Star Bright

The Terrible Old Man (25th December 2158)
25th December 2158

Spyder was half right: the Vladescu Canyon was several hundred feet deep and quite narrow. As the Sun Rose the illumination did filter down, though in a sort of half light or shadow. Not the pitch darkness they had encountered around Presidia of course, but an area in more or less permanent shade. It was around 8 am when they saw the place in front of them.

“Um, its an….ummmm Fortress” said Spyder.

Indeed it was. As they approached the canyon widened out somewhat, even bringing more light down against the southern walls. Along the northern cliffs were a series of terraces, and these were sealed with stone or concrete security walls, towers and solid looking blockhouses. They could see little sign of any actual activity, apart from the odd guard figure.

“Maybe the mine is burrowed in?” said Jake.

“Could be mostly automated” said Katrina. “There little sign of miners barracks and such.”

“Must have a lot of cash then” said Marcus. “Robots, automation, all this.”

“Diamonds man. Diamonds” said Spyder, his eyes glinting.

As they approached the lowest double gate they saw that a guard tower linked to another by a bridge overlooked the dead zone between the two gates. They also noticed the machine gun positions. Security certainly was a priority. The vehicles needed to enter in two groups, but they drove through and were instructed to park up on a middle terrace. The mercenaries jumped out of the Mantis.

“I’ll sign for your delivery now” said their leader, holding out his hand for the delivery datapad. Marcus handed it over and he pressed a code in.

“Your credits have been transferred” he said impassively. “Wait” he said, looking over their shoulders. A covered buggy was approaching from behind. The mercenaries formed either side of the vehicle, forming a flanking guard. Four people stepped out.

Two of these were young men, dressed in the finest mars gear. One of these stood silently by the buggy while the other, seemingly clad somewhat showily in black leather let his face protectors slip, and grinned wolfishly at them beneath his dark goggles. He twirled an expensive looking shotgun and rested it over his shoulder.

“Man, it’s f*****g Jim Morrison” muttered Spyder under his breath.

One of the figures was a girl, and they caught wisps of dark hair from her hood, but she also stood in the background.

It was their leader who drew their attention like a magnet. A huge man, six foot four at least, and wearing an expensive duster trimmed around the shoulders, it seemed, with real fur. Despite the cold (now a mere -20 or so) he let his face mask down, revealing a lined face with long, iron grey hair – man in his early sixties perhaps, but still hale and strong. It was his eyes that fascinated them however, deep and cold, like the martian night, and seeming to stare thought them out of a deep pool, or from very far away. They were eyes that missed nothing, and that had seen much. They were eyes to be afraid of.

“Which of you is Kaminski?” he said in a thick Slavic accent. Everybody pointed at Marcus before he could bring himself to respond. The man stepped forward, and gripped Marcus in a grip of ice and iron.

“Velcome neighbour” said the old man. “And Christmas Greetings on this day. It seems I have you to thank for delivery of our cargo.”

Spyder started to say something but Jake kicked him in the shin. The Lizard King grinned wider.

“We like to keep to ourselves here ….for many reasons” said the old man. A truck had pulled up and the cargo was being unloaded now. A new container was loaded onto one of their Rovers however.

“Uncut Diamonds: a fact which we do not advertise. Operation is very secret, and of course we would like to keep it that way……Neighbour.” said the Old Man.

“Otherwise it cause us….and you as near location…. no end of trouble.” he continued.

“And of course you are small farm in lonely location. And you are often away leaving cousin alone. Very vulnerable. You not want that placed at risk with trouble makers and looters do you Mr. Kaminski?”

“Er…No” gulped Marcus. “I guess not”

“Of course knowing you as a good neighbour my men will try to keep an eye on things from now on, as we may. Neighbours should help one another, do you not agree Mr. Kaminski?”

“Sure thing Mr. Vladescu” stammered Marcus. “I totally agree”

“And understand” cut in Katrina.

“Good” said the Old Man, with a somewhat unnerving smile. “Then I wish you all on your way”

He gestured and a guard brought up a series of sealed toasts. His was slightly different, noticed Katrina. They drank down what appeared to be some extremely fiery liquor.

“I wish you safe journey then” said the Old Man, looking at their vehicles. “I suggest you leave damaged Rover here and make your way quickly home in the other. My men will repair it, and deliver it within a week or so.”

