April 30, 2011

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4Sworn, Session Eleven

Previous Session: April 9, 2011 Next Session: September 24, 2011

Psion, Shockwave, Zap.


“Trivial power corrupts trivially ….”


Contents

Experience Points

Perdition, Shockwave, Starfire, and Zap each received 1375 experience points for the battle in the Berlin Bunker. Psion receives 300 points for crowd control.

Starfire included as an NPC for the first bit in Antarctica.

Gruber Mountains, Antarctica

“Please elaborate,” Psion asked of the mantoid lifeform before him. “What is the nature of our doom?”

“There is no need for that at present”, the creature replied, its twitching mandibles and antennae buried within the concealing warmth of its cloak. Zap, hearing the reply over Psion's telepathic switchboard, rolled his eyes in frustration.

In the fading light of the late-afternoon Antarctic winter, Psion regarded the intelligent insect and chose his words carefully.

“Very well, we can put that off for now. Is there anything your people need?”

“We require certain food stuffs.”

“Are these materials that are commonly available on Earth?”

Zap snickered telepathically and added, there are millions of you available. Shockwave chuckled audibly, but thankfully the Mantoid didn't seem to react.

Stop it, Psion rebuked. If you're not going to use the switchboard properly, I'll drop you from it.

But then we'll have to speak out loud, thought Shockwave. And I know you don't want us to do that!

The Mantoid unwittingly interrupted the exchange by replying, “We believe so, but unfortunately not abundant on the continent we currently occupy.”

Behind his visor, the telepath's eyes narrowed, but he chose to let the words “currently occupy” pass. There could be innocent meaning behind the insect's phrasing. “You've chosen the most desolate place for food on our planet. But we can help you with that. And we can provide you with equipment to warm your habitats and perhaps grow your own food in time. “We'll also have to work out how to properly introduce your species to ours.”

Shockwave and Zap exchanged significant glances and they expressed cynicism over the switchboard about the outcome of such an introduction. Though he shared their doubts, he refused to add to them, so he changed the subject. “But these are long-term plans. Especially when our doom is so imminent.”

“Very well.” The creature turned a thin plastic tablet to Psion, embedded with elaborate scratches of various colors. After a moment, Psion noticed patterns to the markings and the trapped essence of Firehawk provided a translation. It was a shopping list, but one that was peculiarly specific about the provisions required – protein structure, trace minerals, hydration, and other organic compounds, possibly Mantoid vitamins. Psion wondered, was this a key to the Mantoid mentality? Or were their requirements actually that precise? He looked up over the frozen wasteland surrounding them – a desert of barren rocks and stones surrounded by centuries-old ice – and wondered how they'd survived in this environment as long as they had. How many of them were there, and how many of them had perished? Once again he reached out with his mind, seeking any telepathic indication of their presence, but found nothing.

Psion activated the communicator on his wrist and listed the requirements back to the Firehawk.

“Some of this,” he told the Mantoid, “will take time to acquire, but I believe we can provide it all.”

“We thank you.”

“There was another device jettisoned from your original ship that landed approximately 1100 miles to the north of this location. Have you had any contact with other survivors?”

“No, we have no functional communications devices.”

The telepath turned back to the others, “Does anyone object to investigating Bouvet Island for more survivors?”

Shockwave shook her head, “No, maybe they'll tell us what doom is.”

“We're working on that.”

Psion turned back to the Mantoid, “Would anyone in your group be willing to accompany us to the second landing site to look for survivors?”

“Not at present.”

Would you be willing to accompany us?”

“Not at present.” The creature looked back along the path it had walked and once more at Psion. “If I may have the list momentarily?” Psion handed the tablet back and watched as the Mantoid scratched the surface and new marking appeared. When he got it back, the list was amended with instructions for a transceiver assembly operating at a precise frequency and power level. Psion noted the addition with a nod. The equipment could be easily provided. “The most important thing to us right now is: Who was chasing you? What is coming? What do you mean when you reference our approaching doom?”

“That is all we wish to relate at present.”

“We need to prepare a defense if an aggressor approaches. When will you tell us?”

“You no longer detect an anomaly?”

“No. We shut it down two weeks ago.”

“So long as no anomaly is detected, you should remain safe.”

