She ground her teeth and moved her finger over the command that said "Execute Diagnostics". Maybe they should. There was only one more likely spot to try. What would happen if they didn't find anything? What would Lt. Morgan say?

"What was that?" She paused just before tapping the command. She paused the incoming stream of data and scrolled back up on the monitor.

"Huh?" Elliot said looking at the numbers and data.

"There... " she pointed to a line where the data just did not make sense. "Something was happening. She quickly tapped in some equations on her handheld and then compared it with the data coming in on the monitor from the gravitron sensors.

Excitement flared within her! She stood up suddenly, knocking over the crate behind her and jostling the monitor. She managed to catch it before it free wheeled off the stand. 

She stared again at the data just to be sure. The trail of data didn't originate from Bravo. All signs indicated it came from Charlie.

"That's it!" she breathed to herself in satisfaction, and then she called over the comms circuit to everyone. "I found it! I foun--"

Suddenly, the ground shook violently, and a large jagged crack split the ground beneath her feet. She stepped back as it slowly began to widen to one inch and then three. She looked into Elliot's face plate and his mouth and eyes were opened wide.

"What the--?" Pvt Dummon called out over the eerie silent quaking beneath them as the crate and its dice jolted away from them.

"It's a quake!" Aredelle cried out. She could feel the vibrations coming up from the ground through her feet. The crack opened wider, perhaps six inches now between her and the ship.

"We gotta get out of here," Elliot shouted looking at the crack in consternation.

"The equipment!" she shouted and both she and Elliot started to pack up the equipment, quickly closing monitors, yanking cables out of battery packs, but it wasn't easy with everything sliding and jolting around and they didn't have time to position everything into the formed foam packaging.

"Ardelle!" Jackston called to here. "Come on!"

"The equipment!" she shouted back. 

"There's no time!" Jackston said. Then he was running toward her in an awkward half-running, half-bounding gait. The relatively light gravity meant his jumps were twice as far as anything he could have done on earth and he was twice as unused to it. He slipped, coming off a low jump, and was suddenly spinning across the ground down the incline towards her and her equipment, the light from his face plate as he spun and careened caused weird shadows to leap about them.

Elliot stepped out of the way, not exactly in Jackston's line of approach. Ardelle, however, had to leap up and over Jackston to prevent him from bowling into her. She managed the feat, but he kept on sliding beneath her missing the equipment and continuing on toward the drop off. She landed and took a bound after him.

"Jackston!" she called as he slid, spun, and jounced off sharp jagged rocks. He screamed, and his hands scrabbled at the surface around him, seeking purchase, gloved fingers slapping the ground, finding nothing to slow his slide.

She dove for him, skidding on her armored knees and reaching out her hand. She grabbed his arm and they both twisted and slid, and then he was going over the edge and... and she couldn't hold him!

His gloved hand began to slip through her grip, and the light from her helmet illuminated his face, pale with fear. Not only that, he was pulling her closer toward the edge herself.

Then Elliot was there, sliding down next to her. "Give me your other arm!" he shouted. Jackston did so, and soon they had arrested his fall. The trembling continued all around them. A jagged piece of rock split the surface nearby, erupting from the ground like the foremast spike of an old navy ship ramming its prey. Together they pulled Jackston up to safety and all three of them lay panting as rocks started to smash and break, as the ground continued shudder and tear.

Above her, up the incline, Ardelle saw the marines racing upwards toward the shuttle in practiced low-bounding leaps and half trots, encouraging the others to quickly follow. 

"We have to get out of here!" Karissa shouted. The crack opened wider, perhaps to a three feet now.

"Come on," Ardelle said. "To the shuttle! But carefully... and with as much speed as you can!" It was easier said than done. In fact, they could do little more than make halting steps with all the bouncing and quaking going on before they fell to the ground and spread-eagled to not slide.

Suddenly Jackston swore. "I have a tear!" 

Ardelle looked down at him, and she saw atmosphere and red blood venting from the gash in his thigh where an armored plate didn't quite reach. The blood came out in drops that dripped slowly to the ground. 

Ardelle cast about for some way to fix it and her eyes sought Elliot's. He was an engineer. Engineers loved fixing things. They could fix anything.

"Duct tape!" he nods. "Back at the cases! Come on!"

But the ground leaped up from under them. It was as if the planet wanted them to remain prostrate, like some vengeful god who demanded obeisance. They proceeded at a crawl on hands and feet, but even that was proving difficult. 

"How are are we getting closer to the shuttle?" Elliot asked his voice rising in pitch.

Ardelle looked up and saw the massive metal bird was scraping towards them, sliding a few feet then stopping then sliding some more. Sparks flared to life from the landing legs. The marines are all aboard now, but Ardelle couldn't see their faces, but from their posture they were motioning the pilot to go. The engines suddenly flared to life spraying smaller rocks and dust down the incline, and then the shuttle lifted off and tore away into the night sky, riding on pillars of blue flame.

"They're gonna come back, right?" Elliot shouted as small jagged rocks bounded down the slope towards him.

"They'll be back," Ardelle said. "They're marines and pilot jocks. They love this kind of stuff."

Sure enough, the shuttle wheeled around a peak and came back twisting in the night sky, presenting its back to the cliff face, the blue thrusters casting lurid glows against the jarring landscape as it neared the cliff edge. The back of the shuttle was opened and Ardelle made out the three marines there, clipped in to cables that attached to their armor. The shuttle raised up ever so carefully moving in reverse. The whole thing reminded Ardelle of trying to parallel park for the first time, and she was reminded how that ended in vague similarity to this. She cringed as one of the armored sides scraped the nearby rocks that jutted up around the cliff, sending a shower of scraped rocks and sand atop them. 

The shuttle veered off, barely missed another rocky mass, and after fifteen more heart-beats of anxious waiting, it came back around for a second attempt. 

