Skull Valley

by Greg DeAngelo

Art by andi jones

[Editorís Note: The author has a complete set of pregenerated characters, additional historical background, maps, and pictures at his website.]

At first, the Army tried to hide it! But now, two primeval forces have been unleashed by the power of the Atom Bomb -- and nothing can stand in their way!!

Skull Valley

Introduction

Spring, 1953. Dean Martin and Perry Como are on the radio while Bill Haley is poised to comet over the airwaves. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr are on the silver screen. Eisenhower's in the White House, and something's on the loose in Utah! At the Dugway Proving Ground, an experiment has gone horribly wrong, and the Army's attempts to cover up the failure have proved disastrous. It's giant, mutated scorpions versus the blob from the stratosphere in a no-holds-barred fight to the finish, with the PCs and the 300,000 innocent civilians of Salt Lake City caught in the middle! And if you're lucky, some rock and roll on the side!

This is original material developed for GURPS Atomic Horror. The events and people involved are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental (well, maybe not purely coincidental . . . they did kill the sheep).

Setting

In and around Skull Valley, Utah, an area 30 some-odd miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the city of Clover peacefully resides. It's a dry, rustic place of majestic beauty, home to sheep and cattle herders, along with some farmers who continually battle the elements to keep their dusty crops alive. Mountain ranges line the horizons, and in the long, flat valleys some wooded areas thrive. Most of the arid land supports clumps of tall desert grasses and groundcover, pygmy evergreens, and sparse vegetation with surprisingly abundant wildlife, including mule deer and pronghorn antelope.

The Skull Valley Indian Reservation is home to a portion of the Goshute tribe of Native Americans, who make their living raising livestock, burying toxic waste, and leasing Federal land to the Hercules Industries corporation, a manufacturer of advanced and experimental jet engines.

The toxic waste comes from the Dugway Proving Ground, an Army base established in 1942 by President Roosevelt that (along with the nearby Deseret Test Center, Hillover Air Force Range, and the Wendover Range installations) occupies most of the Great Salt Lake Desert, a wasteland of salty sand surrounded by ridges of granite mountains. At Dugway, Roosevelt and the U.S. Army commenced research into biological and chemical weaponry. In 1946, plans and samples of experimental biological agents were retrieved from secret Nazi research facilities outside of Nuremberg; these samples were transported to Dugway, and in the isolated deserts of Utah, the damnable research continued.

Characters

The Feds

Gordon Douglas and James "Jimmy" Senra are special agents working out of the FBI's Los Angeles Bureau Office. Their successful and highly publicized involvement in cracking open a ring of corrupt cops struck at the highest levels of the LAPD and lead to swift promotions from "research and records" to "special field agents." They are now partners, currently unassigned, but eager to take on the next big case. And if that case generates some additional publicity because of their reputation, well, so much the better for advancement in the crazy, status-driven worlds of LA crime and politics.

The Scientist

Dr. Edmund Gwenn served his country in the Great War, and witnessed first-hand the horrible effects of chemical weaponry on the boys in the trenches. Following the War, Dr. Gwenn became obsessed with the subject, studying chemistry, biology, zoology, and the application of these sciences to both preserve and destroy human life. He answered the call again when his country returned to war in Europe, and the military recognized the potential of his talents and shipped him, not to some island hopping PT boat or rough and ready combat squad, but to Dugway. There, Gwenn continued his research while learning about nuclear physics, rocketry, and other technical advances brought about by WWII. If not for the size and magnitude of his blunder (and the skill of the U.S. Army's cover-up specialists) Dr. Edmund Gwenn's name would now be as familiar as that of Einstein or Oppenheimer.

The Colonel

Veteran of two world wars, Colonel Charles Russel commands Dugway Proving Ground with authority and respect, always aware of the magnitude of the responsibility apportioned to him. The deadly microbes and lethal chemicals that are in constant development must be heavily guarded, and Col. Russel is the man for the job -- lean, tough, salt and pepper short cropped hair, fiercely intelligent bright blue eyes. The Colonel is also the impetus for the Hercules contract. Dugway supports the Air Force's high-altitude test flights based from the Hill Air Force Range, and Col. Russel sealed the deal to make Hercules Industries (stationed inside the Skull Valley Reservation) the prime contractor for the Air Force's experimental jet engines. Hercules Industries is owned indirectly by Antonio Starke, a wealthy industrialist and former Lieutenant who served under then Captain Russel in the European theater.

