Star Bright

What Now?
3rd February 2159

“What about the missiles?” asked Marcus. “What about the recent attack on Pharoah?”

Ingenuity extended a telescopic arm, and at its request Marcus handed it his PDA. It inserted a jack and then handed it back.

A video footage showed three vacc suited figures outside the sinkhole, with a Rover parked nearby. They were examining the sealed bunker that was the Jack in the Box.

Suddenly bunker started to open, and all of a sudden one of the figures flew backwards several feet, as it was hit by numerous bullets from off camera. There was a brief glimpse of the other two figures running for cover before the missiles launched and the footage was wreathed in fumes.

Moments later there was a large flash, a pause and the screen then cleared. The two figures staggered out and examined the fallen figure. Then they went off to the Rover, and left. The Missile bunker now looked as they had seen it: devoid of missiles. The timing coincided with that of the missile attack.

“Well…so did they do this deliberately?” asked Marcus. “This must be Duffey” he added, looking at the others.

""Zzz…. not think zzo.." replied Ingenuity. “Of system i knew, but had no fear of activation. Nor meanzz to communicate its prezzz ence”.

“But what did he want?” asked Marcus.

“He ha acc zess codes” responded Ingenuity. “But not complete sequence. Perhaps this triggered defences. I do not know.” It paused.

“Perhaps they were after boxzzz,” it added.

“The box?” asked Spyder.

“Box left by Dr. Towlan. Of great value I deduce.”

They all looked at one another.

“So, uhhh… this box” said Spyder. “Is there any chance we can have a look at it?”

“Perhappz….we can reach some arrangemntzzz” said Ingenuity. Spyder rubbed his hands.

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Ingenuity
3rd February 2159

The machine in fact was Ingenuity – one of the rovers originally landed on Mars in the early 21st Century – one of a series of advanced Rovers based on the earlier Curiosity design.

It had carried a plethora of sophisticated laboratory equipment as well as two smaller wheeled rovers known as Hawking and Sagan. Fitted with a long endurance radioisotope thermoelectric generator Ingenuity did much to pave the way for the later manned landing on Mars.

While astronauts had paid visits to Ingenuity – mainly to retrieve sample collections and repair its solar collectors, the rover was all but forgotten once terraforming commenced and colonisation started to occur. Even so Ingenuity had continued its mission for a further eighteen years before it lost communication as its systems started to break down.

Ingenuity re-awoke perhaps forty odd years ago, rediscovered by Pirates operating secretly from a smuggling base on the Cydonian plateau. The base which they now occupied.

As something of a hobby, the base techs and scientists rebuilt and rebooted Ingenuity, sometimes using it as a remote unit.

Ingenuity had started to become self aware however, assisted by the improvements made by Dr. Towlan, a scientist working with the Pirates.

When the base was abandoned in the 2030’s the rover was left to its own devices, and had occasional conducted incursions into mining camps and supply dumps for spares. Other communication with the outside world had been limited however, as its satellite links and long range communications systems had long since broken down.

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An Unexpected Outcome
3rd February 2159

A dozen of the smoking handibots littered the corridor, along with the sparking ruins of larger chimeras based on what were possibly once construction or lifting drones.

Spyder had stupidly stood toe to toe with one of these, and was lucky to be alive; the repair function of his suit was possibly no longer functioning, and as he sat down Marcus was tut tutting and applying sticky patches to critical areas.

As they paused in the darkness a strange voice, apparently concocted from old recordings of various sorts, started to transmit over some ancient system.

“Zz…. please dezisssst!” said the voice. “No KIll I. In control am I now of ancient systems and attacks now cease. No harm mean I”.

The group, baffled, looked at one another.

“You’re the expert with robot girlfriends” suggested Jonas. “Maybe you should talk to it Marcus.” Jake snickered.

Following a set of directions they made their way forward into a larger cavern. Emergency lighting flickered on, with some shorting, and they saw several more of the larger droids. From their centre another one rumbled forward, not anthropomorphic in any way, and looking for all the world like…….

“Good Grief!” said Marcus.“Looks like one of the old Mars rovers!”

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Droid Story
3rd February 2159

Spyder was still sulking, and muttering to himself. Paul could hear him as he moved slightly ahead of the others.

It was pitch dark inside the caverns, but the LIDAR map had given them valuable information. The passage which ran off branched into numerous others, and some of these had a very regular appearance.

Heading towards these they saw an open airlock door, and entering through this they found that the floors had been fitted with metal paneling. Evidence of old conduits and other artifacts of occupation started to appear. Back in the sinkhole they had also found old electrical components, and even food packaging. It had the appearance of a dump.

As they advanced more clutter and junk started to appear. What happened next reminded Paul of an old children’s movie he had once seen.

