Just under two hours after Zach relieved Aiden, Rol was awakened by his in-helmet alarm.  He gathered his gear and prepared to take his stint at sentry.  Stepping out of his pavilion, Rol saw a few caravan folks were up and around, but he couldn't see Zach.  Finally, Rol searched out Zach's sleeping form where some of the active caravanners had "decorated" him with stones, sand art and other items as he slept.  His weapons had all been removed from him and laid out alongside him.
Still, it was Rol's watch and it was light out, so he decided he didn't have time to deal with the man.  Rol proceeded to carry out his duties and let sleeping merchants lie.  Beginning to scan the range around the camp, Rol saw what appeared to be a glint in the distance.  Gauging the range and direction, he guessed it was located somewhat behind the caravan's trail and "to the right of their march-path."  That put it east by south-east of them, at an estimate of 'miles away'.  So, it was possibly still south of the city.  The glint also seemed to be "off the ground", unless it was on the horizon, which would make it much further off.  Deciding to keep an eye out in that direction, Rol kept his watch as time passed.
Eventually, as Zach woke, his first thought was, "Someone turn off the damn light!"  He didn't vocalize this as he adjusted his position.  Zach then realized he wasn't "on watch", which was where he remembered he should be.  Then he saw something slide down across his vacc suit faceplate!  This gave him a start which really woke him!  Freezing his position, and carefully looking around, Zach realized there were items all over the surface of his vacc suit.  Exploring the "decorations", Zach noticed one was, in fact, a light which was flashing.  Flashing Yellow!  Investigating the indicator, Zach realized his air supply was running low!  Zach's tanks were literally getting empty, and in need of recharge.
Working to better understand what was going on, Zach realized he'd also been disarmed!  He found all his weapons laid out, in an orderly fashion, beside where he'd been sleeping.  It was obvious this happened some time ago because sand had started dusting up on them.  Zach sat up to take his weapons back, and checked them to see their status.  They looked OK, but he was still groggy.  Looking further afield, Zach froze when he saw a figure that seemed to be moving outside the encampment proper!  Checking closer, Zach realized the figure was just outside the camp perimeter, and just outside medium range for his rifle at a guess.  Reacting, Zach called Zimzod, who woke quickly and answered the alarm.
Zimzod did a time check while answering Zach, and realized Rol should be on watch, not Zach.  Zimzod asked, "What are you still doing on watch?"  Zach tried to get a better visual on the figure while he answered, "I just woke up."  While he spoke, Zach could just make out that the figure was carrying some sort of stick or weapon.  Lowering his weapon, in exchange for his binoculars, Zach tried to get more information.  When the binocs began to enhance his view, Zach realized the figure was wearing robes!  Despite that, data from the binoculars suggested there was something "very" high tech under the fabric.  Possibly even body armor.  The binoc electronics then confirmed the figure held some kind of rifle too.
In his tent, Zimzod comm'd Rol, calmly asking, "Rol, where are you?"  Walking a patrol pattern, and looking for exterior threats, Rol hadn't seen Zach waking up.  At the same time, Zach updated Zimzod that he could see an armed figure, in body armor, roughly fifty to seventy five yards outside the camp's perimeter!  Zimzod was snapping into his battledress as Rol began giving a sit-rep on his position.  Only, Rol started a report on the glint he'd seen.  As he was speaking, Zimzod switched to general comms and, interrupting Rol, said "All teams!  We have an armed person at 250 degrees from camp and roughly fifty to seventy five meters out.  Rol and Zach investigate."  Having woken up by then, Mikah comm'd in her acknowledgement.
Everyone awake started grabbing weapons and gearing up as Rol reacted to Zimzod's words.  He quickly realized Zimzod was talking about him!  Adding two and two as Rol figured Zimzod must have just woken, and he guessed Zach must've woken up too.  Opening a comms to Zach, Rol said, "Check your reverse bearing please?  Confirm what direction you are talking about here?  Does it look like someone who might be holding a rifle and might be on sentry duty?"  Watching as he heard this, Zach saw the unidentified figure actually turn in his direction!  To the best he could tell, the figure he watched was wearing nomadic robes.  Doubt crept into his mind as Zach asked, "Rol?  Is that you?"  Rol answered, "It may very well be.  Can you give me that bearing again so I can be sure it's me?"