Zap fumed over the switchboard, then suggested, Oh! It turns out we did detect another anomaly! Psion turned to face him, wondering if his own preference for complete honesty in negotiations may have undermined his ability to gather crucial information. He nodded a fraction and Zap repeated his statement vocally.

“What? And you didn't tell me?” Psion feigned rage and turned back to the Mantoid. “This … screw-up has once again failed me! He did not tell me about the new anomaly he detected.”

“You can provide the technical specifications of this anomaly?”

Psion withdrew old readings using his psicorder and used a fine stylus to mark the shopping-list tablet in a pattern resembling that used by the Mantoid. He provided the insect with information based on the earliest detected readings, suggesting a new anomaly was forming. Shockwave suggested using more recent information since that might make the situation more pressing to the Mantoids, but Psion pointed out that they might recognize from the characteristics that the patters were too recent and realize the team was lying.

On the other hand, Psion thought to the group, it's possible this species has no familiarity with lying.

That would be so cool, thought Shockwave.

That would be useful to us, agreed Psion.

We could rule this … little … group.

Wait until we give them episodes of Gilligan's Island. Those poor people!

The Mantoid looked over the tablet readings and looked up. “It is difficult for me to estimate without the appropriate analytical tools. I would expect that the arrival of the craft will not occur for approximately 200 of your terrestrial days.”

Shockwave seized on this. We know it's a craft!

“When will you tell us what we're preparing against?”

“I will confer with the Nest. We may discuss this after we receive the goods we have requested.”

This time Shockwave expressed frustration. “Why can't they tell us before we give them the goods?”

Psion nodded, but said, “What they're asking for isn't particularly difficult, despite its specificity, for us to provide. Let's take an enlightened stance and be the good guys. And if that fails, then we can resort to other tactics.

“Until then, I recommend we return to the Firehawk. We'll get the supplies they've requested and return. Hopefully, we'll learn more from the Mantoids upon delivery of their supplies about the nature of what we're up against.”

Both System 4ce and the mantoid representative of Species 2001a agreed with this recommendation and they parted company.

Back on the Firehawk, the team discussed their situation. They checked on the anomaly and the Thanocaster. Shockwave suggested putting together a compilation of important films produced by humanity to share with Species 2001a. Terminators One and Two, but not Three. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 7 Faces of Doctor Lao, Planet of the Apes. Forbidden Planet, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Gilligan's Island


Shockwave's Bad Thought

Shockwave looked up from the list of movies with a worried frown, “The Auteur could see the future with the Pandochal. Now we have everything we need to recreate the Amber Room. The Auteur can see us. So now he can recreate the Amber Room.”

“Yes,” agreed Psion. “We're in a race.”

Zap challenged this, “Are we? Didn't he see the future and saw it already?”

“I'm not convinced he can see the future as much as he can see the present and extrapolate the future from it using the Pandochal lens.”

“Isn't that the same thing?”

“No! Because he might be extrapolating based on false information.”

“But wasn't he at the Twin Towers before the bombing?” asked Shockwave.

“Why couldn't he have known about that bombing based upon an extrapolation of events previous to it? If you look at the supposed capabilities of the Amber Room, and then you look at the Auteur's Pandochal lens, you can see that they're obviously of the same science and technology.”

Shockwave remained unconvinced. “But the Amber Room should be better than the Pandochal. He might have manipulated us to do this.” Psion grinned broadly at this suggestion. “That's a distinct possibility!”

Shockwave crossed her arms. “I think we should destroy everything that we have on it.”

“I think we should build the thing and use it!”

Zap rolled his eyes as though that was hard to see coming.

Psion caught the expression and countered it. “If we were to destroy the Amber Room materials and documentation now, there's no reason the Auteur couldn't review the information anyway.”

“Because we've already figured it out,” said Shockwave, catching Psion's argument. “Shit. Alright, then build it very quickly. Build it very quickly so that I can see where he's going to be before he gets there.”

Psion grinned again, “You should build the Amber Room! Out of all of us, you'd be able to get it done the fastest!”

“Have you seen the Ikea furniture in my room?!”


Last Questions for Archdeacon Hellfrost

The extradition of Archdeacon Hellfrost. Charges against him were outstanding in the United States and Germany.

