Chapter 7: Phaon

 

(Prologue: Obviously I failed to communicate that Ballynena is a very small village, numbering only just under a hundred occupants. Obviously, there are limitations as to what can be bought or sold in such a locale. Two major developments have occured, or failed to occur. The party has been unsuccessful in trying to relieve themselves of the ground car. Also, combining the sum of party funds, plus funds that Bug has donated, everyone is now outfitted with a sleeping bag, framepack and thermal blanket as well as food, and water. Much of the equipment is obviously used and not in the best of shape. Also, Bug has bought a local topographical map, and a water purification kit, assuming water can be found enroute to be made us of. Assume that all travel debts have been taken out of party funds. All character cash holdings are at this point brought down to zero. Electronic credit holdings are unaffected nor are they able to be accessed as Ballynena has only one credit transfer machine, and it is malfunctioning.)

Raymont sat down next to Solo, obviously tired and fatigued from the heat. Joe was not far behind.
"It was a wash," he told Solo.
"Damn," Solo muttered. "What are we going to do with the car now?"
"Obvious," Raymont told him. "We drive it until it stops or stalls, then we dump it."
Joe came up to the two of them. He could guess what they were talking about. "Well, at least I tried," he told them.
Solo scowled, chewing on a piece of sweetroot as if it were a cigar.
Raymont, without asking, grabbed Solo's glass and drank the full measure of its contents. Sighing, he leaned his head back, wiping the glass across his forehead.
"Dia, it's hot here."

Bug and Thorn dragged their goods back to the inn. Thorn was dying for a drink and Bug was positively cooking.
Seeing them, Jessine came out to help.
"Where did you get this stuff?" Jessine asked.
"We took the party funds and bought it," Thorn told her. "You can thank Bug for throwing in what else was needed.
"How much do we have left?" Jessine asked.
"Give me a break," Thorn sneered. "It took everything we had, plus our bargaining for two hours to get just this much.
Jessine looked the stuff over.
"Some of this looks pretty used," she said suspiciously.
Thorn glared at her. "You want to complain or do you want to help?"
Jessine shook her head, and without any further talking, the three of them finished carrying the supplies back to the inn.

Having gotten out the last of their equipment, Joe closed the rear hatch of the groundcar. The rest of the party members squeezed out of the right-hand side of the vehicle. The left side was so dented now that the doors wouldn't open. While the others set about gathering branches, Bug, who was last out of the groundcar, sagged against one of the wheels.
"And I thought the bus was crowded," he wheezed.
"Well, that's the last of it," Jessine reassured him. "From now on we walk."
"How long is it now?" Leon asked, heaving what looked like an incredibly heavy log against the right side of the car.
Solo raised his hand over his eyes, scanning the horizon.
"Over a thousand kliks," he replied. "We'll be walking for some time."
Thorn, who had finished piling dried leaves over the car paused to take a drink out of her water bottle. Wiping, the sweat off her brow, she turned to the others.
"Well, might as well start. The sooner we get going, the sooner we get there. Which way?" she asked Solo.
He pointed off through the trees.
Not waiting for an answer, she set out. The others quickly gathered their things and took of after her. Bug effortlessly glided on his anti-grav to catch up to Thorn. Raymont paused to put some final touches on the car's camouflage. Then, picking up his pack, he waved a final goodbye to civilization and trod off, following at a quicker pace to catch up to the others.
Phaon Prime climbed higher into the sky while the party baked below it. Sticking to the shade of the trees when there were any, they trod on, putting their first miles of wilderness behind them. Ahead of them, the wasted scrubland seemed to go on forever.