Switching to Zimzod, Zach said, "Never mind.  I think I just spotted Rol moving fifty meters outside the camp."  Now even more angry, Zimzod responded, "Are you kidding me??"  Coming out of her tent, Mikah spotted Zach's position as she tried to understand what was happening?  Knowing Zach wasn't supposed to be on watch, she asked what he was doing so far from his tent if he'd just gotten up?  When Zach said, "I fell asleep", Zimzod reacted, "You fell asleep on watch?" in the sort of low calm-sounding growl which was never good.  Back on private comms to Zimzod, Rol confirmed, "Yeah, he wasn't awake when I passed his post and assumed the watch.  You might want to look into that."  Calling Zach directly, Zimzod asked what Zach's issue was?
That began a debate about his merchant experience and Zimzod's military expectations of him.  Zach's defense was that he wasn't former military.  When Zimzod snarled that everyone was responsible for ship security aboard a ship, Zach reminded the marine he'd only ever been involved in anti-pirate drills.  Zach stood firm that their crew situation was very different from the military model Zimzod expected.  Zimzod admitted that he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, because he really wanted to just shoot Zach in his head.  But, they needed the bodies so he couldn't just do that.  The worst he could do was make sure Zach didn't get paid for the mission.
In the silence that followed, Zimzod finished snapping in, saying, "I'll deal with you in a few minutes."  He then opened his comms and asked, "So, anything else security-wise going ape shit right now?  Are we secure?"  Rol then reported on the glint he'd seen and Zimzod asked for a few more details?  Rol said his best guess was that the glint was at indeterminate distance, possibly on the horizon.  When Zimzod asked if this could be the city, Rol estimated it would be south of the city if it was that far back.  He also confirmed he thought it was nothing he considered "normal".  But he admitt.  Rol then speculated it could even be wealthy folks riding around in buggies in the deserts south of the city.    Saturday, 182-1112: The Morning March
The camp came back to life, and people began packing as the Countess asked about the overnight?  Zimzod reported, "Just stupidity and something unidentified."  Ursara didn't seem very concerned, so long as Zimzod wasn't concerned.  Zimzod asked her how soon things would get moving?  He was told it would take about an hour, and that they'd march until near mid-day before stopping for a meal.  Then, they expected to push on to see how close they were to their destination?  From there, they'd chose to push to the end point or not?  The Countess hoped to resch the camp site before the nomads.
Zimzod acknowledged that this was her part of the run as one of her minions moved up.  After some brief whispers into her ear, the Countess went back to her people.  After she left, Zimzod assigned people to the same positions in the march as the day before.  Those who slept in their pavilions had been able to recharge their PLSS systems.  Zach was the only person who hadn't removed and recharged, but he still had backup tanks.  As they organized, Mikah quipped, "You look refreshed Zach."  Rol acerbically asked, "Have a nice sleep?" and then whispered, "I'll wake you up next time." with a satiric tone.
Mikah didn't have to do much work with her tent and gear because Trryghera did a lot of that work for her.  Watching the other caravanners, Mikah noticed some were Jonkeereen.  This was largely because Trryghera treated them differently than the others.  Even among her own people.  Mikah remembered having read about them as a "gene-geneered" race.  She learned from Trryghera that there were issues with Jonkeereen on-world, and that Trryghera didn't like them, or dealing with them.
During breakfast, Zimzod brought up Zach's falling asleep again, and Zach made excuses, saying he just hadn't had the ability to control it.  Ignoring that, Zimzod addressed everyone saying, "Just know, a member of your security team here left you open to attack.  And he wouldn't care.  He still doesn't care."  Zach argued that he did care, but couldn't change the past.  Rol joined in, questioning Zach's excuses and Mikah asked why Zach hadn't asked for a stim.  She told him, "We can give you things to keep awake."  Zach said he hadn't expected to fall asleep, so he didn't ask.  Ms. Vik asked Mikah if she wanted them to start taking stims or something to stay awake?
Mikah said it would only be if they felt they couldn't, or would have issues with, staying awake.  Aiden joked, "Zimzod might even give you some of his coffee."  That got a laugh from almost everyone.  Ms. Vik suggested making a pack of stims to be passed from watch to watch.  Zach still repeated that he didn't ask beforehand because he hadn't felt tired, or expected to fall asleep.  Zimzod took control of the troops and bottom lined it, reminding them they were there to be security and keep everyone alive.  He ominously said, "You fall down on the job and you will get punished."