Psion and two Kondor 4ce security guards led Archdeacon Hellfrost from his cell back to the PsiPlane and sat him in a bench. Seeing to it that he was securely restrained, Psion ushered the guards out and turned to his prisoner. “Do you want to see the Thanocaster again?”

“Where is it?” he growled groggily.

“I can show it to you one more time. Give me your hand.”

The villain looked doubtful, but Psion shrugged his shoulders. “It's your call. I'm taking you to Germany either way.” Reluctantly, Hellfrost placed his hand in Psion's.

To Hellfrost's perception, the cabin around them blurred, then refocused with a slightly clearer quality. Psion reached around his prisoner and retrieved the same precise, mental duplicate of the guitar that Hellfrost had held the day before and handed it over. The guitarist took the instrument and held it reverently for a moment, then wailed on the guitar, producing a shrieking note that slammed against Psion like a hot, malodorous wave, but with otherwise no effect. Hellfrost gritted his teeth and moved to strum the note, but the Thanocaster leapt from his hands back to Psion's. “Really. What was that?”

“Give it to me, man!”

“I will. But what was that? You remember how this game is played.”

“C'mon!”

“You remember how this game is played.”

“It's a song, man. Expressing how I feel.”

“Oh. Hot, clammy, and malodorous?” Psion smirked at the guitarist. “I have a question for you. The last time we fought, you had gone through a portal through what looked like Hell. Was that really Hell?”

“Sure.”

“Interesting. Well, where were you before that?”

“At the hideout.”

“Where's the hideout?”

“Somewhere in Detroit.”

The view outside the PsiPlane's windows shifted; not as though the craft was moving, but as though there was a crossfade between scenes and an urban landscape sprawled beyond it.. Psion indicated the view and asked, do you know where in Detroit?” Hellfrost looked at the view and searched a few moments before shrugging, “I dunno.”

“You don't recognize it from this altitude. Do you remember a street address?”

“It was the Lee Plaza Hotel.”

The view again shifted to feature a high-rise, art deco hotel overlooking one end of a park. The building looked run-down and missing all its windows. “That's your hide-out? We have a high-tech, renovated helicopter carrier as our base and you're battling us?” The view outside the windows shifted again, and the Firehawk sailing majestically through rough seas could be seen. “Isn't that cooler than your hideout?”

“Wanna trade?”

“I'm disappointed! Surely you're capable of more than that?”

“We're working on it.”

Psion released the mental hold he had on Hellcast and they were back on the PsiPlane before takeoff. “We're about to get going. Do you want anything to drink before we head out?”

“Do you have a beer?”

“How about water or some tea?”

The man looked disappointed, but agreed to a glass of water. Psion stepped over to the dispensary and tapped out a code on the normally locked discharge nozzle labeled “B”. He filled a clear plastic cup with the fluid and handed it across to the prisoner who drained it in a defiant gulp.

The PsiPlane lifted off the deck and headed towards Germany with the prisoner.

When Psion returned, he found Zap and Shockwave waiting for him in mission ops. “Well?” asked Shockwave with a smile.

Behind his helmet's visor, no one could see his eyebrow raise, but it was evident in his tone, “Well what?”

“You know where the hideout is, right?”

Zap leaned in, “We're going to raid it, right?”

Psion regarded the two and considered rebuking them for such enthusiasm over the prospect of violence, but he shared their frustration over the events since May. Finally, the team had an advantage over the Skull's band of cutthroats and it would be foolish not to push that. “Starfire is offworld and Perdition is in a deep trance.”

Shockwave looked back and forth between Psion and Zap. “We don't need them, we've got everything we need here. Besides, Perdition might not come out of it for days. And you know Starfire's prone to returning to his own universe without notice.”

Psion pursed his lips and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet as he weighed the risks and benefits. Shockwave and Zap still lacked experience, despite their abilities, and he was hesitant to go into a situation without the full force of Starfire on their side. But, now in legal custody, Archdeacon Hellfrost could alert his comrades at any time that their hideout was compromised. Each hour that passed yielded more of their advantage to their adversaries.

He pressed an icon on a status board and read the readouts on the PsiPlane. Few consumables had been expended on the flight to Germany and there was no special equipment needed. His gaze returned to his teammates. “Let's go.”