The sun, now burning red through the atmosphere, hung over the distant plains as if taunting the party, pausing for a moment to test their endurance with one last lingering kiss of heat. Jessine, her clothes caked with sweat, bowed down to catch her breath, leaning her arms on her knees. Raymont stopped beside her, taking a drink out of his water bottle. He offered her some, but she shook her head. Both of them looked toward the horizon. Though the sun was setting, it wouldn't start cooling until after sundown. To their right, Phaon minor could already be seen, looking like a bright star.
They had been hiking for four days and they were, with the exception of Leon, already exhausted.
Raymont, having caught his breath, turned back to Solo.
"Any idea how far we have to go?" he asked.
"Kid, you ask me that every day," Solo complained. "We'll get there when we get there. It's going to be a few weeks."
Joe stumbled up to them, having caught only the last part of the conversation. "A few more weeks! I say we turn back. That ship's been waiting there all this time. Let it wait. And if the miners find it, I say they can have it," he gasped.
Leon, having outpaced them once again, once again returned to urge them on. Bug glided by his side.
"Come on you people!" he yelled back. "It will take us forever to get there at this rate."
Thorn stumbled up the group, glad for a chance to rest. Hearing Leon, she felt she had to make a statement.
"Give me a gun and I'll shoot him," she wheezed.

The party travelled on for another three days, and then when they came upon a stream, paused to take a couple days of rest. Though they were tired, their bodies were hardening, getting used to the travel. Still, it hadn't been easy and they all sensed that it wouldn't be getting any better.
The land they had travelled through thus far had consisted of tall dried grassland speckled with stands of oak trees. Occasionally they had come upon doubtful pools of water and, having little choice, made use of them, though being careful to purify the water first.
While they rested, off in the far distance, Thorn spied a caravan travelling back north. It was miles away and they couldn't make out any details nor did they know if the caravan had seen them.
Solo discovered that Bug had brough along a global positioning system relay. Using it against the maps, he tried to make out how much progress they had made. When asked how they were doing, he replied that they didn't want to know.

Raymont squatted, staring at the sparkling sun glinting off the waves in the water. The broad little river gurgled its way almost due west, cutting through the soft soil of the scrubland in its course. Having espied the greener grass and taller trees, the party had sent Raymont ahead to scout it out while they rested behind. They had been travelling for two weeks now.
Hearing a noise, Raymont turned around and spied Thorn who, it seemed, had also left her pack behind and decided to follow Raymont. A large silverfish broke the surface of the water, jumping for a seed floating in the air. Thorn and Raymont both laughed, each surprised by the splashing fish.
"Look," Thorn whispered.
Raymont looked to where she pointed and gasped. A huge bipedal herbivore was bowed down and was drinking from the stream. Raymont didn't know what it was, but it was beautiful, with glistening short brown fur, its head crowned by thick rugged stone like antlers paired on either side of its head.
"If I had my gun, I could get us some meat," Raymont whispered back to Thorn.
"You wouldn't shoot such a beautiful animal, would you?" she chided him.
Raymont was about to deride her comment, but then looking back at the animal, seeing it with her eyes, he had to admit that he also found the animal beautiful. Just then, it stood up, sniffing the wind, and taking both of their breaths away.
The animal stood more than six metres tall and both Raymont and Thorn, though mesmerized by the sight, were more than a little concerned lest the animal sense their presence and turn and attack them.
Just as they thought this, the beast turned to look in their direction. Sniffing, its large liquid black eyes sought them out and it splashed through the river, its long thick neck weaving as it approached them.
Thorn cried out and crawled backward on her hands while Raymont cast his hands about for a rock. Unconcerned, the animal towered over both of them and gazed down at them in curiosity. It bent its head lower and while Raymont didn't dare to move, sniffed at the hair on Raymont's head.
A keen mournful call was heard in the distance and the beast turned away from Raymont and, lifting its head up to the sky, bellowed out a loud reply. Raymont could see the powerful muscles in its throat working. Despite its volume, the sound was musical and powerful in a primal way. The animal seemed to have forgotten them and it turned, its large tail swishing and its forelegs bent up, tucked under its chest. In two splashing strides, it was gone. Thorn and Raymont ran up to a small hill beside the river. Looking out, they could see that there was a small herd of about a hundred and fifty of the animals, some large like the one they had seen, some smaller, some obviously young ones.
They ran, not seemingly from fear, but for the sheer joy of running, and as the herd headed away faster then a groundcar, they felt the ground vibrate under their feet and the sound in the air was like dull thunder.
Thorn turned to Raymont, joy expressed on her face. "That was wonderful!"
Raymont, who had been directly under the animal was about to correct her when, once again following her eyes, he watched the herd disappear in a huge cloud of dust which blew away from them to the west. Looking below him at the shimmering water, he felt the adrenaline, which had not yet left his body and he realized he had to agree with her.
"Yea, it was great!" he nodded, smiling.
Thorn turned to look at him and then at the river below them. It was hot and the water beckoned. Laughing, Thorn began to tear the clothes from her body as she ran back to the river.
"What the" Raymont watched her naked body plunge into the water. Splashing, she swam towards a deeper pool under a series of rapids. The Sun glinted off the sides of silverfish, swimming underneath her.
Laughing, Raymont tore off his own clothes and running, dived into the water near her.
Laughing like children, they both began to splash each other.

