Hard scrabble

Hard scrabble

After the PCs rescued the Cult of the Unredeemed in the Reach, they decided to find the AI that the cult used to worship. This AI had fled to an abandoned space station called Rocannon’s World, in far orbit off of a remnant planet in the Perez system. The Perez system was out of their reach, but they could get to it by jumping through the Slainte system. The Slainte system is the last major Confederate presence in the frontier before the systems become truly wild, and is host to a major star port that serves as a gathering point for adventurers and contact units heading into the wilds of the frontier.

The space port in Slainte is a huge, sprawling complex that serves the needs of hundreds of ships every year. The only habitable planet, Slainte 2, has four moons, the smallest of which is little bigger than an asteroid. This moon, in close orbit around the planet, was hollowed out and converted into a starport by the Confederacy soon after they discovered the system. It is about 400 km long, 50 km wide and 80km deep, a rough obloid of malleable rock with a rugged, mountainous surface pitted with craters and canyons. To save space the Confederacy did not install power generators in the moon, instead choosing to build a system of solar panels around the sun, and to beam the energy directly back to the moon. As a result the moon has extensive living and merchant space, as well as about 300 docks, huge storage space, and room to host space ships up to Forest class. Not that any spaceships of that size would choose to visit this backwater …

The Slainte system is a collection of five small planets circling a weak main-stream star. Two are empty rocks, one a small gas giant, and the only inhabited system is a small planet at the edge of the habitable zone, Slainte 2. Slainte 2 is a frozen planet, its entire surface covered in ice and snow, with no free-standing water. It has a population of 9500, living in widely scattered settlements in the equatorial zone. It is a remnant planet, and the population is close to uplift, but remain largely stranded in their frozen home while they adjust to the reality of intergalactic civilization. Fortunately this adaptation is not difficult for the population of Slainte 2, because they have retained their knowledge of technology, and their society was tech level 10 when the Confederacy found it. They would already have achieved stellar travel, but the tiny population of their planet prevented them from the major construction projects required for the initial leap into stellar society. Instead, their society focused on bioengineering, pharmaceuticals, and materials technology to make life in their frozen wilderness safer.

Life on Slainte 2 is harsh. The planet lacks easily-accessible natural resources, with the rocky core buried under kilometres of ice, and there are few naturally-occurring sources of food. Basic requirements for modern civilization, such as silicon and iron, are difficult to obtain and require huge expense of resources. Before the Confederacy arrived the people of Slainte 2 lived in a precarious state of near-collapse, divided among 10 tiny communities that each had specialist roles: one would dig for silicon, spending much of their human resources on maintaining an open mine through the ice, while another would harvest minerals from the chill waters under the ice, and another would farm algae for hydrocarbons. Resources were strictly rationed and all aspects of life carefully monitored and controlled, but with such a small population it was not possible to waste even a single life, so the society developed naturally into a civil service bureaucracy, in which social change was rare and all aspects of life were managed by a small clique of technocrats. Entry into this clique was through merit only, and the society maintained the status quo through strict roles and very little inequality. The strict resource constraints also meant that Slainte 2 had strict attitudes towards sex – procreation was seen as a rare and special privilege, and sex viewed as purely a mechanistic part of life, divorced from the creation of new people. But with such a small population sexual tensions were potentially fatal, and the population developed an intense culture of privacy and shame about sex, so that when the Confederacy found them they were ripe for exploitation by the worldly (and, many would say, cynical) hedonists of that society. Fortunately the Confederate blockade has enabled the people of Slainte 2 to slowly adapt to the realities of confederate life, while slowly expanding the resources on their planet. They have been gifted with many tools to help with their survival in the ice, and their world is changing rapidly to open up new horizons for its population. The people of Slainte 2 have welcomed the Confederacy with open arms.

The same cannot be said of their near neighbours.

Don't cross me

Don’t cross me

Military maneouvres in the Black

The PCs were expecting a small naval presence associated with the Slainte starport, but when they jumped into the system they encountered an entirely different phenomenon. As soon as they arrived hundreds of green proximity alerts sounded, indicating the presence of ships in-system. Almost all of these alerts were for military ships, and checking their visual screens the PCs could see the situation – a huge armada of navy ships spread out across their field of view. For a brief moment they panicked, thinking that their secret human trafficking mission had again entangled them in trouble.

