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VC Compleat: Archaeology And Anthropology

VC: "By the Harshest Light of Day"
Jason — 29 Aug 1999, 6:43 PM

I'm a bit rusty, but the recent flow of stories have reminded me of the good ol' days of VC. Note to Terry, this story has no connection to any other, so far as I can see at this point. Timeline wise, I would say it is toward the end of the current established timeline, if not after most of the events listed in the timeline.

The stars shone brightly over them every night, but to them, they were unfamiliar stars-- unfamiliar constellations that shed light on their journey during the long nights. By now, their journey had been going on so long, so aimlessly that they had little more than a vague idea of where they were headed... and even less of an idea of how to get there. It occurred to them that they could navigate by the stars, but none of them ever quite figured out how to do it, much less to accurately read a compass use the information to lead them where they wanted to go.

When they had originally set out, their small caravan had been brand new. While in Federation City, the caravan's leader had recruited four hands that he thought would be able to help him as he set out on his task: travelling through nearby towns, cataloging plant and animal life, looking in hopes of finding samples of species that were presumed endangered or extinct, species whose vitality had been endangered by the merciless flow of settlers into the west..

That had been the plan, at least.

Their caravan had traveled through two towns when it got caught in a harsh thunder storm one evening. Before they could do anything, their horse had taken them wildly off course. By the time that morning broke and they could find their bearings, the caravan was far off-course in unfamiliar territory.

A long time had passed since then. Their caravan, which had never been meant for long range travel, was now creaky-- the wheels were shaky and uneven, the boards on the side of the caravan had been mostly torn off and the floorboards threatened to give way every time someone stood on them.

Nonetheless, it had an intrepid group of individuals living aboard her, hunting and searching for supplies as they desperately searched for some sort of safe harbor. Alas, instead of getting closer to home, they seemed to get further away from it. They hadn't been in a town where there were people who could assist with repairs or supplies in months (much less provide directions). And where there used to be an abundant amount of game to live off of, as they continued their trek, he vegetation and the animal life had gotten increasingly sparse.

Continued (Part Two)
Jason — 29 Aug 1999, 6:45 PM

Still, the Leader was determined to make it home and bring his hands back to civilization. Where he had originally been remote with his group of hands, over the months he had come to know them and bond with them. They were a family-- a family with it's share of problems, no doubt, but a family nonetheless.

Their leader was firm and often silent as he presided over the caravan. His face was bruised and scarred, mostly from his fight with a wild bear, but they were also served as relics from other dangerous encounters he'd had over time.

Despite the fact they were lost, the crew of the caravan did have a map of the area. The problem was that it had been damaged in an attack they had sustained from a nearby Indian tribe. The edges of the map had been burned, as well as a large section in the middle of the map. The crew had, over a long period of time, come to reason that they were somewhere in the middle of that missing section, and that on the other edge, there was a settlement. All they had to do was scout the area, and hope that they'd find it before their food and resources ran out.

But, it wasn't working out as well as they had hoped. They were moving further into the desert it seemed. This seemed necessary to reach the settlement the leader reasoned, but his crew were not as convinced.

Even worse, their trusty steed was getting older by the day. It was only a matter of time until he gave out for good. Even the First Hand, a cocky young man who had been trained as a horse trainer, couldn't keep the horse in good health. Soon, they were travelling in a region where the vegetation was so sparse that they couldn't even pull anything out of the ground to eat, save passing by tumbleweeds. And the ground was increasingly composed of sand, than it was anything else that was useful.

Among the group of five, there was a woman, arguably the most skilled among the bunch. She had long, golden hair and a fair complexion.

The golden haired woman emerged from the caravan, brushing her hair aside and inspecting the caravan's status. She was in charge of making repairs, tweaking the aerodynamics of the caravan in hopes it would go faster, and other tasks relating to keeping the caravan in good shape.

The sweat was dripping down her brow. They had been in the desert for a few weeks and it was getting much hotter by the day. Even since setting out from Federation City, she questioned the practicality of wearing a dress. In the first town she had visited, she had secretly procured a pair of pants, suspenders and cowboy hat, which she hid at the bottom of a trunk they had brought with them. Now it was time. She slid them on, curious as to what the reaction of her compatriots would be. They didn't really notice, although the First Hand gave her a wink that she wasn't quite sure what to make of.

Day by day, further the crew ventured in to the desert. They hadn't eaten in days, much less spotted any sign of a town.

As the horse trod throughout the desert, the blond haired woman sat at the front of the caravan, watching the landscape go by.


Instantly, she went spinning from the caravan, thrown a good two meters clear of the vehicle. As she got her bearings, she quickly realized that she hadn't been the only one. The rest of the crew had been thrown clear from the caravan, which had turned right over. She came closer, and found that the wheel had broken off. The horse was on its side, still attached to the caravan, hurt.

"Can you fix it?" the Leader asked.

"I think so," the blond haired woman asked.

"This was just what we needed," the cocky First Hand said directly to her.

"It's not like this is my fault," she retorted.

Part Three
Jason — 29 Aug 1999, 6:47 PM

"You're in charge of keeping the caravan in good shape," he responded.

"This caravan has been out in the wild for months. It was never supposed to be out this long!" she shouted.

"Enough," the leader said. "Get to it." He motioned for the fourth person, a black man, to lend her assistance, and they went to it immediately.

She took her tools and went to fixing the wheel, the black man sitting with her, helping her with whatever he could. She steadily worked, her eyes wide with determination as the sweat poured down her forehead. It was as if she was doing everything she could to hold back her frustration: trying, in vain, to turn her anger into useful energy in getting her job done. Nonetheless, no matter how much she tried, she couldn't get the wheel into it's groove.

Furious, she shouted at the caravan and got up, pacing around it, staring at it as if it were her worst enemy. The black man got up too, doing as much as he could-- watching her and waiting for her temper to sooth. Soon, she stumbled and fell to the ground, and he ran quickly to her aid. She was becoming faint, but she regained her composure.

"It's so damn hot," she said, staring up at the searing sun which, despite the lateness of the day, was still presiding at it's highest point in the sky.

She exchanged a firm glance with their leader, who had walked by to check on their progress. His expression did not change, and after returning her glare for a moment, he continued on his way, to deal with something brought to his attention by one of the other hands.

"Come on," the black man said. "Let's try this again. I'll help you."

The blond woman got up, her temper broken by her exhaustion. This time she was going to get it right. Together, she and the black man got the heavy wheel back into it's groove, and affixed it properly.

"You did a good job," he said. "I don't know what we'd do without you."

She smiled, and they stood, going to report the good news to the other four.

"So we can start off again?" the leader asked.

The blond woman looked to the horse, which was still resting on the ground.

"The question is, how far can we go?" said the First Hand.

The Leader turned to the fifth, who was turned away from the rest. He barely said anything, not believing in non-essential conversation. "I want you to do everything... and *anything*... you can to get that horse working for us again."

The fifth simply acknowledged the Leader's request, and proceeded to work immediately.

"We'll start off again in the morning," the Leader said to the rest of his crew.

The blond woman looked back up to the sky, and then looked at the black man's pocket watch, observing the time.

"When will that be, I wonder...?" she asked. "The sun seems like it will never set. This has got to be the longest day of the year."

There was a moment of silence, as the Leader gave a creepy look, as if he were confident for some reason.

"It's the equinox," he affirmed, looking at the sun, which was shining down on them intensely, still high in the sky. "I think it's a good omen. Things are going to change for the better very, very soon."

VC: "The Equinox Diaries"
Jason — 30 Aug 1999, 12:26 PM

The Continuation of "By the Harshest Light of Day".

Caravan Log, September 27.
It's been four days since we were last forced to stop travelling. Since then, our caravan, which we've now dubbed the Equinox for good luck, has been travelling well and there have been no further breakdowns. There's still no sign of a way out of this desert or any inhabitation of any kind, but I'm hopeful that with a renewed sense of direction and determination we'll find our way out of here soon. There's still the matter of our horse, whose condition appears to be getting worse, not to mention the fact that none of us have eaten in sixteen days.

"Rudy," a voice called.

Rudy turned abruptly, he didn't like to be disturbed while writing in his journal, and because he was so unaccustomed to it he was jarred when his voice was called. He was so used to this being his own personal time-the time when he wasn't forced to attend to his crew's needs.

"Yes," he replied, closing shut his journal. "What is it, Max?"

Max, the First Hand, sat down beside Rudy inside the moving caravan. "Rudy, we're getting closer to the mountains we saw in the distance. There may be no way out of here. What do we do?"

"We continue toward the mountains. Hopefully there'll be some kind of wildlife living there. It's better than this desert."

Max nodded, he didn't particularly like the idea of getting lost in the mountains, but there didn't appear to be any other way out save turning around and wandering back through the desert.

Then, Max's stomach growled. It was embarrassing, because he was sure that Rudy could hear it.

"Hungry?" Rudy asked. Without waiting for an answer, he silently turned back to his journal and muttered, "so am I".

"I don't know how long we can go like this," Max said. "We either have to find something to eat... or... make something to eat."

Rudy didn't respond to this comment, still digesting what Max's intention was. (The irony that it was the only thing he had digested in a long time was not lost on him.)

"I hope we make it to the mountains," Rudy said. "Hopefully the horse will last that long."

"I know how we could solve our problem. We could eat the horse," Max suggested.

Rudy turned. "Do you really want to walk to... and through... the mountains?"

"It's just a suggestion," Max responded. After a moment, he turned and went outside, to sit at the front of the caravan, leaving Rudy to his journal.

The golden haired woman was out there, sitting with Noah, the black man, and the fifth man. The sun was going down, and it was finally starting to get cool again.