The party was resting. Having seen what looked like the green grass and taller trees bordering a stream in the distance, Raymont was sent on ahead as a scout, leaving his pack behind. A little later, Thorn got up saying that she was going to go along as well and, leaving her pack, followed quickly to catch up to Raymont.
Joe turned to Solo, who was checking the maps and g.p.s.
"How're we doing?" Joe asked.
Solo nodded. "Not as good as I would like, but we should start coming up to the hilly country," he told Joe.
Raymont and Thorn were gone long enough for Leon and Bug to engage in a game of chess when a loud bellowing sound could be heard in the distance.
"What the hell was that!" Jessine cried out, startled.
"I don't know," Joe replied, "But it sounds like it came from the river."
Everyone looked at each other. It was Solo who voiced their thoughts with an, "Uh-oh."
Looking toward the river, everyone could see a huge cloud of dust rising and blowing toward the west.
Without speaking another word, everyone reached for their weapons and, leaving their heavy packs behind, raced in the direction of the river.
Leon was the first to come upon Raymont and Thorn. Solo and Jessine came up next, followed by Joe. Except for Leon, they were all gasping for breath, sweat stinging their eyes. Glistening below them was one of the most beautiful rivers they had ever seen. Sweet green grass swayed gently in the hot breeze while standing Willow and Ironwood trees towered beside them. Thorn was swimming in a deep pool below a series of rapids, laughing while she splashed water on Raymont. Raymont was lying naked, sunning himself on a rock. Away to the west, the dust column was travelling quickly, receding in the distance. There was a subtle sound and everyone could feel a slight vibration in the ground.
"Well," Solo looked at his companions, "I guess we'll camp here for a few days." Having said this, he gave a loud "YIP!" which startled everyone and ran toward the river while tearing off his clothes, and dove in. He was greeted by Thorn with a series of splashes and he set in to defend himself with the same.
Shrugging, Jessine, Joe and finally Leon stripped themselves and ran down to go skinnydipping (naked swimming) in the cool waters of the unnamed river.

