The party members sleep in a little as dawn comes late in the morning on Tarsus time. At least it means that they can continue searching until they have to give in through exhaustion now.
After another one of Shania’s enormous farmhouse breakfasts, the party members head for the air/rafts as soon as the sun appears over the horizon. They sit quietly in the rafts pulling their coats around them to keep off the chill until the grayness of dawn has lifted, then head the short distance to the beginning of the swamps.
They follow the same tactics as before – or try to at least. Whereas the Range was open and it would have been easy to spot someone on the ground, the thick trees and bushes of the swampland contain many more potential hiding places and so the air/rafts are forced to sweep more closely together and more slowly than before.
The party members settle in for a long day of searching. However, after just a couple of hours (by which time the party is still less than 2km from the ranch), Grim points and calls to the others:
“What’s that over there, where all those big birds are gathered?”
Clint brings the air/raft down for a closer look, bringing it between the trees. Billy-Bob does the same in the second raft.
The approach of the air/rafts frightens off the large dark-feathered birds, revealing that something is suspended from the branches of a large tree. The grav/belt is the first sign that they have, unfortunately, found what they were looking for. It’s the body of Taeva’s father, slightly nibbled upon by the carrion eaters.
The party member disentangle the corpse from the tree and William investigates it.
“Looks like he’s been dead for between 48 and 36 hours by the state of decomposition,” he says.
“The cause of death seems obvious,” he adds. “A bad burn from a laser weapon across the left side of his torso. He also has severe bruising on the arms, legs and torso. The shapes and sizes would lead me to believe that they were caused by a high speed run through the swamp forest, as if he was running away after being pursued. It looks like he must have gotten away from his attackers, but died from his wounds surely afterwards.”
Jie investigates the laser wounds, having seen many of them in her time. “This didn’t come from a standard laser rifle or carbine,” she says. “Normally the beam on a laser weapon is round. This one is more of an oval shape.”
“I’ve only seen such a shape once before,” she adds. “It was a special laser carbine used for designating targets. It’s a good weapon, although they’re expensive.”
While the others look at the body, Arvor asks Billy-Bob to drop him down to ground level so that he can look around more. He spends a while investigating the freezing cold swamp water until he thinks he has found something lying in the water. He pulls it up to reveal what seems to be a large white stake, made from ceramic.
“Does anyone have any idea what this could be?” he asks.
“It looks like a sonic stake,” Clint says. “All of the ranches have them at their borders to stop the nobbles from destroying all the crops.”
He scratches his head. “It looks slightly different from the normal ones though. The normal ones are a little larger.”
“I want to check the crime scene some more,” Arvor says. “Maybe you can investigate the stake a little more, William?”
“For form’s sake we should mark the spot and report this to the TDF: they’ll send a team out to do an official report but it will take time for them to get here – plenty of time for us use up the daylight hours however we choose. We shouldn’t waste them. "
“Putting stakes in the swamp is a bit odd. We should look for some more and see what the pattern is.”
Taeva doesn’t show much obvious emotion regarding the death of her father. “People are going to die for this.”
Arvor, Taeva and Grim spend some time investigating the surrounding area in a little more detail while William studies the stake. He then runs some scans on it. He soon realizes that it is emitting high-pitched sounds.
“Seems to me that it is designed to repulse smaller animals in that case,” Jie comments. “Something as huge as a nobble would respond only to very low-pitched sounds.”
Further comments are interrupted by a call from Grim. “I’ve found a patch of dried blood,” he says.
The others come over to take a look at the few drops of blood, some 15m from the tree where Taeva’s father’s body was found.
“This gives us an idea as to the direction he would have been coming from,” Arvor says. “Let’s see if we can follow them and see if we can find out where he was first attacked.”
All of the party members agree to the task and form a line fanning out from the spot of dried blood and then slowly, carefully wade through the swamp water heading back towards the ranch. Realizing that they have plenty of light, they take it slowly so as not to miss anything out. Every now and again, the party members see predators in the shadows eyeing them carefully. A few volleys from the party’s weapons scares the creatures away, however.
Their diligence is rewarded because, as the afternoon wears on, they are able to find more drops of blood, or broken branches which shows that someone has been through here in a hurry over the past few days.
Late in the afternoon, Max trips over and falls into the murky water. After getting up and uttering a seemingly endless string of curses, he reaches down and produces another of the stakes. Everyone spreads out from here, taking long sticks in order to explore the waters. Over the next few hours, they find more of the stakes. By late evening, they have found perhaps twenty of them spread over an area of around 3km. They are arranged in the shape of a funnel, pointing in the direction of the ranch.