"What's that?" she said peering in to the distance.

"Miss Marla?" Max asked.

She pointed in the distance... there was a light, coming from a clearing in between two peaks. There was something definitely there. Max turned, and returned back into the caravan to deliver the news.

VC: Equinox Diaries, Part Two
Jason — 30 Aug 1999, 12:29 PM

Personal Journal Entry, September 28.
Last night, we finally saw something. In the distance, I managed to spot a dim glow on the horizon. It looks like it was a camp fire. If that weren't reason enough to be hopeful, this morning, in the desert, we discovered discarded spears, old foot-prints, all leading toward the mountains... definite signs of some kind of habitation. Now we're headed toward the clearing I spotted last night. We should be there by the end of the day. Whoever we're headed towards, I just hope they're friendly. On another note, I think my decision to change my attire from a dress to a more practical pant-suit is having the opposite desired affect. Instead of getting less attention, it appears I'm getting more. The other men seem to always be looking at me. And whenever I return their glance, they pretend they haven't even been looking at all. Maybe I made a mistake when I decided to start wearing my tight-fitting black leather pants.

Miss Marla put down her ink pen and closed her journal, sliding it underneath her dress. This was the dress which she thought she would never miss but she now found herself looking at longingly.

Outside, Noah and Max were sitting together, watching their destination get closer.

"Think there's a pass ahead?" Noah asked.

"Maybe," Max replied.

"Have any idea where it might lead us?" he asked.

Max thought for a second. "If I were to guess, I'd say we're getting pretty close to Voyager City."

"Voyager City? I've heard of it. High crime rate, I hear."

"Yeah," Max said, "but it's a lot of fun. And they have the best looking women there this side of Defiant City."

"You've been there?" Noah asked.

Max took a second to think back to his days at Voyager City.

"Yeah," he replied. "I been there. It's where I learned to become a horse trainer."

"Sounds like there's a story there." Noah hinted.

Max laughed. "Only the same old story. Went there because it was the best place to become a horse trainer. Met a girl, fell in love."

"So what happened?"

"Same old story, she broke my heart. I was head over heels for this girl. She was beautiful, smart, stong, and she had ridges you had to see to believe." Max recalled.

Noah was interested. "And...?"

"And..." Max continued, "she dumped me. Threw me out. She's a love 'em and leave 'em type gal, that one is." He thought about it some more, then continued. "I opened up my heart to her. I loved her. We were so much alike. Kindred spirits. Rebels. We were both going to drop out of our horse-training program and run off to Federation City together. But, then she wanted nothing to do with me."

This was obviously difficult for Max, as a tear streamed down his cheek.

"It looks like you're heart really got broken," Noah said. "Maybe that's why you keep everyone at arm's length."

Max hadn't thought of that. "Yeah," he said. "I guess I just never realized it-but I don't think I ever quite got over her."

"Looks like you've got a score to settle when we get to Voyager City," Noah said.

Max nodded. "Yeah, I guess I do have some unfinished business left there. If we ever get there." Then, he tried to look on the bright side. "On the other hand, am I ever happy to be out of that relationship. She was too high-maintenance. And you know the type--- she chews 'em up and spits 'em out, and has a great time doing it." Max chuckled. "Man, do I feel sorry for whatever guy she's with now."

A few minutes later, when Marla came back out, she heard them continuing to talk. Max seemed to be talking about a woman he'd once been with, and in his typical fashion was pointing out all of her flaws.

"Not to mention her father!" he said to Noah.

"What was wrong with her father?" Noah asked.

Part Three
Jason — 30 Aug 1999, 12:30 PM

"Man, talk about giving the heebie-jeebies! You could hear him breathing from the next room! And don't get me started on that tattoo, either."

Marla always liked tattoos, so she was intrigued with the story and continued listening to it, the most interesting part dealing with a dispute between Max and the girl over a stolen sweater. While listening, Miss Marla looked out towards them, as the clearing drew closer. What ever they were going to find there, they were going to find it soon.

VC: "The Equinox Diaries" Continued
Jason — 30 Aug 1999, 3:10 PM

The Ransom Entries

Caravan Log, September 29.
Early this morning we arrived at the clearing in between the mountains. As we proceeded through it, we discovered strange markings and paintings marked on the rock face of the pass. Max suspects they have a spiritual significance for whatever group of people are indigenous to this region. Later today, we found a burned out camp-fire, abandoned, but we're sure it had been used recently. We can only presume it's the glow on the horizon that Marla spotted a day ago, the beacon that led us to this pass. We proceeded carefully through this region, in hopes of meeting up with whoever lives here... and hopefully making peaceful contact.

Slowly, the caravan wound its way through the narrow pass. Every member of the Equinox's crew sat outside, watching carefully for any sign of other people, whether it be in the form of a peaceful settlement, or in the worst case scenario-an attack.

The banks of rocks extended high above them, creating an ominous effect that made of member of the crew get the distinct feeling that they were being watched from above. Rudy sat out in front, his rifle tucked beside him, not wanting to appear hostile but ready to respond to any assault. Marla and the fifth man were fairly cool about the whole thing. She knew that she was frightened, to be sure, but tried to keep it within, not that her new leather constraints allowed much room for anything to spill out anyway.

Conversely, Noah and Max were worried and they let that emotion play out on their face. As they continued, Max felt a shadow fall over him from high above. He looked up, and saw the silhouette of a body hanging over them from high above... strapped to the top of the rock face some how.

"Rudy!" he gasped.

Ransom looked up.

What Max saw wasn't a body at all, but it was a definite indication that we were headed toward some sort of settlement.

"It's just a scarecrow," Rudy reassured him.
"If they're putting up scarecrows, wouldn't there be something they want to scare away...?" Noah asked. "Maybe we won't be welcome."

"We don't have a choice," Rudy said. "We either keep going or we go back in take our chances in the desert."

Seeing no one willing to take his challenge, Rudy continued, "Now let's keep it together. Keep your nerves in check. We're moving forward."

Steadily, for about half a day the Equinox continued it's harsh trek forward. However, our horse was increasingly growing ill and tired. We hoped that he would get us to our destination, but I informed the crew we should be prepared to continue on foot.

The horse made a sound as they turned a corner of the pass. Rudy was concerned for a moment, before he got the opportunity to see what the horse had already seen: the pass had ended, and they were now in a clearing. There was certainly more vegetation... it was still sparse but it seemed clear that they had left the desert behind. And what's more, about 400 meters away tents could be made out.

They drew their way toward the tents. The horse moving, slowly and the crew taking no unusual action to provoke it's inhabitants. They saw people in the village, far away. They seemed to be indigenous to this region, and Rudy had never seen the likes of them before. Without any sign of protest, the Equinox pulled up in to the middle of the settlement.

VC: The Ransom Entries, Part Two (Proper)
Jason — 30 Aug 1999, 3:16 PM

They called themselves the Ankhari Indians. They were a small but friendly tribe that lived off the plant and wild life that existed in the valley. They told us that they had lived there thousands of seasons without interruption, and that while they had never seen people like us before, their ancient texts told of visitors who would pass through the region. The Ankhari were a very hospitable and spiritual people who offered us food and shelter for as long as we wanted to stay.

"I think I could learn to like it here," Max said as two Ankhari women took him by the arms and lead him on a tour of their village. Rudy and Noah watched as they lead Max away.

"You are welcome to stay with our people as long as you wish," said Kintek, the Ankhari High-Chief. "And we would request that you join us for our Harvest Meal tonight."

I wasn't about to turn down a full meal on behalf of my crew, nor was I eager to reject the hospitality the Ankhari had shown us. I informed my crew to work with the Ankhari who were a technically proficient group of Indians in performing repairs on the Equinox and in replenishing our supplies.

Marla worked with a young Ankhari Indian male on repairing the caravan who, like most of the Equinox men, spent far too much time looking at her skintight pants. When Marla looked at him, he didn't bother to turn away. 'At least he's honest about it,' she reasoned.

"Excuse me for looking," the boy finally said. "But it is not often I am confronted with a goddess."

Marla blushed. Well *there* was a compliment!

"Tell me, Antelope Woman, why do you wish to leave our land?" he asked.

"Huh?" Marla responded. "Antelope Woman?"

"You aren't the Antelope Woman?" he responded.


The boy was dismayed.

"Forgive me. In these parts there is a legend of a woman draped in a shiny black covering who lives in the hills and runs with the antelopes. At night, she comes and takes our food and supplies, so we leave an offering at the edge of the settlement for he so that she will not plunder our resopurces."

"And I..." Marla started... "resemble this woman?"

"According to legend," he responded.

Marla thought this was curious, and wondered what the source of this legend might be. No one had ever seen the Antelope Woman close up, but most Ankhari were certain of her existence.

That night, with most of our repairs complete, we enjoyed the feast that the Ankhari had prepared for us.

"How long do you plan to stay with us?" the Chief asked Rudy, as they walked through the settlement after dinner.

"I think we'll stay the night, but we'll set out tomorrow morning."

"Do not feel obligated to leave, Mr. Ransom. Stay as long as you wish."

"Thanks for the offer, but I think it's best if we go. Our destination is still far from here and we have a long journey ahead, and our horse might not make it much further." Ransom told him. "But there is one thing you could do for me. Our map of this region was destroyed when we were attacked by another Indian tribe a while back. You wouldn't happen to know how to get to a nearby town?"

"I'm sorry," Kintek responded. "Our people have never left the valley."

Rudy was disappointed to hear this, but wasn't surprised.

