Play Date: October 16, 2016
Campaign Setting: Dawkin’s Dive
Part 7: A Fungus Among Us
Dr. Aidam Malkovy blinked his eyes. For a moment, he could have sworn that five people had ended the threat of the Lucifer Beetles in the upstairs lab, allowing his escape. And perhaps, in some other universe, he had been rescued by such a team.
But now there were four–a grizzled Sharpshooter sporting an M13 sniper rifle; a jittery serum-packing “Doc” who seemed too fond of his own juice; a fleet-footed Skirmisher holding both an M9 and a stun baton; and a Combat Medic cradling an M24 automatic rifle–an odd choice for a healer. They were an obvious ragtag group, and hardly the sort to be trusted with any important task…yet they were perhaps his last, best option.
“Er, thank you again for rescuing me,” he stumbled. “Task Force One certainly wasn’t much help; and the last I saw, they had retreated with the scientists still alive downstairs to Lambda Lab. I don’t even know if they’re still alive. Um,” he paused, fingering a necklaced pendant under his shirt, “unfortunately, I know the ‘boys back home’ are really going to want a copy of our work after this. We were studying the local fauna and their reactions to different types and concentrations of spores.”
Lee, the skirmisher, nodded in interest. “We’ve been picking up scraps of your journal from time to time, from whatever tore it apart. I’ve been following along. That is, what I can understand, at any rate.” Lee enjoyed living outdoors and studying nature, and the new types of life he had found on this planet fascinated him.
“Oh, is that so?” Dr. Malkovy answered. “In particular, we had identified 60 species that, in some way, interacted with the pervasive spores found here. And the master copy of my work is on the main computer system…er…in the main lab downstairs. We’re going to have to go down and retrieve that before we leave, or everything here will have been for nothing.”
Oriol the sharpshooter ran his fingers over his trusty sniper rifle and snorted. “What’s this ‘we’ stuff?” He grumbled. A web-like pattern of facial scars glistened in the dim light; he’d once barely escaped death fighting a monster he’d underestimated. He’d prefer not to relive the memory.
“There are people trapped down there, Oriol,” Amy the combat medic countered. She was still plagued by deep sense of personal failure and terror; she had once watched her house burn down around her, taking her family with it. She had vowed never to be so helpless again. “If they are still alive, they are hoping that someone–anyone–might be able to help them. And I’m not leaving until we give them that chance!”
“Now, now, calm down,” admonished “Doc” Dennis, readying a vial of depressant in case it was needed, “We’ll be fine. We haven’t run into anything yet that we weren’t able to handle.”
While his rescuers bickered, Dr. Malkovy took the initiative by approaching the nearby blast door that led down onto the Lambda Lab level. Opening a panel next to it, he grasped a hydraulic level and manually pushed the door open, a few inches at a time.
As the doors slid open, a white, spiderweb-like lace fell over the opening. It closely resembled the entrance to a haunted house of legend, but this silver hair would prove to be far more peculiar.
“Mycelia,” Dr. Malkovy noted, brushing the thin white filaments aside. He saw recognition in only Lee’s face. “Thin filaments that make up fungi and connect them together, like a network of roots,” he explained. “We have it on Earth too, but it only spreads between fungi, plants, and trees. Here on Dawkin’s Dive, apparently, even animals are part of the mix.”
Dr. Malkovy peered into the dark depths of the stairwell. “What’s especially worrying, however, is that none of this was here before the attack. It must have grown extremely quickly.”
A clattering noise seized their attentions. Immediately, Oriol held at finger to his lips and motioned for the others to wait. He took at knee at the edge of the stairs leading down, brought his rifle to bear, and took stock of the situation.
“It’s a woman,” he whispered finally. “Task Force One, if I don’t miss my guess. But she’s covered head-to-toe in mushrooms, and she’s not looking too good.”
The next sounds heard were of Amy and Dennis racing down the stairs to help her, despite Oriol’s barked warnings. The situation looked grim. While still obviously alive, the soldiers’ eyes were rolled back into her head, and she was convulsing in obvious agony. Whatever was growing on her–some form of mushroom or fungus bulbs–was slowly but aggressively turning her body to mush.