The discovery leads to a long debate among the party members as to what they should do next. In the end, they decide to twist the direction of the stakes so that they are sending predators away from the ranch rather than towards it. They then decide to wait for the men in air/rafts to return as, according to William’s calculations, they should start to arrive in the next hour or two.
Arvor, Grim and Taeva take to the treetops in order to scan the surrounding swamp lands. An hour passes, then two and those on the ground are starting to get bored. Billy-Bob breaks out a pack of cards and a game is in progress when, Arvor finally sees something through his rifle scope.
He points to Grim and Taeva westwards. They can just make out a solitary air/raft skimming through the treetops before setting down around 5km from the party’s current position.
The three of them shin down the trees and pass on the report to the others in the party. So as not to lose the element of surprise, they decide to leave the air/rafts in the current position and head to the position they saw the intruders’ air/rafts descending on foot.
It’s slow going yomping through the cold, fetid waters of the swamp but, after a couple of hours, Taeva who is in the vanguard, puts her hands up and tells everyone to stop, telling them that she can hear voices ahead.
Taeva, Grim and Jie decide to head forward, with Arvor close behind them. William and Max stay back a little.
Taeva glides through the undergrowth with the grace of a ballerina. However, all of this is for naught as Jie right next to her stomps through it with the grace of a small hippopotamus. Quietened voices are coming from ahead now; it’s obvious that they’ve heard something and are coming to investigate. The party members dive for cover and they see six redneck looking types slowly approaching them in a line, studying the undergrowth carefully. The party members immediately open fire on them, quickly taking a couple out before they have dived into cover. Max and William hear the shots and quickly run forward to join the melee.
The party members take out another two, with Arvor getting hit, but fortunately not seriously. Taeva though, in the front of the party’s position, demonstrates that the Traske family’s power for attracting laser carbine bolts is genetic as she takes one to the chest, dropping her instantly. Jie immediately sees to her, while Arvor and Grim continue to take care of the intruders. The original six intruders are all down now, but another six have emerged from up ahead.
Max comes around the left flank in order to strengthen the party’s line while William, hearing that Taeva is down, runs towards her, taking over med duty from Jie who goes back to the front line. Together Arvor, Grim, Jie and Max quickly take down another five intruders at no loss.
The last of the intruders runs back to the camp and leaps into an air/raft. Arvor trashes the air/raft badly with a DSAP round, while Jie finishes the job with her laser rifle, making the air/raft completely unusable. The occupant jumps from it into the second of three air/rafts parked in the clearing. But as he emerges from the wreck, Grim quickly brings him down. All of the intruders are down now – the final tally being two dead, three seriously wounded and seven unconscious.
The party members quickly incapacitate them all. Due to William’s administrations, Taeva is conscious again, although not feeling that great. It has not done much for her mood, however.
The party members start to interrogate the prisoner’s. Initially they are tight-lipped. However, when Taeva blows the head off one of them, they quickly change their minds and decide that they would prefer to talk after all.
The party learns that they are in the swamp to find some ind of rare moss known as Tarsuline. William looks up the details on his handcomp, but can find no information regarding the moss that would lead anyone to believe that it is particularly valuable. It obviously is though as the intruders are paid Cr.1000 per kilo for all they can find.
The intruders all seem to be low-level henchmen. They tell the party that they work for a guy called Jimmy-Joe from a company called Evander Agricultural Engineering on the outskirts of Evander. Taeva learns that they were not supposed to have killed her father – their instructions were to just try and frighten them off their land. The guy who pulled the trigger was the one that Grim caught who was trying to make off in the air/raft and so he is dead now.
Having learned all that they are likely to find out from these low-level employees, the party members debate what they should do with them. Eventually the decision is made to incapacitate the remaining two air/rafts and their commos and leave them with just knives to enable them to slowly make their way back to civilization.
Max then calls Clint and Billy-Bob to bring the air/rafts over. It’s been a long day according to the party member’s body clocks and so they head back to the ranch.
Shania and Hyrm should normally be sleeping by now but they are both still up when the party members return. Shania panics when she sees how badly injured Taeva is, but she brushes it off before she tells her mother that they have found her father – but that he’s dead. Shania bursts into hysterical tears. Hyrm stoically tries to comfort her with a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but it’s no good – and Shania just heads to her room, crying for several hours afterwards.
Exhausted after a long day of tramping through the swam, the party members each take a shower and retire for the night.