Yet again, Zach interrupted, apologizing for having fallen asleep.  Zimzod interrupted him saying, "Don't apologize, you are getting punished.  You're not getting paid."  In the background, Rol quipped, "If he wants to stay on the planet, we can do that too."  Zimzod agreed that Zach could do that too.  Finally, Zimzod said they would be moving soon and needed to get things worked out.  Mikah took the time to tell them about the Jonkeereen and their peculiarities.  When they got to breaking down, the caravan workers helping Zach were very friendly, and gave him additional help.  The Caravan master mentioned to Zimzod that he'd had reports of the sleeping sentry.  Zimzod said he was aware of it and was handling it.
On the move again, the morning passed as they moved from wastes to dunes.  Eventually they'd move into wastes again, and they soon got close to the trading site.  The only signs of life they saw were packs of scavenging animals that remained in the distance during dark periods.  Ms. Vik and then Aiden noticed an absence of dust devils in the area as they rode, despite having felt wind.  They had most likely picked up on it before the others only because they came from dryer worlds.  Aiden opened a comms to Zimzod and said he wasn't seeing the dust devils he'd expect either.
Zimzod agreed that was odd now that it was pointed out to him.  He asked if Aiden thought the area would have them or not?  Aiden said he wasn't an expert, but thought they should be there.  When the caravan stopped for the midday meal, the caravan master said they were making good time and he was happy.  Zimzod asked for an ETA and was told they could arrive where they planned by 10 pm standard if they stopped for a short evening meal, then pushed on after.  Zimzod asked about sending scouts ahead after dinner and Rol asked, "Us or them?"  Zimzod suggested a combination including Trryghera, given her skills and knowledge.A Short March Into The Storm
On the move after lunch, Aiden was definitely feeling the saddle, and thinking he could use some more time walking, or just not on an animal's back.  Inger knew exactly how he felt.  Zach's air was starting to red line and he needed to spike in some canned air.  There was very little to see around them but dunes and wastes.  When they broke for dinner, Zimzod asked if Mikah would head out on scout with Trryghera and a third person?  Mikah flatly said she wasn't taking Zach and Zimzod said he wanted Rol to keep with the main caravan.  As they talked, Zimzod changed his mind and suddenly said, "No, I'll go out with you."  Zimzod then gave instructions for the others to keep security as they ate.
Riding out to scout, Zimzod decided they should move about a mile ahead of the caravan.  After some time in front of the caravan, Trryghera tapped Mikah's shoulder.  Mikah saw she was pointing to what looked like a smudge on the horizon.  Mikah paused to use her binoculars, but only saw a larger smudge.  When she asked Trryghera what the girl thought it was, Trryghera said it was a dust storm.  Beyond that, she couldn't tell any more.  Mikah warned Zimzod, and he called the caravan to warn them a storm could be coming.  Getting that warning, Ms. Vik told the Caravan Master, who nodded and thanked her.  After Mikah and Zimzod completed their loop and returned, Inger told them the caravan master appeared 'incredibly underwhelmed' by the news.  Around them, the caravan was largely packed up after finishing their meal.
Zimzod ate a power bar while Mikah had been given strips of dried meat by Trryghera during the recon mission.  Two hours of riding after their lunch break, the Countess called Zimzod over because the caravan master was advising they stop and set up pavilions early instead of continuing to the trading site.  When asked why, Ursara said the possible storm meant it was better to make camp and be safe.  While the Countess admitted she'd argued with him a bit, she couldn't argue with safety.  So the order was given to plant stakes and set up camp.  As they set up, Inger asked about watch during the sand storm?  Zimzod said there would be someone posted, because they needed a sentry.  Zimzod also answered Inger's concerns by giving her the earliest watch, before the storm would be there.
When Mikah asked if Zimzod was going to have Zach stand watch again, Zimzod said, "Of course!  I'm going to stand watch with him and show him how it's done."  Inger said, "Harsh.  Your not paying him and your gonna make him stand watch every night?"  Zimzod replied, "He is getting paid, we'll just dock him."  For her watch, Inger strapped her body armor on over her vacc suit and grabbed her 9mm.  As her watch proceeded, Ms. Vik could see the storm coming their way.  When she was sure she saw telltale signs, Ms. Vik called Zimzod to update him.  Around the crew, the caravanners were actively tying down and preparing the pavilions, gear and animals for the coming storm.  Their concern was so great that they told the crew and the Countess' people to literally sit down and watch.  Keeping them out of the way.
Trryghera made it clear Mikah was her responsibility, and had been the only person to set up Mikah's pavilion along with the Knight.  For the first time, Trryghera let others help her as the storm came, but made it clear she was in charge.  For the first time in the crew's experience, the caravanners set up a huge additional tent to protect the animals.  Being excluded from the work, the crew secured the perimeter of the camp as the smudge on the sky continued to swallow the horizon.  While they watched, the Countess commented to Zimzod and Mikah, "I guess everyone is going to be hunkering down for this one."  Mikah quietly answered, "Except for Zach, who will be standing watch", as she and Zimzod shared a laugh.  When the pavilions were up, everyone got situated and were shown how to button up their pavilions.
