The PCs have returned to Presidium station, and made preparations to travel to Taoan, the next system on the journey to Hamurabi. The roster for today’s adventure:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Kaarlina, mystic

Before they could leave for Taoan the PCs needed to gather their belongings from their luxury hotel. From their ship they crossed Presidium station to the small plaza where their hotel was located. The plaza was deserted, most of its shops closed. They were familiar now with its lonely air: a fountain bubbled in the middle of the square, flanked by two raised flowerbeds where no one ever sat, and two of the shops lining the plaza – a raw fish restaurant and a tailor – appeared to be permanently closed. The only places that were routinely open were a small coffee stand near the tunnel entering the plaza and a delapidated game centre, which seemed never to have any customers.

Ambushed

As they entered the plaza three of them were shot, hit by bullets from accelerator pistols. Oliver took a bullet to the heart, falling immediately, and everyone else retreated to cover. Saqr ran to the coffee stall and vaulted over the counter into cover, but the others continued to take fire as they retreated. They could not immediately see their attackers, who were in cover in shops around the plaza, shooting accelerator pistols that are deadly accurate and deadly silent. After a few moments of confusion Kaarlina ran out to the plaza to give first aid to Oliver, and Siladan dashed to the flowerbeds to take cover until he could see their attackers. Saqr saw one hiding in the raw fish restaurant and took a shot, but in return received sustained fire that burst open the second artery in his leg; he fell behind the counter, painting its decorated coffee pots crimson as he fell.

Finally Siladan saw two of their ambushers hiding behind counters in the gaming arcade and charged over to attack, barrelling into the attacker and trying to grapple him as the other shooter tried to find a good aim. Dr. Delecta vaulted the coffee counter and rushed to staunch Saqr’s wounds as Kaarlina helped Oliver back to the hallway under covering fire from Clementine. Now their two injured members were restored the tide of battle turned, and they began to pick off their attackers. They found a second one in the raw fish shop and laid down sustained fire on it, as Siladan disarmed and then proceeded to stab and mangle the two in the gaming arcade. Finally, after a few more seconds of desperate battle, they managed to kill all their attackers. This battle had been close – ambushed by silent assassins while not wearing their armour or carrying their heavy weapons, they had come close to a bad end. But who had attacked them?

Backlach the Feeder

They searched the bodies and found nothing to identify their assailants except room cards for a hotel. They also discovered that the assassins had killed two customers of the game arcade when they entered, presumably so as to eliminate witnesses. Realizing that someone would call for help soon they quickly retired to their hotel, where they packed up their gear quickly while Siladan jury-rigged a hotel room card reader from the readers in their hotel. From this he was able to learn that the assassins had stayed in room 12 of the Strontium Dog hotel, and had come into Presidium station from Taoan a day earlier. They had little else to go on so they left the hotel and sought out an old contact of Kaarlina’s, a data djinn known as Backlach[1].

They found Backlach in the water purification section of Presidium station, surrounded as always by a small squad/harem of immensely overweight young women, who he trained as data djinn and fed until they were enormously obese. He and Kaarlina had not parted on good terms after their last mission together, so their meeting was tense, but he Backlach agreed to do a little work for them, and with the information they gave him was able to track down surveillance video of some of their activities. They had arrived a day earlier from Taoan on a passenger ship called the Harrowing, which was now the subject of some legal dispute: apparently it had left Taoan two days ahead of schedule without warning, and a family of pilgrims were now suing its parent company for spiritual damages. They watched random video footage of the team disembarking, moving around and going to the hotel; it appeared that they had killed the entire team and no one was left over. Satisfied and with little time left to them, they thanked Backlach and left him to feeding his girls.

Back at the ship they guessed that this was an assassination team from Samina’s Corsairs. Somehow the Corsairs knew they were coming, probably because when Saqr fumbled his first attempt to scry on the Corsairs’ base he had been seen by some dark power and could now be tracked. This meant that from now they would need to be on the alert for assassins. They also needed to be on the alert for the police, so they abandoned Presidium station as quickly as possible and set off for Taoan.

The Taoan Blockade

They passed through the portals at Taoan without difficulty, but as soon as they arrived they found themselves confronted by a Legion fleet. The Legion Battleship Sister of Darkness hung in the Dark near the portals, and hailed them as soon as they arrived with a simple warning: Taoan was under a blockade and they were only allowed to visit the Taoan portal station, no one could travel into the system itself. The Sister of Darkness was nearly three times the size of the Beast of Burden, 700m long, 100m wide and 200m tall, packed with heavy weapons and accompanied by a crusier, the Tidebreaker, a 200m long class IV gunship that was easily a match for the PCs’ entire fleet. A cursory check of publicly available data on these ships soon informed them that the Sister of Darkness carried a class III gunship, the Emissary of the Gambler, and the Tidebreaker held four more class 1 gunships. Any attempt to break the blockade and enter the Taoan system to find out the truth of what was happening there would see them confronted by a fleet of vast destructive power. They meekly accepted the warning, and took their suddenly powerless ragtag fleet to dock at Taoan’s portal station. They would head straight to Hamura, and their looming confrontation with Samina’s Corsairs.

 


fn1: This is the “friend in every port” talent, which is way overpowered and very fun.

On Tuesday 26th May Japan’s COVID-19 state of emergency ended, five days earlier than expected and with deaths down to low double digits every day. The state of emergency was accompanied by a voluntary lockdown that started on 8th April for Tokyo and six other prefectures, extending to the rest of Japan a week later and ending in the rest of Japan a week before the lockdown ended in Tokyo. This means that the lockdown affected Tokyo for just 7.5 weeks, and the rest of Japan for about 6 weeks. At its peak the epidemic generated about 1200 cases in one day (on 17th April), dropping from 1200 to 30 in just 5 weeks.

In contrast, the UK essentially introduced its lockdown on 23rd March and is still slowly relaxing the lockdown. The UK lockdown was stricter than that in Japan, with enforceable restrictions on movement and activities[1], it involved the complete closure of many businesses, and it effectively lasted 3 weeks longer than Japan’s. At its peak the UK saw 8700 cases in one day (on 10th April, a week before Japan’s peak) and dropped much slower, only going below 2000 cases on 25th May – the same day Japan reached 30 cases. This is a quite remarkable difference in pace of decline: dropping by 97.5% in 5 weeks for Japan, compared to 75% in 6 weeks for the UK. These differences show very starkly when plotted, as I have done in Figure 1. This figure shows daily new cases in the two countries by day since the 10th confirmed case, using data obtained from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health coronavirus tracker[2]. From this figure it is clear that Japan saw its 10th case much earlier than the UK (on 30th January compared to 24th February) yet experienced a much more gradual increase and a much more rapid decline than did the UK.

Figure 1: Daily new COVID-19 cases in the UK and Japan by day since the 10th confirmed case

Why was Japan’s response to the coronavirus so much more effective than that of so many other high-income countries? In this post I will explore a little the key factors that affected the Japanese response, what made the numbers grow so slowly and why the lockdown was more effective than in many other countries. In particular I will compare Japan with the UK, as a model of the differences between an effective and an ineffective response.

Figure 2: Health education materials are essential to good pandemic prevention

A timeline of interventions

Japan saw its first case on the 16th January, compared to 31st January in the UK. However, Japan took action sooner and more aggressively. Here are some key actions and when they were taken by each country.