Amy frantically searched through her field bandages for something that could help the woman. She had means to bandage wounds, salve for burns, foam for burning, but nothing that could stop an insidious foreign invasion. Doc Dennis searched through his serum pack as well; he could artificially keep the patient’s heart beating through adrenaline; but once the growth spread far enough, it was a lost cause.
A shadow appeared over the both of them. “Let me look at her,” Lee said, bending down.
Lee had spent much of his time studying the life on Dawkin’s Dive–to both his benefit and his regret, as he had spent one long, sleepless night huddled at the back of a muddy cave. Other than a case of claustrophobia gained while hiding from a snarling beast, he had much to show for his xenobiology interests. For one, he could recognize a lot of the fungi species that covered the jungle landscape outside.
“It’s a saprotroph,” he said, startling back in surprise. “I recognize it. It normally grows only on dead things. It looks like either this version mutated, or the soldier is too weak to stop the fungus from spreading.”
“Is there a way to stop it?” Amy asked.
“A disinfectant ought to help,” Lee noted, taking off his rucksack and opening it, “and I think I picked up just the thing while we were in the cafeteria.” He retrieved a bottle of ethanol–nearly pure moonshine, but useful for more than imbibing.
The three worked quickly to save the woman’s life. As Lee tore the clothes and equipment from the patient, Amy doused a bandage with the alcohol and set to work clearing the invasive fungus. Lee followed their process up with a few careful injections of a regenerative serum. Though it would not be enough to bring her back from her coma, it would be enough to keep her stable for a while.
As they worked, the others took up overwatch in nearby corners…Oriol with his M13 sniper rifle, and Dr. Malkovy with a wavering M9.
Finally, the three stepped back from their patient. She was clear of the fungus, medically stable, and had been propped up as comfortable as they could make her.
“Think she’ll be fine until a rescue team gets here?” Amy wondered out-loud.
Dennis eyed her grimly. “I think we are all the rescue team that she’s going to get.”
Part 8: Stalkers in the Dark
Separated from the group as he was, Oriol’s sharp ears picked up a noticeable tapping sound coming from the direction of the nearby crates and boxes. Echoing off the walls, it was difficult to pinpoint; but Oriol had the distinct impression something (or somethings) were moving unseen nearby.
“Head’s up, guys,” he said quietly. “We got something creeping around behind those boxes. And I’m guessing it ain’t friendly.”
Having done as much as he could for the unfortunate woman, “Doc” Dennis stepped forward to investigate. Holding his M77 rifle at the high-ready, he pointed both his barrel and the attached flashlight down one alley between the crates. Seeing nothing, he turned to check another–and managed to just duck a slashing blade the length of his arm.
“Contact!” he yelled, throwing himself to the floor. A humanoid assassin seemed to materialize in front of his eyes, stepping away from the wall that had hid its silent form. Colors rippled across its skin, much like the shifting hues of an octopus or chameleon. Then, it was gone again, blending into the innumerable dark surfaces around them.
Dennis jumped to a knee and sprayed a quick hail of bullets down the alleyways nearest him. Each bullet ricocheted from the floor or embedded itself in a crate; whatever that creature had been, it was both cunning and fast.
“It’s using active camouflage,” Dennis called out, “kind of like those suits we hear about that the special forces use.”
“Duly noted,” returned Oriol. Whereas any other sniper might have fitted their rifle with a scope for better accuracy, Oriol was of a different persuasion. Opening the grenade launcher on the bottom of his M13, he inserted a web grenade, eyeballed the surroundings, and clicked the trigger. A loud pop later, and splash of goo coated the floors and crates in front of him.
His estimations were not in error. There was a distinct silhouette now visible atop a nearby crate, its outline betrayed by the adhesive still clinging to it. Oriol’s instincts took over at this point, and he immediately sent a round straight through the creature’s chest.
Seeing that his teammates had the situation already in hand, Dennis stepped away to check another path between the boxes. Briefly, a shape moved in the beam of his flashlight before vanishing. “Uh, guys, I don’t really want to scare anyone, but I think we got another one of these things around here.”
Finally left with a clear visual of where their first enemy was, Lee changed his body posture. He lowered his weapons to the ground, placed his palms outwards non-threateningly, and talked gently. “Woah, woah there. No need to be so angry. We’re all on the same side here. You don’t need to attack us. In fact, why don’t you call your friend to come help you get that sticky stuff off, and we can all go home?”