"Closer!" Krissa shout blared over the comms. 

"Cool your jets. I'm gettin' as close as I  can," the pilot drawled. "We'll get 'em." The shuttle loomed in the darkness, a gigantic bird of prey with a sleek body, curved lines. The lights from their helmet pieces played across its metallic curvature revealing the name: "The Egg Crate".

Ardelle smiled broadly at the name, grateful the shuttle was sturdier than its name implied. Strong marine arms pulled them inside to safety. She and the other two men with her collapsed onto the floor of the shuttle as it tore away from the destructive forces of physics below them. They heaved themselves into their seats as the shuttle doors closed and atmosphere filled the chamber again. 

Elliot helped Jackston patch his suit with an on-board emergency kit.

"Thanks..." Jackston breathed out in a long exhale shaking his head. He looked sheepishly but with sincerity into her face and the into Elliot's.

"I'm glad you're okay," Ardelle said.

"Really?"

"Yeah, but don't read too much into that," she said with a smile.

Elliot smiled at that and finished his patch job, "That should hold."

The screens inside the belly of the shuttle lit up to display a night-vision optical display of the landscape. The scene below was illuminated with contrasting blacks and whites as the optics beneath the shuttle pierced the darkness to illuminate their erstwhile landing site. The resolution was surprisingly good, and Ardelle made out details of where the crates had been. Had been. From the devastation of the quake, nothing remained. Rubble was everywhere, all her equipment was  nowhere to be seen. 

And that meant her data results were lost and some vital equipment. She shook her head. At least there was some gear still aboard the shuttle, and what was more important, she knew which site held the answers to secrets.

Charlie site.

"That was a helluva ride," Karissa said settling down next to her with a grin. "Kind of fun though huh?"

"Not so much that I'd like to do it again," Ardelle answered. 

"Yeah, it's more fun when you get to shoot at stuff," Krissa nodded.

"Thanks for not leaving us," Ardelle said.

Krissa gave her a sidelong look. "You know, for an egg-head brainiac you ain't too smart," Krissa said, fixing her with serious green eyes. "Don't you know that you are our mission? You'll never voluntarily get left behind."

Ardelle nodded slowly. Her respect for the marines just climbed up a notch. "Thank you."





Queries to the virtual GM this episode (tell me if you like them inline with the story text):

Can the space suits power source last longer than 12 hours?

(Likely | 3[d10]) No

Oh... well. I'll say 12 hours then.

What about armored space suits? Less than that?

(Likely | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

Does anyone slip or fall or something on the darkside with visibility conditions?

(Somewhat Likely | 1[d10]) No, and...

Is there anything at all at site Bravo?

(50/50 | 9[d10]) Yes

I mean gravitron readings?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

But seismic activity occurs?

(50/50 | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

Ooo exciting and what?

Open / Inside

Ah, the ground splits open. Right on! Sounds exciting.

Can she tell from the data where the origination is coming from?

Science 1 + 2 Clever to beat TN of 6 

6 = 3[d6]+3

Go it! You go, science babe!

Any magma in them thar hills?

(50/50 | 4[d10]) No

Are there any dangerous seams that open up where the team is?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

... but they have a chance to get to the shuttle.

Does she have time to get all the equipment on board and packed up?

(Very Unlikely | 2[d10]) No

What is Ross's quickness: (1d2)

1 = 1[d3]

Let's see if he lands gracefully. TN 6.

Is Ross skilled in low or zero-g?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

But not a lot. Probably a skill of 1.

-2 to physical skills in low grav.

3 = 3[d6]

He fails on a landing and skids across the surface careening towards her and he takes 1d6/2 damage.

2 = 2[d6]

She leaps over him. TN 3

(+2 quick, -2 low grav)

3 = 3[d6]

He skids beneath her, as if in slow motion, his hands scrabbling at the ground.

This is pretty rough terrain. Is there a cliff that he might slide to nearby?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

It is nearby but...

He tries to stop himself. Can he?

What is is strength. 1d3

1 = 1[d3]

I guess he is an egg head... Smile

Srength 1 (-2 low grav) = -1 TN is 4.

4 = 4[d6]

He slides to the edge of a cliff, screaming. Ardelle leaps for him. She'll try to grab his hand. Can she?
TN 4
1d6 +2 str, -2 low grav

2 = 2[d6]

Nope. She dives for him, grabs his hand, but he slips from her reach.

Was there any one else nearby who could have helped him? Elliot was probably (likely) helping setup equipment etc.

(Likely | 8[d10]) Yes

Elliot also reaches for him. What's Elliot's Str. 1d2.

2 = 2[d2]

Is he skilled in low grav?

(50/50 | 3[d10]) No

A straight 1d6 for him as well then.

TN 4

5 = 5[d6]

Then Elliot is there, holding onto Jackston, arresting his fall, and pulling him back up.

Have any suits suffered damage. I'll say Unlikely from the armored plates etc. But it is jagged terrain...

(Unlikely | 9[d10]) Yes

I'm going to say it's Jackston since he was spinning across the terrain the most.

Does either she or Elliot of duct tape?

(Somewhat Likely | 2[d10]) No

Are the suits self sealing?

(50/50 | 5[d10]) No, but...

No but they do give an annoying and constant reminder that you're going to die if you don't do something fast...

On a scale of 1 to 10 how bad is the gash in the suit?

2 = 2[d10]

How hard is it to jog up a bouncing 30 degree slope in a quake? 

Harder than a 6?

(50/50 | 8[d10]) Yes

TN 7 then.

Unfortunately that's too high.

Do any bouncing rocks come at them down the slope?

(Likely | 5[d10]) No, but...

No... it's not exactly a rock. It's called a shuttle... Smile

The shuttle is sliding and griding slowly down the slope. The pilots will do the startup sequence el rapido to try and get the engines going so they can hover at least. Pilot roll DC 6. 