Having awakened early, as was his custom, Leon scanned around their riverside campground. They had taken to not leaving a guard, since they were all tired after hiking and since there never seemed to be any danger. Leon blinked his eyes, looking at the scattered equipment lying on the ground. Then he roused everyone.
"We've been robbed!" he told them.
But Joe, who got up rubbing the sleep from his eyes, told them, "No, it looks like tree rats."
"Tree rats?" Solo asked. "You mean those brown ferret like things with the long tail?"
Joe nodded. "When I went camping as a boy, we used to be plagued by them. They're an introduced animal called Focarin Tree Rats. They've become quite a problem in some parts of Samnia. They like to steal shiny things and their paws are quite dextrous, like human hands. And they're very curious and intelligent. I had a friend who used to have one as a pet."
"They've taken the glowchip from my reading lamp!" Thorn screeched. "It's useless! I can't believe I thought they were cute."
"Hey, they've stolen the gamechip out of my computer!" Solo bellowed. "They must've come into the tent while we were sleeping."
"Not to mention ruining at least ten ration packs," Leon added.
"Natural thieves," Joe shook his head.
"I'm glad you can be so blase, professor," Raymont added. "I found this in the river." Raymont handed Joe his laser rifle.
"They've taken its targeting scope!" he screamed. (-15 O.B. to hit)
Solo came out of the tent, his face grim and sober. In his hand was his cigar, mauled and mostly eaten. He cradled it like it was a dead pet. "They'll die for this!" Solo vowed.
Henceforward, the appearance of a tree rat was neither cute nor amusing. It only brought about an immediate retort of weapons fire until it was found that they seemed impossible to hit, being incredibly fast.
(Now you folks get to do some work. For any item not already mentioned here that you have on your character list, roll a percentile dice. For items weighing more than a half a kilogram, any result of 01-10 results in the item being damaged so that it has a -15 effectiveness, if applicable, from missing parts, being chewed or otherwise damaged. A 66 result means the item either disappears or is destroyed. For items weighing less than a half kilogram, a roll of 1-10 means item disappears or is too damaged to use. If anyone rolls a 00, the tree rats have left them something in trade from their nests. Let me know if this happens. Also, let me know of any significant losses. If unsure of an items weight, make your best guess or roll. JK)

On the twenty-third day after having set out, the party had at last begun to enter the hilly country spoken of in the geo disc back in Dicey's bar. Solo and Bug, consulting the G.P.S, gave them all the sobering news that they had come less than half way and that the next half would be more difficult hiking.
As it climbed, the scrub country became more rocky. Often, abrupt cliff faces or dead end canyons would force the party to backtrack and search another way through. Always, using the g.p.s, Solo endeavored to keep them going the right direction. But as there were no trails to follow, they were forced to weave their way through the hills, often in a day making little more than a few miles progress towards their goal, though hiking maybe ten to fifteen miles overall.
Raymont was able to glean a few additions to their provisions. His hunting skills were pitiful, but he found that there was a burrowing type of animal, looking something like a shelled mollusk with three eyes and a rat tail, that was plentiful. Bug, through examination via his multiscanner, declared that it was edible, though the meat turned out to taste like chewy mud. Still, it was a way to supplement their meagre rations. Joe especially was concerned that they would have enough food once they had reached the site.

On their thirty-fifth day out, Joe turned to Solo in their tent.
"You know, Solo, perhaps we should think about turning back. We only have about forty days rations left. Even if we reach the ship, we won't have enough food to stay very long."
"What about sending one of us back for more rations?" Leon interjected.
Solo, who was absently watching a winged reptilian raptor hovering in a thermal, scanning the ground for small prey, stated, "I've thought about that." He turned to Joe and Leon.
"I was thinking there might be salvageable goods in the ship. If any of their galley sections survived intact,"
"What about those miners?" Raymont proposed. "Certainly they must have supplies."
"What? Do you think they're just going to volunteer to give them to us?" It was Thorn's voice. She was listening from the other tent where she, Jessine and Bug slept.
"Well, maybe we don't ask," Raymont pointed out. "Maybe we just go and take them," he blandly stated.
"I know you're assuming that these miners are just a bunch of push overs," Thorn rebutted, "But did it ever occur to any of you that they are just as good, possibly even better fighters than we are?"
"That's true," Joe agreed. "Some of these frontier folks are really tough and seasoned. They made great guerilla fighters during the occupation."
"Could all of you shut up!?" Jessine growled. "I'm trying to get some sleep and all of this can wait until tomorrow."
That got Raymont going and pretty soon both tents erupted into arguments. Solo ignored them all, his eyes focusing on the raptor. It had dived, but had come up empty and now was back riding the thermals watching for other prey. Try and try again, he thought.