The film featured a couple of Toys, who had somehow ended up in the bedroom of the Bad Kid next door who mistreated his toys. As they quivered in fear his grotesque collection of toys started to creep out of the shadows and surround them: Barbie Dolls with the arms and legs pulled off and replaced with spider legs, a GI Joe with a Bug Head, and other monstrosities concocted by the Bad Kid.

These were not toys though. He saw the glow of two green eyes, and one green eye ahead of him. Shining his torch he saw what were probably once two handibots, although one now had six arms and was crawling forward in the posture of some mechanical bug, and the other was moving forward on what looked like a roller from some piece of construction machinery. Both appeared to be mechanical chimeras constructed of various odd parts, and both were extremely rusty.

“Oh shit!” yelled Paul remembering his recent bad experiences with handibots. “Trouble!”

He dropped a glowball to provide some more illumination, and as the others moved forward another was dropped. More shapes started to lurch out of side passages, with many grunts, clicks and whirrs of antiquated machinery, and in the cavern behind them they could hear the heavy tread of something much larger.

Soon the corridors were filled with the sound of frantic shooting, as the group desperately tied to prevent the grotesque hoard from closing.

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Down Below
3rd February 2159

Once up close to the hole it proved to be a small dark pit barely wide enough to fit a single person in a vacc suit. Katina seemed oblivious and using one of the rovers, pulled well back from the sinkhole, as an anchor point, she started to descend.

She had patched her suit cameras into the HUD’s of the others, and after twenty meters of a dark cramped descent the sinkhole opened up into a wider cavern below. There was a pause while Katrina set up several anchor points, and adjusted the rope rigging. Then she started to descend.

After only fifteen metes she hit bottom. She activated a glow ball and attached it to the rock wall nearby. Shining her flashlight around she saw that she stood in a circular chamber about twelve meters in diameter. She could also see a small passageway leading out of the chamber.

Through the cameras they could see her loading a missile into the Ball Gun. They saw the launch tube pointing ahead of her and then fired it down the corridor. It seemed to hover in the air for a fraction of a second, before it accelerated off. Katrina took out her portacomp and started fiddling with it.

“What the heck does that woman think she’s up to?” said Spyder, exasperated. “Boy! She sure acts dumb for a Doctor. Pfft!”

“She’s a Geologist dumbass” said Jonas. “Didn’t you see the ball she shot hover for a fraction of a second? Must ‘ve been a Mapper Ball: mini aerodyne sensor missile. It’ll map the caverns within 500m using LIDAR, and send the info to her comp. Produces a map in seconds, until the fuel gives out, which is after about 10 seconds. Pretty clever tool. Pretty useful for a geologist.”

“Transmitting map data now” said Katrina. Pings appeared from PDA’s as the data was circulated. Katrina started to set the electric winch she had carried down.
:
“Once you’re safely strapped in, THEN you can go down Spyder” laughed Marcus.

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The Grinch's Caves
3rd February 2159

“Those dykes are nuts” said Spyder, oblivious to Ms. Chin and Mariana sitting in the Rover with them.

“Shut the fuck up Spyder” said Paul bluntly.

“I mean, a creature with a long neck and two glowing eyes that growls and hisses and lives in an underground lair. Pfft. Women”

“I tell you, " said Spyder, “What them women need is a few hours with me and my manly body so that I can…..”

SPYDER!” shouted Paul. “SHUT THE FUCK UP! Or to I have to stop driving and kick your ass around the cabin?” The two women remained silent, but clearly Ms. Chin was on the verge of cutting loose. Clearly to anyone except Spyder that is.

The Rosalindas had explained that there were two ways to get into the Grinch’s lair: the primary entrance via a large cave leading into a complex cave system – and likely guarded, and a narrow sinkhole, which was a few km nearer leading into the same system. They had opted to check the latter first.

Before Spyder could respond Jonas cut in from the other vehicle.

“I see a body!” he yelled. “Hold up!” Both vehicles ground to a halt.

A slight localised dust cloud gave away the sinkhole location, spotted by the expert eye of Doc. Orlov. Not far from this was sprawled a vacc suited body, and two low rectangular structures only a few feet high. Cautiously they dismounted and approached.

The body was a tall woman with blonde hair and mismatched eyes, twisted in the contortions of a painful death. She had been cut apart by twenty or thirty bullets.

“This entire are had Rover tracks across it” said Jonas. “Can’t be older than a day or two either.”

There were also more footprints: at least two other sets. They led up to one of the rectangular structures which was in fact a low bunker: a set of steps and a trench led to an open door below ground level, which led to a couple of small rooms with empty rack.

“Missile racks” said Paul.