“That seems fine Sir” said Marcus. The return would take them all day trailing the damaged vehicle anyway. This way they might actually be home for Christmas lunch.

Nobody spoke much on the way home, and Katrina simply slept.

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Shades of Grey (25th December 2158)
25th December 2158

The best Jake and Marcus could manage to the damaged Rover was a lash -up job of the cracked axle with wire and a piece of metal. By driving slowly they should make it: fortunately their own Rover remained undamaged.

It was approaching first light when they saw the new Rover appear. it was an unusual bug like design, and Jonas noted that it seemed to have a turret and side missile pods.

“It’s a Mantis I think” he said. “A Security model. No way we can cope with that.”

The Mantis hailed them in a voice disguised or synthesized electronically – this was worrying to Spyder, who was already uneasy. As it approached they noticed an Eagle or Dragon motif on the side in true Gothic Style, and Cyrillic lettering.

“Vladescu Holdings” read Katrina.

“Maybe they got the tight beam message” said Jake.

The vehicle opened and out bundles half a dozen well armed mercenaries in pale grey and blue uniforms. They were armoured and helmeted, and their faces could not be seen. Tense introductions were made.

Oddly, they seemed aware of the cargo and wished to take it back. Spyder was reluctant to hand it over, fearing a loss of payment no doubt. After a brief radio conversation a compromise was reached: Jonas would drive the damaged rover with two mercenaries on board, followed by the Groups own Rover and then the Mantis.

Boarding their vehicles they drove north for a couple of kliks, and then turned north and west into a steep winding canyon.

“I doubt daylight ever sees the bottom of this” muttered Spyder.

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Counting Costs (25th December 2158)
25th December 2158

“Goddamn it they’ve shot our Rover to pieces!” said Marcus miserably.

“It’s worse than that mate” chimed in Jake. “Look how it sits: bit of suspension damage I’d guess. Probably explained why it had to stop to get shot to pieces by our escaped friends.”

By their estimate there had been six attackers. Three lay dead, their bodies convulsed and contorted into strange postures, and now frozen solid by the biting Mars Cold. One had driven the Rover off, no doubt picking up the other two escapees.

The men carried no identification, but all wore a small silver and garnet medallion, showing a heart impaled on a crown of thorns, and with a long thorn or dagger sticking through it. Some dim familiarity stirred in Marcus’s memory, but he was unable to grasp hold of the thought.

Cautiously they climbed into the Rover. There was some internal bullet damage, including to the communications array: the computer was still functioning however. Of a driver there was however, no sign. In the reinforced cargo hold pale blue lights from the undamaged high tech casket blinked balefully at them. The half dozen cargo containers also appeared undamaged. Marcus shivered.

“Man lets patch the damn Rover up and limp it to the Vladescu Mine and dump it” said Spyder. “It’s giving me the creeps.”

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Night Fight (25th December 2158)
25th December 2158

“Diamonds do interest me!” Spyder said excitedly. “Let’s aid the Vampire what stole our Mars Truck. We’ll get paid for it and at least it isn’t shooting the truck.”

“Is not Vampire” said Katrina through gritted teeth.

And so it was ,that ten minutes later they found themselves creeping through the dark towards the two Rovers, in extreme sub zero temperatures and pitch darkness. At least as Martians Marcus and Katrina had Heated Mars Suits: the others only had the ordinary kind. Sane people did not go out on Mars at night – you simply couldn’t survive for long in these conditions.

Peering through the darkness Jake could just about make out a shape in the lights of the unknown ATV. He aimed and fired, and the fight was on.

It wasn’t the most straightforward fire fight. Seeing an opponent at all was very difficult, and the numbing cold tended to slow people down. With his AFL 16 Jake laid down fire, joined by Marcus with his AFL 4; Jonas and Katrina used their pistols. Their opponents seemed armed with smgs of some sort. Spyder rushed forward and crept behind the unknown WTV, crouching beneath its hull.

Most of their opponents took a while to react to their presence, what with the pitch darkness and the gunfire at Marcus’s Rover anyway. Anyone hitting anything at all was something of a challenge, and then armour had to be taken into account.