Lee’s practice in interacting with local fauna finally paid off. The partly-unveiled creature seemed to pause for a moment. There were a nearly-imperceptible chorus of clicks, and a second Stalker appeared next to the first. Within moments, the second had cleared the first of the goo, and both were invisible once more.
“Didn’t say I wasn’t going to kill you, though,” Lee muttered, kicking his M9 back up into his hand. He fired a single round in the space where he knew the creature still stood. He was rewarded with a dull thud, and the slow appearance of a leaking body. “That’s one, gentlemen. Keep your eyes peeled for the other.”
Once again, Oriol solved that problem with a liberal use of explosives. While his second “sticky” grenade didn’t catch the second monster in its splash, he did notice one crate, stacked above the others, where the goo should have splashed, but didn’t. “Aim for the top of that stack of boxes,” he said, indicating the spot. “Unless I miss my guess–”
He hadn’t. A concentrated volley of bullets brought the second creature tumbling from its perch, and the room was safe once more.
Loathe to leave a full storage room without cracking at least some of the boxes for useful items, the party did a quick search of the crates most easily accessible. They found two things of note.
First, there was (inexplicably) a crate housing a fully-functional Gauss Rifle. Dr. Malkovy could only guess that a scientist had somehow been able to requisition one for experimentation uses, and that it had slipped by the supply clerks. Oriol’s eyes lit up when he saw the case opened, and he held up the weapon with appreciative carefulness. This was one of the weapons used most often by Task Force One, and for good reason: it could punch a hole through an entire line of enemies, using small rods of depleted uranium. As trustworthy as his M13 was, this was definitely a step up. He handed his previous weapon to Dennis and happily shouldered the newer, heavier version.
Second, one of the “islands” of crates turned out to be a hollow ring of boxes, housing a hidden, empty space. Here, several tousled blankets and pillows lay. As Amy moved in to collect items for first aid, Dr. Malkovy furrowed his eyebrows.
“Er…if I had to venture a guess,” he mumbled sheepishly, “it would seem some of my scientists have formed a love tryst and use this as a secret rendezvous for their…rendezvous’s.”
Amy backed slowly away again from the blankets and pillows. Sterile, these were not.
Footprints, both human and alien, continue hectically, deeper into the installation. The party carefully followed them.
Part 9: A Metamorphosis
After the cargo bay, a branching hallway led to two unmarked doors, one on either side. When asked, Dr. Malkovy explained that one led to the installation’s generator, whereas the other led to the pens where the alien animals had been kept for testing (and beyond that, the level’s actual laboratory). Aware that restoring the generator would again provide electricity to the compound, allowing them to turn on lights, open doors, and restart computers, the group voted to go left.
The first room encountered was a break room for the level, including two cots, a coffee machine, and a small computer work station (currently unpowered). But the mycelia had taken deep root as well, and six pus-dripping cocoons lined the walls around them. Unseen, twisted forms squirmed within.
“Not unless they’re all four feet tall,” Dr. Malkovy noted. “No, I think we’re dealing with something completely alien here.”
Taking this as his cue, Oriol stepped a few feet ahead of his party, lining up one cocoon behind the other in his sights. He was pleasantly surprised at how little recoil his weapon gave as he pulled the trigger; it must have been internally counter-balanced. The cocoons, on the other hand, splashed green and white mucus as a round of depleted uranium ripped through them both.
The results were mixed. In response to the attack, the two cocoons swelled and burst open, depositing two distorted monsters. Their outlines pulsed and moved, as if they were not quite “finished” yet, and random limbs either retracted or extruded from their slimy forms.
Sensing danger, the other four cocoons burst as well. The party was effectively surrounded by an enemy they couldn’t quite define.
The forms of the Mutaloths shifted every moment. Over the course of seconds, some grew bigger and sprouting extra claws. They rushed the source of their attack, Oriol and his Gauss Rifle. The sharpshooter managed to fire another round through two more enemies before he was overcome by a flurry of blows, collapsing to the floor.
Amy the medic was on the wrong side of the monsters from Oriol and couldn’t reach him. Fortunately, though she couldn’t heal, she could still fight. She was just bringing her M24 automatic rifle to bear on the nearest monster when she felt two tiny puncture wounds, one on each side of the base of her neck.