“That thing above us is a Jack in the Box” added Jake. “An automated missile defence system.”

There was still intact wiring on the walls, and flipping a switch slowly started up some low level lighting..

A second bunker seemed to have the remains of a machine gun battery, but it had recently been blasted by some sort of explosive weapon.

“Well someone was here” said Marcus. “Maybe they triggered some old defence system?” He turned to Mariana.

“Know anything about this?” She shook her head.

“No registered bases or structures hereabout. And this stuff looks older than Pharoah, which is maybe 25 years old.” she replied.

They determined to enter the sinkhole.

“I’ll do it man” said Spyder.

“No Mr. Webb " said Doc. Orlov, “You will not.”

“Huh….?”

“You are useless and incompetent climber, and last time you do this you waste much of our time and nearly get yourself killed” she said flatly. “I will go.”

“Now wait a ….”

“Shut it Spyder” agreed Marcus, “You’re useless at this. The Doc’s a Field Scientist and has being doing this sort of stuff for years. What more look at her vacc suit – it’s exactly geared up fro climbing and rope work.”

.The others agreed, and Spyder went off and sulked. Katrina went back to the Rovers to collect the necessary equipment.

“No Sasha” she admonished to the little robot, as it tried to climb into her pack. Is not safe – you must stay in Rover."

As she jumped out of the airlock Mariana handed her a Ball Gun, and several light balls and other missiles.

“Pfft” said Spyder. “A soldier as well as a climbing expert now huh Doc?”

“Not at all Mr. Webb” said Katrina. “Is valuable tool. Watch and learn.”

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Mama Rosa
2nd February 2159

Paul didn’t like the noise the Rover was making. Marcus had managed to get the thing going again, but had cautioned that the jury rig would only last a few hours. Long enough to reach the Rosalindas Camp hopefully, which Ms. Chin claimed was nearby.

The two Drones were scrap, but had given a good account of themselves. They appeared to be home built from numerous components: one of them was named “Bob”, painted in garish colours on the hull.

As they came over a small ridge they saw a lsmall crater ahead. At its center, positioned around a small central peak, were nearly a dozen Mars rovers and an equal number of trailers. Most of the rovers looked as used and worn as the hire vehicle Jake was driving.

As soon as they entered the crater Ms. Chin started to make ac all, and they were soon flanked by six track-cycles. Each one held a rider and a passenger, and the passengers all carried Long Rifles slung over their shoulders.

As they dismounted they were greeted politely but a bit coldly. Jake and Paul decided to stay with the vehicles, as the others entered the circle unarmed.

The group was cycled through a portable airlock into a furnished pressure tent which had been erected next to one of the Mars trailers, and linked to it.

The RV sized enclosure could easily seat fifteen people. There were four Rosalindas, and Ms. Chin introduced the eldest as Momma Rosa – a once attractive grey haired woman in her fifties. She clearly knew Chin, who let the group say there piece. Momma Roas listened as Mariana explained their interest.

“And so because we’re Rovers you automatically seek us out because of this missile attack, is that it?” she said.

“Not at all” said Marina, assisted by Jonas. “We simply know that if anything is going on in this area, you are most likely to have got to her about it. We would think this Duffey character came to you to find the same, especially as he was likely an offworlder. Probably the Mystery Woman in Pharoah too.”

Momma Rosa exchanged looks with the other hard faced women in the tent.

“I knew that Man was trouble” spat one of them. Momma Rosa explained.

“Duffey was here about a week ago” she explained. “Had a shotgun injury and was here for a couple of days.”

“Any idea how it happened?” asked Mariana.

“Not my business” said Rosa. He was with a couple of women"

“Pretty things too” said one of the other woman. “Especially the tall one. Striking -blond, mismatched eye colours.”

“Duffey made himself useful” said another woman. " Did repairs for us: a good Tech." A thought occurred to Jonas.

“Did he have Drones with him Ma’am?” he asked politely.

“Why yes , two” said one of the other women. “He called them Bob and Linton”

“Very interested in the Grinch” said another.

“The Grinch?” asked Spyder.

“Local legend” explained Marina. “A sort of Bogeyman that steals stuff and roams the martian wilderness.”

“And what did you tell him?” asked Jonas smiling.

“We told him the entrances to the Grinch’es caves” said Momma Rosa. “It’s his own funeral if he went there.”

“Wait a minute” said Spyder. “Are you telling me that you believe in this Grinch?”

“Oh the Grinch is real all right” said Momma Rosa. The other women nodded their heads.

A sudden thought occurred to Katrina, who was nervously watching one of the other women eyeing her up

“This Duffey?” she said. “Did he ask about another woman – a young woman with pure white hair?”