VC: The Ransom Entries, Part. 3
Jason — 30 Aug 1999, 3:20 PM

Nonetheless, the Ankhari chief invited us to attend an ancient ceremony late that night, where he promised to ask the ancestral spirits to bless our journey. Later that night I assembled my crew as members of the Ankhari performed this ceremony for us.

After a few chants, the younger Ankhari Marla had been working with gave the Chief a strange tube. He wove his hand around it, and it illuminated.

Rudy, Marla and Max exchanged glances, having never seen anything like it. As the ceremony began, God fearin' men as they were, Rudy and Max removed their hats and looked upward. Soon the clear, starry sky was disturbed. A vortex formed above them.

"Must be a trick of the light and wind," Max whispered to Rudy, who looked on, with an open mind waiting to see what would happen.

Then, something emerged from the vortex. It was one of the Ankhari spirits: it glowed brightly and hovered over us briefly.

"That's one big firefly," Max said.

As the "firefly" spirit observed the scene, then quickly turned around and returned into the vortex which closed after it.

Marla, Noah and Max had looks of wonder on their faces.

"The Ancient Spirits have blessed your journey. Continue, secure in the knowledge that you will make a swift arrival at your destination."

As the Ankhari dispersed, the crew stood around, looking at the Chief Ankhari's device. As Rudy turned to joined them, something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He took a few steps away from everyone, and kneeled down on the ground.

There were drops of thick, wet black liquid on the ground, sinking in to the dirt, right beneath where the spirit had appeared. He was certain they hadn't been there before. Rudy put his hand in the dirt, picking up some of the black liquid in his fingers, rubbing it, smelling it and checking its texture.

Rudy paused in thought, considering this discovery.

The Chief Ankhari had told us that the Spirits had blessed our journey. But they weren't Spirits. They were petroleum based life-forms. I assembled my crew to discuss the situation.

"I've checked it out, and the creature that we saw left a small residue of oil behind." Max said.

Noah chirped in, "I've asked some of the other Ankhari if they've ever seen this before and they say that they have. It's left behind every time one of those spirits come through their "spiritual corridor".

Rudy thought about this. "This is the first unique creature we've seen on our journey. I'd like to take the opportunity to try and study it. To actually conduct the mission that we set out to do."

Max turned. "There's only one problem, I don't think the Ankhari Tribe is going to take too kindly to us studying their ancestral spirits."

"Then we'll have to see if we can summon the spirits without the Ankhari looking over our shoulder." Rudy concluded. "Marla, the boy who assisted the Ankhari Chief during the ceremony seems to have taken a liking to you. See if you can get a hold of one of their summoning devices." Marla nodded, and left immediately. "Max, Noah, we're going to need to keep it here awhile, build a net." Likewise, they went to see what they could get from the Indian settlement. Then, Rudy turned to the fifth man.

"We don't know what we're in for. If this creature is intelligent... or otherwise. It may want to put up a fight when we catch it. We may have to sedate it somehow."

Emotionlessly, the fifth man, a bald gentlemen said "I'll see what I can do."
Rudy smiled. "You haven't failed us yet, Doc."

VC: The Ransom Entries, Part Four
Jason — 30 Aug 1999, 3:26 PM

Later that evening, Marla arranged a trade with the young boy. In exchange for one of their summoning devices Marla gave him a collection of beads that we had obtained from another Indian tribe before we entered the desert. With the summoning device in hand, we performed the same ritual later that evening.

Again, the vortex formed just over their heads, and the firefly spirit emerged, taking note of the people assembled.

"Now!" Rudy cried.

Quickly, Noah and Max threw a net over it, restraining it. The creature thrashed around, oil splattering on everyone. Before the Doctor could inject it with what he had concocted, its resistance subsided, as did all movement whatsoever.

It was already dead. Upon examination Marla discovered that its body was composed of high concentrations of oil. Which left us with the mystery of how this life-form evolved, and what we had to do now.

"I don't think the Ankhari are going to like the fact that we inadvertently killed one of their spirits." Noah said.

"We won't be here long enough for them to find out." Max responded.

"Marla?" Rudy asked, waiting for her report.

"Well, the interesting news is that I can convert the oil from the creature's remains to any number of useful things. Kerosene for lamps and heaters... In this creature alone to fill those needs we shouldn't need another source of oil for a number of months."

"So, you're suggesting we use its remains?" Noah asked.

"I'm not suggesting anything," Marla said. "Just telling you the science."

The Doc stepped in. "Well why shouldn't we," he said coldly. "This creature possesses resources desperately needed to survive."

"This creature is also a living being, one we know little about." Marla responded.

"One that clearly doesn't live in this region," Noah added. "It was *brought* here somehow."

"The same is true of many other creatures we've hunted and killed in the name of survival. Let's not turn to hypocrisy now. The fact that we summoned it here instead of chasing it like other game is irrelevant. It has something we need so it's only logical that we take advantage of that. For our *own* survival. We are, after all, the superior life forms." The Doc reasoned.

"Are we?" Noah retorted. His point was ignored.

"Doc Savage," Rudy said, "once again you've provided a logical argument for us to consider."

"Like I said," Max broke in. "I think we should get out of here as soon as possible. Before the Ankhari find out what happened and put their pacifism aside."

Just then, their horse nearby keeled over. They ran to his aid, and it wasn't long until the Doc announced the prognosis. "He's alive, but he's not going anywhere."

"Poor Berman, he's served us so well!" Marla said.

"Are you an idiot?" Max asked. "He's the one that got us lost in the first place!"

We were stuck in this situation with no way out. Our horse was no longer going to be of service to us. The creature was already dead, so what else could we do but make the best of the situation?

"Marla," Rudy asked, "Can we convert this oil in to some sort of... fuel...?"

Marla considered this. "You mean, make the caravan run on the fuel as some sort of power source...?"

"Exactly!" Max chirped.

Marla shrugged her shoulders. "Well I don't see why not. I'm sure we could convert the oil emitted by the creature in to some sort of power source for the caravan. With my engineering skills, I'd say it shouldn't take me more than a few hours to convert the caravan to operate on it's own!"

That was exactly what Rudy wanted to hear. "Get to it."

VC: "The Ransom Entries", (Concluded!)
Jason — 30 Aug 1999, 3:27 PM

Marla worked throughout the night using supplies provided by the Ankhari to build a mechanical contraption that would allow the caravan to move under it's own power, using the oil from the creatures as a source of fuel. Early the next morning, she was ready.

"Boy, that was tough work." she said.

Max observed the new addition to the caravan. "It's not much to look at," he said.

"You're not much of a sight for sore eyes either, Max." she said.

"But will it work?" Rudy asked.

"Yes it will," Marla said. "I'm certain of it."

"Okay," Rudy announced to his crew. "Get your gear on board. Max, make sure you bring one of those summoning devices. We'll need to replenish our fuel."

Marla paused at this idea, while she had been constructing the new system, she'd never considered that this was going to be a long-term method of transportation. Still, she tried to concentrate only on what Rudy had asked of her. Looking back at the Ankhari settlement once more, she boarded the caravan.

As the Equinox started up, Max steered the caravan out of the settlement and further into the clearing, leaving the mountains, the desert, the Ankhari and their trusty horse behind. The caravan moved much faster than it ever did under horse power.

"Boy, this was a great idea," Noah said. "Why hasn't anyone else come up with this?"

After a moment, Max responded with the answer. "I guess it's true what they say... necessity really is the mother of invention."

Ransom held his gun as the Equinox pulled away, guarding against any future threat.

We had found our salvation. The Equinox was making more progress toward home in two days with Marla's advances than it had in two months before this happened. A few days later, we began depleting our supply of the creature's oil residue. What were we supposed to do? We continued calling upon the aliens and capturing them. After the first time, it wasn't as easy for us to do it. It became difficult for me to rationalize what we were doing. Knowingly summoning an innocent, peaceful creature to its death was becoming difficult to justify, regardless of our desperate need of the fuel that they provided. Event he Doctor's cold rationalization for our acts became difficult to accept. I stopped thinking about it, instead, devoting my time to gathering food and other resources and leaving the summoning of the aliens to Max and the others. And I found myself... simply hoping that we'd find our way home soon.

"A Good Defence..." (Part One)
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 8:00 PM


The sound of a bullet fragment pierced through the air, unfurled with deadly speed and accuracy from the rifle of Rudy Ransom. The Equinox raced through an open plain at high speed, making a quick run through the area, as if being pursued. A bystander would have seen the caravan Equinox, and might have thought it to be possessed: there was nothing pulling or pushing it, and yet with an unbelievable speed and sense of direction it headed forward, leaving clouds of dirt and sand floating in the air in it's wake.

But even the disturbance on the ground that the Equinox left in its wake couldn't explain what was happening in the sky, which despite being clear as a summer's day, crackled with the sound of thunder and screamed with the sound of a carnal cry of agony. It was as if ghosts or some other spirits watched from above, crying out in anger-- an anger that demanded vengeance.

Above the Equinox, little disturbances formed in the air... they were almost as if the sky was being ripped open, but it was unlike anything any of them had ever seen before. At least, before they met the Ankhari.

After unleashing a ferocious volley in to one of these disturbances, Ransom, who was standing at the front of the caravan, wheeled around, careful to maintain his balance to take aim on his other side.

The Spirits that emerged-the Ankhari's holy spirits, came howling out of these corridors, making what seemed like suicide runs at the caravan. The Equinox's crew manned all parts of the caravan, armed with revolvers or rifles, defending their caravan and each other from the attack.

Max Burke had just managed to close a corridor before an Ankhari spirit had emerged, when behind him, he could hear the fizzle in the air that indicated another spirit's approach. He wheeled around quickly, anticipating the worst. As he did, the fissure was already being left in the distance by the caravan, as the Equinox raced ahead at break-neck speed, maneuvering around the stationary corridors that lay ahead.