Spyder’s unorthodox strategy of creeping underneath the hull of their opponents Rover and barking to one of the two opponents he could see to surrender certainly made him react and jump out of cover. It was then that tall of the lights, including the directional searchlight, of Marcus’s Rover glared on, outlining the surprised man like a moth in front of a candle: it also exposed two others running across open ground in the darkness in an attempt to outflank Jake and the others.

A lucky shot from Katrina, and a hail of fire from Jake and Marcus downed the unlucky man, and even as the bullets knocked him backwards his body started to convulse and jerk in some strange way. Jake also managed to wound one of the other two illuminated individuals, and as his Mars Suit was pierced Marcus that he was in shock, as the biting cold briefly took hold of him. More fire poured at the vulnerable man.

Spyder was now forced to retreat however, as another attacker poured fire at him from the far side of the Attackers vehicle. As he fled for safety their Rover started up ….and then the fight was over.

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The Chase (25th December 2158)
25th December 2158

“Our Rover’s gone!” exclaimed Marcus.

“The one with the coffin in eh?” said Jonas knowingly.

“Hey man, those guys had their OWN Rover” said Spyder after reviewing the cameras. “I guess they’re chasing someone in the stolen Rover.”

“That Rover’s worth over 500,000 Big Ones!” said Cecilia. “We can’t afford to lose it Marcus: you’re the Big Shot Adventurer. DO SOMETHING!”

And so it was that nursing sore heads, upset stomachs and lack of sleep, they set off in pursuit in the second Rover. Normally Marcus would not have considered driving in darkness on Mars, but both Jake and Jonas were superior drivers, and they were following a clear trail of the other rovers: the vehicle IR had no difficulty in highlighting the route they had followed. It was perhaps four hours before dawn.

“The route goes north towards some hills” said Marcus. “Other side of those is a gully which leads west towards the Vladescu place. Never been there, but its supposed to be in a canyon or valley. It’s all a bit secretive really.”

After about two and a half hours they had made good progress. Jonas and Jake had changed positions, and the others were catnapping. Outside in the blackness of the Martian night, the temperatures were slowly beginning to rise again.

“I can see lights” said Jake. “I think they must have stopped.”

“Muzzle flashes” said Doc. Orlov. “People are shooting.” Jake killed the engine and they could hear a series of sharp cracks.

With her heated Mars Suit Katrina took the electronic binoculars and exited onto the roof.

“Maybe half a dozen men” she called. “I think they cover fire and work their way towards stolen Rover. They shoot it up real good.”

“That’s my Freaking Rover!” yelled Marcus.

“Easy Boy” said Jonas. “Whatever’s going on here this isn’t our business. Those gunmen upset a few ashtrays but they didn’t harm anyone.”

“Neither did the Vampire man” said Spyder, ignoring Doc. Orlovs snort. “Didn’t really harm anyone – tried the goat first….”

“I Love that Goat!” yelled Marcus.

“Hey whatever floats your boat Man” said Spyder. “Anyway, the stolen rover is sending out some sort of tight beam transmission. Could reach somewhere close.”

“Like the Vladescu Place” said Marcus, and then he paused. “There’s no gear like that in the Rover”

“Maybe its in the coffin?” suggested Jake.

“Wait! Wait!” said Spyder. “There’s a wave coming through – text only”. They all peered at the screen.

“Greetings Neighbour, and Merry Christmas. It is most unfortunate that you should be caught up in this, but Good Neighbours should always strive to help one another, especially deep within the lonely Martian Wilderness. Without safe delivery of this cargo you will not receive payment, and given the impending urgency of the situation I am sure an additional bonus might prove worthy of your assistance. Do Diamonds interest you at all? Choose swiftly.”

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Midnight Massacre (24th December 2158)
24th December 2158

While it might have been possible to access the coffin with a blowtorch or jackhammer, Cecilia explained reasonably that the Vladescus were near neighbours, and nuking their dear departed’s casket might not go down too well. Reluctantly Jonas agreed. Spyder again failed to get through via the link.

“Maybe we should drive it there ourselves?” he suggested.

“Fuck that, it’s Christmas Eve” said Jonas. “I say we all stay up and get very drunk together. No stragglers, no risk.”