How clever is our pilot? 1d3.

2 = 2[d3]

3 = 2[d2]+1

Clever of 2. And pilot skill of 

Easy... he quickly starts the Engines and before the shuttle careens into them the pilots lift off the ground.

Then he lifts off. Dismay... He'll try to actually but the rear of the shuttle where the doors open at the bottom of the cliff and line it up so they can just step off the cliff onto the shuttle and bingo they're good.

I'll say DC 8 -- this is hard.

What's the pilot's quick?

2 = 2[d3]

Here's his roll.

Failure means a large rock or something slams into the shuttle veering it off course and possibly causing damage.

7 = 2[d6]+5

1d6 = 5+ a very large rock breaks off and damages the shuttle in some way.
1-4 the shuttle scrapes a rocky knife like thing and takes lesser damage.

1 = 1[d6]

Scraping a rock isn't going to do much. 

(2 = 12[d20]+-10) Negligible: Nick/Scratch/Dent.

Tries again.

8 = 3[d6]+5

Yes!


They leap aboard to safety.

Does the quake end anytime soon?

(50/50 | 4[d10]) No

More than an hour?

(50/50 | 7[d10]) Yes

Wow... pretty volatile planet.

Do they have any spare science equipment aboard the shuttle?

(Somewhat Likely | 6[d10]) Yes

They have some but it might not be what they need.
Reply
#6
Still loving this story! It's turning out really interesting and for an answer to your question, personally I find having it inline with the text easier to read but it is your story so it's really up to you
Reply
#7
Great story! I have no preference on where the GM responses are given.
Reply
#8
Episode 5: Charlie (Notes)

Is the anomaly on a plain?

(50/50 | 3[d10]) No

Inside a crater?

(50/50 | 5[d10]) No, but...

It's not in a crater, but it could be under a crater.


Is the crater huge?
(50/50 | 7[d10]) Yes

Charlie site was located on the eastern side of the Spenalk 2 where the sun baked one half of a dark cater in brilliance and the cold night of space chilled the other half, and in the middle there was a half light of a perpetual dawn-like penumbra. In that penumbral region, a ragged gash split the gigantic crater. When Ardelle saw the crater and its geological wound, she was reminded of the red-rock canyon on the dividing line between Utah and Arizona, the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon looked like a grand baby in diapers compared to what she saw below.

En route to Charlie they had slept a couple of hours and eaten some stale MREs. Ardelle tried not to think about what she was eating. It was half cold and all the wrong consistency as she sucked the rest of the packet dry and tossed the wrapper into the shuttles incendiary bin. In a flash of light and heat the wrapper was gone. She wished the aftertaste would also vanish as quickly.  

They descended and the canyon grew larger and wider.

"It's huge... as big as...," Winters voice trailed off not able to come up with a comparison. They stared at the canyon through the shuttle bay vid screen as the high-tech camera tried to probe its depths once they commenced their descent into the crater.

"...as big as my muscles," Dummond said with a studied flex. But no one was looking.

"Nah... just as big as your ego," Winters grunted back.

As they followed the faint sensor and data trail, the chasm dove down miles into the dark and the shuttle descended into it, continuing past the floor of the crater and into the dark canyon. Strong flood lights located on the belly and sides of the shuttle splashed light off the walls.

What does the terrain remind Ardelle of?

Adversity / Investment

Ardelle's mouth went dry as she thought of how far down this was. It seemed to go on and on. How many days or weeks would it take to climb out of the dark abyss. Luckily, they had a shuttle that plumbed the depths with ease as the ways began to close in. She was reminded of a documentary she had once watched as a little girl about deep sea submarines and how many of them had perished in the harsh environment before the deepest under-sea trenches were explored. She also began to feel that familiar trapped feeling she always felt when her options and physical world closed in on her. Her heart rate started to climb and her hands to tremble. She clenched her fists together, closed her eyes, and breathed in one, two three four and out, one two three four. Again one two three four and out one two three four.  Instead of watching the display, she instead watched the mobile in her hand that was tied to a gravitron scanner. The numbers and data, now that she knew what to look for, fluctuated now and then, and they would adjust their course accordingly.

They went deeper where a side crevice opened up, like a gaping mouth, rocks shear and jagged, like ruined teeth. Heedless they plunged forward into it. Immediately before they did so, a camera pointing up caught the barest glimmer of light from the sunlight on the crater floor now far up ahead which then disappeared completely as the rock ceiling suddenly appeared. They proceeded slowly, careful to mind their surroundings.

The numbers faltered and the trail disappeared and their passageway forward became blocked by a solid rock wall.

"Set her down here," Ardelle said with a frown. "End of the road."

The pilot fired the forward thrusters while the swivel thrusters swept down and plumes of blue fire slowed their vertical velocity. "You saw that latest data blip right?" She turned to Jackston tapping her device.

"Yeah," Ens. Ross said leaning over her shoulder. He tapped a few buttons on his own device to mirrored hers. "The diagnostics show the device is still working." 

They had earlier scrounged up a spare sensor pack and attached a mobile display to it. It feed gravitron data from the anomaly into the sensor and from that into the mobile, giving them a faint trail of numbers and data that effectively charted a course for them once they knew what to look for. It wasn't as sensitive nor as effective as the higher quality equipment that was lost in the quake, but it essentially did the same thing.

"What is it?" Elliot asked as the shuttle set down with a gentle rocking motion. They all floated in their seats and then gently swayed in tandem. A few thrusts from the reaction control thrusters settled the motion. They all unbuckled and began suiting up again, their suits power packs again at a full charge.

"The data. The numbers. They're messed up."

"I thought that's what an anomaly was," Krissa said. "You know, somethin' screwed up."