The Press

Fess Parker hates LA and hates writing about LA and hates writing about the people in LA, but she's one of the best there is. Writing in a man's world, she succeeds by being better than the boys, beating them at their own game but doing it with style, grace, and tenacity. She's brought down football players on the take and cops on the lam, and her expose of the City of Los Angeles' utter disrespect of earthquake codes netted her a Pulitzer Prize in 1951. Fess wrote several pieces during the last year concerning corruption in the LAPD, and as a result has been following the careers of Special Agents Douglas and Senra, half out of respect for their work, half out of hope for good scoops. She notices that they're suddenly missing from their offices, and when she gets wind of the troubles in Utah, she's on the next plane for Provo . . .

The Academic

The beautiful prodigy Dr. Irene Yeaworth blossomed into her intellect at a young age, but her drop-dead good looks developed much later. Somewhat awkward and standoffish around the opposite sex, she is the youngest post-doctorate research student at UCLA, specializing in chemistry, forensics, botany, and zoology as they relate to the native species of the southwest United States -- particularly the venomous sorts. Raised by her father after her mother was killed by a poisonous king snake while camping, Irene is as at home in the lab as she is roughing it in the desert Southwest. Physically, she represents the 50's ideal, platinum blonde hair with a full figure and a winning smile. Mentally, she's one of the sharpest minds in the business and provides support to law enforcement throughout Southern California in suspected poisoning cases and other crimes where her unique blend of talents comes to bear. Not surprisingly, her path has crossed with Dr. Gwenn's several times during their respective careers, and they have a mutual respect for each other.

The Heat

Sheriff Steve Whitmore does what he can to keep his 12 deputies busy in Tooele County, Utah, mostly by sponsoring dinners and other fund-raisers. Not much happens in Tooele, and if it did, it would probably involve the military anyhow. Steve left his home of Salt Lake City when the Communists invaded Korea, and he fought along the 38th parallel with the best of 'em. Upon his return, life at his father's appliance sales and repair store didn't seem very important. He replaced the retiring sheriff and vowed to be vigilant in his duty to protect the American way of life from the Communists, but lately he despairs that the fight may be a war of attrition, one bake sale at a time.

Plot

A summary of events leading up to the adventure follows:

(1) 1951: The Air Force's test of an experimental, atomic powered jet engine aircraft fails (miserably).

The jet's original high-altitude flight path was from Edwards AFB in California to Hill AFB in Utah. It suffered intense cosmic radiation, possibly originating from a single point source, such as a ray gun. (GM's should use discretion on involving aliens or Illuminated plots, there's already a whole lot going on in Skull Valley.) The failure of the engine, combined with the deadly, unknown radiation mutates the pilot (Col. Steve Dallas). The jet crash lands, not at the target site, but in the desert three miles from the Skull Valley reservation.

(2) The Army discovers the blob.

A 50 man platoon descends on the crash site, with Gwenn and Russel in attendance. They discover the unmoving, purplish goo that was Col. Dallas. Gwenn convinces Russel that the blob is dangerous, although inert, and suggests biological detoxification. The platoon hits it with a 'microbe bomb', which has the unintended affect of animating the blob. One soldier, who volunteered to try to get a sample of the blob, is sucked in and consumed. The blob begins growing, and Russel orders an atomic strike.

(3) The Army drops an unplanned bomb.

The soldiers barricade the area, securing it, and Russel announces an unplanned atomic explosion. To the media, the story is that a new readiness response factor is being tested. Indians from the reservation severely protest, but the bomb goes off at dusk, six hours after the crash. The Goshute are outraged at the danger of radiation and stage protests. Army intelligence leaks stories to the press about Communist sympathizers in the Goshute camp. The Hercules Industries contract suddenly becomes open for re-compete. Goshute protests are stilled, the contract is won, and the McCarthy witch hunts don't reach into the Utah desert; but John BigTree and Nathan SitsAtDusk do not forget what happened in Skull Valley . . .

(4) 1952: The fallout.

Although the blast appeared to have destroyed the blob, it did not. Born in the atomic fires of high-altitude cosmic rays and a malfunctioning atomic reactor, the blob absorbed the impact and the energy from the blast, but was driven deep underground. As it returns slowly to the surface, the radiation is having strange effects on the native population of Skull Valley. One of the first affects of radiation exposure is on the ability to reproduce, causing sterility in almost all cases. A generation of insects, birds, and reptiles have vanished, died off without offspring. Except for one lucky(?) female whip-tail scorpion (species Mastigoproctus, commonly known as the Vinegaroon) who was in the process of bearing her young when exposed to intense radiation. Her seven offspring grew at an alarming rate, eating most of the remaining animals and insects in the area while reaching a length of 10 to 12 feet in just over a year . . . wow!