Lee Plaza Hotel

Psion plotted a curving trajectory to Detroit, then displayed maps of their destination and drawings of the Lee Plaza Hotel on the windscreen. “This is the location Hellfrost revealed as his group's hideout. 2240 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan. Built in 1929, the structure has been abandoned since the early 1990s.” A succession of images flicked past, revealing ornate, but deteriorating architectural details of the building's interior. “It's considered an historic site by the state of Michigan, but it's been gutted by vandals and stripped of most of its adornments. It has fifteen floors and all windows above the first floor are missing. The first floor is bricked up, but has a few openings.” As the PsiPlane arced over the earth's atmosphere, the sun appeared to crawl backwards towards the eastern horizon. “It is 7:00 am in Detroit.”

“That's perfect,” said Shockwave. “The bad guys will still be asleep.”

Zap nodded. “That makes sense. If criminals could get up at 7:00 am, they'd have jobs.”

The vehicle concluded its descent and negotiated its way through Detroit airspace until it hung a thousand feet above the structure. Panels slid open to reveal arrays of delicate sensors that bathed the neglected hotel in exotic energies to analyze its interior. What Psion saw from the readings was disappointing. “The building appears unoccupied with the exception of a variety of small mammals and birds.” He closed his eyes a moment to concentrate, then added, “Thought scans show the building to be empty. Not even the homeless stay in the hotel any longer.”

The PsiPlane lowered silently above an empty lot behind the hotel and hovered. The cylindrical main lift dropped slowly until it barely touched ground. A hatch slid open and the three System 4ce members stepped out. A wiry mutt that had watched the craft approach in wary curiosity retreated down a nearby alley, glancing back to make sure he wasn't being pursued by the newcomers. The three conferred briefly and each chose a different entrance. Shockwave would phase through a wall, Psion would walk through an open back door, and Zap would descend through the elevator shaft and meet them in the lobby.

Zap slipped in through the elevator machine room and was greeted by the flutter of startled pigeons. The motors for the elevators had been removed from their housings and the black shaft leading down the core of the building gaped like an open pit. He dropped through the opening and descended quietly, intent on listening for any sign of an ambush. Down that shaft he could see many elevator doors had been forced open and weak, dusty sunlight wrestled with the gloom. He split electrically; an arcing doppelganger pulled away and then stepped through an opening to the fifteenth floor lobby.

I'm going to explore two floors at a time, one of him announced over the telepathic switchboard.

Oh sure, Shockwave replied, we'll just wait down here for you.

Well go do what you have to do, I just want to reconnoiter a little bit.

Psion headed the discussion off. That's fine, Zap. We'll work our way up and meet you. But based on Hellfrost's modus operandi, be prepared to discover grisly remains.

Shockwave and Psion moved through the ground floor lobby carefully. The place was a mess with debris and a thick layer of dust on all surfaces. A few boxes littered the floor, and a wrecked piano missing all but one leg leaned on the ground by its keyboard, but the two found no indication of a criminal lair.

Zap 2 had almost immediate success, however. He soon found graffiti on the hallway floor and elaborate satanic-themed images spray-painted onto the walls. Stubs of candles dotted the place. He pushed through the gaping doorway of an apartment suite and saw a portable generator over near a window. There was also a component stereo system and black metal posters adorning the walls. “We should buy this building and fix it up,” Shockwave suggested to Psion.

“To help with the economic renaissance of Detroit?”

“No, it's just a cool building. It'd make a cool … lair.”

“If we were to put 20 to 30 million dollars into it, I'm sure it would be a beautiful centerpiece to the desolate outskirts of Detroit.”

“We could set aside a few floors for living quarters and a few floors for working areas …"

Meanwhile, Zap 2 examined the posters closely and realized they were for Hellfrost's band, “Dark Legion”. In the bedroom, there was a collection of edged weapons and a skull with an extinguished candle on top. Zap 2 chuckled at the visual pun and picked the skull up and mimicked the Flaming Skull's characteristic laugh. A few other trappings suggested an exaggerated version of a typical teen metal-head's bedroom.

In another room, a stack of banker's boxes labeled “Unitech” hunkered against a wall. On the other side of the room, where a few items were scattered, in front of a dresser stood an Asian man dressed in an immaculately-tailored suit and holding papers in his emerald-green-gloved hands. Guys, we have contact!