"It is, but seeing it and following it for us became our new normal," Ensign Ross explained. "Now that we can't find it, it means things are back to old normal, and that means things are messed up again."

"I see. So normal means screwed up for now?" Krissa asked a blank look on her face.

"Something like that. But anyway, yeah. Don't worry about it."

"Wasn't planning on it," she said checking the ammo level on her weapon.

They filed out as before and stared around them. The cavernous area was shut in on this side, their way blocked. The rock ceiling high overhead gradually lowered and curved to join the wall.

There's was nothing there.

Heads craned all around them, following the impassive walls and immense rock ceiling.

"That's it then?" Winters asked pointing at the rock face his face hidden behind the high tech combat helmet encasing his head. "End of the road?"

"Looks like it," Dummond added with a nod, his matching helmet bobbed slightly.

"It can't be," Ensign Ross called over the comms. He pointed to Ardelle. "She followed the trail. It led here. There has to be something."

"Sir, there ain't nothin' here but solid rock and lots of it," Dummond shook his head. 

Ardelle tilted hear head following the hand thrust of the marine and her mind suddenly reeled. The ceiling and the weight of all that rock above her seemed to be closing in, like a mouth shutting. She could feel it pressing down on her, crushing her, pressing out her oxygen with it's oppressive weight. She couldn't breath. She had to get her helmet off. She had to breathe had to--

"Ma'am?" It was Elliot he had gripper her arm.

She was only barely aware of the arguing going on with the others. 

Her own breathing had grown rapid, too rapid, she could feel it but at another level she was scarcely aware. All she could feel was a nameless fear. She had to get out of the suit. Had to get the helmet off. Had to run out of the cave. Had to get to where the trees were. The green trees and the blue sky. Had to go where the sky wasn't black as night and the air wasn't stale and cold as night. She tried to go. Tried to take action, but something was holding her, holding her hands. She resisted.

"Ma'am," someone was looking at her. It was Elliot. He held helmet shaking it sightly and he pulled her face towards his and their face plates tapped lightly. The light from his helmet flashed in her eyes and she winced trying to ward off the light. She started blinking suddenly and her breathing while still rapid began to slow. She trembled and her knees faltered. 

"It's okay, Ma'am. Just take deep breaths. Here. Just sit for a bit. Sit here."

Do any of them randomly happen upon the anomaly?

(50/50 | 8[d10]) Yes

Ardelle?
(50/50 | 3[d10]) No

Elliot?

(50/50 | 9[d10]) Yes

She nodded and swallowed and breathed deeply. Swallowed the fear and breathed in the light. She let him take her hand. Then she sat down on the ground and leaned back... and sank through the wall. That was decidedly odd. She decided it must have been her imagination but when Elliot shouted, she sat back up, puzzled. 

Elliot shouted, and her heart jolted alive again.

"What was it?" she asked.

"You... disappeared! You..." he looked beyond her and then down at her.

"What are you talking about?"

He swallowed and he looked back at the wall where the shuttles flood lights were illuminating then he walked passed her and...into the wall.

One of the marines swore and all three of the armored figures raised guns and Ardelle stood up in alarm and studied the spot where he had disappeared.

Elliot's head poked back through the wall, looking for all the world like a disembodied head. Ardelle stepped back alarmed and narrowed her eyes. 

"It's some kind of stealth tech." Elliot said.

"Not like we've got," Krissa said her tone suddenly more alert. 

"You...might want to come look at this," Elliot nodded and then beckoned them to follow. Then he again disappeared. 

Ardelle exhaled deeply as she walked up to the wall. It looked indistinguishable from the other rocky surfaces. She closed her eyes, and step forward and Krissa's phrase echoed in her mind. "Not like we've got."

She stepped through into an enormous cavern. 

Is there any light in the cavernous room?


(50/50 | 7[d10]) Yes

After passing through, they walked out onto a ledge high above a shallow-looking bowl-like pit in the ground. An ambient blue light emitted from the very air all about them. Was its source from what was in the center of the cavern some distance away, Ardelle wondered? Below them far in the distance, a huge metallic circular platform sat atop a series of metal pillars all of which lay embedded into the stone floor. A metal ramp let from the floor up to the platform. Around the platform and on the ground appeared to be a jumble of machinery and devices. The platform looked large enough to put three or four of their shuttles end to end both directions. Symbols glowing blue were etched into the pillars and on the face of the the stone ramp, far far up above the the platform, they could make out what looked like the roof of the cavern.

The others filed in behind her behind her and Jackston formed up beside her and Elliot. The marines came through already on high alert, their guns up to their faces as they phased through the rocky stealth camouflage which looked like an semi-transparent off-white wall of energy from this side. The marines moved in a slow graceful crouch-like walks. At a signal from Krissa they all paused and took a knee, still scanning the area through the scopes of their weapons.

On the platform itself, sat a huge but graceful-looking metallic apparatus. Four large arcs, like the half-side of an oblong oval jutted up into the air, forming a perfect bowl-like shape, the tall metallic ends points faced inward towards each other. More symbols appeared along each metal band each of which glowed with some sort of energy.

"That's...one heck of a thing..." One of the marines said.

"Amen..." another put it more succinctly and even somewhat reverently.

Jackston's mouth gaped open at the sight. Ardelle eventually willed her own mouth closed and swallowed a throat suddenly gone dry. 

"Who...wha--Did humans build this?" Jackston eventually managed not looking at her.

"No telling," Ardelle said and her voice came out in a croak. She took a sip from her suit's internal water supply. She even forgot her fear of enclosed spaces at seeing such a fantastic find. Of course it helped that she couldn't see the far side of the cavernous room.

"Everyone, get down," Krissa whispered through the comms and motioned the team to take cover. 

"Winters, cover us. Dummond, on me."