The difference in public response to the issue of mass events is a key example of the quality of the response in the two countries. While the UK was faffing about with discussion about which responses to take, Japan was already canceling and closing events. My own work events began to be postponed in the last week of February, but so did major public events:

  • J league (soccer) halted all games on 25th February (170 cases)
  • Japan National Pro Baseball league held all preseason games without an audience from 26th February (189 cases)
  • Japan boxing commission and pro-boxing association canceled or postponed all bouts from 26th February
  • Rise kickboxing was canceled on 26th February
  • Sumo was held without an audience from 8th March (502 cases) (5 days after Boris Johnson bragged about “shaking hands with everybody” (51 cases))

In contrast in the UK:

  • An England-Wales Rugby match was held on 7th March with a live audience and the PM in attendance (206 cases)
  • Premier league events were held on 8th March with a live audience (283 cases)
  • Cheltenham races were held on 10th – 14th March (382 – 1140 cases)
  • League one games were held on 10th March (382 cases)
  • UEFA champions league games were held on 12th March (in Scotland) (456 cases)

The UEFA champions league match brought a large number of German fans to Scotland, and a week earlier I think Liverpool visited Spain and another team visited Italy, where the epidemic was already booming. These events had huge numbers of fans – 81,000 people attended the England-Wales rugby match, and many soccer games host tens of thousands of fans. In contrast, the only major event to be held in March in Japan that I know of, with an audience, was K1 on 22nd March, which attracted 6500 fans who were all given a mask at the door (and this event still attracted huge controversy and anger in Japan).

Because of the slow growth of the epidemic the lockdowns also happened at different stages of the epidemic. Japan’s lockdown came on 8th April, when there were 5120 cases; the UK’s, on the 23rd March, when the UK had reached 6600 cases and was already on a much more rapid upward trajectory. It took 4 days from the announcement of lockdown for the UK’s case load to double, whereas it took Japan 8 days. The next doubling took the UK another 4 days, and never happened for Japan.

Finally of course there is the attitude of the leadership: on 3rd March Sadiq Khan announced no risk of catching coronavirus on the London Underground, the same day that Boris Johnson was bragging about shaking everyone’s hand at a hospital (and thus caught coronavirus himself).

It should be clear from this that while in some cases the UK government acted with about the same speed as the Japanese government, in general the Japanese government acted when it had much lower numbers of cases than the UK, and implemented more far-reaching and aggressive strategies that were likely to have greater impact. But beyond basic actions on mass events and action plans, there was one additional major difference in the Japanese government’s response: case isolation.

Contact tracing and case isolation

From the very beginning of the epidemic, Japan introduced a system of “test, trace and isolate” that follows WHO guidelines for emerging infectious diseases. Under this system, once someone was identified as a likely COVID-19 case and tested positive, they were immediately moved to a nominated hospital into a special management ward designed for highly infectious diseases, to have their condition managed by specialist medical teams. This case isolation reduces the risk that they will infect their family, and prevents them from spreading the disease through basic daily functions like shopping if they live alone and cannot be helped by others. This strategy was also used in China and Vietnam, and it is a core part of the reason why the lockdowns in these countries were so much more effective than they were in the UK, USA or much of Europe. When a confirmed case of COVID-19 self-isolates at home they are highly likely to infect family or housemates, who will then continue to spread the virus amongst themselves and to others. This is particularly bad in cities with high levels of inequality like London, where essential workers live in cramped share houses and lack the resources to stop working even if infected. These people infect their housemates, who must continue working as bus drivers, cleaners, care workers or shop assistants, and cannot help but infect others. If the first case is quickly isolated, this reduces the risk that subsequent cases will be infected. As stressed by the WHO, case isolation is key to cracking this highly infectious virus. Case isolation early in the epidemic slows the growth of the epidemic and buys more time to scale up testing and other responses, while case isolation once the lockdown is in place helps to push down the number of infections more rapidly, reducing both the severity and length of the lockdown.

Case isolation was key to Japan’s successful management of this epidemic, but many people have suggested that the epidemic was controlled also because of cultural and social factors that make Japan more successful at managing infectious diseases. I do not think these played a major role in Japan’s response.

Japan’s “unique” social and cultural factors

Some have suggested that Japan’s culture of hygiene, its long-standing mask-wearing habits, and high quality public infrastructure might have played a role in slowing the growth of the epidemic. It is certainly true that Japanese people have a tradition of washing their hands when they get home (and gargling), wear masks when they are sick, and have remarkably clean and hygienic public spaces, with readily available public toilets throughout the country. The trains are super clean and stations are also very hygienic, and it is never difficult to find somewhere to wash your hands. Japanese people also don’t wear shoes in the house (and in some workplaces!) and often have a habit of changing out of “outside clothes” when they come home. But I think these cultural benefits need to be stacked against the many disadvantages of Japanese life: Japan’s trains are incredibly crowded, and everyone has to use them (unlike say California, which was much worse hit than Japan); Japanese shops and public accommodations in general are very cramped and crowded, so it is not possible to socially distance in e.g. supermarkets or public facilities; because Japan’s weather is generally awful and its insects are the worst things you have seen outside of anime specials, most of Japan’s restaurants and bars are highly enclosed and poorly ventilated; and Japanese homes are often very cramped and small. When viewed like this, Japan is a disease breeding facility, a veritable petri dish for a rapidly spreading and easily-transmissible disease. Japan’s population is also very much older than the UK’s, which should suggest further high rates of transmission, and from mid-February we have terrible hay fever which turns half the country into snot cannons. Not to mention the huge outdoor party that is held at the end of March, where everyone gets drunk and nobody socially distances. Japan’s work culture also does not support home working, in general, and everyone has to stamp documents by the hour and we still use fax machines, so I really don’t think that this is a strong environment to resist the disease. I think these social and cultural factors balance out to nothing in the end.

Differences in Personal Protective Equipment

I do not know what the general situation for PPE was in Japan, but certainly the hospital attached to my university, which is a major nominated infectious disease university, sent around a circular in mid-February describing our state of readiness, and at that time we had 230 days’ supply of COVID-rated gowns at the current infection rate, as well as ample stocks of all other PPE and plans in place to secure more. There was a shortage of masks for public use in March, which was over by April, but I do not get the impression that there was such a shortage in the designated hospitals. Japan also has a very large number of hospital beds per capita compared to other high-income countries, but this figure is misleading: most of these beds are for elderly care and not ICU, and in fact its ICU capacity is not particularly large. However, by keeping the new cases low and moving isolated patients to hotels once the hospitals became full, Japan managed to mostly avoid shortages of ICU beds (though it was touch and go for a week or two in Tokyo). I think in the Japanese hospital system the lack of ventilators and ICU beds would have become a major problem long before the country ran out of PPE.

Inequality and disease transmission

One way that Japan differs from a lot of other high-income countries is its relatively low levels of inequality. In particular it is possible for young people to live alone in Tokyo even if they do not have high incomes, which means share housing does not really exist here, and all the young people who move to the big cities for work mostly live by themselves where they cannot infect anyone. Although it is a very densely-populated country and houses are much smaller than in the UK, there is less overcrowding because housing is affordable and there is a lot of it. Most people can afford health care and have ready access to it (waiting times are not a thing here). This low inequality plays an important role in elderly care homes, where staff are better paid and treated than in the UK care sector, and less likely to move between facilities on zero-hour contracts as they do in the UK. There is a higher level of care paid to basic public facilities like hospitals, railway stations, public toilets and other facilities which ensures they are relatively hygienic, and cleaning staff here tend to be paid as part of a standard company structure rather than through zero-hours contracts, with good equipment and basic working rights. Also there is a much lower level of obesity here, and obesity is not as class-based, so there is less risk of transmission and serious illness through this risk factor. There is a very high level of smoking, which is a major risk factor for serious illness and death from COVID-19, but it is the only risk factor that is comparable to or higher than those in the UK. In general I think Japan’s low level of inequality helped in the battle against this disease, by preventing the country from developing communities where the disease would spread like wildfire, or having strata of the population (like young renters) at increased risk, or forcing increased risk onto the poor elderly as we saw in the UK.