Still, Max raised his rifle, steadied his arm and took his shot. The emerging creature was struck, but no sooner than he had taken his shot he was struck by another one of the spirits. The creature that had aimed for Max had almost missed: but by shifting his center of gravity at an inopportune time, Max had inadvertently let the creature make contact with his shoulder, leaving behind an agonizing flesh wound that burned within from the creature's venom. The force of which the creature had struck him sent him flying through the caravan, landing inside it.

On the other side of the caravan, Noah's revolver was firing as quickly as he could load it. Marla had a rifle and was both firing into nearby vortexes and striking nearby creatures with the butt of her weapon.

Then, there was a loud, nearby shriek.

"A Good Defence..." Part Two
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 8:02 PM

Ransom ducked from the creature that was heading toward him just in time. He didn't think it would have been so close-hoping, up until a moment ago, that Max would have covered his back. But then the Equinox, under the Doctor's control, swerved to avoid a forming fissure. The sharp turn left Ransom feeling weightless. Indeed, before he had a chance to determine his bearings he had already struck the ground with full intensity before realizing he'd been thrown off the racing vehicle. He steadied himself, and stood up shakily, holding firm to his rifle and watched the Equinox continue off without him, attempting to evade the attacking creatures. Max was down, the Equinox was out of control and he had been thrown off and there was no defense from the Ankhari spirit's attack. For a moment, he felt almost... relieved. The fissures were continuing to form along the path of the Equinox, and for the first time in a few hours, the air around him was crisp, clear... and didn't hold any violent threat. As hard as it was for Ransom to reconcile- - he was under attack by something from beyond nature as he knew it- - something that most certainly didn't belong on Earth. And yet now he was paying the penance for attacking the spiritual world. Was this the end? He watched the Equinox flee, under heavy attack. Maybe this was the kind of arrogance that he, as a spiritual man, had always believed could only be punished by a relentless show of supernatural force. Truth be told, this was the first moment he'd allowed himself to think about what he was doing and this situation in all the time he and his hands had been conducting this procedure on the Ankhari spirits.

Even still, all of this took only a few seconds. His reprieve from attack lasted only a moment-hardly enough time for any personal sense of assuredness of his safety to set in. Nearby, he could hear the rattling noise that was indicative of the fissures. It was like the sound of a rattlesnake.

Again, he had a split second of introspection. He was under attack by the holy spirits of the Ankhari, an Indian tribe. And yet, their presence was signalled by the sound of a rattle shaking. He wondered, for an instant, if there was something on a mythological level that connected the two. Both the snake and the spirit, he had learned over his long journey, could be relentless, merciless and vicious. If there was a species on Earth that represented these supernatural creatures, the rattlesnake would most definitely be it, he decided.

He turned, and saw the creature's corridor forming right behind him. He held up his rifle, and fired in to the fissure which was forming about a half-meter above him. It closed before anything emerged but by the time he had sealed it he had barely enough time to wheel around and start firing on the corridor that was forming where he had just been looking. After a few shots, it closed, and for another instant he was secure. No fissure was forming again but he was certain it would not be long before one did. A few moments later, a corridor formed, about ten meters away from him, farther away than the ones that had formed roughly right over head before. He held up his rifle, prepared his aim and put his finger over the trigger.

"A Good Defence" (Part Three)
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 8:03 PM

Realizing again, that he was completely alone and couldn't fight in the middle of an open clearing for long, he nonetheless made his decision to continue to fight to the last instead of yielding to the Spirits, despite their obvious anger. If he were to face his own end, what would this mean for him? Would he be condemned for all time? Despite the uncertainty of the fate of his soul, he was determined to stay alive, if not for his sake, then for the sake of the hands that he had hired. He was going to get them out of this. With that sense of determination, he steadied his aim then squeezed the trigger.

And nothing happened. He was jarred-- panic-stricken-- for an instant. 'What happened?' he thought. He pulled the trigger again rapidly, and again. Was it jammed? There was no sound from within. He was out of bullets.

He grabbed his rifle with both hands, prepared to use it as a hand-weapon. Then, he heard a growling... out came the creature, racing toward him.

As it came toward him, finally within range, he struck out at it with his weapon, firmly striking it down. His thrust had expended so much force from his own self that he had thrown himself from under his feet. Just as the creature struck the ground in front of him, he fell on his back. But it did not take long for the rasping, grasping creature to turn around and once again leap at Ransom.

His rifle thrown a good three meters away and with him still on his back, just barely propped up by his arms, Ransom saw the creature leap toward him quickly. Before he could do anything, before he could even react or lunge, the creature was struck by something. It fell, still alive, before barely managing to return to its fissure. It was strange, he thought, that the spirits should decide to come in to this world, only to find an atmosphere in which they could barely survive. The creatures had always acted as if the air was poison to them. Ironic, Ransom thought, that this should be the case given his own actions in this world-actions which were progressively poisoning himself.

As for the creature's sudden retreat-- he was almost certain it had been shot, but from where?

Ransom turned around. What had scared it off was a large looming presence on the horizon: it was the Equinox.

With no more fissures forming, the caravan returned, weapons blazing to fire at the vortexes forming around Rudy.

"Looks like they've taken enough damage," Doc Savage told him, once the caravan pulled up alongside him. "They've called off their attack... for now."

"A Good Defence" (Part Four)
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 8:03 PM

Ransom looked around. The caravan had been damaged, and indeed part of it was still burning, from the Ankhari creature's attack.

Max was inside, being tended to. He was injured, but would likely recover.

"The good news is that we managed to obtain five more specimens. We should be able to re-fuel for the next few weeks." The Doctor said. "We may not need the summoning device."

"Marla," Rudy said. "Begin converting the oil into usable fuel."

Marla, bruised, nodded.

"This is almost becoming too easy," Doc Savage said.

Rudy was almost repulsed. He looked at the damage they had incurred... the injuries they had all sustained-the scars they had taken- both physically and within. The truth was that they had barely escaped with their lives after that attack.

"It's easy to justify the killing when you're the one under attack," Ransom said bitterly.

All the while fully aware that their luck might soon run out.

VC: "A Chance Encounter"
Jason — 2 Sep 1999, 6:42 PM

(This story takes place shortly after "The Best Defence...", picking up after the Equinox's crew found cover from attack. The story picks up directly from there, although it doesn't really deal with the plight of the caravan or its crew.)

Later, the Equinox had found cover in a heavily wooded area. The crew had found that this provided a sufficient amount of cover from the aliens. With this sense of temporary security, Ransom sent his crew out to search for more supplies to replace what had been lost in the last attack. The crew set out in a pattern. Ransom and Max went together. Max's arm was in a sling but had stopped bleeding as much as it had been, thanks to some herbs that the Ankhari had provided to them.

Marla stayed close to the caravan, keeping an eye on it, picking fruit and collecting firewood nearby.

Her arms full, she returned to the Equinox, bringing her supplies into the caravan, barely watching where she was going. Placing her supplies down, in the corner of her eye she saw the figure of a woman, dressed in black leather. Thinking for a second that someone had found a mirror and for some reason put it in the caravan, she straightened herself and turned, intending to admire the reflection. Instead of a mirror, the image standing parallel to her was not her reflection-but rather the image of a real, living woman, who was also in the Equinox with Marla.

Marla gasped, jarred for a second as she found herself standing across from an intruder. She must have unknowingly caught her in the act when she returned with her supplies. But now as opposed to the war they had been fighting with the Ankhari spirits, it was Marla who was unprepared and the intruder who had the advantage.

She froze for an instant. Looking at the woman in front of her, she saw someone much like herself, covered head to two in black leather. The woman had pale skin with some sort of marking, tribal perhaps, on the side of her face. Her hair was dark and closely cropped, but instead of being as stunned by her counterpart's presence as Marla was, she was already holding a gun on her.

At that moment, however, Marla let loose an ironic chuckle, despite looking at the barrel of a weapon. Something had struck her, and she let her thought loose to the woman who stood in front of her. "Don't tell me," she said. "You're the Antelope Woman."

"Qui no koos chek na' ah!" the Antelope Woman exclaimed, motioning Marla with her gun. Marla looked over to what the Antelope Woman was referring to.

Marla put her hands up in the air in front of her. "Uh, okay...." She said, trying to reason with the Antelope Woman. "You want those? You can take those supplies."

She eased out of the way.

"Just don't shoot, please." The Antelope Woman seemed uncertain as to what Marla was trying to do. She clearly didn't speak English, or at least, didn't speak it well. Marla motioned toward the supplies, and the Antelope Woman jumped forward and took what she wanted, still holding the gun on Marla.

"Take them. ...It's our offering to you... take them with our blessings... ah, Antelope... woman." Marla said. "Just don't shoot."

The Antelope Woman took what interested her, and then without another word eased out of the caravan, leaving Marla with the distinct impression that she had just been mugged.

VC: "A Chance Encounter" (The Big Payoff!)
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 12:41 AM

"A Chance Encounter, Part Two"
aka "A Fistful of Follicles"
aka "The Long Awaited Mud Wrestling Extravaganza"*


Marla was damned if she was going to take this sitting down.

Perhaps the old Marla - the docile Marla who wore the dress and the corset might have allowed the intruder to get away with their haul, but the new Marla couldn't. Somehow, her leather called out to her, prodding her to take quick action.

Marla put her hands on her knees, slowly sliding them up her upper leg, feeling the smooth, tight black leather around her legs. Yes, she knew what she had to do. But there was plenty of time to rub the tight leather surrounding her body later!

The leather continued to call out to her: it was time to take matters in to her own hands.