Pvt Winters grunted as Krissa and Pvt Dummond headed out moving cautiously in that dangerous crouch-like stance, their guns jammed into their armored shoulders. Everyone else dropped to their bellies as best they could in their bulky engineering suits. Ardelle crawled behind a medium-sized boulder on the ledge and watched the two marines descend a rough stair case cut into the pit. Once at the bottom, they approached the platform cautiously in the distance.

About a hundred feet from the platform they stumbled back a few steps back and there was a crackle of energy and a blue shimmer that hung in the air in a half sphere around the platform and then slowly disappeared.

"There's some kind of energy shield." Krissa's voice crackled in Ardelle's ear.

Is it shielded?

(50/50 | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

"I think we've found your anomaly." Elliot whispered as the strange blue symbols reflected off his face plate.

Ardelle slowly nodded. But what would be the consequences of such a find?
Reply
#9
Episode 6: Activation (Notes)

Is it shielded?

(50/50 | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

... and it has automated defenses ...

Who constructed it? Aliens?
(Likely | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

And, it's still active. 

There was no whirring sound to give warning in the still vaccuum of space. No faint whisper of ball bearings bespoke death as the long, smooth, deadly-looking device pivoted smoothly out of the closest pillar and pointed at them. Behind the energy dome, there was only a quick flicking motion and then the silvery tube or barrel was staring at them blue light glinting off its surface. 

"Get down!" Karissa shouted and slammed into Pvt Dummond, throwing him to the ground as... as... 

She looked up when nothing happened. She rolled off of Dummond and rolled over on her stomach remaining prone. 

"What was that?" he asked.

"Gun," she frowned. "Alien gun. Anti personnel."

When the humans arrive do the automated defenses go off?

(Likely | 4[d10]) No

Interesting... 

It had to be anti personnel turret Krissa rationalized. It was certainly too small to do anything to vehicles or ships if it contained anything comparable to the power level a human gun of the same size could. But who knew what power level it used? She realized she didn't know crap and that it could shoot holes through planets for all she knew.

"Why ain't it shootin'?" Pvt Dummond asked.

"Dunno, but I ain't stickin' my head up," Krissa replied. "You're ugly enough that a hole in your face wouldn't make any difference, so why don't you look," Krissa said.

"Sure boss," he said with a stupid grin that had been on his face for the last minute.

"Why you grinning like an idiot?"

"I was just thinking that you can knock me down anytime you want."

"In your dreams," she said.

"About those, you'd be surprised at what's in those."

"I doubt it, knowing you. But trust me, I don't want to know," she rapped his helmet, disappointed that sound didn't carry in a vacuum, but she knew that he'd at least hear the vibration through the air in his helmet. The idiot was a walking hormone. "Now check it out."

"Right," he nodded and cautiously raised his head and then went into a crouch. The thing tracked him, pinpointing on his center mass with deadly accuracy but...no green balls of energy, or whatever they should have been, came at him. Krissa was mildly disappointed.

"What's wrong with it?" Dummond asked waving one hand at the automated turret. "It ain't no fun."

"You got stupid for brains," she grimaced. "I think it's broke."

Her comms crackled. "What's you're status?" Ensign Ardelle Leath asked.

"There's still the energy barrier ma'am. And there's an anti-personnel weapon. Might be more."

"Weapon?"

"It looks broke ma'am."

"I'm coming down."

"Weapons. There might be more of them," Krissa repeated.

"I'm coming down." Ensign Leath said flatly.

"Yes ma'am."

---

 Five minutes later Ardelle, Jackston, and Elliot had gathered around the marines on the floor of the cavern by the invisible energy shield. The pilots were still with the shuttle. Ardelle had told them to keep the shuttle on standby power in case a quick lift-off were needed. 

But are Aliens there?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

But?

Ruin / Investment

I see. They're not there in any biological form. Just ai defences and decaying automated robotics. It's in a state of decay and dis-use.

Given that the facility is failing, explains the erratic gravitational readings. The gate flickers off and on, powered by what?

What is it powered by? It must be gravity. Right?

(Likely | 9[d10]) Yes

Kinetic (gravitational) energy... drawn from Spenalk 3.

When the humans arrive do the automated defenses go off?

(Likely | 4[d10]) No

Interesting... Probably because things dilapidated and fell apart over the centuries.

"What's powering that shield?" Elliot asked.

"We think it's gravity," Jackston said. "Probably gravity from its nearest neighbor, Spenalk 3."

"That's some pretty nice tech," Winter nodded.

Ardelle traced her finger on the shield and watched the blue energy coalesce around her finger. The shield vibrated slightly under her finger. She pressed her palm against it, and saw the same blue energy and felt the same vibration. She rapped her knuckles against it softly. The shield flickered under the soft blow, but it felt as firm as the hard stone beneath her. Ardelle raised her hand, and the blue energy slowly disappeared. She rapped the shield again and the blue energy again reappeared only to dissipate after a few seconds. All the time the gun-like device tracked her.

"Dummond's head is pretty hard," Krissa commented. "If it couldn't break through it, I doubt your gloved love tap will do much." Winters sniggered and elbowed Dummond who seemed to take her joking as a compliment.

Ardelle ignored then and swung the bottom of her fist down on the shields in a wide powerful overhead swing. Her hand did not contact with the shield. It passed through the shield, and a surprised Ardelle stumbled a few steps forward beyond the shields' boundaries, carried forward by her follow through. She turned around and faced the others. They all looked at each other and then back at her, eyes wide.

Do the shields flicker and go down momentarily?

(50/50 | 8[d10]) Yes

"I guess my head ain't so hard after all," Dummond whispered.

"Umm... is it off?" Jackston asked.