The man turned to face Zap 2 and raised a gloved hand. “Alright,” Zap said. “Stay right there. Sir, can you identify yourself, please?” The man made no response, and it struck Zap as silly that he’d even bothered to ask the question. “How more obvious could it be that that’s the Man with Green Gloves,” he thought. “Why are you here?” continued Zap, before again reconsidering. This was obviously Desecrator’s room, and it was equally obvious the Man was seeking information about him. The Man himself still stood stonefaced and motionless.

Having followed Zap’s internal dialog on the switchboard, the other decided to act. Carrying Psion, Shockwave shifted out of phase with normal matter and raced up through the building at top speed. They arrived in the doorway beside Zap 2 an instant later. Zap 1 rose through the floor, but on the other side of the wall, behind the Man with Green Gloves. He thought he'd surprise the Man by walking through the wall behind him, but as he entered the room, the Man turned his head slightly to acknowledge his presence, then returned his attention to the papers in his hand.

Over the switchboard, Shockwave said, We know this guy's a bad guy. So we're not just gonna let him read and then zap away or something. Suddenly as the Man shifted his gaze to her, another thought dawned on her. Even given that he was a bad guy and they didn’t want him reading the documents, if they attacked, it could all be destroyed and nobody would be able to read it.

Psion withdrew his psicorder and ramped up its resolution to focus on the papers in the Man's hand. Let's not throw the first punch.

Zap 1 reached around to take the papers from the Man's hand. “Can I see that?”

Psion gritted his teeth and sent a surge of disapproval over the switchboard.

Zap 1 thought back, I'm not attacking!

Shockwave answered, That's true. It's rude, but it's not attacking. Then she looked at Psion. We need him to attack Zap so we can hit back.

If possible, I'd like to see if we can resolve this peacefully.

Zap was outraged. Oh my God!

Shockwave underscored his thought: This guy is an ancient evil!

Zap continued, He worked for Hitler! But as he reached for the papers, the Man held up his hand in a “stop” gesture. Zap paused, realizing that taking the papers would likely start a fight. The effect was odd. They felt like his thoughts, but he suspected that the Man with the Green Gloves was somehow influencing the order and direction of those thoughts – presenting him with answers to his questions that felt like he’d deduced them himself. This realization was shared across the switchboard.

Shockwave stopped restraining herself. Relying on instinct, she lunged at the Man and aimed a strike at his head. The Man leaned slightly, not much, but enough that Shockwave's strike missed narrowly but completely and her momentum carried her still out-of-phase body through the wall.

Zap 1 moved at the same moment, shooting a lightning bolt at the Man, while Zap 2 coordinated with his own electrical attack at the same instant, but the Man followed through with his subtle shift of weight and somehow twisted out of the way of both shots.

Frustrated, Shockwave activated the psychic defense mechanism on her armor, causing Psion to gasp in pain as a powerful spike shot through his telepathic switchboard before he lost contact with her. Then, she whirled around and lunged through the wall, but still missed.

Throughout this encounter, the Man had kept his hand raised in its stop gesture at Zap 2, but now he lowered that hand and raised the other quickly. Zap 2 interrupted, his arm moving in a blur as a bolt of electricity coursed down his forearm and struck the Man, sending him flying backwards to crash through the wall behind him.

The Man fell backwards in front of Psion in a torrent of debris, rolled with the motion, then sprang to his feet in a precise, practiced fashion. The telepath's handheld scanner continued to whir and chirp as it recorded details of the encounter, while he, surprised at the fluidity of the Asian man's motion could only utter, “Fascinating!” Still, he took two steps back.

Shockwave again tried again to hit the Man and missed, but he somehow grabbed her out-of-phase form and whirled, re-directing her inertia to throw her back in the direction of Zaps 1 and 2. Zap 2, in an arcing, electrical state and having just fired, didn't have time to react before she hit. Ordinarily, when in electrical form, Zap wouldn't have to worry about the impact of solid matter as he tends to arc around such material without harm. However, Shockwave's new gold-plated armor, intended to function with her psionic shielding equipment, was an excellent conductor and in an instant it absorbed him completely into its capacitor-like layers. Now lost in a conductive quantum-state landscape of shifting electron potentials, he raced to extricate himself before too much time passed. Even his connection to Psion's telepathic switchboard failed, though his entanglement link with Zap 1 remained.

