What? What is it?

And oh my love remind me, what was it that I said?
I can’t help but pull the stars around me, to make my bed
And oh my love remind me, what was it that I did?
Did I drink too much?
Am I losing touch?
Did I build this ship to wreck?

-Traditional poem of the pirates of The Reach

In their most recent adventures in the Reach, our heroes managed to create a major incident in the Bones, a particularly unsavoury part of the pirate system known as The Reach, and in so doing learnt that the death priest they had killed was entangled in some ancient story of AIs and betrayal. They had discovered that 1000 years ago the leader of a cult of adherents had traveled to the Gardens on a secret mission, and then fled suddenly with the cult’s AI, both of them abandoning the system in a sub-light vessel and heading to a nearby star system to hide. The death priest they killed had been digging up bodies in the same part of the Reach and torturing the souls of the long dead for information on a thing called “the ansible”, so naturally the PCs guessed that the cult leader had fled with information about it, and determined to follow.

They learnt from their new follower Sue the Unbroken that the leader had fled to an abandoned observation post called Rocannon’s World, in the remnant system Perez, and headed there as soon as they could. Perez was too far for their tiny utility ship to reach, but they could pass through the system of Slainte, a near-uplift system with a major starport carved into one of the remnant planet’s moons. On arrival they were shocked to discover hundreds of naval ships in-system, including the much-feared Blindhammer and the enormous Ocean-class battleship the Rubicon, and began desperately searching the system for the Reckless. Fortunately the navy hadn’t arrived for any purpose in connection with the PCs’ irrelevant mission, and weren’t gathering for an attack on the Reach; they were preparing a major battle further out on the frontier.

Lam, the group’s pilot, is an ex-naval officer, and was able to identify a ship she used to serve on, the cruiser Notes From the Fallen. She had spent a year on this ship, cloistered in the tiny crew area with 11 other men and women while they engaged pirates on the edge of the Rim, and she was eager to catch up with them. She put in a call and the cruiser docked with the space port to allow a little R&R. The Notes from the Fallen is a 300m long beast comprised entirely of engines and weaponry, its crew forced into a tiny living area in the very centre of the ship, and everyone on board took any chance to get portside and stretch their legs. They met Lam in a bar called Moonfall, and toasted her independence in the local brew, a vile seaweed-based liquor that is always drunk so cold it almost burns the throat. They had spent the last year hunting rebels on the frontier, tracking isolated ships through asteroid fields in long-forgotten systems, a game of cat-and-mouse that inevitably ended the way all such games end, with the mouse crushed and the cat barely sated, until they were called away for this new mission into a different frontier. They had no gossip for Lam or any information about anything relevant to her group’s mission; their job was simply to destroy any automated defense systems that might resist psionic attack, and they doubted they would even get a chance to fire a weapon in a fleet this size. Mostly they were there for show – the Blindhammer could destroy the combined fleets of every rebel system on the frontier without pausing to reload, and if they really needed it the Rubicon could bomb an entire planet to ruins. If they were lucky they would get to blow up a communications satellite, but as far as they were concerned this was a holiday, and they hadn’t been paying attention to the details.

Lam returned to the Come As you Are no wiser to any salient details of their mission, so they decided not to dally. They jumped out to Perez.

As good a place as any to die

As good a place as any to die

The Starred One

They reached Perez in one week, finding a system with a tiny star port hanging over a remnant planet on the edge of uplift, and another, much older observation post on the edge of the system. This post appeared to be shut down, and had been overlooked in favor of more modern stations further in-system. The PCs approached this ancient observation post cautiously, but it appeared to be mostly silent, nothing active or moving except a few flashing red proximity lights. The station consisted of a simple spindle running through a single habitation disc, the most basic of observation outposts. It had a single ship docked, a huge vehicle composed mostly of engines that must surely be the sub-light vessel that the leader had hijacked to come here. That vessel was completely empty and silent, and scans revealed a primitive vessel with no signs of life or even computer activity.

They docked, and with some trepidation entered the station. Simon Simon, using his new Stealth grace, was able to activate doors and docking procedures without drawing the attention of the AI they suspected was hiding in the space station, so they were able to enter and turn on the lights without any challenge. The hallway from the docking area into the main chamber of the station was silent and cold, and the atmosphere seemed breathable, but it had a chilling strangeness about it. On one wall someone had smeared, in red paint

Hello Silence

and on the other wall

my old friend

Someone checked, and confirmed for once that it was not human blood or anything else creepy – just very old, crumbling red paint. They advanced.