A note on masks

I think masks are a distraction in the battle against this disease. I think most people don’t know how to wear them properly and use them in risky ways – touching them a lot, reusing them, wearing them too long, storing them unsafely, and generally treating them as part of their face rather than a protective barrier. I think that this can create a false sense of security which leads people to think that opening up the economy and dropping lockdown can be safely done because everyone is protected by masks. This is a dangerous mistake. That is not to say one shouldn’t wear them, but one should not see them as a solution to the more basic responsibility of social distancing and isolation, and one definitely should not drop one’s hand hygiene just because one is wearing a mask: hand hygiene is much more important for protecting against this disease. It’s worth remembering that on the days that Japan was seeing 300 or 500 or 1000 cases a day everyone was wearing masks, but somehow the disease was still spreading. They are not a panacaea, and if treated as an alternative to really effective social measures they may even be dangerously misleading.

Conclusion: Early, sensible action and strong case isolation are the key

Japan took an early, rapid response to the virus which saw it screening people at airports, educating the population, and implementing sensible measures early on in the epidemic to prevent the spread of the disease. The first measures at airports and in case isolation were taken early in February, major events were cancelled and gatherings suspended from mid- to late-February, and additional social distancing measures introduced in March. Throughout the growth of the epidemic the Japanese response focused on the WHO guideline of testing, tracing, and isolating, with case isolation a routine strategy when cases were confirmed. This case isolation slowed the growth of the epidemic and once lockdown was in place helped to crush it quickly. This in clear contrast to the countries experiencing a larger epidemic, which typically reacted slowly, introduced weak measures, and did not implement case isolation at all or until it was too late. Lockdowns with self-isolation will work, but as Figure 1 shows, they are much less effective, causing more economic damage and much slower epidemic decline, than lockdowns with case isolation.

Finally I should say I think Japan ended its lockdown a week early, when cases in Tokyo were still in the 10s, and we should have waited another week. I fear we will see a resurgence over the next month, and another lockdown required by summer if our contact tracing is not perfect. But it is much better to end your lockdown prematurely on 10 cases a day than on 2000 a day, which is where the UK is now!


fn1: With certain notably rare exceptions, of course…

fn2: I have had to do a little cleaning with the data, which contains some errors, and I think the JHSPH data doesn’t quite match that of national health bodies, but it is much more easily accessible, so that is the data I have used here. All case numbers are taken from that dataset, unless otherwise stated.

Flesh
Your temple screaming
To be heard
To be in love
Your flesh a kingdom approaching
An ocean raging wild into the ideas surround
You are flesh

Our heroes have freed a group of young men from a tyrannical matriarchal cult, and in exchange received information about the location of a statuette similar to one that was stolen from them a year ago. They now prepare to enter the abandoned mine where the statue is hidden. The roster for this session:

 

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Al Hamra, captain and droid (with mystic powers)
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Kaarlina, mystic
  • Adam, gunner

They had been warned that something very dangerous guarded the statue, and guessed that it was a Sentinel, a portal builder remnant they had not encountered in person but had witnessed in action on some found footage from a dig in Kua. They flew to the dig site and prepared themselves for a deadly confrontation.

The abandoned mine

The statuette was located in an abandoned mine a few hours’ crawler ride from the matriarchal cult. They flew in on the Beast of Burden, taking their most powerful ship in order to have some defense should the matriarchs have some heavy weapons in reserve. They landed the Beast of Burden about 100m from the abandoned mine and left Oliver Greenstar with the energy cannon pointed at the entrance. The rest of the team took their flyer to the mine entrance and parked it there, the loading bay facing the entrance. They expected to be making a very rapid exit and wanted the flyer ready to move quickly.

The mine entrance was unblocked, a wide cutting hacked into a cliff face composed of a strange mixture of hard rock and a fine, fibrous material that wound between the rocks like sinews in some ancient beast. They followed the cutting on a slope down and into the earth, lighting their suit lamps as the cutting merged into a tunnel and curved into the ground. They followed the tunnel down into the cold dark, weapons ready, searching the walls carefully for signs of pillars or any rough texture that might indicate the sentinels they feared. All they saw were smooth stone walls and long-dead lamps.

After some distance and a drop of perhaps a few hundred metres the small entry tunnel opened into a long, dark gallery. They stumbled into the open space, suddenly submerged in darkness: their suit lamps were not powerful enough to illuminate the entire gallery, and all they could see was the vague shadow of walls and then blank emptiness.

Here is where ambushes happen. They bunched together and crept over to one side of the gallery, moving slowly along the walls in a tight group. Nothing emerged from the shadows to warp their flesh but halfway down the gallery they found two corpses, twisted and ruined by strange forces, their equipment scattered around them. They investigated the bodies enough to confirm that they had been killed by Sentinels, but their guess was that the bodies had been dragged here and not killed in this place. They moved on.

A short distance further they came to a rockfall, which was obviously blocking a tunnel entrance. They had found the room they sought.

The statuette

They took their time to open the rockfall, carefully clearing rocks away from the entrance while they guarded each others’ position and prepared themselves for the worst. Nothing attacked them, and after a few hours of heavy work they had broken a gap wide enough for two people to pass through side by side. Adam set up his machine gun on the rocky outcrop, Siladan laid some breach charges in the gap as a defensive measure, and they entered the room beyond.

The room was small, a 10m by 10m cube, with a large mosaic across the far wall, a rockfall obscuring the far corner of the room, and four pillars supporting the ceiling. The pillars, obviously, were what they needed to worry about. They fanned out across the room, covering the pillars with their weapons while Siladan investigated them.

There was nothing to see. They were simple pillars, old and weathered but not threatening in any way. Siladan could see nothing to indicate they might be alive or active, though he had no doubt they were, so he moved on to look at the statuette. It was nestled in an alcove on the bottom right corner of the mosaic, a squat, ugly little black stone thing that was exactly the same as the one they had seen in Coriolis. Above it, at the top of the mosaic, a similar alcove was empty, as if someone had stolen the statuette that sat inside it. How many of these things were there?

The sentinels

With nothing else to do here, Siladan did what obviously had to be done: he picked up the statuette and put it in his bag. The pillar nearest to him immediately came to life, warping and twisting in a disturbing preternatural fashion and attacking him with a strange rocky outcropping that whipped out of its body with incredible speed and force. He managed to dodge the blow, and then another statue on the far side of the room rippled to life, attacking the nearest member of the team. The ambush had begun.

Within seconds one of their team was down, badly injured, and they had to retreat from the room rapidly. Under the heavy, thundering roar of Adam’s machine gun they withdrew from the room, but as they ran to the door the remaining two pillars activated and began attacking people as they passed. After a tense couple of seconds of battle they were able to break out, Adam dragging their injured colleague as they fled the room. One of the sentinels rushed after them into the gallery, but Siladan was able to trigger the breach charges and bury the remaining three inside the room. They rushed down the hall with the sentinel chasing them, moving too fast for a stone pillar animated after a year of slumber. They engaged it at the point where the two bodies lay, all of them shooting it or stabbing it. Clementine’s monosword broke on the thing’s armour and most of their shots bounced off its stone skin but eventually they managed to shatter its guard and beat it down. It fell and shattered into a thousand pieces of stone. Saqr grabbed a tabula lying next to one of the bodies and they dashed out of the gallery, terrified that the remaining three sentinels would find a way through the rockfall. One of their number was nearly dead and they had only killed one of the sentinels, even with a heavy machine gun and breach charges to defend them. They piled into the flyer and rushed to the Beast of Burden as Oliver Greenstar opened fire with the energy cannon on the mining entrance. As Saqr hurled the flyer into the Beast of Burden‘s hangar the entire cliff face collapsed on the mine entrance, covering it completely. They took off immediately, and no one breathed until they were in low orbit, the sentinels far below them in the bowels of the earth.