"Well, how do we climb up that?" Raymont and the others had collected together, staring at the cliff walls of the plateau that confronted them. It's rocky face promised many ways of possible ascent, but none of the party were experienced climbers. Solo and Bug were again studying the contour lines on the topo map.
"Looks like we can have an easier climb if we head west," Bug announced.
"How many kilometers?" Jessine asked.
"About seventy kilometers," Bug replied.
"Oh Great!" Thorn said aloud. "Just great." But after saying as much, she was the first to set out west. Leon followed her and then the others, without saying a word, set in behind her. They party had been fifty-one days out and had not even come to the plateau.

On their sixty-sixth day since setting out, the party wearily trudged the expanse of the upland plateau. Like the scrubland outside of Ballynena, the plateau was a flat dry plain, but the air was obviously thinner, the soil harder and less hospitable. This showed itself in the grass, which was shorter or sometimes absent altogether, and in the trees, which were twisted dwarfs compared to their lowland counterparts. The party found they tired faster in the thinner air and were now faced with rationing, both food and water. Raymont, his feet feeling heavy and leaden on the cracked baked ground, actually found he missed those mud tasting mollusks that had once been so plentiful. Here there was nothing except parched soil and the Sun that had beat on them all so hard since they had started.

On their seventy-seventh day after setting out from Ballynena, the party continued to climb into the high mountains of the Draaksama Range. The mountains were dark, as if composed of volcanic rock and their uppermost peaks, when not veiled in clouds, were starkly white with snow. Though water had become more plentiful so that they no longer had to ration it, their food was almost gone. They all felt gaunt and hollow inside, and each of the party, looking at her/his companions saw the spectre of starvation staring back at them through the eyes of their fellows. Bug, not having had enough food for days, had gone dormant. Leon carried his cocoon like bulk in his pack and everyone feared that the fragile alien would be the first of their company to die enroute. What frightened everyone was that he wouldn't be the last.

Leon had been the one to find them. One evening, having stopped early to rest, he had noticed that one of the rocks nearby seemed to move, albeit very slowly. Turning it over, he saw that it wasn't a rock, but a spiderlike insect that was grazing on the lichen that grew on the stark boulders around them. Making only a cursory multiscan check, the party set about trying to find others. They weren't plentiful, but there were enough and they were easy to catch. Boiling them, they found their taste slightly bitter, but filling. They cracked open their legs and ate the grey meat like a delicacy. Even Bug, who was induced to come out of his coma, was able to eat a little.
Setting out the next day, the party continued to climb, but then had to drop down in a somewhat perilous descent into a small valley, then cross that only to climb again. It was a pattern that was repeated many times. Each time they thought the summit was just over the next rise, it always turned out to be farther than they had assumed. By this time, they were eighty-seven days out from Ballynena.