Meanwhile, by December 1952 every eye witness to the bombing save Dr. Gwenn and Col. Russel has either been killed in a tragic two-helicopter collision or been transferred to Ice Station Zebra on the warm northern coast of Antarctica.

(5) 1953: The adventure. With the native fauna drastically reduced, the blob and the scorpions are gonna get hungry.

And they like to eat meat . . .

Now, the cattle and the sheep were gonna get eaten anyhow, and it just might be poetic justice if the sad remains of Col. Dallas absorb a couple dozen soldiers, but there's a sleepy little town of 8,000 called Clover, Utah, and a lot of innocent people are going to find themselves served up for lunch unless somebody stops these things. And the greater Salt Lake City area (population 300,000) is just 30 short miles away . . .

Encounters

The encounters are, of necessity, a little vague, as they depend on which characters your players want to run. Players will probably find a diverse assortment of characters advantageous, but if numbers are short, the adventure works fine with just one or two. Any of the archetypes from GURPS Atomic Horror work great, even "the kid." (Unfortunately, the kid is invariably living with stepparents, and the life span of stepparents can be depressingly short in GURPS Atomic Horror.)

One possible series of events is outlined below, but feel free to use these as guidelines. Be flexible. Keep things moving and encourage alternative solutions to saving the populace of Clover, Utah.

Briefing at FBI Headquarters, Los Angeles, California.

Whitaker Jesup, Division Chief, is a hard-ass, and no one much likes him, but he gets the job done and is "in" with J. Edgar Hoover so there's never any shortage of funds funneled into LA. Whitaker will pull the young, hotshot Feds into his office, chew then out about being publicity hogs and lecture them about diligence and the routine of life in the Agency. Then, as if to prove his point, he assigns them the unenviable task of investigating some cattle mutilations in Utah. "See how ya' fair in the desert heat, Hollywood!"

Alternatively, the press can get word of the mutilations, or the academics can get called in to investigate the strange manner of death.

The Mutilated Cattle at Jefferson's Ranch.

Old Man Jefferson married a Goshute woman and together they have a marginally prosperous cattle ranch outside of Clover, Utah. Their ranch backs up on the Skull Valley reservation.

Their cattle have recently been the victim of a most gruesome violation. Upon arrival, the PC's will discover pieces of cattle, with edges melted, missing, oozing. (Squeamishness checks aplenty! Maybe even a Fright Check or two.) Even to the untrained, it should be apparent that this is no coyote attack. There are no predator footprints, and the wounds are not consistent with teeth or claw marks.

Old Man Jefferson and wife will not be able to provide any insight. The incident occurred at night, no one heard a thing (except, perhaps, for a snoopy player character "kid" . . . but no one's gonna believe the kid until it's too late). There are two patches of upturned soil, roughly circular in shape, about 20 feet in diameter. Upon very close examination (lab equipment and some appropriate science skill rolls) the upturned soil in these crop circles is actually dead. No microbes, no grass, nothing organic remains in the patches.

A Talk With the Elders

While investigating at Old Man Jefferson's ranch, sharp-eyed PCs will notice two figures on horseback watching them from a distance. If they are noticed and approached, the figures will come to the party.

The two men are John BigTree and Nathan SitsAtDusk, tribal elders of the Goshute. The men will react coldly towards the party (-2 on reaction rolls) but wish to relay their thoughts on the situation. They will report that the Spirits are displeased with the white man. It turns out that the site of the Dugway atomic blast was nearly on-top of a tribal burial mound, and the resultant damage and radiation is a desecration of the highest imaginable magnitude. The elders will claim that because of the insult, the Spirits have acted, and that is why there are no creatures living on the desert (Area Knowledge will confirm that there has been a significant drop off in wildlife over the past year and a half). The elders will claim that the Spirits will continue to plague the white man's cattle and sheep, and maybe the white man himself.

The elders will not volunteer any information on how to stop the attacks of the Spirits, and they have no knowledge of the crop circles. If asked about the crop circles, they will seem confused and then note that the Spirits work in strange ways.

Dugway

The PCs credentials, especially if they've joined forces with the local sheriff, will gain them access to Dugway itself. On the first visit to the base, they will be received by Russel and Gwenn. They will get nothing but the official story out of them, but they can gain access to a laboratory if desired.

A Night on the Town!