Marla looked around the caravan quickly for a weapon. She found none. She extended her hands outward, shaking them, frustrated at not being able to grab something to take with her to skin that damn Antelope Woman.

Skin the Antelope Woman? That's when it occurred to her! She looked at her hands again, taking special notice of her long, pointy fingernails, truly a girl's best friend.

Smiling at the sudden recognition of her own inner warlordess, Marla sprung from the caravan in pursuit of the Antelope Woman. She thought it might be a difficult chase, or at least a little bit harder than just looking outside the caravan, but luckily for her, the Antelope Woman hadn't gotten very far at all. (Her stolen goods seemed to be weighing her down and her leather pants seemed to be chafing which further decreased the haste of her get-away.)

The Antelope Woman looked back and saw Marla emerge with the look of Hell on her face and quickly picked up the pace of her escape, carelessly dropping some of the goods she had just procured from the Equinox. Marla sprung in to action, with a spring in her jump and a hiss deep in her throat, Marla leaped forward off the caravan, on to the ground. Making a quick rebound (despite her heels, which only served to dig deep in to the dirt upon impact and steady her), she continued the chase on the ground, her nimble legs propelling her toward the intruder at sprinting speeds.

There was something to be said about the Antelope Woman's expression as, while looking back at Marla behind her, her bug eyes almost bulged out at Marla's pursuit. The Antelope Woman threw up all of the supplies she'd stolen, realizing this heist hadn't gone the way she'd quite expected.

The Antelope Woman made a run for it in a respectable sprint herself: one that Marla could more than match. Still, the Antelope Woman was quite ingenious in her evasion of Marla-obviously she knew these woods well. Marla had almost lost her until she pushed her way some brush and saw the Antelope Woman race through a small clearing in the woods. She was heading toward a long, thick fallen tree crossing a pit. She obviously intended to run over the trunk to make her getaway to the other side. As Marla closed in, she discovered that the Antelope Woman would be passing by a mud-pit.

This would be perfect.

Marla ran out on to the clearing from the other side of the brush, heading toward the Antelope Woman who at this time was beginning to notice that Marla was well positioned to make it to the trunk at about the same time she was. 'Damn, my heels', Marla imagined the Antelope Woman must be saying right about now. (Editor's Note: In her native Antelopian tongue, this would probably have been something like 'Tung'a zan ta qua dos!").

*(Eric Fox in no way contributed to the writing of this story.)

VC: "A Chance Encounter" Part Two
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 12:44 AM

As she heaved closer to the trunk herself, heart racing, arms thrusting her forward, Marla let out a jungle woman scream and threw herself forward over on to the Antelope Woman, throwing both of their bodies off the narrow trunk and into the pit below, filled with mud. Both women let loose a scream as they went over the edge, at the same time trying to scratch the hell out of each other and holding each other for support at the same time.


Both women struck the mud at the same time, completely submerging for a moment while a wave of mud splattered everywhere. When they emerged, they were deep into it: neither was willing to yield this fight. Yet none could find the advantage! They both desperately tried to get a firm grip on the other, but every time their hands kept sliding off their opponent. The Antelope Woman ducked low, trying to grab Marla from beneath and flip her over. Marla tried to take advantage of her momentarily vulnerability but instead both lost their bearings and went for another under-mud tussle. When they finally emerged a moment later, both women were screaming at each other. And the Antelope Woman, despite her apparent inability to speak english nonetheless seemed to have a few choice words for Marla.

Marla had just about had enough of this. Fun and games were one thing but the mud was actually starting to seep *inside* the leather! She could feel her spiritual connection to her garment slipping away as the direct contact between her skin and the fabric was being interrupted by the mud. Marla ducked low, trying to grab the Antelope Woman's legs to flip her over. She did get her knees to buckle and over the Antelope Woman went.

However! Her feet went flying in the air and so did those sharp heels on her boots. Marla ducked in order to avoid being poked by them. She had no idea that heels were lethal weapons. (Surely her leather garment was going to mention this to her sooner or later, she reasoned.) As the Antelope Woman went head first back in to the mud, that gave her an idea.
As the Antelope Woman was about to come up, she positioned her boot to strike her.


As Marla went flying backwards, hitting the mud. Damn that Antelope Woman! She had slithered behind her after she had fallen in and taken her from behind. It was anyone's game now, as they both grasped, wrestled, slithered and slided along each other's filthy (but strangely appealing nonetheless) bodies.

It was about this time that Marla discovered an advantage that the Antelope Woman had that she did not: her long, golden hair proved to be a vulnerability as the Antelope Woman took a handful and pulled her head back. Marla tried to reciprocate the assault but alas, the Antelope Woman had a very practical short haircut that prevented anyone from grabbing a fistful of follicles.

VC: Still More Slippin' an' Slidin' Mud Pit Action
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 12:44 AM

Jab! Marla's shoulder reeled backwards into the Antelope Woman's stomach! The Antelope Woman cried out with one of those English phrases again, and Marla dove on her, pushing them both deep in to the cool and slimy mud. Again, neither could get a firm grip, and both were rapidly losing breath.

Simultaneously, they both rose up, still holding on to each other and opened their mouths to take in some air once they had broken through the surface. But before they could go back into the mud for another round, they paused, looking up.

Something had changed.

Someone was looking down at them.

Trying to clear the mud out of their eyes, they soon were able to tell the figure standing in front of them on the edge of the pit.

"Hello," the man said softly. Marla and the Antelope Woman were frozen for a moment, still holding each other in their muddy arms, but watching the man in front of them. He was wearing a long robe and he had long, reddish hair. He almost looked like a monk.

He continued. "Perhaps you are in need of my services. I represent a small group of people. We wander the area, looking to offer our services to anyone who may need them."

Marla and the Antelope Woman didn't quite know WHAT to make of this figure, or how he had suddenly just appeared.

"We solve problems," he continued. "For a price. You have a problem, my friends," the man said. "I am the solution."

Marla and the Antelope Woman were in no mood for a sales call and without another moment's hesitation Marla took a deep breath and put her hand over the Antelope Woman's head and forced her down back in to the mud, where they wrestled, strangled and straddled each other for awhile.

When they finally re-emerged (it seemed like on the other side of the pit) a figure was still standing over them.

He was still there? They wondered. Can't these guys take a hint?

"Are you done yet?" the voice asked.

As they looked up, they saw Doc Savage looking down on them.

VC: The Finale of "A Chance Encounter"
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 8:27 PM

Doc Savage looked down at the two muddy women in the pit together.

"It's not what it looks like." Marla said.

"A shame," Doc Savage said. "What it 'looks' like seems as if it would be much more fun."

He turned his attention to Marla's mud-buddy.

"And what's your story?" he asked her.

"Ki' y' tana mak soka vo a'!" the Antelope Woman exclaimed.

"Really?" the Doctor asked. "I think that's a bit uncalled for."

"You understand what she's saying?" Marla asked.

"It's a simple language, really." the Doctor replied.

"I didn't know you spoke other languages!" Marla exclaimed.

"Yes, well I'm sure there's a lot that you don't know about me, not that you ever bothered to take the time to ask." The Doc said.

"Quito to yoto va klores!" the Antelope Woman exclaimed to the Doctor.

"Quiva nas heida tas kleetek." The Doctor replied.

At the same time, both he and the Antelope Woman (who was still in Marla's firm grasp) started laughing. Marla couldn't help but think that they were having a good laugh at her own expense.

"What is she saying?" Marla sniped.

"Oh, you really wouldn't want to know," Doc Savage replied. "It's not very flattering."

Grrr, thought Marla. I bet it was another one of those choice English phrases the Antelope Woman knew, but worse! So with that, Marla dunked the Antelope Woman in the mud again and proceeded to walk out of the pit, her inner warlordess satisfied for the day.

After a few minutes of talking with Doc Savage, the Antelope Woman still had not emerged from the bottom.

"What have you done with her?" Doc Savage said.

"I don't know! She should have come up by now!" Marla said anxiously.

"Well I hope you didn't kill her," Doc Savage said testily.

"Who are you to talk!" exclaimed Marla. "I bet your medical certificate says that you have sworn to uphold the Hippocritical Oath!"

"Nonsense," Doc Savage said. "I've never hurt a hippo in my life."

"Okay, fine! Hypocritical Oath! Whatever!"

Her leather was beginning to call out to her, to take action against the Doctor but she tried to ignore the prodding of her garment. (She was beginning to think it was possessed!)

A moment later, they saw the muddy figure of the Antelope Woman on the other side of the pit, running at full speed back in to the forest.

"Easy come," Marla said, "easy go."

"I don't think so," Doc Savage said knowingly, as if with some insight to the ways of the world that Marla didn't possess, "I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of the Antelope Woman in the future." His cryptic comment somehow seemed to suggest that there was much more to come from this unusual woman.

At the very thought, Marla rolled her eyes. "Well the least anyone could do is give the woman a name," she said, turning her back to the Doc and starting off back towards the caravan.

VC: "Rattlesnake"
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 9:29 PM

(This addition to the Equinox saga probably makes more sense if you take the second version of "A Good Defenc[s]e..." as the authoritative version of the events in that story.)

After the crisis (and the mud) and cleared, Rudy once again called his hands together to discuss their continuing attempts to get to a safe harbour.

"We must be close," Noah said.

"We've been close for the past two months." Max said.

"I know we're close." Ransom said confidently. "Which brings me to the next order of business." Rudy said. "Months ago, we set out on the mission of cataloging zoological phenomena. I have no intention of returning home without fulfilling our task."

His hands listened, taken by surprise by Rudy's new agenda.