They had the statuette, and the mining team’s tabula. The final scenes on the tabula were exactly as they expected: a mining team investigating the room, finding the statuette in the top alcove, picking it up, and being attacked by the Sentinels. Three people escaped, one carrying the statuette and one injured woman dragging another, as they collapsed the rocks on the room. When the two injured women collapsed the remaining woman carrying the statuette panicked and abandoned them, leaving them to die rather than risk facing the sentinels. The statuette had been liberated, and they guessed then the sentinels had returned to their slumber.

Saqr used his mystic powers to track the statuette, and found it in the place they all had least expected: in a spaceship near the lair of Samina’s Corsairs. He took the risk and used his scrying power to look in on the statuette. It was sitting on a control panel in the bridge of a small spaceship that was heading away from the Corsairs’ lair, which could be seen on a screen in the bridge. The ship was heading to a set of coordinates, which Saqr memorized and shared with the group. What were these statuettes, and why were they so entangled with the Corsairs?

There was only one way to find out. They returned to Presidium station, and prepared to set a course for Hamura.

 

 

As I write this many countries are beginning to end their lockdowns and make plans to reopen. The UK has already begun to reopen, the US is opening state by state and much of Europe is beginning to return to work and play. Japan has ended its state of emergency in 40 prefectures, leaving the 7 hardest hit prefectures another two weeks of lockdown before they can resume normal activity. Different countries and states have different guidelines and rules about how to reopen, and are reopening at different stages of the epidemic. Let’s look at the circumstances in some of them.

  • United Kingdom: 2,400 new cases on 19th May, down from a peak of about 6,000 a day. A major epidemic still seems to be raging in elderly care homes, but people have begun returning to work. There is debate about whether to reopen schools, but some universities have decided to conduct the entire 2020/21 academic year online. Quarantine rules will be introduced for inbound overseas travelers from early June. Still recruiting staff to do contact tracing.
  • Germany: 513 daily cases on 19th May, down from a peak of 6,000 a day. Shops have reopened, Bundesliga has restarted without crowds and schools will soon reopen. The end of lockdown began on about May 10th, when there were about 670 cases a day
  • USA: 19,662 daily cases on 19th May, down from a peak of about 35,000 a day. States are reopening at their own pace with some being strict and some being very relaxed. Most states have ongoing daily cases in the hundreds, and there are signs that the decline in daily cases has stopped in states like New Jersey and Washington, or that case numbers are rising in states like Maryland, after seeming to plateau. In some states like Texas the number has been constantly increasing and the state is reopening after completely failing to stop the growth of the virus. Major problems with the testing infrastructure and large state-by-state differences in public health infrastructure.
  • Japan: 31 daily cases on 19th May, down from a peak of about 700 cases, with 5 in Tokyo. Only some prefectures are reopening, rules remain regarding mass events, schools have not yet reopened, and things aren’t going straight back to normal. Full reopening of the country is currently planned for 31st May but could be postponed if the trajectory changes

New Zealand, of course, began to reopen only when there were 0 cases. These countries seem to have starkly different ideas about when and how to reopen, with the USA and UK really nowhere near the bottom of their incidence curves, and still huge numbers of cases being discovered every day. Most of these countries claim to have pushed the reproduction number of the virus below 1, which means that they think the epidemic is under control. But what is the best metric for determining when to end a lockdown?

Metric 1: Daily number of cases

One way to judge whether to exit lockdown is the daily number of cases. You can calculate this as a percentage of your total active cases and from that estimate the amount of time it takes to double the number of cases, and if you think this is low enough you can reopen. Under this metric New York is ready to reopen, since it saw 1,474 new cases yesterday out of 353,000 total cases, which suggests a growth rate of 0.4%, which in theory should mean it will take another 100 days or more for case numbers to double.  By this metric Arkansas should be okay too – it had 110 new cases yesterday out of 4,923 existing cases, giving a 2% growth rate that suggests about a month or more to double. You need to show a little caution with this calculation though, because many states that have experienced slow growth in long epidemics have a large number of recovered cases. In fact in Arkansas there are only 1,184 active cases, so basically yesterday it saw a 10% increase in case numbers, which means the number of cases will double in a week. It should probably stay closed by that metric! But a lot of states don’t seem to be recording or reporting recovered cases. Also if we use the metric of not opening if your cases will take a week or less to double (say, a 10% increase per day), then New York now could open even if it had 30,000 daily cases, since that is less than 10% increase a day. But I think everyone would agree a single city opening when it still has 30,000 cases a day would be a bit silly.

Metric 2: Reproduction number

Everyone is becoming familiar with the effective reproduction number, Rt, now that the epidemic is all the news we can read about. Rt is the number of cases that will be generated by a single infected person. Rt measures this number over time, so it can change as policies change, and is slightly different to R0, the basic reproduction number. R0 measures Rt at the beginning of the outbreak, when there is only 1 new case and the population has no special measures in place. I estimated R0 for COVID19 to be 4.4, meaning that each case will generate 4.4 new cases. Because the disease has an incubation period when people are asymptomatic of about 4-5 days, we can expect those 4.4 new cases to occur between 4 days and two weeks after the initial infection, so we might expect that an approximate rule for this virus is that 100 cases today will generate 400 cases after a week, suggesting that unrestrained it doubles every 3-4 days. That’s nasty! But after policies are put in place we can drive Rt down to 1, and once it’s below 1 we should expect that the epidemic will begin to die out. This seems to be the primary metric the UK government is using – their politicians are always on TV talking about “the R number” and everyone is eager to get it below 1. The big problem with using Rt is that if you have enough daily cases, an Rt below 1 will still mean you generate a lot of new cases. For example, the US has 20,000 cases a day and most Rt values are near 1. If Rt is 0.8 then given the incubation time we should expect 16,000 daily cases after a week, 12,800 after two weeks, and so on. That suggests a half-life for the disease of perhaps 2-3 weeks, and it will take another two months to disappear. A lot of deaths will happen in that time.

Another problem with Rt is that once the economy opens we should expect it will go up. If Rt keeps fluctuating above and below 1, are we to keep closing and opening the economy? What if it’s 0.8 for a week, then goes up to 1.2? Do we close down? Or wait as the epidemic begins to spread again? If it is fluctating like this we may end up with an epidemic that is constantly varying around 20,000 cases a day: one week it’s 15,000 a day, then we loosen our measures and it’s 22,000 a day, and so on. Also there is a lot of uncertainty in estimates of Rt – if it’s 0.9 then in theory we are in epidemic elimination territory, but actually if the confidence interval is 0.7 to 1.1 there’s some chance we aren’t there at all.

Metric 3: Health system capacity

Unless we do as NZ has done and exterminate the virus completely before we reopen, we can be confident there will still be some cases when we reopen. In this case we will need to deal with them by testing, contact tracing, and if possible isolating the cases. Contact tracing one case when they’re in lockdown is easy – you just test the people they live with. But once they’re working and socializing one positive case will likely mean tracking down and testing 5 or 10 more people. This is hard work and it needs to be done quickly with a disease like this, especially if even a small number of people are asymptomatic but able to spread. Basically you need to find and test all 10 contacts and get their results back to them – and if necessary isolate them – within 4 days of the onset of symptoms in the index case, and even less time if the index case delayed presentation to hospital. This means if you have 500 cases a day you need to track 2500 to 5000 people daily, and potentially have to isolate 2000 of them. To do this requires a lot of boots on the ground and a lot of hotel rooms. Furthermore, the more cases you have the less room there is for error. If you have 5 cases a day and a 10% error rate in contact tracing you’ll miss 5 people, 1 of whom might be infected. With 500 cases a day you’ll miss potentially 500 people, of whom 100 might be infected. Those slip ups will help the virus continue to spread until it finds a super spreader like the Korean bar scenario (or in America, a meat packing plant).