Each of the crew were very emphatically warned not to leave the tents.  Ms. Vik asked why they felt they had to warn the crew not to open the overlapped flaps?  She was firmly told, they did have to warn them.  This had been learned through years of transporting tourists in the desert.  As planned, Ms. Vik's watch ended before the storm hit, but it was very definitely threatening as Zach and Zimzod took their posts.  Zimzod ordered that he and Zach would keep together as the storm hit, so he could show Zach how it was done.  And they only had an hour to wait before the dust came driving in.  Figuring he'd punished Zach enough, Zimzod told him to go to his tent as the leading edge began to hit the camp.  Zimzod's mercy was privately based on his worry that Zach's vacc suit might not stand up to the storm.Ghosts Of The Sand
A few of the caravanners stayed outside, working to keep things standing as Zach moved quickly to his tent and secured himself.  When the winds came in hard, some of the caravanners sat cross legged, wrapped in their robes, facing into the wind as others secured themselves.  Zimzod figured, "when in Rome" as the storm engulfed them and visibility was cut to zero.  Zimzod's tactical sensors still picked up those around him, but he saw nothing with his Mark I's.  Occasionally, during the storm, Zimzod flexed and changed posture, to make sure he didn't get covered by sand.
Twenty to thirty minutes into the still-raging storm, Zimzod's suit tactical picked up moving figures outside those expected.  Zimzod checked as the targets appeared on his forward range around 100 to 150 meters out.  Reading the data, Zimzod calmly said over the general channel, "Contact.  One hundred fifty meters out.  Wake up people."  In response, Zach said, "I'm still in my vacc suit and armor."  Mikah said, "We were told not to open our tents." and Ms. Vik asked, "What do you have?"  Zimzod answered, "I got three people moving through the storm.  One hundred fifty meters out, moving and inbound."  Zimzod also gave his position in the camp.  Ms. Vik decided she was staying in the tent until ordered out.  Zimzod began ordering his team as people responded.  He told Zach to move up next to him.  Mikah was to reach the Countess, let her know what was happening and stay with her.  Everyone else was to hold in their tents.
As the others geared up, Zach tried to carefully open his tent flaps and slip out.  With both hands on the flaps, he barely got them partly open before the storm took over.  For an instant, Zach found himself in middle of an balloon experiencing hyper-inflation as the tent caught its fill and more of blowing air.  Finally, filled beyond capacity, the tent acted like a scoop caught in the rushing flow, and was ripped away from the ground! And then, it was gone!  Zach found himself suddenly in the middle of a flying maelstrom of his belongings, as they were being thrown around.  He managed to duck the flying pavilion as it was ripped away by the storm.  Recovering his senses, Zach grabbed for his belongings and leaping for his backpack as it started rolling in the wind.  The bed roll was ripped away as this happened, with all the loose furs he'd been given.  The water skins hanging from the tent were also gone.
Mikah also went to open her tent flaps but Trryghera stopped her.  When Mikah explained she had to get outside, Trryghera showed Mikah how to open the flaps and slide out without losing the tent.  Trryghera also slipped out in the process of showing her.  Mikah followed her out, and Trryghera followed Mikah through the storm as they made their way to the Countess' pavilion.  Watching his tactical feed, Zimzod suddenly saw a huge sensor "flare" of activity, as something massive appeared on his scan.  And then disappeared!  It was as if something in the camp had exploded, but there'd been no sound, flame or blast!  And, no other evidence of anything else suggesting an attack.
It was quick and, as it faded, Zimzod estimated it was over the area where their tents were.  The huge radar flash appeared to convert into a "path of light" as it painted a massive but brief radar target.  With a sinking feeling, Zimzod said, "Zach, I hope that was you?"  Zach glumly answered, "Yeah, that was my pavilion."  Before Zach could say anything else, Zimzod said, "No, I meant I hope it was You" emphasizing the pronoun.  Zach ignored the insult saying, "Anyone else have a pavilion..."  Mikah cut him off, acerbically saying, "I'm already out.  My pavilion didn't blow away.  What's your problem?"  With a muted voice Zach answered, "I guess I did it wrong."