A close questioning with Cassie had revealed that she had a strange dream: one of those dreams where you’re not sure if you are awake or dreaming. A dark haired woman had spoken to her in a strange accent, and told her to go back to sleep.

“Look I’m not saying anything for sure” said Jonas. “But I DON’T fancy driving into the Vladescu Homestead or whatever it is. Let them collect it from here.” And so the party went into full swing (after another Ghost Story – ‘The Ash Tree’).

It was very late and they were starting to get drunk to the point of insensibility. The stun grenades followed by tear gas were therefore something of a shock.

Through the fumes, smoke and tears, Jake could see gas masked armed men with rifles searching the hab in military fashion.

“All Clear!” said one.

“She’s not here” said another.

“One of the Rovers is driving off!” added a third.

“Some party man” thought Spyder, and then he blacked out.

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Vigil (24th December 2158)
24th December 2158

After another Christmas Ghost Story with Christopher Lee/ MR James (“A Warning to the Curious”) they had set up three watch shifts within the Green House Area. The night had passed without incident however, and as Jonas was on the last shift he tiptoed through the atrium, which had two temporary bunks set up in which two women, Maddy and Cassie were sharing: with the plants and small pools it was quite a pleasant prospect: it seemed that ornamental gardening was one of Cecilia’s hobbies.

Jonas winked at Cassie as she startled awake, and promised to return with some hot coffee. He did this ten minutes later and Cassie moved to awaken her room mate. Jonas jumped when she made a strangled scream as Maddy flopped out of bed like a dead weight.

“Shit!” he exclaimed. “She’s like the other.” Trying to keep a lid on the situation he woke Cecilia and Marcus. A short conference was held.

“Luke remembers nothing” said Marcus. “He was just working. Seems a bit stronger today though. Wait – I’ve got an idea.” He went off with Jake.

“Someone’s been in your systems again man” said Spyder. “Made a sloppy mistake too – other wise I wouldn’t have picked it up. Camera footage removed.” He looked up as Marcus returned.

“Um…..” he explained. “We checked Lukes and Maddy’s blood pressure is lower than normal. Lukes is better, but still not normal.”

“They also do have wounds- and so does Millie.”

“Um….two small puncture wounds?” ventured Spyder. “This is real creepy man – it sounds like they lost blood.”

“Blood loss would explain it” said Marcus, “But no – one small wound. And Millie’s was a bit more ragged.”

“The goat fought back maybe” said Jake. “The others were asleep or surprised.”

They all looked at one another knowingly. Doc Orlov rolled her eyes.

“You not serious?” she exclaimed. “You have been listening to ghost stories too seriously”.

“I ain’t sayin’ Doc.” said Jonas. “But I’m gonna take another look at that coffin.”

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Bit of A Lie In (23rd December 2158)
23rd December 2158

Jonas frowned as he searched the Rover. The Hi Tech Coffin was still in the hold, along with the half dozen crates sealed in blue plastic insulation and marked ‘Keep below 0 Degrees Centigrade. Do not accept if seal is broken.’ The low temperature was surely not an issue on Mars.

So far Spyder’s attempts to contact the Vladescu Mine via their (home made) satellite link had proved unsuccessful. Marcus insisted that it worked perfectly.

“Nope. Luke ain’t in here” he signalled. The hired hand had not appeared at breakfast, and it seemed that his bed had not been slept in. A full search was now underway.

It was Jake who found him – slumped over the desk in a small office in the despatch area of the greenhouse complex. The searchers converged on the location.

“Looks like he was putting some late work in” said Spyder.

“We’ve got a collection from one of the Mines at lunchtime” said Marcus. "Looks like he was moving the stuff forward for loading so he could save time this morning. He sighed and looked at the fork lift. “I suppose I’d better finish it myself.”

“He ain’t dead” said Jake. “But he seems kind of drowsy. No wound or anything.”

It appeared that Luke had been taking a break in the office: the work was about three quarters done, and a cold cup of coffee sat on the desk. They carried him off to his room in the bunkhouse.

Finishing the loading Marcus went in to feed and clean out Millie. As soon as she opened the door she barged past him and ran loose into the long corridor. Fortunately the doors were all closed, and with some help the goat was coralled and returned to her hab.

“She seems pretty skittish” said Marcus. “What’s up with her?”.