“Hold on a sec,” said Dennis. “This cocktail is exactly what you’re gonna need.”
He wasn’t mistaken. Amy’s veins boiled under the effects of Dennis’s Blood Rage serum; her pupils dilated, and time slowed. Every surface, every motion, every slowly floating speck of dust was highlighted in sharp colors and stark detail. Her heart raced dangerously under the pressure, but the “Doc’s” accompanying Regeneration kept her heart from failing under the extra stress.
Empowered by the double dose, Amy placed her M24 against the ribcage of the nearest creature and squeezed the trigger. In her disassociated fugue, she calmly admired each shell casing as it flew from her weapon, and each drop of green gore that exploded from the creature. When it finally fell, its insides missing, it was like watching a water-logged tree slowly sink to the bottom of a murky lake.
Then pain and reality came rushing back at her, and she slapped her hands to her ears at the sudden jarring cacophony. A migraine was already exploding inside her head.
“Yeah, it’ll do that,” Dennis admitted. “It gets better over time, though.”
Dennis carefully failed to mention that his knowledge on these matters came from years of personal experience and addiction to the very serums he was charged with distributing. Having entered the security arm of Terra Venture to clean himself up, he only discovered a newer and wider access to the very substances he had sought to avoid. Still, he had much personal training to call on for dosages and effects, and his teammates always appreciated his presence.
Lee the skirmisher went for the second monster to have downed Oriol, and he made his attack count. Charging first to the left, rebounding off a wall, and then skirting behind the creature to come up next to it, Lee used his circuit about his foe to pinpoint a likely weak spot. He then thrust his stun baton directly into that area, stunning his foe and giving his teammates needed extra seconds to act.
Then, before their eyes, the creatures’ outlines bubbled and twisted again. Their final forms had still not been decided; and some grew weaker, while others grew stronger. One monster, initially staggering from its wounds, roared in triumph as its wounds closed and extra limbs sprouted. It flung itself directly at the party, eager to make use of its advantages while they still existed.
But this was not the case for all the monsters. Others withered and shrank, their mutagenic biology betraying itself. Realizing this, these weakening foes ran to hide themselves until their stronger forms returned. Some cowered behind the computer station; others ran into the next room.
Luck was on the team’s side, and only one enemy had strengthened itself in the last few seconds. It was a simple task to concentrate enough fire to drop it, then sweep the area to mop up the remainders. Having finally secured the area, Amy and Dennis finally turned to the task of mending Oriol’s wounds and getting him back up on shaky feet.
There were, fortunately, no actual human remains in the break area, suggesting that either it was empty when the attack came, or those present fled (or were dragged) away. The computer station was unhelpful, as it needed the installation’s power in order to turn on. Still, the party managed to find another scrap of Dr. Malkovy’s diary, tucked under the monitor:
…to date, I’ve identified a total of 60 species that produce, interpret, or in some other way respond to this general set of spores. I’ve categorized them in an index, which I’ve aptly named the ‘Malkovy Index-60,” or “MI-60” for short. It is my hope that I can present my findings at the next Interstellar Xenobiologists Symposium, assuming I can receive permission to leave…
Dr. Malkovy quickly confirmed this information, explaining how the spores of Dawkin’s Dive were passed from species to species, prompting different responses depending where, when, and how the original spores were formed. The study of this phenomenon, was, in fact, the primary focus of his installation.
The party ventured into the next room, where the generator waited.
Part 10: Holding the Line
The generator to the installation was held in its own room. The primary generator was a small fusion reactor, and well beyond Dr. Malkovy’s expertise to operate or repair. However, there was also a backup diesel generator, pre-attached to fuel and ventilation pipes. It seemed functional, and all that was required from Dr. Malkovy was for him to follow a simple start-up sequence of flushing the pipes, checking the gauges, and turning it on.
“This won’t take me long,” the lead scientist explained, “but it IS noisy. Expect the activity to draw some attention from our unwanted guests. You might want to, um, watch my back while I get this up and running.”
The four others nodded and took up positions between Dr. Malkovy and the door, weapons raised. They didn’t have to wait long.