"Hurry! Come on!" Ardelle commanded and the others quickly step forward and grouped around her. No one wanted to be where the shield was if it came back on. Ardelle then took a few steps to where it should be and reached her hand out to touch it. Her hand passed through. She turned around and looked at the column with the gun-like protrusion. It didn't track her at all now. "The shield is either uni-directional, currently off, or both. But I think it's losing power at the moment."

Slowly, they turned and stared up at the massive platform with it's gleaming metal. Ardelle approached, followed closely behind by the others. She climbed the platform, and the metal gleamed in the blue light. Blue symbols shone out of the material. 

Slowly the symbols began to dim and after a few moments, they were left in complete blackness, aside for the light from their helmets or the built-in night-vision scopes the marines battle armor used but their helmets also had external lights. They slowly walked up the ramp the lights casting shadows about them. Around the base of the platform and even atop the platform, lay scattered hardware and strange devices, some appeared to be in a disassembled state. Power indicators, if any were visible, were either dormant or dead.

"Don't touch anything," Ardelle said when Elliot became a little too engrossed in a ring like device that lay atop the platform.  

"It looks... old," Elliot said, standing up and looking around the huge platform.

"How can you tell?" Ardelle asked. 

"The dust," He replied and pointed to the ground.

"Dust?" She said, looking at him askance. 

"Space isn't as pristine as you think. Meteors, comets, geological activity. The moon has plenty of dust on it." 

"I know that, but how would that dirt get down here as dust, under all that?" she waved a hand at the ceiling and the mountain of rock above her. "There's probably been very little wear and tear down here from the ravages of space: radiation, particles, space debris would all be on the surface..." she paused and stooped and swiped a gloved finger across the platform floor and her face mask revealed small sharp dust particles. "It'd take a long time for dust to down here, through all this rock...probably hundreds of thousands of years...." her voice trailed off.

"Or millions," Elliot agreed with a whisper.

She knelt and swiped her finger across the floor and lifted it to her face plate. The light reflected off of the little dome of super-fine dust on her finger. She knew the dust would be jagged, sharper than dust on earth. She brushed it off and it slowly drifted to the ground. She examined the dust on the platform.

Are there any foot prints in the dust?


(50/50 | 4[d10]) No

Does the shield come back up?

(50/50 | 4[d10]) No

She felt relieved that there weren't any footprints in the dust. Whomever had built this facility was long gone.

"Ma'am, over here," Dummond called, and Ardelle moved over to the marine who was stopped over a hatch with a ladder that extended downwards into the darkness. "It goes under ground," he said. Ardelle could swear there was excitement on his face. Marines were all crazy.

The shaft led down into yet more confined spaces. More tons of unyielding rock above and about her.

How's she feeling about going underground again? Is she gung ho enough?

(Unlikely | 2[d10]) No

It was too much. Ardelle stepped back from the shaft and nearly stumbled in her haste to back away.

"Ma'am?" The marine looked up.

"Sorry... Krissa," she called. "Go... you and your team go ahead and check it out," she managed to croak out. "I'm going to give a report to Captain Alestranda."

"Yes ma'am," Krissa responded and she and the other two marines descended into the shaft.

Ardelle then called over the comms to the pilots. "Give me tight-beam connection toThe Oracle, encryption settings at maximum."

"One moment ma'am..." She heard the tapping of keys through the pressurized cockpit of the shuttle. "Sorry, ma'am, but our signal can't get out so far underground. It's too weak."

Can they get a signal out under all this rock?

(Unlikely | 5[d10]) Nobut...

She frowned. She didn't like not having comms. "Move the shuttle out of the cavern. Hover in the canyon, and try again."

"Yes ma'am. We'll patch you through when we're ready."

Minutes passed with Jackston and Elliot using their suits computers to take pictures of every device. What would be the fallout from all of this? They had discovered remnants of an alien civilization! Humans who had long thought they were sole occupants of the universe were not alone. An alien species. Alien technology... What was she doing in the middle of all this?

Finally, Krissa's voice broke in on her thoughts. "Ma'am, we've mapped all the tunnels and rooms. It extends underground but unfortunately, we couldn't get very far. A lot of rock has collapsed down, collapsing rooms and hallways. There's a lot of smashed and half buried equipment. I think the zit phase this planet is going through has done a real number on the gear. Earthquakes and the like."

Can they get a signal out now, from in the canyon?


(Somewhat Likely | 3[d10]) No

"That...could explain why things are functioning erratically," Ardelle said. She felt suddenly uneasy. The planet was seismically very active. A giant quake in here would surely kill them all and bury them under tons of rock. "Thank you. Get your team topside, we're pulling back to the shuttle soon," Ardelle told her.

Krissa barked an affirmative and disconnected. 

Right after, the pilot's voice crackled in her ear. "Ma'am, we're hovering in the canyon. Still no connection. We need to move out of the canyon. We're still down too low."

"Nevermind. We're done here. Meet us where you landed before. We'll meet you there."

In a rush, the symbols began to illuminate with energy and she felt a vibration in the platform. She stepped back and looked around wildly. The circular device with it's four open arcs that floated above the platform started to shift and unfold pieces of metal swinging into place. With little warning, one of the arcs swung towards her with startling rapidity.

Does the power come back on and does the device do its thing?

(50/50 | 7[d10]) Yes

Are Jackston or Elliot in the way of the the unfolding pieces of metal?


(50/50 | 2[d10]) No

Is Ardelle?

(50/50 | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

... and she has little warning when the device's arcs form and swing into position. One of the beam-like arcs is coming towards her! 

She tried to move out of the way, but a metal arc slammed into her midsection and at the same instant a second one batted into her helmet. She felt a cracking sensation in her ribs and on her helmet. The sudden violence propelled her from the platform. She was still conscious. She saw the floor and the ceiling twisting around her in the now blue light as she was flung from the platform. She twisted in her arc as the ground floated up to her. She managed to hit the rock with her feet and tuck into a semi-somersault then rolling end over end before lying on her face on the ground. She saw rock and fine dust reflected in one of the lights from her suite helmet. The other light wasn't working, sending sparks into vacuum. Sparks? That didn't make sense.