Zach strapped on his backpack and began trying to move to Zimzod's position, despite not being able to see in the storm.  As Zach moved, Zimzod watched on his tactical and talked the man forward.  At the same time, the contacts had moved within one hundred meters while visibility was 'hand in front of face'.  The three sitting caravanners were seventy five meters out from Zimzod.  By the time Zach reached him, and as Zimzod started moving forward, Zach put a hand on part of Zimzod's armor to follow without losing him.  They moved until Zimzod positioned himself within 25 feet of the sitting caravanners.  On his tactical, the unknown contacts were still moving steadily forward.
At the Countess' pavilion Trryghera knocked on one of the supports, to not put stress on the structure, and called out their presence.  An alarmed voice asked through the fabric, "Who is it?"  Mikah said they had unidentified contacts moving in the storm and approaching the camp.  The Countess called orders to keep her apprised on their comms.  Mikah told Trryghera to get under cover as there was no need for them to stay together.  Nodding, Trryghera huddled down next to the Countess' pavilion.  Seeing this, Mikah asked, "Don't you want to go inside or under cover?" and Trryghera said that wasn't necessary.  Mikah said "OKeyyy.  Since you don't need cover from the storm, do you want to come with me?"  Trryghera said, "I'll be protection here." Mikah again said, "OK."  Mikah then asked on comms and with visibility at zero, "So Zimzod, where are you?"
As Mikah moved up, Zimzod followed her progress while also monitoring the unknown contacts.  While he monitored them and waited, the contacts suddenly - disappeared!  Seeing this, Zimzod considered the possibilities and decided they likely hunkered down in the sand.  This made him smile because it made things easier for him to just sit in place and monitor their activity.  Even after Mikah reached him, they waited fifteen minutes more until they could see the sky was clearing up.  More minutes passed as the storm seemed to be passing away too.  After ten more minutes, things were clear enough to see streaking patches of sky.
During all that time, there had been no movement from the position Zimzod had painted with his battle computer.  So, when things cleared out, Zimzod scoped the positions he'd marked to see nothing more than sand!  Not even sand with lumps.  Zimzod could see the three caravanners he expected, but no sign at all of the unknown contacts.  Looking for any explanation, Zimzod saw the caravanners rise in almost a single action.  After what appeared to be a ritual opening of their outer robes, the three acted as one and closed their robes before walking back into the encampment.Looking For Ghosts And Finding A Prize
Zimzod scanned the area with his sensors for any explanation, but the suit only detected three wet sand spots near where the caravanners had been sitting.  Zimzod stood and shook the sand off as he watched them.  Two of them returned to the camp while the third came to Zimzod asking, "Can I help you?"  Zimzod asked what they were doing and the man explained their tradition, they poured water at the end of storms to help "settle the sky."  Explaining, the man held up a small but richly decorated water skin which was obviously ceremonial as he spoke.
Zimzod thanked him and started moving to where he'd painted the contacts.  As he did, the man asked, "Is there a problem?"  Zimzod said there had been three other contacts outside their perimeter in the storm.  The man nodded and said he would tell the caravan master.  Zimzod moved up, with Zach following behind and to the right of him, keeping pace.  At the same time, the man Zimzod spoke to barked out a word none of them caught.  But the two others joined him and they quickly made their way to the caravan master's tent.
Other caravanners came out of their tents as Zimzod said, over the general channel, "OK my little chickadees, the storm is gone.  You can come out of your hutches."  Zach unslung his gauss rifle and did a function check.  Advancing on the position of the contacts, they found nothing but sand, no matter the level of sensors.  With no trace of the unknowns, Zimzod brushed away the surface sand and even dug in with a toe.  He still found no trace of them.  Leaving his tent, Aiden followed the aim of his gauss rifle sights, Rol with his snub pistol and Ms. Vik with her shock cane, her 9mm at her side.  Out of his pavilion, Aiden called Zimzod, asking for instructions?  Zimzod told him to scan the perimeter with Rol and see what they could find?
Mikah asked what Zimzod was looking for and he said, in a very annoyed voice, "There were three people here.  And now there are not."  She asked for more details and Zimzod told her he had them on his sensors.  And then, they disappeared.  Mikah reminded him they were told the nomads could do that and Zimzod said, "I guess."  Still, his tone said he wasn't really willing to accept the answer.  With that decided, Mikah went back to report to the Countess and Zach shouldered his gauss rifle and drew his snub pistol, loading tranq rounds.  When Ms. Vik asked "what's up", Zimzod said "We almost had a diplomatic opportunity."  Inger saw it less as a chance to talk than having nomads with guns charge the encampment.