“Why yes Sweetie” said Momma Rosa. “A woman called Zwei Blau. He seemed to be afraid of her: don’t know anything about her though.”

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Unknown Rendezvous
2nd February 2159

“Well this is nice” thought Paul. He was driving the Ranger Rover containing himself, Marina and the chinese woman, Tessa Chin. Spyder had insisted, with a nudge and a wink, that he should join him: the dumb sap was convinced that Mariana had a thing for him, when it was obvious to Paul that the public cat fight between her and Chin was likely because the two had an ex romantic history.

The others followed in a hired WTV. Chin was apparently something of a computers and electronics whiz, and conducted her business from the bar they had found her in. Essentially she preformed freelance accounting and computing services (“Often creative” explained Mariana) for a number of clients -miners, small companies who operated on the margins, and Rover Groups – including the Rosalindas. The calming intervention of Jonas had separated the ladies and led to a reluctant agreement to help.

They were about thirty kliks out when the first bullets hit.

“What the…..” yelled Paul. Clicking the rear camera revealed two airborne drones trailing the two vehicles, and firing twin guns at each of them.

Paul handed the driving seat over to Marina, and reached for his helmet and rifle. The WTC had a top hatch as well as the side airlock, and they needed to return fire. He cursed at his own clumsiness in a vacc suit.

In the other vehicle they had the same idea, and he could see Jake popping out of the top hatch. With a judder his own WTC started to grind to a slow halt – clearly something critical had been hit.

“This is getting serious” thought Paul.

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Cat Fight
1st February 2159

Jake had managed to briefly regain limited entry to Redhorn on the pretext that he had dropped his phone; as he had pretended to do so he also dropped the datachip where it would be spotted eventually near the body van. he left swiftly.

They were now driving in MarsMokes down the several km tunnel which led to the Great Hall of Goeria – a vast subterranean sunken hall, once part of a huge sinkhole. The cavern had recently been capped with a dome and was now proving a valuable tourist attraction.

As they approached they saw a cast hall nearly 2 km long, supported by numerous natural pillars. At one end, protected by safety barriers, was a deep pit, judged to be over 1 km deep.

The perimeter of the whole was ringed with concession stands and tourists, and it was towards a tent bar that Mariana led the group.

Here she approached an attractive chinese woman and sat down opposite her. She looked up and frowned.

“Marina.”

“Tessa.”

There was a brief silence.

“Uh oh” thought Marcus.

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The Data Chip
1st February 2159

“We need to do this quick” said Mariana. “It may be a couple of hours before they get the bodies back to base and realise the chip is missing. And at that point ETM will cause a world of shit with us in the Frame.”

Doc. Orlov nodded as she sat down at the Ranger main terminal with Mariana and inserted the chip. The others made coffee and sat nearby. Hopefully the advanced base computer software would give them an edge.

Marcus had already slotted the chip and found a copy of the popular children’s book “Super Sam’s Magic Spacesuit”, along with accompanying documents on the author, the book’s history and so on. A cursory dig at this information had revealed some deeper encryption, but on his personal comp. digging deeper was beyond him.

As the other’s waited Doc. Orlov and Mariana sifted through the code, and Katrina’s sharp eyes picked out a number of promising leads that facilitated the intrusion software. Just over an hour later they sat back and reviewed their handiwork.

Hidden within the chip was a diary -and oddly enough not a video diary, but an actual ’written ’ diary.

The Diary seemed to outline the results of a hunt or search, one which had been conduced over the length of the last five years. This hunt had taken place across all of the inner planets, including Earth and Luna.

One of the thins being hunted for was clearly people, and there was a list of approximately forty names: a few of these were mere blanks, with most details unknown and merely a nickname eg “Lefty” or a role, for example ’Maintainance Technician" filled in.

Other entries had a little more detail, including fate, generally either ‘deceased’, ‘incarcerated’ or ‘unknown’. What was interesting was that some of the dates given were quite old -up to thirty years previously.

Some of the more recent entries were intriguing.

The mystery woman had been on Mars for at least three months, and it was clear that she was in competition with another group. Mention was made several times of a person called “Duffey”, and his crew, along with notes that he had been spotted with the Rosalindas.

“Who the hell are they?” asked Marcus.

“Roving Group” said Mariana, “Operate hereabouts in the Highlands.”

The mystery woman appeared certain that “The box was hidden nearby, in the old facility”, and that obtaining it would give her the key she required. If she could get to it before Duffey.

She also seemed slightly dismissive of Duffey and his efforts. She was sure that he would conduct the search ‘the hard way’, whereas she seemed confidant that with her skills and the information she already possessed she might be able to access the local net remotely if she could get close enough. This final entry was dated for only the previous day.

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