"--lright? Ardelle?" A voice crackled in her ear.

With a groan, she rolled over onto her back. There was a hissing sound, and she saw a large fracture in her face plate. The hissing sound...

TN of 6 to avoid.

3 = 3[d6]+2-2

She gets hit. This is her suit's damage:

(13 = 16[d20]+-3) Moderate Damage: Hampers functionality significantly; will require repair/mechanical attention.

Ardelle takes 1d3 damage.

1 = 1[d3]

"No!" she gasped, seeing the pressure escaping and involuntarily gulped in more air. Now the sparks by her face late made sense. Her suit had been clubbed with sledge hammer force and was showing the signs. Her HUD on the inside of her helmet flickered off and on in lurid red and orange warnings:

WARNING: SUIT BREACH
OXYGEN LEVEL: 10%
POWER LEVEL: 15%

Is she losing oxygen?

(Likely | 9[d10]) Yes

Are her suit levels critical?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

But she still has some time...

Her suit power had been at 70% before this! Her suit power and oxygen levels were dropping rapidly. She looked at her chest and saw that her power pack was damaged pieces on the ground in front of her and wires poked out uselessly. She pushed herself up to her knees and put her glove to her face plate, trying to stem the outgoing flow of oxygen. 

She had to get to the ship! She turned around and felt dizzy as warm sticky blood trickled down into her right eye. She put her hand attempting to touch the wound but felt only the hard case of her helmet. The crack in the face plate already obscured her vision, the blood in her right eye stung and she shut it.

In the distance she made out the far wall where the rough-hewn stairs were that lead up to the ship. She turned and looked back toward the platform and device. The metal arcs had all come together forming a massive oval shape that crackled with a sheet of blue energy. The oval shape was arcing with electricity and nameless blue energy. She stepped back a pace.

OXYGEN LEVEL: 8%
POWER LEVEL: 12%

There was no way she'd have time to make it back to the shuttle! Her heart stampeded inside of her, and she sank down to her knees as another wave of dizziness hits her and she felt the bite of pain in her ribs and the sting of salt in her eyes.
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#10
EPISODE 7: SECRETS (Notes)

She stared at the floating oval flickering with energy... What was it? Was it a weapon? Was it dangerous? Who built it? Where are they now? What secrets would be unlocked from these artifacts? A hundred other questions flitted through her mind. So enthralled was she that she didn't at first recognize the flashing visual alerts in her HUD.

OXYGEN LEVEL: 6%
POWER LEVEL: 10%

POWER LEVEL CRITICAL
OXYGEN LEVEL CRITICAL

Who gets to her first Elliot or Jackston (odd Elliot).
1 = 1[d6]

She also didn't see Elliot until he was standing in front of her, blocking her view to the alien artifact.

Are her comms working? (SU from earlier helmet smack)
(Somewhat Unlikely | 10[d10]) Yes, and...

He shook her the lights from his helmet blinding her. "Ensign Leath? Are you alright?"

She stepped back, crouched, and put both hands to where her ears should have been. It felt like someone was shouting in her ear with klaxon battle-station volume. The decibels bounced inside her skull like a ship on reentry, and she staggered back. "Ow... That was really loud. Listen, my suit it jacked up. Face plate has a leak. Power and O2 levels are critical."

He appeared about to respond, she held up a warding hand. "And, please, speak in a whisper, the audio unit must've taking a hit."

Grimly, his hands went to his belt and he pulled out a gray roll of tape. He tore off a strip and slapped it over her face plate, covering one of the fractures. With a second strip, he covered a branching one. "That'll have to do," he whispered. "What are you stats now?"

She studied the displays on her HUD. "Oxygen looked like it's steady at 4%. Power level at... 8%. Is that... is that duct tape?"

"Duct tape," he nodded with a smile. "There are just some things that stand the test of time."

"I'm strangely glad they still have that after all these years. It must---umm..." she breathed and furrowed her brow. "My Co2 levels are climbing."

"Not surprising. There's not enough power left to scrub it out of my suit."

"Tell me something I don't know," she replied her mouth pressed together in a tight line.

For a moment he just stood there. "I have an idea," he said. "Come on!", and he grabbed her hand and started pulling her in a slow bounding jog towards the platform.

That last phrase was ringing in her ears, and she could barely see anything due to the wide stripes of opaque duct tape that criss-crossed her face plate. But at least she wasn't losing O2. Of course her suit wasn't converting O2 either. The power unit that drew power from the power cell was obviously damaged.

They ran up the ramp and bounded to the top of the platform. There they saw the shimmering oval structure floating in alien majesty above them. The whole was covered in an opaque sheet of blue and white energy. The marines had just come up out of the shaft and were staring at the oval structure that floated in the air in open-mouthed amazement. They were slowly backing away, with guns raised.

POWER LEVEL 6%.

The CO2 meter was climbing into the danger zone and her face started feeling warm. She wanted to sleep. Elliot finally rummaged about in a pouch and pulled out some tools and knelt in front of her. Soon an insulated wire was attached somewhere into the innards of her to the power unit, and he held it up to one of the metalic arches that made up the strange floating oval.

"Look at me," he said and rapped on her helmet.

She blinked her eyes and noticed he was holding the wire. "Are you sure that's safe," she said, guessing what he was going to do.

"Safer than choking on your own Co2," he said and touched the wire to the arch.

Did he succeed in getting power to her suit? TN 6
Clever 2. Repair 2.

7 = 3[d6]+4

Her power bar slammed to the right as the power coursed into her unit. It soon said 100% at full capacity. Soon after, her CO2 and O2 levels slowly began to normalize. It was like being plugged into a shuttle chair. 