The station was a simple structure, a single walkway curving around the outside of the station and a small cluster of rooms nestled inside it. They began walking around the walkway, looking for the main ventral corridor that would take them to the key rooms. Their vacc suit torches showed them that strange things had been done to the walls and ceiling of this hallway – the ceiling had been coated with phosphorescent stick-on stars, and the walls covered in red hand prints that crumbled to dust when anyone touched them.

They advanced cautiously, but not cautiously enough. As the ventral corridor emerged into view, two hovering drones emerged from the corridor and opened fire. They ducked back around the curve of the hallway but two more drones attacked from behind. Caught against the curve of the hallway, they opened fire with everything they had, and managed to destroy all four drones without taking more than moderate damage themselves. When the gunfire and smoke ceased, Alva and Simon Simon were gasping in pain but they were mostly still safe.

They advanced into the ventral corridor. This corridor stretched from one side of the station to the other, passing through all the living and science areas of the station – all the doors opening into this corridor gave access to all the important rooms in the entire station. They were moving towards the first of these when the wall exploded outward and a massive, angry robot stumbled into the corridor. This robot was constructed of all the rubbish and equipment of a scientific station: its body was made of tables, chairs and coffee machines, its arms built of cables and bedding and even a microwave oven. On one arm was a huge blade that appeared to have been carved out of a steel optics bench, and in the other a huge machine gun. Its head was a speaker surrounded by the dark plastic nodules of cctv camera housings. From the speaker came a roar of distortion and static, and it attacked.

Ahmose moved forward to take it in single combat as the others opened fire with auto rifle and laser. The robot was screaming in galactic standard language, its voice horribly distorted by feedback and static but recognizable as the smooth, calm voice of a space station announcement system. Whatever mad sentience drove this creature had taken the announcements from the space station system and rearranged them into deranged muzak versions of ancient poems. It quoted monologues on revenge and anger from famous poets from all across the known planets, screaming them out from the overpowered public announcement speaker in its face as it swept its sword at Ahmose. After it hit her it screamed, in unevenly spaced distorted announcer-woman words

They think our heads are in their hands
But violent use brings violent plans
Keep him tied, it makes him well
He’s getting better, can’t you tell

Ahmose, staggered, fell back, but Alva pressed a stun stick into her hands. Simon Simon used his scrying grace and computer skills to hack into the things eyes and blind them, at the same time as Ahmose hit it with the stun stick. Where their weapons had deflected from layers of armour and useless garbage covering, the stun stick penetrated straight to its electric core, driving it crazy. It staggered back and opened fire wildly with its machine gun. Ahmose pressed the advantage, but in the hail of bullets Simon Simon went down. More blows with the stun stick and the beast finally fell, coruscating with sparks and impotent screaming rage. They poured fire into it until it stopped twitching and screaming.

What is it?

With the AI’s main weapon disabled they were able to explore the remains of the station comfortably. They found several rooms where the scientists lived and relaxed, all ransacked for parts for the warrior-machine, which had clearly been constructed by a servitor robot they found in the remains of the cafeteria. They moved cautiously into the main control room, where they found the adherent who had come here with his AI. His dessicated corpse sat in a chair looking at a huge set of screens, an empty glass on the floor on one side of the chair and a discharged slug pistol on the other. On a desk in front of him was a single object: A slim grey tablet, about two hands in size, inert and inscrutable. It surface, sides and back were completely smooth and unbroken except for a single hole in one side, which appeared to be a slot for something.

All the screens in the room were activated, showing one of two images. On half of them the words “What is it?!” scrolled constantly, flashing in different sizes and fonts. On the other half was a slowly revolving three dimensional model of an irregularly-shaped object, which perfectly corresponded with the shape of the hole in the tablet.

Ahmose and Alva recognized that object instantly. It was the exact same shape and size as the mysterious crystal they had been engaged to obtain from an asteroid in the Dune system, when they first met.

They had held a 1000 year-old secret in their hand, and gave it away to some gangster called Mr. Kong in exchange for a worthless voucher for a backup service.

Shaking their heads in disappointment, they took the tablet and left. Simon Simon shut down the power for the AI, and they took its memory in case they would need it later. Carrying the mysterious tablet and the secret of its missing part, they returned to Slainte.