When a ship arrives in-system a strange kind of tactic follows. Ships already in system have been broadcasting information, which will reach the ship when it arrives, so usually as soon as a ship arrives in a system its crew get a warning about all the other ships present. But because jump zones are on the edge of the system, the in-coming ship is usually at least light-minutes away from the resident ships. This means that anyone arriving in a system has several minutes in which to assess the situation before anyone becomes aware of their presence, because all signals are traveling at light speed. Should they be detected the fastest weapon that can reach them – a laser – will take an equal period of time to reach them and needs to account for their trajectory in order to hit them[1]. This meant that the PCs had a few minutes to assess the situation and determine what to do.

They soon realized that the gathered naval vessels had nothing to do with them. Local media channels were full of gossip about the impending mission, and the components of the task force. A fleet of 300-400 ships had gathered in system over the past month, led by the Ocean Class battleship the Rubicon and the Lake Class battleship the Blindhammer. When the PCs arrived the Rubicon was in their field of view, partially eclipsing the distant sun. The Rubicon was a classic Confederate Ocean Class battleship: 40 kms long, 3o kms wide and 10 kms deep, it was a smooth black wedge bristling with weaponry and threatening complete destruction. A battleship of this size has never been defeated in the history of the Confederacy, and is capable of wiping out entire fleets without taking even a scratch of damage. Its subordinate ship, the Blindhammer, has a long and illustrious history in combat against rebels and corsairs and has also never been defeated – or even damaged – in 90 years of service. These two megaships were accompanied by a fleet of hundreds of smaller cruisers and battleships, including a fleet of psionic Cognates, ships that carry telepaths and have the power to amplify their mental powers so that they work over vast distances.

These ships had gathered here because the Confederacy had decided to send a clear message to a remnant culture beyond the sector. About 20 light years out from the Slainte system was a network of six interconnected systems, ruled by a remnant culture at tech level 10. This culture had been contacted by the Confederacy but was suffering from what Confederate scholars call horizon-blindness. Most stellar cultures go through this phase, where their success in interstellar colonization and the difficulty of the initial step lead them to believe that they are unusually powerful, and to find the existence of more powerful societies impossible to conceive. Most remnant cultures that have colonized other planets and reached this tech level tend to be very old and rich, since a continuous period of unbroken cultural growth and great wealth are pre-requisites for interstellar growth. Such societies, flush with the success of their recent achievements, sure of their longevity, and aware of the difficulty of what they have achieved, find the idea of a society infinitely greater than their own impossible to conceive – this is horizon blindness. When such societies meet the Confederacy they are often suspicious and proud, but most of all they find the true scope of the Confederacy impossible to comprehend. In this case the society in question had been contacted perhaps 100 years ago, but had become increasingly paranoid. Over the past 30 years they had secretly built a larger fleet, its flagship a 1km long behemoth. Incapable of understanding what they were dealing with, they decided a year ago to attack a Confederate cruiser that had visited their core system in connection with some negotiations over conditions for uplift. This cruiser, only a third of the size of the flagship, escaped the attacking fleet but suffered minor damage in the escape. The Confederacy took this as a major attack on their credibility, and decided to respond by sending a small fleet to chasten the attackers and cure their horizon blindness. The plan is that the entire fleet will jump in simultaneously, and before the enemy can react the Cognate ships will disable the majority of the personnel on their ships. Confederate vessels will then board the ships and disarm the paralyzed marines, taking control of the majority of the navy. The ship that damaged the Confederate cruiser will be rendered to atoms, and the leaders of the remnant system given a choice: surrender on Confederate terms or face complete takeover. With most of their navy disarmed instantly they will be likely to surrender without anyone being harmed. The entire battle should take a couple of minutes, and involve only a few thousand deaths.

Such an action usually cures horizon blindness, although it unleashes a wide array of socio-cultural forces that can lead to the destruction of fragile human societies. If you want to make an omelette, however … and in any case, post-apocalyptic societies have proven to be very malleable.