After agreeing with that, Zimzod told Inger to meet Mikah at the Countess' pavilion.  Making her way to the Countess' pavilion, Mikah saw Trryghera stand and give her the high sign, that all was OK there.  While things unfolded in the camp, Zimzod discussed what he saw with Zach on comms.  Zach suggested they could have dug in.  When she heard this, Mikah joked, "Start digging.  Zimzod, give him a shovel."  Soon, they realized where they were was at the start of a search, so Zimzod started scanning a spiral pattern outward, for any trace of the contacts.  Zach tried to kick a trench in the sand.
As he was scanning and searching the perimeter, Rol noticed something in the sand.  Investigating, he found it was a 2" x3" x 1/2" piece of wood.  It just sat on the sand, meaning it had to have been dropped near the end of the storm!  Taking his pistol, Rol flipped the wood over and saw it was a plaque of some sort, with carvings on it.  The closer he looked, the more ornately carven it appeared, and Rol saw some kind of writing on it which he couldn't read.  Rol called out that he'd found something and they might want to have one of the caravanners look at it.  Zimzod told him to take it to Mikah and Trryghera and have Trryghera look at it.Investigations Interrupted
Mikah arrived at the Countess' pavilion as Ursara and her staff emerged.  The camp around them was getting busy with cleaning up and checking for damage.  When Mikah arrived, the Countess asked, "So what is happening?"  Mikah explained, "Well, Zimzod had three contacts in the desert, moving towards our camp.  He tracked them for quite some time and then they just disappeared from all the sensors."
The Countess asked "No sign of them now?" and Mikah confirmed, "No Sign.  Nothing after the storm.  There is nothing out there."  Ursara followed up, "Any sign of damage to the camp?" as she looked over the work starting up.  Mikah offered, "Um, Zach had some problems.  I am not yet sure what it was?"  Ursara looked at her asking, "Who?" with a confused look on her face.  As Mikah explained, "Uh, the big tall man?" the Countess' face brightened up as she said, "Oh, one of your staff.  What happened?" Mikah answered, "I don't know yet."
Before Rol's discovery, Zimzod's spiral search had no results and Zach had dug a foot and a half deep trench with the same results.  With nothing detected from the perimeter out to the horizon, Zimzod ordered everyone back to the camp to start packing up.  When she heard this, Mikah joked that Zach was already packed.  As this was said, Zach noted a knot of caravanners waiting for him where his pavilion had been.  Approaching, they asked what happened and he explained, "My tent blew away."  They pushed back, "No.  What happened?"  Zach repeated in a more beleaguered voice, "It blew away..."  When one of the men clarified, "How did it blow away?" stressing the word how, Zach said, "I obviously opened the flap and it..."  He was interrupted as the man asked, "You opened the flaps?"
Zach confirmed, "I opened the flaps." and the man asked, "In the storm?".  Zach told him, "I had to."  The man then asked, "Why did you have to?" and Zach said "Security."  With this answer, the men just shook his head and walked away.  On comms, Mikah suggested, "I guess Zach can pull all the watches now, because he has nowhere to sleep."  Rol dryly joked to Zach, "I think your standing with the handlers has just gone another notch in one direction or another."  Mikah laughed and said, "Not up."
As Rol met with Mikah, and Zimzod and Zach started back, Zimzod got a contact twenty meters behind him!  Turning to look, Zimzod saw a nomad standing in the distance.  Seeing no one else had spotted this, he patiently said on the general comms, "Contact".  This brought everyone's attention up as Zach turned and Mikah looked up to see the lone figure in black robes facing Zimzod across twenty meters of open sand.The Amazing Fading Nomad
Zach asked, over the comms, if the nomad was were where he had been digging?  Zimzod checked his HUD and said "No".  Mikah jumped in saying, "You were digging in the wrong spot, damn it!"  Zach tried to remember any suggested greetings or communications with the nomads from the book.  Zimzod and the nomad seemed to stare at each other as Zimzod comm'd the Countess.  He asked, "I have one of your nomads here.  Do you want to send someone to talk to him.  Or her.  Or whatever?"  The Countess answered, "I'll be right there!" and started moving toward Zimzod.