Zap 1, in a solid, rather than electrical state, wasn't as fortunate. Impossibly, the Man had thrown Shockwave along a curving trajectory, “hooking” her like a baseball or bowling ball. At the speed she was traveling, he barely had time to perceive this, however, before she slammed into him and both of them crashed through several walls behind them before being finally stopped by the hotel's outer brick veneer.

After slinging Shockwave away, the Man finished with a pirouette that left him facing Psion. The telepath looked down through the tunnel of broken walls and noted before turning back that his teammates were injured, but alive. “You have no idea how many times I've wanted to do that to him,” Psion said, but he trained his telepathy on the Man, focusing on his orbitofrontal cortex. “Combat telepathy”, Psion liked to call it, and it gave him considerable advantages when facing a dangerous opponent.

Covered in wood lathe and plaster debris, Zap 1 groaned and rose from the fallen material. He dusted himself off and concentrated on the link to his other self, deliberately canceling the quantum effects that allowed him to split into two. An instant later, Zap 2 vanished from Shockwave's armor, and a reintegrated Zap stood in Zap 1's place. To an outside observer, the effect would have been miraculous as Zap's battered and dusty form instantly improved its condition with injuries flicking away and dust and splinters dropping as though never in contact.

The Man turned his attention to Psion, yanked the psicorder from his grasp, and began tapping commands into its interface. Through his telepathic link, Psion realized the Man had somehow over-ridden several system checks against unauthorized use and began re-formatting the device's long-term storage.

Shockwave pulled herself loose from the brick wall she'd been embedded in and kicked her vibratory defense back on. The re-integrated Zap re-entered the room and began looking around for the folder that had been knocked from the Man's hands earlier. Psion's body slumped to the ground as he transferred his consciousness into the psionium avatar wafer embedded in the psicorder. Now a part of the device, it was a simple matter to cancel the command to re-format the unit.

Shockwave ran back in shooting a lightning bolt, which struck the Man squarely in the chest and knocked him back into the hallway. Within the psicorder, now flung from the Man's hand, Psion braced as the device bounced off a wall and landed on the ground. Psion resisted the urge to curse as he'd been hoping to use a telepathic mind-grab against the Man, but he no longer had physical contact with him.

Zap crouched and collected the folder and its spilled contents.

Out in the hall, the Man got up and re-entered the apartment. He looked from Zap to Shockwave, then stamped his foot against the floor. Immediately, a rumble shuddered through the building and the floor fell out from under everyone else, dumping Shockwave, Psion's body, and his psicorder to the floor below.

Zap hovered unaffected over the hole, looking at the Man. I really don't want that guy to get these papers, he thought. Diving out the window, he split into two again. He had no assurances his opponent couldn't fly, but he felt safer a few hundred feet in the air than in the confined room.

Shockwave looked up from the floor below and saw the Man standing on a single beam that hadn't given way when the floor collapsed. He then somersaulted across the gap to the window Zap had just exited. Unable to reach either Zap, the Man turned and jumped down through the hole and, before Shockwave could interrupt, grabbed the fallen generator and threw it at Zap 2. The missile slammed into Zap and knocked him from the air.

Zap 1 swooped in and caught his unconscious doppelganger, then aimed for a nearby power line and used the conductive wires within to leave the area quickly.

The Man executed a graceful swan dive from the window. Shockwave ran at full speed down the hall to the fire exit and plunged down the steps in a blur. Psion transferred his mind back into his body and launched himself out the window, following the Man with Green Gloves as he fell. Shockwave beat both to the ground, and knelt where she expected the Man to fall. Pressing her hands against the ground, she adjusted the molecular vibrations of its surface, rendering a considerable portion of it out of phase and permeable to normal matter.

But in the instant before hitting the ground, the Man lashed out his foot to kick Shockwave in the head, knocking her unconscious and foiling her trap. He rolled to a landing with supernatural grace, and looked up and down the street. A moment later he punched his left palm with his right fist, then stepped through the hotel’s solid wall, vanishing into thin air.

Psion landed just as Shockwave recovered. “We lost him. But we still have the papers, and he doesn't.”