To me this is the best guide for when to open: do you have the logistics to cope with cases as people begin to socialize and spread the disease again? If you have 50 cases a day and 500 contact tracers then you can probably handle it; if you have 500 cases a day and 500 contact tracers then it’s not going to work, and you’re going to lose control of the epidemic. Rather than judging by the rate at which the virus might double, or the reproduction number, you should look at whether you can rigorously and effectively stamp out every single case that could be generated after you reopen, and not ease your lockdown until you’re well within the logistic capacity to do so. That means looking at testing capacity, the number of people able to contact trace, your population’s willingness to share contacts and engage with health workers, your hotel capacity for case isolation, and your hospital bed capacity (and in-hospital infection risk!) for those you miss. If any aspect of that process could break, you need to wait.

Unfortunately, a lot of policy makers and politicians have been focused on the reproduction number, as if crossing the reproduction threshold will automatically end the epidemic. It’s an easy number to focus and gives an easy story to tell the press and the public, and it’s nice to have a target to aim for, but although a scientifically valid measure of the epidemic’s dynamics it is of little use in deciding how to deal with the epidemic. Much more important is the ability to control the cases you have, and a long term plan for getting rid of them, than a spot judgment about whether you “have the epidemic under control” based on a number that is both uncertain and ultimately not very practically informative.

The consequences of losing control a second time

The big problem with losing control of the epidemic a second time is that you have a lot more cases floating around than the first time it happened. It took the UK two weeks to rise from 152 cases a day to 4,500 cases[1], so if the UK opens up on 2,500 cases and loses control the consequences will be dire. If the week after opening up there are 2,000 cases, and the contact tracing misses 152 of them (<10%!), then in theory within two weeks the UK will be back to 4,500 cases a day. Furthermore, it will be much harder to go back into lockdown a second time, because the population will no longer see it as an effective strategy and it will be political suicide for any government contemplating it. Socially and politically, you can’t let this genie back out of its bottle. And although we like to hope that the population will observe social distancing rules and other niceties, in reality this will slide quickly, and if the cases aren’t under control by the time people return to their normal ways, another explosion will follow. This is without considering unknown and potentially catastrophic risks, such as school openings. The UK government is pushing to reopen schools because they say there is little risk of spread among children, but the ONS survey found much higher proportions of young people with antibodies in the community than are recorded in confirmed hospital cases. If the virus was quietly spreading in young people when it started at 1 case, how explosive will its growth in this cohort be if it starts from 2000 cases? These low-risk groups are highly likely to have many social contacts and to be an excellent infection vector for high-risk groups such as their parents and teachers.

Watching the data from the USA, I think this is already happening in some states in the USA now. Texas, Maryland, Minnesota, maybe New Jersey, North Carolina, maybe Tennessee are already beginning to see either growth or a distinct flattening of previous downward curves, and other states that are reopening like Florida and Wisconsin will likely see this in a week or two. I don’t think any of these states have the contact tracing capacity for the cases they are currently seeing, and they don’t have any plan to isolate cases, nor do they have well-functioning or affordable health systems. The same is true in the UK, which is nowhere near having its contact tracing infrastructure in place, and is playing with all kinds of deadly scenarios (like reopening schools and soccer games). I think this is partly because they’re fixated on Rt as the metric for reopening, partly because they’re incompetent, and partly because of political and economic pressure, but regardless, a disaster is in their near future if their health system capacity is not ready – and I think it’s not. In two weeks we are going to see the second wave hit these unready countries, and it’s going to make the first wave seem like a bad cold.


fn1: But it has taken 5 weeks to get from 4,500 back to below 4,000. This shows the incredible urgency of stopping this epidemic during its upward rise, not once it has really spread. The government’s faffing in the early days has made every subsequent decision harder, less effective and more deadly. The entire crew should resign immediately and hand government over to some adults to manage the place properly.

In early March, when COVID-19 was starting to spread in the UK, the government announced a strategy of “herd immunity” in which they would shield vulnerable people (such as older people and people with pre-existing conditions) from the disease, and aim to slowly allow the rest of the country to be infected up to some proportion of the population. This policy was based on the idea that once the disease had infected a certain proportion of the population then this would mean it had naturally been able to achieve herd immunity, and after that would die out. The basics of the strategy and its timeline are summarized here. This strategy was an incredibly dangerous, stupid and reckless strategy that was built on a fundamental failure to understand what herd immunity is, and some really bad misconceptions about the dynamics of this epidemic. Had they followed this policy the entire UK population would have been infected, and everyone in the UK would have lost at least one of their grandparents. Here I want to explain why this policy is incredibly stupid, and make a desperate plea for people to stop talking about achieving herd immunity by enabling a certain portion of the population to become infected. This idea is a terrible misunderstanding of the way infectious diseases work, and if it takes hold in the public discourse we are in big trouble next time an epidemic happens.

I will explain here what herd immunity is, and follow this with an explanation of what the UK’s “herd immunity” strategy is and why it is bad. I will call this “herd immunity” strategy “Johnson immunity”, because it is fundamentally not herd immunity. I will then present a simple model which shows how incredibly stupid this policy is. After this I will explain what other misconceptions the government had that would have made their Johnson Immunity strategy even more dangerous. Finally I will present a technical note explaining some details about reproduction numbers (the “R” being bandied about by know-nothing journalists at the moment). There is necessarily some technical detail in here but I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.

What is herd immunity?

Herd immunity is a fundamental concept in infectious disease epidemiology that has always been applied to vaccination programs. Herd immunity occurs when so many people in the population are immune to a disease that were a case of the disease to arise in the population, it would not be able to infect anyone else and so would die out before it could become an epidemic. Herd immunity is linked to the concept of the Basic Reproduction Number, R0. R0 tells us the number of cases that will be generated from a single case of a disease, so for example if R0 is 2 then every person who has the disease will infect 2 other people. Common basic reproduction numbers range from 1.3 (influenza) to about 18 (measles). The basic reproduction number of COVID-19 is probably 4.5, and definitely above 3.

There is a simple relationship between the basic reproduction number and the proportion of the population that need to be vaccinated to ensure herd immunity. This proportion, p, is related to the basic reproduction number by the formula p=1/(1-1/R0). For smallpox (R0~5) we need 80% of the population to be vaccinated to stop it spreading; for measles (R0~18) it is safest to aim for 95%. The reason this works is because the fundamental driver of disease transmission is contact with vulnerable people. If the disease has a basic reproduction number of 5, each case would normally infect 5 people; but if 4 of every 5 people the infected person meets are immune, then the person will only likely infect 1 person before they recover or die (or get isolated). For more infectious diseases we need to massively increase the number of people who are immune in order to ensure that the infection doesn’t spread.

If we vaccinate the correct proportion of the population, then when the first case of a disease enters the population, it’s chances of meeting an infectable person will be so low that it won’t spread – effectively by vaccinating 1-1/R0 people we have reduced its effective reproduction number to 1, at which point each case will only produce 1 new case, and the virus will not spread fast enough to matter. This is the essence of herd immunity, but note that the theory applies when we vaccinate a population before a case enters the population.

What is Johnson Immunity?

There is a related concept to the basic reproduction number, the effective reproduction number Rt, which tells us how infectious the virus currently is. This is tells us how many people each case is infecting at the current state of the epidemic. Obviously as the proportion of the population who have been infected and recovered (and become immune) increases, Rt must drop, since the chance that they will have contact with an infectious person goes down. Eventually the proportion of the population infected will become so large that Rt will hit 1, meaning that now each case is only infecting another case. The idea of Johnson Immunity was that we would allow the virus to spread among only the low-risk population until it naturally reached the proportion of the population required to achieve an Rt value of 1. Then, the virus would be stifled and the epidemic would begin to die. If the required proportion to achieve Rt=1 is low enough, and we can shield vulnerable people, then we can allow the virus to spread until it burns out. This idea is related to the classic charts we see of influenza season, where the number of new infections grows to a certain point and then begins to go down again, even in the absence of a vaccine.