This is very useful if the PCs haven't met up with someone important yet (like another player character such as the kid, the sheriff, or the press). The Soda Shoppe-and-Go-Go is where all the kids hang out, but itís got the best food in town and a really polite wait staff and it's air conditioned (ice-cold, of course). It wouldn't be a 50's adventure without a little rock-and-roll, maybe a fist-fight, have the sheriff come break it up, go crazy. Other hot spots include the bowling alley and (obviously) the drive-in theater.

Missing Persons

The next morning, the PCs will be summoned by the local sheriff to Merriweather's Service Station. Just west of town, the Merriweather family ran a combination auto service station and grocery. The Merriweathers lived upstairs of the grocery, and the gas pumps and a small garage are located in front and to the side (respectively) of the main building.

A passing motorist notified the police after finding no one in the store and shotgun shell casings littered about. From the evidence, it appears that some one fired a weapon repeatedly, but no blood stains or other indications of violence will be apparent. The sheriff can confirm that John Merriweather owned a shotgun, but can offer no other information.

No crop circles will be found, but observant PC's can discover the shotgun slugs themselves. The bullets will all be found (if someone takes the time to count the shell casings and the recovered bullets) in the same area. Roughly circular, but the PCs can't tell for sure. They can tell that if it is a circle, it is larger than the ones at Jefferson's ranch (the bullet circle is roughly 30 feet in diameter).

Some of the bullets will have a sticky, gooey residue on them, slightly purplish and almost pulsing. This is blob ectoplasm either left behind as the blob traveled through the earth or blown clear of the blob by a close range shotgun blast to a pseudopod. If examined in a lab, the ectoplasm will be revealed to be highly alkaline (basic). It will actually move under its own power (albeit slowly); it moves away from light and water. Nothing else of importance will be learned, but feel free to make up important, science-sounding stuff.

And Then There Are the Sheep . . .

It just keeps getting worse. On the heels of the disappearance of the Merriweathers, another report of mutilation comes across the sheriff's radio. Johnny and Kenny Bravo, brothers, tend sheep on a ranch between Jefferson's place and Clover. A third of their sheep were slaughtered in the early morning hours.

Upon examining, it quickly becomes apparent that something strange (?!?) is afoot. No crop circles, no melted flesh, no purple ooze. These sheep have been hacked asunder, split, torn, raked, and battered. Forensics or zoology (or other appropriate skill) can be used to determine that the bite marks and other wounds were definitely not coyote or wolf; a critical success will indicate that the wounds are consistent with crushing and cutting attacks of scorpions or spiders.

A small lake sits peacefully behind the Bravo's, and one of the city's main street water runoff lines empties into it. From this end, it looks like a tunnel, dark and inviting. A trail of dismembered sheep and parts of sheep leads straight to it. Of course it's a trap!

As the PC's get close to the tunnel, a whiptail scorpion attacks!

After dispatching the scorpion, investigation will yield the following info: The attacker was a female scorpion, recently devoid of young; there were probably 6 or 7 scorpions in her "litter"; they almost assuredly destroyed the sheep and traveled up the sewer to escape the daylight.

The sewer runs right into downtown. For kicks, have a broad opening in the sewer lines right behind the Soda Shoppe-and-Go-Go.

The Preparation

The characters may attempt to plot the blob attacks. From a map of the town, it should become obvious that the blob is heading towards the food supply, aka downtown Clover. Ditto the scorpions. Neither entity likes daylight much, so the characters will have several hours to come up with some kind of plan.

This part of the adventure depends on several factors: how favorably Gwenn and Russel have reacted towards the group, how involvement with the local law has progressed, and how much scientific evidence the characters have managed to uncover. There is much that could happen this fateful afternoon. Troops from Dugway could be called in (40 riflemen and 10 bazooka). Local populace could be warned. Experimental chemicals could be fabricated.

Outside help will not be available. Salt Lake City is indeed only 30 miles away, but (of course) a major route through the mountains has been closed by a rock slide and is impassable.

The Showdown

This should be fun to roleplay. Two giants of the genre tackling each other on Main Street, confused populace running around, Army types trying to gather their forces and courage, scientists waiting in the wings with the miracle cure, Feds trying to make sense of it all and protect the women-folk (remember, this is the 50's).

One possible solution involves getting the blob to attack the scorpions. If it consumes them, within 3d turns the scorpions exoskeletons will be dissolved. The ensuing acid-base reaction will proceed at a rapid pace, releasing great quantities of heat and gasses. The blob will begin to visibly swell, and anyone witnessing the expansion can make an IQ roll to realize what is going on and take cover.