Mikah followed the Countess as Rol altered his course to meet them.  The figure didn't move as the Countess arrived, and checked with Zimzod to see if the nomad had any weapons?  Zooming in, and stepping through his sensors, all Zimzod could get was a figure in robes.  No penetration, no el-int, not even a gender.  So Zimzod said, "No.  I can't see anything."  Ursara said, "OK" before leaning over and asking her assistant if he had any information.  When he said, "No My Lady" she said, "ok, stay right here." to those around her.  She then started advancing on the figure.  Disobeying, Zimzod followed her saying, "No.  Your security is a higher priority."  Zach stepped to the right a few meters, making sure he had a clear view of the nomad.  Aiden asked if he needed to react as well.  Zimzod told him to keep scanning the rest of the perimeter in case anyone else popped up.
The Countess got within ten feet of the nomad and called out, "What tribe are you from?"  Ignoring her, the nomad simply turned in place and began to walk off.  The Countess waited until the figure walked about one hundred meters and returned, past Zimzod, to her assistant.  Zimzod physically watched the figure as he saw the contact on his sensors just 'drop off'.  He realized he was seeing exactly what he'd been warned of while he could still physically see the retreating figure!  In a part of his mind, Zimzod was considering the value of the vid-recording he was making?  Zimzod decided to keep a watch for the next hour or so, until the figure disappeared in the distance.  When the Countess arrived next to Mikah and her assistant, she said, "Well, they know we are here now."  Her aide nodded and replied, "Yeah, I guess."
The Countess asked for recommendations and her man said, "I suggest we pull up stakes and move on to the trading site."  Zach asked if the direction the nomad was headed was along the same path they were taking, and was told that figure had moved off fifteen or twenty degrees to the right of their course.  As they talked options, Mikah looked for the Caravan master.  She saw him working with some of his people helping with an injured child.  Mikah went to the caravan master to ask what he knew about the nomads?  If they should go on, follow the nomad or turn back now?
The master said, "If it were me, I'd turn back now.  But I am being paid by the Countess, so it is the Countess' call.  Mikah nodded, saying, "OK.  You'll give her good counsel though, won't you?"  He said he would.  While Zimzod was watching the retreating nomad, Zach pulled out his binoculars trying to see if he could find any trace of the remains of his tent.  Scanning as much as he could around the area, Zach saw no trace of the remains.  Aiden continued walking the perimeter, continuing the search until he got the call from Zimzod to secure from that work and head in to pack up.Mounting Mysteries And Moving On
Mikah looked to see if Rol was nearby, and found him trailing behind her as if he'd been doing that for some time.  Taking the wooden plaque from him, Mikah examined it before handing it to Trryghera.  But Trryghera didn't see anything meaningful there.  She did say, "This is pretty and the wood is rare."  Turning to the Caravan master, Mikah asked if he knew anything about it?  The man gave it a good steady stare, and then said, "I haven't seen one of these in many many seasons".
When Mikah asked, "What is it", the master answered, "If I remember correctly, it is a promise of support, from a nomad."  Into the surprise that announcement created, the man explained the two most rare things on this world were Tellona Diamonds and wood.  It also seemed the nomads had no problems finding both.  When an agreement was made between a nomad and a townsperson, they had these plaques.  Such a plaque would be given to a person as a promise of support by a nomad with rank in their group.  They were most frequently given when there was some sort of legal situation brewing that might bring the police into the desert.
Hearing that, Mikah asked if this changed his mind about continuing on, and he said it bothered him more.  He said those were not just found lying in the desert.  Mikah asked Rol where he found the piece, and under what circumstances?  Rol said he was scanning the perimeter and found it in the sand.  He pointed out exactly where that had been as he spoke.  Finally, Mikah asked if there was a name on it?  The caravan master looked again before saying, "There is a word on it, but it is not a word that makes any sense to me."  When Mikah asked what the word was, he said, "Terinaf".  Thanking the caravan master, they decided to take the plaque back to the Countess.  Ursara said she knew what it was because the agent who'd set the trade expedition up got one from the nomad he'd dealt with.  But she had no idea what the word meant?
When Zimzod asked if there was a linguist on the payroll, he was told Emkir was the linguist in the crew.  But when they tried to comm back to the ship, they got nothing but static.  Zach went to the Caravan master as they talked, to ask if he had dealings with the nomads before?  The Caravan master said, "When I have had to", which wasn't promising.  Zach asked, "Is there a particular greeting they use when you talk to them?"  The master suggested they choose who they wished to talk to, and then just begin their conversation when they find that person.