The Slow Light Caverns

While in orbit around Slainte 2, the PCs decided to explore the surface. Unlike Niscorp 1743, Slainte 2 has no major life forms – it is a planet of algae and tiny crustaceans. It does, however, have one famous natural feature, the Slow Light Caverns. These caverns form in the hollows of a canyon network in the sub-tropics, in a band around the equator. Slainte 2 is a planet of constant, disorienting winds, and these winds slowly cut through the ice of the surface over thousands of years. In the tropics the ice is weaker, and beneath the ice there are often thin streams of flowing water. The wind cuts through huge glaciers, slowly carving massive caverns over thousands of years. These caverns are like cathedrals of ice, hundreds of metres deep and often tens of kilometres long, huge drifting hallways of ice and gently drifting snow that sing with the sound of the constant winds. But near the tropics the walls of these caverns are often full of slowly moving water, thick with salts and algae, that have been drawn up from the depths of the planet by capillary action and the convection effect of sunlight through the thinned walls of the caverns. At the caverns near the surface the sunlight, slowly flowing water, and ancient ice combine to form slowly-moving rainbows and defraction patterns, like a kaleidoscope of slowly-moving colours and shapes that ripple across ice walls hundreds of metres high. It is possible to fly into these caves in a flyer, to set down and establish a field umbrella that keeps out the wind and the cold. One can make a camp and sit back on the ice, cocktail in hand, to enjoy the spectacle of patterns of slowly-changing kaleidoscopes of rainbow light projected across a vast canvas, hundreds of metres high and kilometres wide. At midday the high sun casts oblique patterns of rainbow light across the cavern floor, like archaic stained glass windows in some massive pagan church. As the day passes the light extends, and the water inside the ice warms, flowing faster and casting faster patterns of golden light across the floor and walls of the caverns. On warm days some of the surface ice melts, and the patterns take on a three dimensional form, ribbons of rainbow light and kaleidoscopic patterns dancing in a diaphonous cloud of faint mist. If one has a grav belt one can float up into these beams of light, and drift through them like a diver hanging in the sunbeams of a great ocean; an explorer hanging here in this way will find that every time he breathes he creates his own tiny rainbows of exquisite patterns, drifting around him in the faint breezes of the cavern; such an explorer might also notice the thin and distant wail of the winds that carve the cavern, singing through the narrow gaps and stalactites of the cavern far overhead, where it is still forming and new. Towards evening, as one settles down for dinner in the comfortable surrounds of the flyer, the sun will begin to sink and its rays will pour directly into the cavern. By now the mist has subsided and the water again frozen in the walls of the cavern, and now the cavern glows with the light of the sun itself, becoming a vast limnal space of orange deepening to red. Impurities in the ice will diffract this light, breaking it into sparkling patterns that form strange stereoscopic patterns in huge sweeps over the ice floor of the cavern and its distant walls. As the sun sinks and the angles change these patterns will slowly morph and change. In some of the caverns young people will gather, playing music and taking vapours, dancing to the slow and hypnotic pace of the sinking sun. In other caverns lovers will link arms and bask in the strange beauty of it all, marveling that even as civilization reaches this high point of infinite power, such places of wonder still reach out to the primal senses, and draw humanity back to its roots of religious wonder.

In some other, smaller cave, a man tired of his long journey through this life will activate a particular gland – that one – and sink slowly into oblivion in the comforting embrace of the gently pulsing orange light. Perhaps a hundred years from now cavers will find him, and his last note, if he thought it necessary to leave one (probably his friends already knew, and toasted his leaving the day before, staying down below to party in one of the larger caverns). But whether people come to these Slow Light Caverns to simply watch, to party or to die, no one can witness the simple, profound beauty of wind, fire and ice without being transported back to that primitive time when the world was full of mystery and human life was new.

Which is why the PCs visited the Slow Light Caverns, though by now they needed little reminding that the universe is full of ineffable mysteries. Compared to death cults and the dark plans of distant gods, the simple play of light through ice is a refreshing boon…

fn1: To handle this risk, military ships are programmed to perform a random shift as soon as they arrive, and they usually arrive in sequence so that they can coordinate this shift to not hit each other. This means that it is impossible for waiting ships to effectively target them. To counter this, waiting ships will launch a cone-shaped spray of laser weapons as soon as they identify a target, followed up by a spray of sub-light missiles. Only very large ships can power enough lasers for this strategy to be effective, however.