This idea is reckless, stupid and dangerous for several reasons. The first and most serious reason it is dangerous is that the number of daily new infections will rise as we head towards Rt=1, and by the time we reach the point where, say, 60% of the population is infected, the number of daily cases will be huge. At this point Rt=1, so each case is only infecting 1 other case. But if we have 100,000 daily new cases at this point, then the following generation of infections will spawn 100,000 new infections, and so on. If, for example, the virus has an R0 of 2, and takes 5 days to infect the next generation, then the number of new cases doubles every 5 days. After a month we have 64 cases, after two months we have 4100 cases, and so on. By the time we get to 30 million cases, we’ll likely be seeing 100,000 cases in one generation. So yes, now the virus is going to start to slow its spread, but the following generation will still generate 100,000 cases, and the generation after that 90,000, and so on. This is an incredible burden on the health system, and even if death rates are very low – say 0.01% – we are still going to be seeing a huge mortality rate.

The second reason this idea is reckless and stupid is that it is basically allowing the disease to follow its natural course, and for any disease with an R0 above about 1.5, this means it will infect the entire population even after it has achieved its Rt of 1. This happens because the number of daily cases at this point is so large that even if each case only infects 1 additional case, the disease will still spread at a horrific rate. There is an equation, called the final size equation, which links R0 to the proportion of the population that will be infected by the disease by the time it has run its course, and basically for any R0 above 2 the final size equation tells us it will infect the entire population (100% of people) if left unchecked. In practice this means that yes, after a certain period of time the number of new cases will reach a peak and begin to go down, but by the time it finishes its downward path it will have infected the entire population.

A simple model of Johnson Immunity

I built a very simple model in Excel to show how this works. I imagined a disease that lasts two days. People are infected from the previous generation on day 1, infect the next generation and then recover by the end of day 2. This means that if I introduce 1 case on day 1, it will infect R0 cases on day 2, R0*R0 cases on day 3, and so on. This is easy to model in Excel, which is why I did it. Most actual diseases have incubation periods and delayed infection, but modeling these requires more than 2 minutes work in a real stats program, and this is a blog post, so I didn’t bother with such nuance. Nonetheless, my simple disease shows the dynamics of infection. I reclaculated Rt each day for the disease, so that it was reduced by the proportion currently infected or immune, so that for example once 100,000 people are infected and recovered, in a population of 1 million people, the value of Rt becomes 90% of the value of R0. This means that when it reaches its Johnson Immunity threshold the value of Rt will go below 1 and the number of cases will begin to decline. This enables us to see how the disease will look when it reaches the Johnson Immunity threshold, so we can see what horrors we are facing. I assumed no deaths and no births, so I ran the model in a closed population of 1 million people. I ran it for a disease with an R0 of 1.3, 1.7, and 2.5, to show some common possible scenarios. Figure 1 shows the results. Here the x-axis is the number of days since the first case was introduced, and the y-axis is the number of daily new cases. The vertical lines show the day at which the proportion of the population infected, Pi, crosses the threshold 1-1/R0. I put this in on the assumption that the Johnson Immunity threshold will be close to the classical herd immunity threshold (it turns out it’s off by a day or two). The number above the line shows the final proportion of the population that will be infected for this particular value of R0.

Figure 1: Epidemic paths for three different reproduction numbers, with Johnson Immunity threshold

As you can see, when R0 is 1.3 (approximately seasonal influenza), we cross the approximate Johnson Immunity threshold at 44 days after the first case, and at this point we have a daily number of cases of about 40,000 people. This disease will ultimately infect 49% of the population. Note how slowly it goes down – for about a week after we hit the Johnson Immunity threshold we are seeing 40,000 or so cases a day.

For a virus with an R0 of 1.7 the situation is drastically worse. We hit the Johnson Immunity threshold after 23 days, and at this point about 140,000 cases a day are being infected. Three days later the peak is achieved, with nearly 200,000 cases a day being infected, before the disease begins a rapid crash. It dies out within a week of hitting the Johnson immunity threshold, but by the time it disappears it has infected 94.6% of the population. That means most of our grandparents!

For a disease with an R0 of 2.5 we hit the Johnson Immunity threshold at day 13, with about 140,000 cases a day, and the disease peaks two days later with 450,000 cases a day. It crashes after that, hitting 0 a day later because it has infected everyone in the population and has no one left to infect.

This shows that for any kind of R0 bigger than influenza, when you reach the Johnson Immunity threshold your disease is infecting a huge number of people every day and is completely out of control. We have shown this for a disease with an R0 of 2.5. The R0 of COVID-19 is probably bigger than 4. In a population of 60 million where we are aiming for a herd immunity threshold of 36 million we should expect to be seeing a million new cases a a week at the point where we hit the Johnson Immunity threshold.

This is an incredibly stupid policy!

Other misconceptions in the policy

The government stated that its Johnson Immunity threshold was about 60% of the population. From this we can infer that they thought the R0 of this disease was about 2.5. However, the actual R0 of this disease is probably bigger than 4. This means that the government was working from some very optimistic – and ultimately wrong – assumptions about the virus, which would have been catastrophic had they seen this policy through.

Another terrible mistake the government made was to assume that rates of hospitalization for this disease would be the same as for standard pneumonia, a mistake that was apparently made by the Imperial College modeling team whose work they seem to primarily rely upon. This mistake was tragic, because there was lots of evidence coming out of China that this disease did not behave like classic pneumonia, but for some reason the British ignored Chinese data. They only changed their modeling when they were presented with Italian data on the proportion of serious cases. This is an incredibly bad mistake, and I can only see one reason for it – they either didn’t know, or didn’t care about, the situation in China. Given how bad this disease is, this is an incredible dereliction of duty. I think this may have happened because the Imperial College team have no Chinese members or connections to China, which is really a very good example of how important diversity is when you’re doing policy.

Conclusion

The government’s “herd immunity” strategy was based on a terrible misunderstanding of how infectious disease dynamics work, and was compounded by significantly underestimating the virulence and deadliness of the disease. Had they pursued the “herd immunity” strategy they would have reached a point where millions of people were being infected daily, because the point in an epidemic’s growth where it reaches Rt=1 is usually the point where it is at its most rapidly spreading, and also its most dangerous. It was an incredibly reckless and stupid policy and it is amazing to me that anyone with any scientific background supported it, let alone the chief scientific adviser. Britain is facing its biggest crisis in generations, and is being led by people who are simply not competent to manage it in any way.

Sadly, this language of “herd immunity” has begun to spread through the pundit class and is now used routinely by people talking about the potential peak of the epidemic. It is not true herd immunity, and there is no sense in which getting to the peak of the epidemic to “immunize” the population is a good idea, because getting to the peak of the epidemic means getting to a situation where hundreds of thousands or millions of people are being infected every week.

The only solution we have for this virus is to lockdown communities, test widely, and isolate anyone who tests positive. This is being done successfully in China, Vietnam, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Any strategy based on controlled spread will be a disaster, and anyone recommending it should be removed from any decision-making position immediately.

Appendix: Brief technical note

R0 (and Rt) are very important numerical qualities of an infectious disease but they are not easily calculated. They are numbers that emerge from the differential equations we use to describe the disease, and not something we know in advance. There are two ways to calculate them: Empirically from data on the course of disease in individuals, or through dynamic analysis of disease models.

To estimate R0 empirically we obtain data on individuals infected with the disease, so we know when they were infected and when they recovered down to the narrowest possible time point. We then use some statistical techniques related to survival analysis to assess the rate of transmission and obtain statistical estimates for R0.