Back in the apartment, the trio dug through the debris. Desecrator's belongings included Violator action figures and memorabilia. They recovered several banker's boxes stamped with Unitek logos and piled them into the PsiPlane, which Psion parked just outside the window. Shockwave decided to taunt Desecrator by drawing glasses and a chipped tooth on the Violator figures and pictures. When she found a stack of hardcore bondage magazines, Psion commented dryly, “It's a shame we don't have a stack of issues of Better Homes and Gardens. We could trade covers and give Desecrator a surprise the next time he flips through one of those.”

Shockwave's eyes lit up. “Wait right here, I'll be right back!” Less than five minutes passed before she returned with a stack of home improvement magazines and a set of toy Smurfs. Psion and Zap couldn't restrain themselves from laughter and helped her make the switch. “It's psychological warfare,” she said with a lilt in her voice. “The Violator figure drinking tea with the Smurfs. Bondage magazines replaced with Better Homes and Gardens. It's perfect! Can we leave a wireless webcam hidden here so we can watch when he comes back?”

Zap hooked himself up to the sarium krellide batteries on the PsiPlane and began recharging. Meanwhile, he went through the contents of the boxes. The papers were old and indicated that Unitech was conducting nanotechnology research back in the 1980s, even a bit before the publication of Drexler’s Engines of Creation. The papers he'd recovered from the Man with the Green Gloves, however, were written in German and had more research material from von Ditfurth. These included additional diagrams and transcripts of the General’s research on Leibnitz, including the original layout of the Amber Room. They also referenced the Ahnenerbe and were likely the materials that led the Flaming Skull, Archdeacon Hellfrost, and Desecrator to the bunker in Germany in the first place.

Shockwave looked up from the evidence. “If the guy with the gloves is reading this material here and it's so important to him, then he's on their trail as well. He's not working with these guys. He's still evil, but he's not working with them.” Psion nodded, “It does look like he has his own agenda. If we hadn't approached him so aggressively, we might know more about it by now.”

They also found microfiche files containing the symbolic lexicon of the Amber Room panel markings.

Other boxes included more recent notes on nanotechnology by researchers who had formerly worked for Unitek, including additional research supported by DARPA relating to isomer power sources.

Regrouping on the Firehawk

Back in the situation room on the Firehawk, Psion reviewed all the data on their various operations. “I see we nearly have the supplies the mantoids need.”

Zap blinked, “The mantoids? Who are they?”

“You know, Sapient Species 2001a.” He looked at the blank stares from Zap and Shockwave. “The 'bugs'?”

“Oh,” said Zap.

Shockwave looked confused. “So wait, we've encountered 2000 other alien species?”

“No, no,” explained Psion. “The letter 'a' indicates that this was the first such species encountered in the year 2001.”

“That's stupid,” said Shockwave. “Why don't we number them in order. So 'one' would be the first, then 'two' would be second.”

“Because from the label, we know the year and order of its discovery. The practice is common in astronomy, for example, where--”

Zap shook his head. “What happens if you encounter two different alien species at the same time? Which one's 'a' and which one's 'b'?”

Psion shrugged. “Irrelevant. Choose between them arbitrarily and--”

“Nah! That's a terrible system! Terrible system.”

Psion closed his eyes for a moment and practiced a calming meditation technique (Dwayne: "Serenity now... Serenity now...). “Very well, then I'll leave it to you to produce a superior taxonomic identification system. Please have a report for me in the morning.”

But Zap wasn't that easily deterred. “We should name them like hurricanes. So … some sort of flesh-eating blobs might be called called 'Stacey'.”

Psion's wings twitched. “I like 'Species 2001a' better.”

An Exchange of Gifts

When they returned to the Gruber Mountains in Antarctica, the team was met by the same contact who'd met them before. The mantoid individual carefully took inventory of the boxes System 4ce had brought. “We thank you.”

“My name is Psion. This is Shockwave and Zap.”

The creature bobbed its head in understanding and replied with a chitnous sound that wasn't couldn't be reproduced easily by human vocal cords. Psion frowned and explained the problem. “Perhaps 'Dave' could be used temporarily until we have a better grasp of your language's phonetics?” This suggestion didn't seem to insult the mantoid.