As soon as the first shuddering sounds rattled the generators’ pipes, a chorus of chittering squeaks emanated from the walls around them. First one set, then two, then ten pairs of tiny, beady peered into the doorway. A veritable flood of alien creatures, each no larger than a puppy, began descending on the source of the noise.
Lee and Oriol, both of whom were wearing synthetic armor, cranked up the defense capabilities of their vestments. Hundreds of individual plates on their bodies turned rigid and locked together via static charges. The sudden stiffness would make moving and running that much harder, but it could also mean the crucial difference against these many individual attacks.
The true threat of the creatures soon revealed itself. The leading beasts leaped onto the legs of each of the party members and, instead of biting or clawing, actually exploded in a cloud of electrical sparks. While the teammates managed to duck most of the damage, Oriol and Lee felt their synthetic armor shudder at each shock.
“First phase is done; two more to go!” Dr. Malkovy yelled over the din. Thanks to his new friends’ placement, none of the creatures had managed to get near him nor his machine. But the second wave of foes appeared just as he began again, this time also appearing from beneath the mycelia and out of cracks or grates in the room itself.
This time, the team was not so fortunate. Thanks to the little space afforded by the room, each creature’s blast often hit two of the team members at a time. Holding the front of the line against the swarm, Oriol was attacked by three creatures at once. A quick succession of static shocks caught his Gauss Rifle in their effect, and he felt his new weapon spark and short. A tap on the trigger confirmed his fears–it was inoperable and would take at least a skilled technician to repair.
Oriol tossed his new weapon down in disgust, which he’d only had chance to use twice. In retrospect, this could easily explain how Task Force One had been so quickly overpowered. Well-funded, they had all been issued Gauss Rifles, Combat Lasers, Gatling Guns, and other high-tech, electric weaponry. That left a vital kink in their armor, so to speak, as all of their equipment would have been rendered useless at the first EMP blast from these creatures. They would have been worse off than even Oriol’s team.
Oriol, Amy, Lee, and Dennis were the “B Squad”…the poorly-funded washouts that no one really wanted to call. But now, for perhaps the first time, their “archaic” bolt-action and magazine/belt-fed weapons were the precise reason they were still alive.
But they weren’t out of the woods yet. “I’m going to need that M13 back,” Oriol confessed, retrieving his former weapon from Dennis.
The second wave fell to a symphony of well-aimed attacks. Amy’s M24 helped in gunning down multiple threats at once, and Dennis (who’d taken a central position) kept his friend topped off with appropriate injections. But the fight was not yet over.
“Just need a few more seconds,” Dr. Malkovy called out. “I’m igniting the cylinders now!”
The last groans of the diesel generator’s startup brought a final, overwhelming flood of enemies from all corners of the room. The team was well-coordinated and prepared, and the creatures were either gunned down on approach or threw themselves against readied armor. However, Amy caught movement out of the corner of her eye.
“Behind us!” she yelled. “Near the generator!”
Sure enough, two of the walking grenade creatures had poked their heads out from behind the generator, where they had apparently been hiding. They eyed Dr. Malkovy and growled. In mere moments, they would either kill the scientist, burn out the generator, or both.
Lee raised his M9 in response. “No!” shouted Dennis, “Don’t kill it!” He was, of course, correct. Killing the creature would have the same effect they were trying to avoid–that of an EMP blast.
“We need to move the creatures away from the generator somehow!” Dennis continued.
“You take the one up there,” Amy called. “I’ll handle the one down here.”
Dennis and Amy managed to do just that. Grabbing the creatures from behind (to prevent them from attacking and exploding), the two flung them towards the center of the room. (Dennis had an especially-good chuck and managed to launch his target twenty feet.) As soon as the enemies hit the floor, Oriol followed up with a quick “sticky” grenade to the center of the room. His sharpshooter’s training again proved useful, as his toss had pinned eight of the creatures to the floor.
“It’s on!” Dr. Malkovy declared jubilantly. As bright white lights flickered on overhead, the scientist turned with his own M9, joining the others in wiping out the last of the remaining threats.
Deep in the heart of the installation, beyond Lambda Lab and nearer where the abandoned uranium mine shafts stretched, the real secrets of K162 lay. Past stretching mycelia and the bodies of Task Force One, further past the terrified screams of one human still very much alive, the cause of the alien attack stirred in preparation for our protagonists.
Deep inside, the jungle waited.