To estimate R0 from the equations describing the disease, we first establish a set of ordinary differential equations that describe the rates of change of uninfected, infected, and recovered populations. From this system of equations we can obtain a matrix called the Next Generation Matrix, which describes all the flows in and out of the disease states, and from this we can obtain the value of R0 through a method called spectral analysis (basically it is the dominant eigenvalue of this matrix). In this case we will have an equation which describes R0 in terms of the primary parameters in the differential equations, and in particular in terms of the number of daily contacts, the specific infectiousness of the disease when a contact occurs, and the recovery time. We can use this equation to fiddle with some parameters to see how R0 will change. For example, if we reduce the recovery time through treatment, will R0 drop? If we reduce the infectiousness by mask wearing, how will R0 drop? Or if we reduce the number of contacts by lockdowns, how will R0 drop? This gives us tools to assess the impact of various policies.

In the early period of a new infectious disease people try to do rough and ready calculations of R0 based on the data series of infection numbers in the first few weeks of the disease. During this period the disease is still very vulnerable to random fluctuation, and is best described as a stochastic process. It is my opinion that in this early stage all diseases look like they have an R0 of 1.5 or 2, even if they are ultimately going to explode into something far bigger. In this outbreak, I think a lot of early estimates fell into this problem, and multiple papers were published showing that R0 was 2 or so, because the disease was still in its stochastic stage. But once it breaks out and begins infecting people with its full force, it becomes deterministic and only then can we truly understand its infectious potential. I think this means that early estimates of R0 are unreliable, and the UK government was relying on these early estimates. I think Asian governments were more sensible, possibly because they were in closer contact with China or possibly because they had experience with SARS, and were much more wary about under-estimating R0. I think this epidemic shows that it is wise to err on the side of over-estimation, because once the outbreak hits its stride any policies built on low R0 estimates will be either ineffective or, as we saw here, catastrophic.

But whatever the estimate of R0, any assumption that herd immunity can be achieved by allowing controlled infection of the population is an incredibly stupid, reckless, dangerous policy, and anyone advocating it should not be allowed near government!

The PCs have learnt interesting information on the nature of Samina’s Corsairs, upgraded their ships, and are preparing for the final showdown with the Corsairs. They set off for Uharu, the last interesting system on their journey to Hamura. Today’s roster:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Al Hamra, captain and droid (with mystic powers)
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Kaarlina, mystic[1]

From Dabaran they traveled without incident to the Uharu system, where they docked at Presidium station on the system’s second planet. Besides a cluster of moons around the system’s enormous brown dwarf, Uharu had only 3 planets: a barely-occupied planet, a sparsely-populated Emirate planet, and a third planet with only a small population living in a cult-like matriarchy with very harsh rules. The second planet, Presidium, was under a partial security emergency due to a low-grade insurgency by local anti-government forces, but it held the only significant spaceport in the system, so the PCs had to dock there.

Once they had docked and gathered some information they discovered that the entire system appeared to be somehow connected to the Dancer Icon. Every planet seemed to have either been colonized by a cult of the Dancer or to have a strong religious connection to the Dancer, and even the brown dwarf was named Nartaki, a local name for the Dancer. Presidium itself was ruled by an Emirate, the Latif Ascendancy, which had traditionally venerated the Dancer over other Icons, and was now brutally suppressing any form of Dancer-worship it considered “unorthodox”.

A day trip to a shabby palace

The PCs decided to explore the surface of Presidium a little, and after calling up a poor-quality and overly-eager djinn (AI) in their room they learned that the planet had a famous palace, the Palace of the Latif Ascendancy, that was fabled across the Dabaran Circle. They paid for an expensive luxury shuttle trip to the Palace, but experienced an incredibly disappointing and shabby tour. The “luxury shuttle” they booked had nothing more than a buffet, and the dancing girls for which they paid extra were simply a video recording of not-very-enticing girls from another era on another system. The journey to the Palace from the landing area was a bland little trip in a very standard transport through boring and uninspiring fields. The Palace itself was heavily guarded by Latif guards, with many security checks, and was neither splendid nor grand. After only an hour they had finished their tour and returned to the shuttle in disgust. They had seen better on the surface of Kua!

Irfan’s Request

When they returned to their lodgings they found a video message from a skinny, scared-looking boy who told them he wanted the help of some “combat archaeologists” to help him with a mission. He told them he had no money to pay them, but could give them the location of an artifact if they helped. Attached to the video message was a grainy photo, which looked like it had been taken surreptitiously on a tabula over someone’s shoulder, of a photo that was already low quality. It depicted a wall covered in old mosaic, with two alcoves in the wall. A trailing hand in the photo suggested each alcove was perhaps 25-30 cm high, and in one of them was an ugly, squat black statuette that looked exactly like the statuette that had been stolen from them in Coriolis nearly a year ago. Intriguing! Saqr used his powers of finding (which haven’t been so crash hot recently!) to locate the statuette in the picture, and confirmed it was on the planet of Sylph, in this system. He also sought out the statuette that had been stolen from them, and confirmed it was on a spaceship docked at Coriolis station. So there really was a second! Even though Saqr had found the statuette and the group did not really need to help him now they knew its location, they agreed to meet Irfan.

Irfan met them the following evening at a mining cantina on the surface of Presidium, where he was working as a labourer in a mine. He was a small, skinny, demure boy, a little under-nourished and not really the type who looked like he could dig in a mine. He told them he was from Sylph, where the matriarchs run a brutal and extremely unpleasant regime of slavery and oppression. He had escaped a year ago, and he wanted now to help his brother, Irfan 2, to escape from Sylph. He needed to do it now, because in 6 months Irfan 2 would be old enough to be sent to the breeding pits, after which he would be unreachable. He wanted the PCs to go to Sylph and rescue his brother, and in exchange he would tell them how to get the statuette, which he assured them was in an abandoned and depleted mine near the matriarchs’ settlement. He promised them the mine had been abandoned and the statuette must still be there.

They agreed, and set off for Sylph to rescue Irfan 2.

The scam and the fight

They set up a cover as investors interested in exploring a future potential investment and headed to Slyph. It was easy enough for Dr. Delekta to convince the matriarchs that their mission was genuine and to organize for them to be taken to the mine where Irfan 2 worked, but she accidentally revealed that she was a doctor, and they began asking her some very unsavoury questions about the “resources” (i.e. the men of their colony). Apparently some had been struck down with a lung disease that might require extensive treatment, and they wanted a doctor with more experience and better qualifications than their local doctor to give them an assessment of whether these resources could continue to work, or should “cease being utilized”. Seeing their chance, Dr. Delekta requested that the 10 resources in question be brought to her medlab, along with a sample of five control resources – amongst whom she selected Irfan 2. All 15 of these malnourished, exhausted and sickly men were dragged on board the Beast of Burden and put into the medlab, as the PCs gathered to figure out what to do.

Unfortunately four of the matriarchs had also come on board, and were loitering around the medlab waiting to hear about Delekta’s judgment. Soon after she got the men in the medlab this woman, Iwoe, entered the medlab without invitation and began examining the 15 men. It was painfully apparent to Siladan and Al Hamra as soon as this woman reached Irfan 2 that Irfan 2 was her secret sex toy, and she was not going to let him go. They managed to hustle Iwoe out of the room and started talking about what to do about this problem, but unfortunately one of the healthy men overheard them talking about rescuing Irfan 2 and, seeing his chance to improve his own situation with a judicious bit of treachery, ran to the door to alert Iwoe to the impending rescue. Siladan and Al Hamra chased him but were not fast enough, and he slid out the door with Siladan wrapped around his legs, yelling to Iwoe that an abduction was going to happen.