“I think someone’s accessed your computer systems” said Spyder. “Some of the safety camera footage seems to be missing, and someone’s done a long search through your files.”

“Would Luke need to do that?” asked Jake.

“Luke would likely have been sorting out the admin for today’s collection and the stock control” said Marcus. “He has access to most functions anyway.”

“I think someone else has been here” said Jonas. "There are footprints just outside the Despatch side door – smaller than Luke’s.

“Hey man” said Spyder, “An intruder might have just used Luke’s access if he was logged on”

“And spook goat” said Doc. Orlov.

“I guess that might mean Luke has been drugged” said Marcus. “It must be one of the guests? But why?”

“I suggest we keep a watch tonight” said Jake.

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Hammer House of Horror (22nd December 2158)
22nd December 2158

ChrisLee.jpg

“So who the heck was Christopher Lee anyway?” asked Jonas as they sat and drank in the dark afterwards.

With the lights off the guests had been watching an upgraded sensuround of some old actor posing as a Victorian ghost story writer called MR James. Apparently it was a sort of tradition at the Homestead to gather round for old ghost stories, and the old film had Lee, as Writer MR James, reading one of his Christmas Eve Ghost stories to his students gathered round at his rooms in old Cambridge for supper.

The story had been called ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathederal’ and the strange tones of the ancient actor added to the eerie atmosphere of the telling. The Sensuround imagers had created the illusion of them also sitting in the Cambridge rooms, with assorted students in gowns also dotted about. Very odd.

Spyder thumbed through his handcomp.

“Umm Christopher Lee….lemme see….20th century actor. Lots of stuff, lots of horror films looks like – along with some other guy called Peter Cushing.”

“Peter Cushing” interrupted Doc. Orlov unexpectedly. “Yes, I have heard this.” All eyes turned towards her.

“I never took you for the Slash and Shocker type Doc” commented Jonas. “Don’t tell me you’re a secret horror movie buff? Wear green skin paint and go to conventions and stuff?”

“I not watch such things” she replied calmly, “But I know Professor Alan Cushing. Apparently he looks very much like this ancestor, Peter Cushing. He used to have pictures on wall.”

“An egghead of some sort right?” asked Spyder.

“He is famous astronomer. Maybe you even see him on Tri -v” said Katrina.

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Home, Sweet Home (22nd December 2158).
22nd December 2158

Marcus’s cousin seemed a bit friendlier at breakfast, pondered Spyder. Clearly waiting up till midnight on the previous evening had frazzled her manners somewhat somewhat: thanks to Jake getting lost their journey had proved somewhat longer than anticipated. Spyder eyed up the other guests as they helped themselves to food.

Marcus cousin Cecelia was auburn haired and of somewhat forbidding aspect – though not unattractive, thought Spyder. Just give the old Webb charm time to work its magic, and who knows what might happen eh? He could become part owner of the whole operation: that would show Marcus.

The other guests were an odd bunch of seeming transients and family friends: there were a lot of people like that on Mars – ore haulers, miners, specialists who moved continually from job to job: their home was basically their Rover.

One of these was Derek Xeren, a tall gloomy man who was a Technical Engineer for the Lothrain Free Company: he spent a good three months every year touring their facilities and remote stations in the Martian Outback, as well as a number of contracted facilities for the Mars Authority, such as the nearby Weather Station.

He seemed slightly aquainted with another guest – a weather beaten man called Mando, apparently a scrapman and scavenger who nosed about the valley: in fact he seemed to have a few parts for Marcus who checked over them eagerly in his workshop.

There were also a couple of freelance truckers Mitch Rowlands and Cassie Tuckers, as well as three local Mine employees Dom Willis, Joel Cairo and Maddy Starkadder, as well as a large man called Luke – the hired hand at the homestead.

The Homestead itself consisted of three dome modules connected by what was now an Atrium, shielded from the worst of the windstorms by a large rock outcrop called Big Boy.

Separate from this was a complex of eight greenhouses, complete with workshops and Despatch Area. Assorted Rovers from the visitors were also parked nearby.

One of the three main domes was a bunkhouse with three double rooms, and Spyder had been given one of these: a few extra bucks ha been set up in the atrium and Bunkhouse Common Area: there were a lot of guests.

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