For now the immediate danger had passed. She sagged with relief onto a nearby crate.

Elliot pulled out the wire and began repairing her power unit. There was an obvious power leak somewhere.

Does he repair her power leak? TN 6

8 = 4[d6]+4

"There that should hold," he whispered as the unseemly mess of duct-taped wires protruded from her suit. "Well, for the time being anyway. Now let me look at your helmet damage."

Can he repair her amplifier equipment without removing her helmet?

(Unlikely | 2[d10]) No

"Ah, I see, your helmet is fractured. The amplifier unit is damaged on the inside, so I can't fix it from the outside. That one will have to wait. We need to get you back to the ship." The concern was obvious in his voice.

"What is it?" Winters finally asked in reverent awe. 

"And who built it?" Jackston asked in excited tones, the noise of which felt like a base ball to the head.

"How long will it stay...on?" Elliot asked.

Ardelle quickly overrode their comms and explained the situation with her suit's volume modulators. Then she replied in turn. "In response to your questions, we don't know. We'll need to study this longer with specialized equipment. For now, our job is done. Let's get back to the shuttle."

---

She sat in her seat aboard the The Egg Crate and watched the doors shut and the room pressurize. Her suit had held. Even the duct tape had held. Her respect for the invention grew as did her appreciation for the engineers serving aboard The Oracle, most especially for Crewman Walker. All the same, she was glad to get the helmet off and even more glad to see them leave the dark confines of the cavernous chasm and back into the perpetual half light of that side of the planet.

Eliot set to work repairing the audio unit on the helmet. 

Soon they were back in orbit and then waiting for their positions in their respective orbits to more or less coincide. After another request to the pilots they finally got a tight-beam private communication link between the shuttle's view screen and Captain Alestranda in her state room aboard The Oracle.

The captain's quarters were sparse accommodations. As Ardelle commenced her report with details thrown in by the others now and then, Captain Alestranda's eyes widened and she even started to pace. Ardelle tried to give her report as academically as she could, but even she couldn't hide the awe in her voice when she described what they'd discovered at Charlie site. 

There was a long silence when she finished.

The Oracle finally began to fill the view screen in the passenger bay.

"Ensign Leath, you've done well. You all have. See that you copy all historical video feeds since we launched on this mission and all data recordings to a secure data card. Then wipe your systems of any and all data since your mission started."

"Ma'am?" She asked, puzzled.

"Do it." Captain Alestranda replied. "I'll keep the comms channel opn until I see visual confirmation on my screen that my orders have been done." 

Several anxious minutes passed as Ardelle went fore, beyond the pressurized doors that led to the cockpit, and commenced copying the data and video feeds from the memory banks on board the shuttle. Ten minutes later, once Cpt Alestranda had verified her orders had been completed to the letter, she continued. "Pfc Walker, you and your team are to ensure that data card gets to a handler I'll send to the shuttle bay as soon as the shuttle enters the hangar. Do you understand?"

"Yes ma'am." Krissa gave a sharp armored salute.

Cpt. Alestranda continued, "And this is for everyone. As of now, the mission you were on and it's data have been deemed classified. No one is to speak of it, even among yourselves until I give verbal authorization. That means to anyone. Do I make myself clear?"

"Captain, is that necessary?" Ardelle asked. "I'm sure others will need to know. Especially Lt. Morgan. She'll have questions. She always does. In fact, she'll no doubt order me to--"

"Ensign Leath, we just encountered artifacts from an alien species. Can any of you imagine the fallout for this if it gets into the wrong hands? This could change the balance of power and have political and militaristic ramifications beyond what we can consider. Wars have been commenced for less. Much less." That last was with a whisper. "So, my orders countermand in advance any orders anyone else on this ship may give. You will tell them the official story like all the others. That there was an apparent gravitational anomaly on Spenalk 2, but it ended up being a red herring, nothing else. Does everyone understand?"

"Yes ma'am," they chorused, including the pilots. 

"Good," Alestranda said. "The penalty for anyone who breaks confidentiality will be severe. Very severe." She let that hang in the air like a miasma and then continued. "A tech that I know--his name is Alex--will be your handler. He'll  meet you when you arrive. On board ship time when you land will be 2 AM. Alex will commence standard maintenance on the shuttle. At the same time, he'll install fake data onto the shuttle's memory banks for the 'official version'. Pfc Walker, you'll give the data card to him discretely."

"Yes ma'am," Krissa said again. 

"Tomorrow, once you've rested, I'll call an 'official' debrief meeting. Ens. Leath and Pfc. Walker, please see that all records of our communication have been scrubbed from the shuttle. Until then, Alestranda out."

The comms feed cut, and everyone looked at each other and back at the blank screen which was then replaced with a film from a fore camera that showed the blackness of infinite space and its billions of stars. 

Ardelle sighed and she and Krissa made sure the conversation was scrubbed from the memory banks and they returned to their seats. Over the next two hours, The Oracle slowly grew from nothing to a small spec to where it loomed and filled the screen as the approach vector made for Hanger 2.

Secrets. Is this what covert ops were always like? And how long would the Captain be able to keep this secret from writhing free? The tighter you tried to keep secrets in darkness, the more the secrets yearned for freedom and for the light. Much like a moth to the flame. She shook her head. It was basic economics. The sparser the commodity, the more its value increased. The more its value increased, the more powerful and useful it became. Humans had a hard time resisting the lure of telling a good secret. 

The counter burn lurched her from her thoughts. They soon landed on the external rotary bay. Then the two halves of the sphere-like hangar door closed off the darkness of space and the hiss of pressure filled the compartment. 

As the shuttle rotated and the internal bay doors opened, and the shuttle hatch opened with a hiss and the ramp descended, Ardelle wondered, for the umpteenth time, what she'd gotten herself into.
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