Zach asked if the caravan master saw the encounter with the nomad and the Countess?  He said, "No.  I was busy with my camp and my people." in a tone suggesting he wasn't very interested in continuing that line of conversation.  As Zach thanked him, the man said, "It is unfortunate about your pavilion, and we have no spares."  Zach nodded saying, "Yeah, I didn't think you did, so I didn't bother asking."  The Caravan master nodded and went back to his business.  As she watched the exchange, Ms. Vik called Zimzod and said she was going to hang out with the Caravanners for a while.  Zimzod said, "Yeah go ahead!  Turn nice and red."  For much of the time before they got moving again, Ms. Vik tried to fit in and get an understanding of the caravan culture.  In the meantime, the Countess decided they should pull up stakes and everyone should be working on that plan.Zach On Point
Zimzod finally turned his attention back to the camp and job at hand, as he considered moving on.  Since Zach was travelling light, he was put on point.  Zimzod said he could use his negotiations skills if they ran into anyone.  Zach agreed, and started moving ten minutes before the rest planned to move the caravan.  Eventually, the others started moving and followed the merchant's trail.  It wasn't long before Zach saw, ahead of him and to his left, a patch of desert that seemed to be "moving".  He watched as it became apparent the patch was some pack of small fur-coated animals that seemed to be closing on him!  Recognizing them from the survival book, Zach remembered they were a "coyote-analog".  They were smaller, more compact and muscular than the Terran variety.  Never having seen the Terran variety, that didn't help Zach any.  They were scavengers which would eat whatever they found dead or could take down as a pack.
The pack appeared to number in the 40's and were coming in his direction.  Zach estimated them to be at very long range for his gauss rifle.  Deciding he had a situation, Zach comm'd back to the caravan telling them a pack of scavengers were bearing down on him and he could use some help.  Knowing he was in trouble, Zach brought his golging to a halt and dismounted.  To keep control of his animals, he tethered his animals together and looped the tethers around his left arm.  Taking a firing stance, Zach aimed at the leading edge of the pack and took a shot.  As he watched for affect, the round dropped one of the animals.  This caused some of them to jump their companion as the rest rushed forward.  Seeing the pack was still coming, Zach squeezed off another round and dropped another scavenger.
Now, a few of the animals were circling back to feed on the wounded and dead.  To build on his success, Zach fired again, dropping a third animal as he noted the pack starting to string out.  More of the animals had turned back for the easy meal while a core of about ten were still leading those bearing down on him.  Hoping to take down the Alpha animal, Zach lined up his shot and fired again.  Again, an animal went down and the core ten broke in two as some fell on the easy meal in their midst.
The dogs got closer, and easier to see, as Zach pumped off another round.  This time, he hit the dirt before taking a breath and firing again.  This shot tagged one of the pack leaders, causing it to howl as it dropped.  It went down and appeared to struggle with the unseen opponent that was causing its pain.  That seemed to take the lust out of the other lead animals.  They turned and ripped into their wounded pack mate.  Zach called with an update and Zimzod told him to move on and ignore the dogs.  Zach decided he would dog leg around the pack despite Zimzod's orders to move "through the animals" as they ate.
After a brief argument between Zimzod and Zach, Zimzod put his foot down.  Ordering Zach to do as he was told.  And Zach, just as promptly, ignored the order and detoured wide around the animals.  Some of them looked up at him, but they didn't attack as he watched them and moved on.  Soon enough, Zach was comfortable he wasn't being followed.  When the caravan came near the site, the caravan master advised that they also dog leg around the pack.  Zimzod asked why and was told it was foolish to tempt animals.
Seeing it was a fight he wouldn't win, Zimzod agreed and the caravan passed around the feeding scavengers.  As they did so, some of the adolescent and teen caravanners rode out with bows and slings to attack the animals, further dispersing them and eventually chasing off the survivers.  After several more hours, Zach saw signs of some kind of camp ahead and called the caravan.  Zimzod had him stop and observe while he waited for the rest to arrive.
Back at the caravan, Mikah told the Countess they had found a camp.  The Countess thanked her, saying she'd check with her assistant, to see if this was the correct camp before getting back to them.  Zimzod called Zach to have him observe the camp and report back what he saw.  Zach described tents, cooking fires, storage sheds and all manner of figures moving around in black robes.  The only thing he saw that he found weird was that there didn't seem to be any animals.  Food or otherwise.
The pavilions seemed to be single or double family sized, so the animals 'could have been' under cover.  Zach scanned around the camp to see what was going in or out, but didn't see anything outside the camp.  So he watched, waiting for the caravan to arrive.  As the caravan became a blotch on the horizon behind him, Zach realized he'd been noticed.  He watched as five black robed figures began walking out of the nomad's camp towards him.
_________________________________________________________________________ Next: Negotiations with Guns and Words