An offer you can't refuse

What games are these?

The Left Hand of Darkness

On Slainte they had to spend a week resting. Some of them needed healing, and everyone wanted to let off steam in a real Confederate space port, so they took their time here. After two days on the port they received an invitation to an evening meal from a strange man called Dathrak Khan Sevelid 3 of Mithrandir. The invitation was to a hangar, with a dress code (party) and a weapons code: Optional. They investigated this Dathrak Khan and discovered that he was a scion of some noble family on a distant remnant planet, who had used his connections and wealth before uplift to ensure he got the most he could out of the Confederacy after uplift. His reputation was slightly scandalous, since he retained a lot of his remnant ways and didn’t bother conforming to the strange customs of the core; he was old enough to have resleeved several times but had made a point of resleeving only into remnant bodies, adopting none of the sophisticated biology of the Core except for the enhanced sexual function. Famously charming, this man had a body that still sported hair and still sweated in a primitive fashion, but despite this his parties and social events were enormously popular. He was also rich, even by confederate standards.

Intrigued, they attended his party in their finest formal wear, carrying only light weapons. They were greeted by a barely-dressed woman carrying a vaping bowl, already obviously very high, who welcomed them effusively and gestured them inside. She led them through an entry area and into a hangar that looked out over the scarred grey surface of the moon-sized spaceport. The hangar itself was a huge space carved out of the rock of the moon, field effectors holding air in and keeping the temperature even. The far doors of the hangar were large enough for a small ship to pass through, and indeed there was a ship in the hangar – a beautiful, lethal black sliver of high-tech luxury, beneath the nose of which was set out a dining table and chairs big enough for a party of about 12. A woman was sprawled over two of the chairs, giggling, and in another chair sat a slim, handsome man in a slightly unorthodox suit.

In the corners of the hangar stood guards in full battle dress, heavy machine guns in hand.

As they entered the man stood up and sashayed towards them, carrying himself with a casual arrogance and obvious awareness of his own beauty. He greeted them all by name, introduced himself as Dathrak Khan Sevelid 3 of Mithrandir (“my friends call me DK, or Doctor Khan – do as you will!”) and welcomed them all to his table. The woman disappeared to get drinks and drugs, barely functional through her giggles, and within moments servitors were emerging with plates of delicious-looking food. A few more young men and women joined them, all high on various vapes, and soon DK himself was sampling from a range of steaming bowls. The PCs kept their wits about them, until eventually DK revealed the purpose of his invitation.

“Allow me to introduce you to your new ship, the Left Hand of Darkness. Darkness, say hello.”

The ship greeted them in a smooth, professional-sounding woman’s voice. “Hello new masters. I look forward to serving you.”

Lam went into rapture, and charged to the ship, all further thought of rational conversation forgotten. Against the backdrop of Lam’s exclamations of joy and rapid-fire questions, or statements about the ship, DK laid out his terms: He would give them full ownership of the Left Hand of Darkness, a Tech Level 14 ship straight from the Core’s best factories, if they would give him the body of the dead remnant from Dune that they were carrying with them. He didn’t ask for the living one, only the dead one; in exchange, they would be full legal owners of the Left Hand of Darkness, no questions asked or conditions. He was, he told them, attempting to procure the body for a collector of rare and unique galactic items.

They asked for a few days to think about it. He agreed, but everyone at the party knew exactly what would happen.

Hello darkness my old friend

Hello darkness my old friend

The shadow of the hunter (is the last thing that the mouse sees)

Of course they agreed. Ahmose observed that there was nothing else they could do, since DK no doubt intended to get the body one way or another, and at least this way they could get some benefit and some chance of tracking the collector. They decided to hand over the body, but that Alva would attempt to read DK’s mind when they did so, to find out who this mysterious collector was. Two days later they returned to the hangar with the body of the dead remnant, to find DK waiting. They handed over the remnant, and DK gave them the ownership certificates. After they had exchanged a few pleasantries, Ahmose said to DK

“I know there’s no point in asking this, but I can’t help myself. Who is the collector who is so interested in this body?”

Of course DK waved a demurring hand, laughed and said something about how everyone knows such trade secrets are never shared. As he did so Alva probed his surface thoughts, and took out the information they wanted.

The collector was an AI. Its name: The shadow of the hunter (is the last thing that the mouse sees).

They left in possession of a new, beautiful ship, and a strange new secret.