The ensuing explosion, with purple goo falling everywhere within a 500-yard radius of the blob, will effectively eliminate both threats. But the town's gonna need some serious cleaning. And the PCs would be advised to make sure that no pieces of the blob are big enough to continue animation on their own.

Epilogue

Be sure to play up the "things man was not meant to know" aspect if some characters died or if the PCs resorted to calling in an air strike to level the beasts (and the town along with it). But excessive remorse for dead "extras" should not be shown.

Bonus points for originality in coming up with a plan. Most plans should work -- they almost always did in the movies. Also, bonus points for getting any romantic interest kindled between the lead characters -- they almost always did in the movies. And, in wrapping up the adventure, be sure to leave a hint about a possible sequel . . .

Critter Stats

Whiptail Scorpions

aka Vinegaroons
aka Mastigoproctus Gigantus (bitingly ironic, don't ya' think?)

Whiptail scorpions differ from traditional scorpion. For starters, they have no poison glands and no chelated pinchers. They hunt prey by grabbing the victim between their legs and crushing the poor fellow. They thus get one attack, not two attacks, with their powerful legs.

But their real front legs are long and thin. They're called antennaeform, and they use them to feel around for vibrations and objects and such. They have four pair of weak eyes, and they are nocturnal meat eaters; they prefer to kill and then drag their prey back to their nests or holes.

They get their name from their unusual tail. They do not have a stinger like a "normal" scorpion, but instead have a caudal appendage, or thin whiplike tail. From this tail, the scorpions can spray a misty cloud of powerful acetic acid! The following stats are for the giant, mutated scorpions, which are about twice the size of a human, about 6-7 hexes long.

ST 45
DX 12
IQ 2
HT 15/25
Move 12
Dodge 9
PD 3
DR 5

Attacks: Crush with front legs, 2d+1 crushing damage; successful crush means the victim is stuck between the front legs. Quick contest of ST on the next turn to get free...if the critter wins than it gets an automatic hit!

Acid Spray has a range of 10 hexes, does 1d-3 damage each turn for 1d turns if hit.

Pierce with pinchers (jaws) does 1D impaling.

The Blob

aka the mutated remains of doomed Colonel Steve Dallas

Like the scorpions, the blob is a nocturnal meat eater. It is nigh-immune to fire, radiation, heat, and gunfire. Shells bounce off of it. (It is randomly dangerous to fire bazookas at it.) It will react by moving away from concussive explosions, electricity, or water. It can travel through solid earth by dissolving and excreting the rock. In doing so, it dissolves any organic material. This leaves circular patches in grass or crops where it enters and exits the underearth. It can kinda creepily bubble-up all around you if you're not careful.

The blob dissolves meat by engulfing it and allowing its extremely caustic (i.e., alkaline) interior juices to break down the food. The blob is the size of a small apartment building by the time it attacks Clover. Note that a small slice of the blob, if obtained, will behave like the larger blob but will become inert after 2d hours unless it is allowed to feed (and therefore grow). The blob doesn't lose any organic matter it processes; it simply keeps getting bigger.

ST 70
DX 7 (12)
IQ 3
HT 15/90
Move 3
Dodge 0
PD n/a (~0)
DR n/a (~0)

Attacks: Pseudopod punch; the blob can instantly form up to four pseudopod "arms" to swing at anything within 20 yards. This attack (at DX 12) does 2d crushing damage, and if it hits, then the victim is stuck and will be pulled into the blob. The pseudopod arms have a ST of 12 and victims get one contest of ST to pull free before being sucked in (anyone nearby can help pull). Once inside the blob, victims get one last chance to win a contest of ST before becoming one with the blob . . .

Historical References

History of Dugway proving ground (archived information on the Skull Valley Support page):
http://gregdan.com/grotto/sprt_skv.html

The Official homepage for Dugway Proving Ground (be sure to check out the Visitor's Guide and read about the cosmic ray experiment facility operated in conjunction with the University of Utah -- I'm not making this up!):
http://www.dugway.army.mil/

Information about the Skull Valley reservation:
http://www.alphacdc.com/necona/skull-vy.html

Read about the 6,000 sheep (allegedly) killed by Dugway nerve gas:
http://www.alphacdc.com/necona/skulnews.html

Some pictures and information about whiptail scorpions:
http://www.kingsnake.com/trans_pecos/insects/vinegar.htm

Some good scientific background to give to a character who makes an Entomology or Science! roll:
http://www.Insect-World.com/main/whipscop.html




Article publication date: September 17, 1999


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