"From this point on, we'll spend less time on maintaining the Equinox, and more time on studying the plants and wildlife we encounter on our journey."

His crew considered this, but they all had the same thought: they all wondered what prompted Rudy's sudden change of heart.

It was Max who spoke up first. "Rudy... do you think that's such a good idea? We've already been out here months. Everyone will understand if we don't come back with as much information as we originally intended, given the circumstances."

Ransom nodded. "True, but the Equinox is no longer in as much danger as it once was. Look at the caravan. We have food, supplies, and it's intact. That's saying much more than we could a few months ago."

"That the heavens are actively trying to stomp us out of existence notwithstanding, of course." Doc Savage added curtly.

"Defense of the Equinox will of course remain our top priority. But we shouldn't try to adapt the caravan any further to suit our needs. Not at the expense of our original mission." Rudy said.

"Rudy," Marla said. "We've constructed the first horse-less carriage. That's enough innovation to make even the most skeptical support what we've achieved out here."

"Achieved?" snapped Ransom. "But at what cost?"

Marla stood coldly, snapped into place by Ransom's decision to turn this on her.

"Do you think that they will approve of what we're doing out here once they find out? How will we ever explain the adaptions we've made to the Equinox? There's no doubt-before we ever get back to civilization, the Equinox will be taken apart, piece by piece, if necessary to make sure this never happens again."

His crew stood, faces down, looking as if their father had just scolded them.

"To that end," Ransom continued. "I want to study these Sky Spirits... the way we *originally * intended."

His crew snapped out of their funk, perhaps the fear of the creatures made them think twice about Ransom's new proposal.

"We've seen these creatures only emerge from the sky. Yet there's nothing in nature that can explain it. Well there has to be something... some connection... whether scientific or spiritual. Some way that they came here in the first place. Or perhaps they originate here, after all. Who knows what those... things... they come through are. They seem supernatural, but what if they aren't? We know already that there are creatures that are able to blend into their environment at will. Perhaps they live in the sky somehow, and have developed some sort of... camouflage... through evolution?" Rudy posited.

"I want the answers to these questions. To that end, I want to find out if these creatures DO exist in nature. Study zoological any catalogs we have in our collection. I also want to look in literature, see if there are any connections between these creatures and references or allusions to them in literature." Rudy continued.

"I'll just get my library card ready," Max deadpanned. "Next time you run into her, Marla, you might want to ask where the Antelope Woman checks out her books."

VC: "Rattlesnake"
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 9:30 PM

Again, the leather called out to her but before it could say anything audible Rudy jumped in.

"Enough! We have a caravan full of scientific equipment and texts. I'm telling you to consult them." He said. "Doctor, analyze the skin samples of the Sky Spirits. Compare them to any species we are familiar with from this region. See if there are any common evolutionary traits."

"But I've done that already-" the Doc started.

"Do it again!" Ransom said harshly. Then, to the rest of his crew, he said simply "Now."

Quietly, his crew broke apart to carry out their orders. Max stayed behind.

"You were awfully quiet back there," Rudy said.

"You didn't give us much opportunity to speak," Max said. "But aside from that, I didn't want the rest to hear what I had to say."

"What's that, Burke?"

"Your new agenda-- sir, with all due respect I think that's a waste of our resources. We should be concerned with getting out of here, not studying the local wildlife. No less wildlife whose sole goal is seemingly our complete annihilation. I think by doing this, we're running a terrible risk." Max said.

"I appreciate your concerns but at this point I feel they are unwarranted," Rudy said. "I think we should be trying to engage these creatures, not attack them. We may yet be able to work together." Ransom said.

"I think that option strains plausibility," Max said.

Rudy was silent for awhile. He turned away from Max and when he finally turned back he said, "I was told a parable when I was young and I never forgot it."

Max listened.

Rudy cleared his throat and continued.

"One day, a rattlesnake was passing by the shore. Eventually, he came upon a field mouse, who was looking across the river, wanting to get across. Before the mouse could run, the snake was right beside him. The mouse was startled at first, because instead of being eaten up as he expected, the snake just slithered beside him and watched what the mouse watched.

'I don't understand,' the mouse asked the snake. 'Why haven't you eaten me?'

The Snake replied that he was a pacifist snake and didn't approve of the vicious meat-consuming ways of the other snakes. The snake and the mouse, after talking awhile, put aside their natural conflicts and became fast friends.

Finally, the snake asked the mouse, 'Why are you looking across the river?'

The mouse responded 'Simple, I want to get to the other side. But I have no way to get there.'

After a moment, the snake responded that he could help the mouse. 'I could swim you to the other side of the river, and let you off the other side.' The mouse was touched that the snake would do this for him, but he was nonetheless concerned.

'But I have no claws of my own, and your skin is too scaly and smooth to hold on to. How would I stay on you? I'd be washed away with the waves.' The mouse pointed out.

After considering it, the snake said 'You could come inside my mouth. I would be able to take you across without getting you even the slightest bit wet.'

The mouse saw a problem with this situation. 'But what if you swallowed me? That would be the end of me!' the mouse pointed out.

'But I wouldn't do that', said the snake. 'You're the closest thing I have to a friend. A few hours ago, I wouldn't have thought that a friendship like this, between two species so different would have been possible'.

Touched, and realizing that it was the only way he could ever hope to get to the other side of the river bank, the mouse agreed. So, in he hopped in to the rattle snake's mouth, and across the river they went."

Max had listened intently. "So what happened?" he asked.

"I don't remember." Ransom said. "But I'm guessing it turns out for the best."

Max shook his head. "How does this relate to our situation?" he asked.

VC: "Rattlesnake" Conclusion
Jason — 3 Sep 1999, 9:31 PM

"Even in the rattlesnake, there's a chance for redemption. Even after millennia of evolutionary conflict between two species, there's the opportunity to forge ahead and to create a peaceful relationship between two species... two people. What is a few weeks of fighting compared to countless evolutionary generations of animals hunting each other?"

"But don't you see?" Max asked sharply. "The snake swallowed the mouse. Not because it wanted to, but because it had to! It's its nature!"

"No," Ransom responded. "With enough dedication and determination, even a creature driven only by instinct like the snake, the mouse, or maybe even the Sky Spirit, can overcome their nature. That can-it will-happen here, too."

Max paced away and then turned on Rudy.

"I think you're struggling to justify what you're doing. I'm not sure what your intention is. I think that if you find out that these creatures really are supernatural, your attempts to make peace will lead to some kind of salvation. And on the other hand, if, somehow, through our research we discover that they are just a set of... unusual desert reptile species, that makes it much easier to justify killing them." Max told him.

"No, you're wrong." Ransom said.

"I don't care." Max said. "Either way, I don't agree with you. All I care about is getting this caravan-these people-home. Not continuing your half-brained zoological study. You don't get it yet, Rudy, but you will. It's over. We're going home, whether you're coming with us or not."

On that, Max turned on his heels and left, leaving Rudy alone... and with the suspicion that he was now outnumbered, on both sides.

Lethal Six-Gun
Vickie T. — 11 Oct 1998, 9:31 PM

I hadn't intended to write another Voyager City story, but the kids are monopolizing the TV (it's Guts and Glory Night on the History Channel), I should be balancing my checkbook (depressing), and this idea just came to me. So, here it is.

This story takes place abut 2 1/2 years after Tom and B'Elanna returned to the Delta Q with their newborn daughter.

Tom gave one last tug on the lashing straps across the bay gelding's loaded pack saddle, looked up and grinned. "Looks like we're ready to go." He then turned and held out his arms. "Come 'ere, you, and give your Daddy a good-bye hug."

Kathryn and Chakotay, standing arm and arm on the Delta Q's front porch, smiled proudly as their granddaughter leaped into her father's arms.

"What about Momma?," B'Elanna asked, pretending to pout. Tom reached out and pulled B'Elanna into a wiggling, giggling, three-person hug, with kisses exchanged all around.

It had long been Chakotay's custom to inspect the Delta Q's distant line camps twice a year, spring and fall. He chose to make this a solitary task, using the time alone to think, meditate and confer with his spirit guide. However, three trips ago, he invited Tom to accompany him, and Tom, with some apprehension, accepted the invitation. Kathryn and B'Elanna paced the ranch house floors in poorly disguised anxiety for much of the two weeks the men were gone. The women were much relieved when their husbands returned, to all appearances, in fine shape. Close, albeit surreptitious, inspection revealed no evidence of black eyes, split lips, or other indications of a reawakening of the animosity once shared by the two men. After that first trip, it was accepted by all that the semi-annual inspection trip would now be a two-man operation.

After one last round of good-bye hugs and kisses, most of which went to a certain sassy little girl, Tom and Chakotay mounted their horses and set out toward the south, headed for Line Cabin #1, located mid-way along the boundary between the Delta Q and the Nistrum Ranch. The two men rode for several hours in companionable silence, when Tom spotted what looked like a covered wagon against the horizon. Tom and Chakotay altered their course somewhat in order to investigate. Soon they were close enough to see that it was indeed a covered wagon. The sight of the wagon's inhabitants, however, was enough to bring the two men to a dead halt, jaws dropping open and eyes wide with amazement.

Lethal Six-Gun, Part 2
Vickie T. — 11 Oct 1998, 9:35 PM

Tom and Chakotay blinked their eyes, closed their mouths (with some effort), and glanced quickly at one another before turning their gaze back to the wagon, or, to be more accurate, back to the scene around the wagon. Lolling in the shade of the covered wagon were 6 women, all in various stages of dress, or perhaps one should say undress. Two of the ladies wore nothing but high-heeled boots, long stockings, knee-length bloomers and camisole tops covered by tightly laced corsets.