“We would like to explore Bouvet Island, looking for the other ejected pod. As I mentioned before, the presence of another of your kind would probably facilitate that expedition if we do make contact. And then there is the matter of the 'doom' you mention so ominously on our last visit. We'd like to know more about that.”

“I am prepared to act as representative for our group. But I will need to make arrangements in advance.”

“Understood, that's perfectly reasonable. You should be able to contact us with this equipment.”

“Yes. We shall designate the frequency of 3.75 megahertz as our contact.”

“Very good.”

Zap looked around at the frozen vista surrounding them. “Would they like to live someplace warmer?”

“That's a good question! But right now this is a good place for them because it's so far removed from humans.” Psion turned back to Dave and asked, “Is this an enviroment you would prefer to live in?”

“It is not,” Dave admitted. “But we shall have to discuss the options among ourselves.”

Shockwave stepped forward with a box. “I put together this video collection and player for you. I think it should give you a good idea of what humanity is like. There's a player for them in there, too.”

Psion nodded. “Consider it a part of a cultural exchange.”

The insect looked from Shockwave to Psion, then at the box. “Thank you.” It presented a box of its own, an oddly textured container. “We offer you these items in exchange for the goods you have provided.”

“How should we handle this? What does it contain?”

“It is a collection of goods that we believe are above the technological capabilites of your world.”

Psion nodded gratefully. “Thank you.”

Zap mumbled under his breath, “They've given the monkeys a lighter.”

“Do you think I should give them our collection of Better Homes and Gardens?”


Checking the Box

Landing about 100 kilometers away from the Gruber Mountain site of the mantid survivor's encampment, Psion moved the box some distance away from the ship, then returned to scan it carefully. The box contained folded cloth, elaborate crystal constructs that appeared to be some kind of electronic devices. The devices and the cloth appeared to be equipped with low-power isomer power supplies. Satisfied the box was safe, he collected it and flew the PsiPlane back to the Firehawk.

Once back on the ship, the team settled into Mission Ops to discuss their recent encounter with the Man with Green Gloves. Despite Zap's worrisome prattle about an effort to root-kit Psion's psicorder, the telepath was quickly able to dispel such fears with a review of the principle psi-node used for avatar functions. There was no method to manually enter such a program from the keyboard, and no telepathic connection to the device prior to Psion's.

The device played back details of the encounter on the big screens of the room.

Psion summed up his observations of the Man: “On our arrival, I did not detect his presence with a thought-scan. Nor did my psicorder register any unusual psionic activity associated with him, but electromagnetic, biochemical, and other prosaic scans showed an essentially normal human, although he did have a curiously low heart rate that never rose during our confrontation.” The telepath scrubbed forward and backwards across the recording's timeline of events demonstrating his observations on each instrument track. “I'd assume the man is some kind of psi-null, not unlike the Men In Black we encountered several years ago. Yet I managed to acquire and hold a combat telepathy lock on him. It wasn't a good lock, but I did know what he was going to do.” He compressed his lips and furrowed his brow as he froze on an image of their adversary. “Did I delude myself into thinking I had the lock? Did I just somehow guess what he was going to do instead?”

Zap grinned a bit. “Reminds me of Doppleganger,” he said, referencing an inactive member of their group. “She had that whole 'harmony with the Tao' thing, remember?”

Psion nodded. “Are you suggesting proximity with this guy enabled me to make associations I normally wouldn't?”

“Or that his proximity makes you aware of … destiny. Maybe that's what he was doing with each of us.”

“Showing us the way. Literally the Tao.”

“Like a Chi divining rod?” suggested Shockwave.

“Yeah. He just shows you the way to the answer you seek. How's that taste, science guy?”

Psion drew himself into a more dignified posture. “Any scientist who refuses to acknowledge real world data also fails to observe scientific method, Zap.”

Shockwave chuckled. “Well I know how we beat him then. We have to get his yin and his yang going north and south.”

Psion shrugged. “Maybe we don't have to beat him.” But at Shockwave and Zap's combined glare, he conceded, “I know, I know. Hitler.”

Zap looked at Shockwave. “Maybe you should go visit Miss Cleo and get a five demon or gris-gris bag from her or something.”

“I don't think Miss Cleo is who we need to see. I think we need to go to Chinatown. Or Shangri-la.”

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