Things went bad very quickly at that moment. Iwoe and her three assistants drew accelerator pistols from the folds of their jackets and began shooting, and battle was on. Unfortunately the PCs were not wearing their armour and did not have their weapons, so they had to dash into melee or make the most of what they had. Fortunately Clementine was able to knock a mercurium sword out of Iwoe’s hand, and of course Al Hamra is a droid who is always armed, and after a few desperate seconds in which it looked like they might be outgunned they were able to beat the four intruders down. As the fight unfolded Oliver Greenstar, Adam and Kaarlin were able to lift the ship off, with Adam using the accelerator cannon to make short work of the matriarchs’ ground-based missile launcher. They spaced Iwoe and two of her assistants, kept one alive to interrogate, and then spaced her too.

They headed back to orbit to send the news of the successful extraction to Irfan, hoping that the people of Sylph had no decent starships to chase them with. From their prisoner they had learnt the reason that the statuette was in an abandoned mine: it was guarded by at least one Sentinel, the strange portal-builder guardians that they had learnt about in Kua. They had never fought those things, but the video they watched suggested it would not be easy. But the mystery of that statuette called, and what had they encountered yet that could harm them, really? They sent a message to Irfan, and swooped down to the surface of the planet Sylph to do some combat archaeology…

 


fn1: Dropped out after an hour or two due to incredibly bad technical issues

The PCs have destroyed the Nekatra guards protecting the Dabaran hacker, Livan, and are ready to ransack his apartments and capture him. The roster for today’s mission:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Al Hamra, captain and droid (with mystic powers)
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Kaarlina, mystic

First they began investigating the large warehouse room where they killed the nekatra, ignoring the stench of burnt fur and blood. They found nothing of interest in the cargo space but in a neighbouring storage room they found a collection of electronic equipment, and buried amongst it a box full of data chips with the names of important local figures tagged on them: The Grand Vizier, Inspector Aluf, and so on. They inserted one into their tabula, and Siladan was about to begin his data djinn work to decode it when a speaker in the corner of the room crackled to life and Livan spoke to them. He asked them not to take his data chips, and offered to cut a deal with them if they would return him the chips. After a very short negotiation he invited them upstairs to his living space.

They moved cautiously out of the room and into the hallway, where a previously locked door opened to reveal an elevator. They took the elevator up to the second level of the old abandoned ice hauler, into a small and messy kitchen. The centre of the kitchen held a large circular table, and on the far side of it a tall, thin, rangy-looking man sat in a chair with his legs on the table, an accelerator pistol pointing at them. He gestured to them to sit, and they cautiously joined him at the table.

The negotiation that followed was simple and effective. Livan revealed to them that Samina’s Corsairs were his most rewarding and most demanding clients, and he did not like working with them. He also thought they were very dangerous, but he was willing to cut a deal with the PCs in order to secure the return of his data chips, which were his insurance policy for his work on Atuta; if he lost them he would need to move or begin his entire career all over again. The PCs, seeing a chance to learn all they needed without any dirty work, agreed to return him the chips if he would tell them all he could about the Corsairs, and also scrub the registry of all their stolen ships. He agreed to both, and had refreshed the registry of their stolen ships in a matter of minutes. He then told them what he knew of the Corsairs:

  • Samina herself must be a powerful mystic, or at least had some mystic power
  • A mystic barrier of some kind protected the Corsairs’ home base from being found, so ships would pass it by without ever knowing it was there
  • No one on a Corsair ship knew how to pass through the barrier. Instead they visited Hamurabi portal station and met someone called the Oracle who then guided them through the barrier
  • The Oracle must have some mystic power, or perhaps carried some token or symbol that helped pass through the barrier
  • The Corsairs were run like a cult, and were fanatically loyal
  • There were perhaps 60 soldiers remaining in the Corsair base after the damage the PCs had already done to them
  • The Corsair base was rumoured to have a resident fleet of attack ships to defend it if ever the barrier is breached
  • There are perhaps 3 remaining Corsair ships that are used for travel across the Horizon, between portals

Livan also told them that he routinely dealt with three agents, who visited him occasionally. The most recent visit was from an agent in a ship called the Haymarket Massacre. Saqr asked him if he had video footage of that man approaching his home, and indeed Livan did. He shared this with Saqr. They asked after a few other details, and agreed to part ways in peace. Livan was sure their trouble with the Corsairs would soon get them killed, and doubted he would ever have to see them again.

They returned to their luxury quarters far from Livan’s rundown old freighter, and decided to take this time in Atuta to prepare themselves for the biggest action yet of their campaign. With their ships now officially registered as theirs they were finally in a position to upgrade them, and now they were in one of the largest shipbuilding spaceports in the Horizon. They took a month here, resting and recuperating from their many injuries, while the Beast of Burden was repaired and the Judgment of the Dancer upgraded with more modules and weapons. They also modified the Grace of the Icons to increase its armaments and prepare it for war. For a month they took in the airs of Atuta, enjoyed its thriving souks and bustling cantinas, and wound down from months of constant combat.

Then, a month later, on the day of the Founding, as they were relaxing in their quarters and preparing to return to their ship, Saqr took it upon himself to use his mystic powers to see if he could find Livan’s contact, and to scry upon him. He took his support cat Orange to his lap, made himself comfortable in his cushion room, played the video Livan had sent him and sunk into a mystic trance.

He found the contact easily enough, though in a bizarre place. His mystic powers told him that the contact was not in Hamura, but at a location far from any star, in the centre of the Dabaran Circle, a place light years from the nearest portal and not connected to any star. Had the Corsairs found a hidden portal!? He tried to investigate further using his scrying powers, but here everything went wrong: his mystic powers failed him, and a huge shadow of darkness passed over him as he fled the scene of his scrying. As he tried to draw his powers back into himself the great shadow followed him, and the Dark between the stars broke into his room.

It manifested as four huge, ghostly hounds, one in each corner of the room, which immediately broke into a great howl that almost tore Saqr’s spirit from his bones. Then they attacked him.

These were the infamous Hounds of Tirides. Fortunately their howl alerted the rest of the group, who were able to quickly come to Saqr’s aid, charging into the room unarmoured and with only the gear they could quickly grab to try and save him from the swarming Dark. This battle was nearly deadly: the Hounds had some mystic power to shift in time and space when attacked so that they took no damage, and every time one of them howled it tore at their souls. Within moments Saqr was a gibbering heap on the ground, Siladan was unconscious with his face torn off, and the rest of the group had nerves so frayed they felt they must flee. But they perservered, and finally through a mess of gunfire and mercurium they were able to cut the beasts down and send them back to the Dark from whence they came. Dr. Delecta and Adam between them dragged Saqr back from his catatonia, and as they recovered from the battle he explained the strange thing he had seen.

They realized now that some great and dark power was invested in the Corsairs. When they killed Samina it would not just be a dangerous bandit nest that they destroyed, but some sinister force from the Dark. They must prepare themselves for a bitter battle not just against human cruelty, but against the Dark itself …


A note on darkness points: My players have been pretty liberal in giving me darkness points, because failure has consequences in this game so they often reroll, especially with knowledge or observation checks where failure can be misleading. So when the Hounds of Tirides materialized they had given me 13 darkness points, and for the first few rounds they gave me a few more. This enabled me to liberally spend darkness points avoiding damage and using the horrible howl power of the Hounds, which causes 2 MP damage every time it happens. By the end of the battle it was clear to the players that if they gave me even one darkness point I would be able to use the howl again, and probably render half the crew catatonic (they were all pretty low on mental points by then, and most of the fighters don’t have a lot, maybe 6 or 7). So they had to fight the last part of the battle unable to pray for any rolls, with two of the crew down and desperate to beat the dogs before another person took a serious critical. It would have just required one or two more howls, or one serious critical on a fighter, for the battle to turn from a hard fight to a TPK. Darkness points can be very dangerous when the GM has a lot of them!