As the two men approached the wagon, one of the women spoke, in a soft, whispery voice. "Howdy, gents, sure is hot out today, ain't it?" At her words, the man bent over the wagon's broken rear wheel straightened and turned. Once again, Tom and Chakotay exchanged glances before Chakotay nodded and said, "Howdy, Reverend Windes. Having a little trouble this afternoon, I see."

Both men dismounted from their horses. "Oh, Chakotay and Tom. I am so glad to see you. I'm having the very devil of a time getting this wheel back on the wagon. We broke some spokes when we hit that rut over there. I've managed to repair the spokes, but I can't get the wheel back on the axle." By the time Reverend Windes finished his explanation, two of the women had managed to drape themselves around Tom while a third stood behind him, running her hands through his hair. Chakotay found himself in similar condition and while both of his hands were occupied with removing one of the women who had attached herself to his right side, another woman had somehow managed to slip a hand through the front of his shirt to caress his chest.

"Hey!" "Hold on...." "What the...!" "No." "Stop!" " Reverend?" "Reverend!?!?!

"Ladies, ladies, ladies!," the Reverend Windes pleaded with the women. "This is neither the time, nor the place for such behavior! Please, control yourselves." The women rather reluctantly disengaged themselves from their activities, although not before one lovely young woman smacked Tom on the seat and gave him an inviting wink.

"I apologize, Chakotay, Tom," said the Reverend. "I am taking these ladies to Voyager City. You may have heard of my latest endeavor - The Voyager City Lamb of God Home and School for Wayward Women. These ladies have been forced, by painful circumstance, to live lives of ill repute. At the Voyager City Lamb of God Home and School for Wayward Women, they will learn valuable skills such as needlework and cooking so that they can live honest, God-fearing lives."

Tom and Chakotay exchanged skeptical looks as the ladies in question elbowed each other and giggled behind their hands. Under his breath Tom murmured to Chakotay, "I'll bet you next week's pay that by Saturday night every one of them women will be working the crowd at Quark's or Miss Maxine's place."

With 6 strong hands at work, the wagon's wheel was back in place in no time at all. Reverend Windes thanked Tom and Chakotay, hustled the women into the wagon and set out toward Voyager City. As the wagon pulled away, the women leaned out the back and waved good-bye to the two men. "Come and see us sometime, Sugar," shouted one. "Yes," called a second one, "We want to repay you for helping us out today."

Tom and Chakotay sighed with relief, wiped the sweat from their brows, and mounted their horses. As they continued on toward Line Cabin #1, Tom spoke. "I used to know a traveling salesman fellow. He once told me that the traveling salesman's rule was 'What happens on the road, stays on the road.'" "Ummm," Chakotay replied, "sounds like a good rule to me."

Well, they're not home yet, so I hope to continue, as time permits.

Lethal Six Gun: Banditos of the Bluffs
Vickie T. — 6 Nov 1998, 8:51 PM

I never expected Voyager City to serve as therapy, but I came home tonight still steaming about an e-mail I received from my boss this afternoon. What I really wanted to do tonight was send him a reply that began with "Are you out of you mind?," ended with "Oh, yeah, well I quit!," and was chock full of burning bridges in between. However, after careful consideration of both my mortgage and car payment, I decided to work on the next installment of Lethal Six-Gun instead. Besides, I still owe Eric that story I promised him! :-)

In case you've forgotten, this is a continuation of the Lethal Six-Gun story line that I started just before the new season began. If you're confused about what's going on, re-read that first story.

Line Cabin #2 was located at the southern tip of Delta Q property. It had received heavy use this summer because the spring rains had extended clear on up into June, meaning that the south range, which usually became too dry for grazing by mid-June, provided good grazing well into July. Tom and Chakotay had already spent one extra day at the camp, repairing the effects of long occupancy by men who, while they perhaps had not been raised in barns, had certainly had spent much of their lives in one.

Tom stood, holding a hammer and a bucket of nails, on the front porch of the cabin. "It's a good thing the Delta Q's hands are the best in the territory when it comes to stock tending, because they sure ain't worth a d@mn when it comes to cleaning and household chores."

Chakotay, hard at work with a broom inside the cabin, grumbled his agreement.

By supper time, Line Camp #2 was restored to its normal clean and functional, if somewhat rustic, state. Chakotay and Tom were seated in chairs on the front porch, enjoying a last cup of coffee while they watched the sun go down. Because they were both turned to face the west, they didn't notice the approaching rider until he called out to them.

"Evening gentlemen. Am I in time for supper?"

Tom and Chakotay looked up to discover that they had been joined by Marshal Marshall Tuvok.

"Howdy, Marshal. What brings you all the way out here?," asked Chakotay.

"Yeah," inquired Tom, "is this a social call or are you working?"

After Marshal Tuvok had staked out his horse with the others, Chakotay handed him a plate of ham, beans and corncakes. Between bites, Tuvok began to explain what he was doing so far from Voyager City.

"I received a telegram three days ago," Tuvok said, "from a Miss Gegen. It seems that her father, Dr. Dino Gegan, head of the Department of Native American Cultural Studies at Federation City College, is on a field expedition in this area with his assistant Vir."

"I remember him," Tom said. "He stopped by the Delta Q a couple of months ago to get permission to conduct some excavations along the Big Coffee River right at the southern tip of our property."

"Yes, that's right," added Chakotay. "Dr. Gegen and I had a fascinating discussion about the study of alien cultures."

Tuvok raised an eyebrow, then continued. "Yes, well, according to his daughter, Dr. Gegen and Vir should have returned to Federation City over 3 weeks ago. She has not heard from him in over a month and is growing concerned. She asked me to investigate. Kes informed me that the two of you should be in this area and I have come to request your assistance."

"Did you run in to Kes in town?" Tom asked.

"Indeed," replied Tuvok. "She and her husband, the florist-formerly-known-as-gunslinger Eric are working long hours in preparation for the grand opening of their new Flower Shop/Wedding Consultant business."

Lethal Six Gun: Banditos of the Bluffs Pt.2
Vickie T. — 8 Nov 1998, 8:15 PM

The next morning, the three men set out for the Big Coffee, which was less than a mile to the west of Line Cabin #2. Here, the ground was still flat, but just a short distance to the south, just across the border of Kazon country, the remnants of an eroded plateau formed steep bluffs along the river. A pre-Kazon Indian society once lived in caverns excavated into the face of the bluffs. Tuvok believed that Dr. Gegen and Vir might have been searching for artifacts in that area.

As they rode along in the bright morning sunshine, Chakotay voiced a thought that had occurrred to all three of them. "If Dr. Gegan and Vir wandered too far into Kazon territory, there may be nothing left for us to find. The Kazon don't take kindly strangers."

"True," responded Tuvok. "Particularly if Chief Odala's people find them. None of the Kazon welcome change or disruption of their daily life, but Chief Odala's people are violently opposed to any outsiders entering their hunting grounds."

The men reached the bank of the Big Coffee and turned south, following the river's edge toward the bluffs. Their conversation gradually diminished as their apprehension grew, until they rode along in complete silence, constantly scanning the horizon for any sign of Kazon activity. As they approached a dense thicket of cottonwooods, a flock of quail burst out of the underbrush, startling the men and their horses. After regaining control of their mounts, Tom, Chakotay and Tuvok looked sheepishly at one another and at the guns which had appeared in their hands, as if by magic, within a split second of the first flutter of quail wings.

When they reached the bluff area where Tuvok believed Dr. Gegen and Vir may have been working, the men dismounted, planning to make a quiet, hopefully unnoticed, approach on foot. They made their way carefully, moving forward one at a time in short dashes, along the edge of the river, staying, as much as possible, pressed against the rock wall of the overhanging bluff.

Tuvok stopped behind a large boulder and motioned Tom and Chakotay forward to his position. "I thought I heard something up ahead, but it's gone now." The three men strained forward, trying to hear any sounds which would indicate the presence of human activity. Abruptly, the wind shifted and the men became aware of the faint odor of coffee brewing and and the sound of...singing?

"Camptown ladies sing this song..."

Lethal Six Gun: Banditos of the Bluffs Pt. 3
Vickie T. — 13 Nov 1998, 7:01 PM

"Do Da, Do Da..."

Tuvok made his way cautiously toward the voices with Tom and Chakotay following closely behind. As he moved beyond on outcropping of rock which had blocked his view of the river, Tuvok came to an abrupt halt, Tom and Chakotay nearly crashing into him from behind.

"What?" Tom whispered. Tuvok looked back at him and Tom could see that Tuvok's eyebrows were even higher than they'd been that time he caught Cowgirl Vickie and Thomas Magnum...[author's note: umm, never mind]. Tom and Chakotay moved forward to take in the scene which had so elevated Marshal Tuvok's eyebrows.

"All the do da day!"

There, frolicking in the river before them were two women and a man, all wearing somewhat less than the Voyager City standards of good taste dictated.

As our heros stood, gaping, with mouths open (Tom and Chakotay) and eyebrows raised (Tuvok), they were approached by an older man, thankfully, fully dressed in boots, breeches and khaki shirt. He was holding a large tin coffee pot in his hand.

"Gentlemen, what a pleasant surprise. We don't often receive visitors this far off the beaten path." By this time, the three swimmers had noticed the arrival of guests and had made their way over to the group, the two ladies wrapping themselves in blankets as they walked.

The older man continued, "I am Dr. Dino Gegen, Professor of Native American Cultural Studies at Federation City College. This is my associate, Vir and these two ladies are our research assistants." The two ladies giggled, quite unlike the response one might expect from research assistants.

"Will you join us?" Dr. Gegen asked. "I've just brewed a fresh pot of coffee."