Eight days later, they at last found the Tramsamere River. Travelling along its valley, the party found more abundant fodder in the denser vegetation, including wild dwarf spinecones, which seemed like a feast. Even Bug didn't object. Following the coarse of the river, everyone seemed excited by at last finding the prospect of their quest. Solo kept his eye glued to Bug's g.p.s, which he carried in hand now.
Though they doubted they would have found it had they not been looking, having come upon the coordinates of the site, the huge gash in the mountainside seemed obvious. A large amount of scree from pebble to boulder size had slid downward to carpet the valley, forcing a slight change in the River's course. Also, a waterfall could be seen erupting out of the mountainside. A more spectacular series of falls could be just seen in the far distance, at the head of the valley. Judging by the map and Solo's remembered coordinates, they had arrived. Looking at the map, they knew that beyond the summit of the mountain was an large crater lake.
Everyone immediately set about looking for the site.
Leon found the cave. Inside, Onzlo's bounty revealed itself in the form of two heavy earth movers, both anti-grav.
"Look!" Leon produced triumphantly from beneath a tarp at the rear of the cave. Throwing back the tarp, he revealed a stockpile of crates. Freezedried rations and synthol, enough to last for months. Though each meal was the same, porcama stew, the party set about to a feast unlike any they had had for weeks. Each swore that it was the best meal ever tasted. Under another tarp, seven work lights, ten multiscanners, two auto medkits, a lightsaber, a collapsible shelter, five Struptor rifles, a portable computer and one Heavy Struptor gun, minus powerpack were all stacked next to the food, along with three cases, each of fifty energy cells and two solar charge units.
"Thank Dia," Joe almost wept when he saw the assembled wealth.
"Fuck Dia!" Solo blasphemed. "Thank that fat porker, Onzlo," he retorted, swigging a mouthful of synthol and smacking his lips. "Ahh."
After dinner, everyone rested inside the cave feeling the warmth of an infrared heater from the collapsible shelter. They had found a sonic shower in the shelter and each of them had taken time to bathe and freshen up as best they could.
Raymont, who was fidgeting with an unloaded struptor rifle noted that there was a crest of some sort on the rifle's stock. Looking at some of the other stuff from under the second tarp, he noted that the cases, the deflated shelter, the worklight, the computer, everything had the crest stamped somewhere on it. Noting this, he pointed it out to the others.
"Let me see that," Leon asked for the rifle and examined the crest. "I don't know, but I think this is a church crest," he said.
"I think so too," Joe agreed. "My uncle once came across such a crest during the Liberation War. I only have his description to go by, but this crest is similar."
"Was it a church crest?" Solo asked.
"It belonged to the Bishop of Galatia. The Black Bishop," Joe told him. "It was rumoured he had helped the FitzRyans. There's never been any proof. If it was true, it would've made the FitzRyans outcasts in the province. The Black Bishop is the sworn enemy of the Jade-Londons. It's rumoured, he's behind the Idorian raids."
"Then, Then that ship is a Dia Khoravic ship," Thorn pointed out. "That's why it never appeared in the Callistan rosters. It belonged to the church - or rather, this Black Bishop."
"And now, the FitzRyans are allies of the Darby clan, instead of enemies," Bug pointed out.
"Hmm," Solo mused. "Might be an even bigger investment in this than we first thought. I don't suppose the Viscount would want the family of his daughter's betrothed to become outcasts. I wonder what he would pay to keep the secret."
"You're talking about playing a game that would get us all killed," Joe pointed out.
"What's the matter? Not game for a risk?" Solo asked.
"A risk? Yes. But what you're talking about is a certainty. Certain death. If not from Darby or the FitzRyans, then from the Church. I'm not willing to take any of them on."
"Hmm, perhaps you're right," Solo agreed. "I hadn't thought about the church."
"Or about the armies, fleets and planets these people control. You're talking about things out of our league, mister," Jessine added her voice into the verbal fray.
"Alright! Alright, already," Solo surrendered. "Nevermind, it was just an idea. We can talk about it some other time. Right now, let's get some sleep."
They rested there for the night. The next morning they set out to find the buried ship, with Raymont in the lead. It wasn't hard to find. A recent storm had torn back part of the camouflage netting, but close up, even that was a telltale sign. Raymont waded out through the stream up to the plasticrete dam that Onzlo had created around his excavation hole. Raymont looked down into the hole, noting the rungs that had been set into the plasticrete. Darkness and cold air was all he could note. Below, the silent promise of wealth beckoned him.

(Everyone is past the midway point to 0-2 level. You may take an advance of three skill boxes in three different skills. Now that you are getting skills, I will let you know that I will award your characters all their skills for 0-2 level upon reaching that level, without need for justification. I will however discuss with each of you what skills would have been denied normally. Henceforward, it will be up to you to justify skill gains. This is normally done by making at least one successful roll per box to be gained, or three unsuccessful rolls. JK)

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