After the introductions were completed, everyone found a comfortable spot and enjoyed what turned out to be an excellent cup of coffee.

"Dr. Gegen," Tuvok explained, "we have come in response to a telegram from your daughter. She says you are somewhat overdue and is concerned for your safety."

"What?," Gegen responded with a shocked look on his face. "What is today?"

"It is Tuesday, September 14," Tuvok replied.

"Oh my, oh my, I had no idea, I completely lost track of time," said Dr. Gegen. "The pre-Kazon artifacts in these bluff caverns are amazing. They are perfectly preserved. I've never seen anything like them before in my entire career. I've been completely consumed with my cataloging." "Vir," he then inquired, shaking his head, "did you realize that it is already the middle of September?"

Vir blushed and looked at the ground between his feet. "Well, Dr., um, not exactly, I mean..." He looked sideways at the two women. "Well," he continued, "I guess I did know that it was getting late, but its just that we've been so busy with"

Tom and Chakotay looked at each other, rolled their eyes and laughed behind their coffee mugs.

"I am relieved to discover that you and your associates are well," said Tuvok. "I will relay that information to your daughter." He paused, "Unless you wish to return to Voyager City at this time. We would be pleased to have you accompany us back to town."

At that very instant, all he11 broke lose. Bullets rained down on the group from the bluffs above. One of the women began to shriek like a banshee. Coffee mugs flew in every direction, as did Tom, Chakotay, Tuvok, Dr. Gegen, Vir and the two ladies.

I promise to have this finished tomorrow. I can't seem to end it!

Banditos of the Bluffs, Part 4
Vickie T. — 26 Jun 1999, 8:21 PM

Today I received a brief message via carrier pigeon. It was a handwritten note on a tiny scrap of paper. It said, "For %$#@*& sake, just how long do you intend to leave us out here cowering behind this rock, dodging bullets and praying for the cavalry? Get us out of here. NOW! Respectfuly yours, Marshal Marshall Tuvok and Chakotay Torres"

OK, guys, OK! I'm workin' on it! Geez, it's summertime. I've had company. Beaches to lounge on, theme parks to visit, rivers to float down. Life's tough everywhere.

Here it is, the next installment of my ongoing Voyager City Tom and Chakotay buddy saga, "Lethal Six-Gun."

Dr. Gegen, Vir, Tuvok and Chakotay took shelter behind a large outcropping of rock close to the face of the bluff. Tom and the two women found safety inside one of the caverns. "How does he do that?" Chakotay whined plaintively.

The gunfire died down. "Hey! You down there," shouted a gruff voice, "throw out your guns and come out with your hands up. We won't hurt you."

"Who are you and what do you want?" shouted Marshal Tuvok.

"Who we are don't matter. You know what we want. Now come out of there or else," the man responded, punctuating his words with a brief spray of bullets.

Tuvok looked at the three men sharing his hiding place. "I do not believe it would be advisable to comply with their demands at this time," he said. The others agreed. Apparently Tom and the ladies shared their opinion, as there was no sign of any movement from the cavern.

Tuvok addressed Dr. Gegen and Vir. "Do you gentlemen have any idea who these people are or what they are after? They do seem to believe that you have what they want."

Dr. Gegen replied, "Obviously these ruffians are after this spectacular collection of pre-Kazon artifacts. Why, any museum in the country would be thrilled to add these to their collection."

Tuvok and Chakotay exchanged glances.

"Not to suggest that your artifacts aren't valuable, Doctor," said Chakotay, "but these hombres aren't likely to be after anything so...scholarly in nature."

"How about you, Mr. Vir?" asked Tuvok. "Do you have any ideas?"

Vir did not respond immediately, but eventually spoke. "Well, um, maybe, uh, perhaps..."

"Perhaps what, my boy?" questioned Dr. Gegen. "Spit it out."

At that moment, shots again began to rain down on the men from above.

"I suggest," said Chakotay, "that we make a break for that cavern behind us before those rifles find their mark."

"I concur," nodded Tuvok, and the four crouched low and ran a zig-zagging path toward the tunnel entrance, hoping that the men above weren't good shots.

Banditos of the Bluffs, The End, Pt. 1
Vickie T. — 24 Jul 1999, 9:56 PM

Chakotay, Tuvok, Dr. Gegen and Vir sat silently for a few moments in the safety of the cavern while they recovered from their mad dash across the open ground. Soon, however, Marshal Tuvok resumed his interrupted questioning of Vir and Gegen.

"Mr. Vir...I believe you were about to offer some suggestion about what these outlaws may be after?"

Vir remained silent so long that they were beginning to think he wasn't going to respond. Finally, he said, "Yes, well...we have been engaged, you know, in excavating these caverns. As Dr. Gegen said, the pre-Kazon artifacts here are simply spectacular. It turns out, though, that pre-Kazon artifacts are not the only treasure to be found within these caves."

"What do you mean?" asked Dr. Gegen excitedly. "Have you found the evidence I've been seeking? The proof that the Kazon and the porcupine actually share a common ancestor? I knew that the similarities in hair were too great to be coincidence!"

Chakotay had to turn away to hide his smile, but Tuvok, calling upon his many years in law enforcement and great mental discipline, was able to maintain his demeanor.

"No, Doctor," replied Vir, "I'm refering to something considerably less academic in nature." He stood and moved toward the back of the cavern, saying, as he picked up and lighted a torch, "Please follow me."

After threading their way through a maze of tunnels, the four men stepped out into a huge, high ceilinged room deep in the bluffs. Chakotay and Dr. Gegen gasped in amazement. No less than 7 large strongboxes were scattered, open, around the walls of the room. The gold bullion contained within the strongboxes glittered in the torchlight.

Banditos of the Bluffs, The End, Pt.2
Vickie T. — 25 Jul 1999, 8:19 PM

OK, this time, I'll make sure that none of my MS Word quotation marks are converted in the cutting and pasting process to the little curly kind. Hopefully it'll all work this time!


"Can you hear us?"

"Anybody there?"

"Where are you?"

The voices of Tom and the two women echoed from a nearby tunnel.

"In here," shouted Chakotay, who followed up with, "How did you get over here?" when the three made their way into the room.

Tom, eyes wide and mouth open at the sight of the gold couldn't respond. The ladies, though, had obviously seen the view previously, because they took little notice of the strongboxes while explaining how the many caverns in the bluffs were connected by a series of tunnels.

"Why didn't you tell me about this, Vir?" asked Gegen, with a puzzled look.

Vir, acutely embarrassed, refused to make eye contact with his mentor, but did respond in a voice so low it was almost a whisper.

"I, umm, I didn't tell you because, well, I hadn't exactly decided what to do about it.

"Ahh," said Dr. Gegen, looking sadly at the ground. "I understand."

At that moment, Allie, the thinner of the two women, spoke up. "Do you smell something burning?"

As they all turned back toward the tunnel through which they had entered the room, they could see fine tendrils of smoke wafting through the air.

Marshal Tuvok spoke, with his usual flair for understatement. "It appears that we may wish to consider moving toward an exit."

Tom replied, "I would say, in fact, that we may wish to get the he11 out of here. Now!"

It also appeared that the men outside were as well aware of the construction of the underground complex as were Dr. Gegen, Vir, Allie and Eleanor. Smoke seemed to be filling all of the connecting tunnels, making escape seem impossible.

The same voice that had earlier demanded they throw down their weapons and come out now reached them through the smoke.

"I told you to come out of there or else. Now you're going to find out just what 'or else' means," the bandit shouted with a laugh.

To be continued

My apologies to the writers of Basics for borrowing a bit of their storyline.

Banditos of the Bluffs, The End, Pt. 3 (Eric-Read)
Vickie T. — 25 Jul 1999, 8:26 PM

Eric, here is your payback for being made into a florist earlier in the story.

Chakotay looked at Vir and Gegen. "Are there any other ways out?" he asked.

"I do not believe so," said Dr. Gegen.

Vir agreed with Gegen, shaking his head no.

Chakotay walked slowly around the large chamber. Finally, he said, "The air in this room is much too fresh for the only avenue of ventilation to be through these tunnels. There must be some other openings to the outside."

"Even if there are," said Tom, "it's probably just some little air shafts. There's no way any of us would fit through. I say we cover our faces with our bandanas to block the smoke and head for the exit, guns drawn. If we don't make it we'll at least have gone down fighting."

Marshal Tuvok replied, "We have not yet ruled all other alternatives. To take such action now would be premature."

Tom's retort was on the tip of his tongue when the sounds of a furious gunbattle reached the cavern from outside. They all stood, silently, listening to the gunfire that seemed to continue forever. Then, it stopped.

The little group shifted uneasily and looked around with uncertainty. Before anyone could speak, they heard someone calling from outside.

"Heellooo! Heellooo! Anyone in there? Tom? Chakotay? Marshal?"

"Is that????" asked Chakotay incredulously.

"Yes," replied Marshal Tuvok, "I believe it is."

The smoke was already beginning to clear from one of the tunnels, so they made their way down the passageway. Standing just inside the mouth of the cave leading to the outside was...Gunslinger Eric, carrying two big honkin' guns!

"Eric!," said Tom, embracing his brother-in-law, "What are you doing here? How did you find us? How did you know we were in trouble? And hey, I thought you traded in your gunslinger outfit for florist's clothes!"

"First," said Eric, "let's get one thing straight. I ain't no florist. I was just helping Kes get her business started." "She rewards me very well," he continued, with a dreamy look crossing his face.

"And as for how I knew where to find you and that you needed some help, well, let's just say that your little sister is a woman of great and mysterious abilities. I don't ask questions anymore," Eric concluded.

Really and truely finally The End