Science Fiction


Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you here when I was forced out
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks
For you sing, “Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow
Oh my heart, Oh my heart shies from the sorrow”
The cast for this session:
  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Oliver Greenstar (Colonist)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Ship’s Doctor Banu Delecta (Medicurg)

The PCs are on Rockhome 3, where they have made a significant profit selling spare parts to the desperate colonists, but they have been asked to stay and investigate the reason the mining colony was sabotaged. Ingrid Silverstern, the Consortium representative on the mining colony, asked them to find out who sabotaged the colony’s reactor, gravitron drives and life support systems, afraid that a full-blown miners’ mutiny was in the offing. The PCs are confident that the colony is not under threat from a mutiny, but they suspect that a rich and arrogant young man, Aslam, child of one of the colony’s rich founding families, sabotaged the colony and has some kind of plan to take over complete control of the colonists. The PCs were just marching across the lush gardens of the luxury quarters to challenge him when they heard word of the arrival of a new ship, the Algebraic Escalation. Because Adam and Oliver Greenstar were staying on their ship, the Beast of Burden, the group decided to split along convenient lines: Reiko, Saqr, Siladan and Banu would interrogate Aslam in his luxury apartment while Adam and Oliver waited in their ship.

Aslam’s Redoubt

Reiko’s group pursued Aslam to his luxury apartment, using tools to open the front door. Siladan was carrying a proximity sensor, which they jury rigged to give them a precise assessment of the location of anything moving or alive in the apartment, so they were able to quickly pursue Aslam down two levels to a kind of basement tunnel. Here they found themselves confounded by a security door that they could not penetrate. They first tried electronic tools to break through, to no avail, and then attempted to break it with force, but this too failed. Banu called up schematics for the building and they concluded that this was not just a blast door, but a secure airlock door leading down to a private dock. They made some desultory attempts to communicate with Aslam, to no avail, and so gave up and searched his house as best they could.

The Algebraic Escalation

While they were attempting to hack the door, Oliver and Adam were lounging around in the bridge of the Beast of Burden, failing to make small talk as Adam stared obstinately into space and grunted monosyllabic replies to all of Oliver’s cheerful attempts at communication. Bored, they stared out of the window at the hangar, and so were easily able to see three men, obvious miners, come running into the hangar and begin frantically open a shuttered and locked storage area on the hangar’s far wall. Moments later the men were dragging out carbines, loading them and pointing in rapid, angry gestures back towards the main entrance. Intrigued, Adam and Oliver decided to grab their guns and head outside to see what was going on.

Outside the ship was chaos, the sound of gunfire and the faint smell of burning. The three men ran ahead of them to the hangar entrance, one being shot down as soon as they entered the hallway outside and the other two disappearing from view, firing wildly down the hallway. Oliver and Adam approached the doorway more cautiously, and peering outside found a scene of devastation and pitched battle. The two men who had run into the hallway were already dying, gunned down before they could reach cover further down the hall. There were other dead and injured Rockhome residents in the hallway, which stank of smoke and explosives. At the far end of the hallway a group of soldiers of some kind had taken cover at the entrance to hangar 2, and were professionally and carefully opening fire on anyone who came down or into the hallway. People in the main residential area of the colony were firing back, but it was obvious that the intruders at hangar 2 were better armed and better trained, and they appeared to already have established a bridgehead on the far side of the hallway, from where they could begin to invade the colony proper. The doors to hangar 2 were not closing, and all the emergency doors that should have sealed the colony off from the hangar section were still open.

Hangar 2 was the hangar that had received the Algebraic Escalation. The station was under attack!

Panic and chaos in the hallways

Oliver and Adam made contact with the rest of the group and they quickly joined the dots. His involvement in the sabotage discovered, Aslam had called in his collaborators and they had approached the station in the guise of merchants, then attacked as soon as they landed. It was likely that with Aslam’s help they knew the layout of the station and had secured access to the security station above the hangar. Their motives were not clear but everyone guessed their goal was to take over the station or to rob it of some valuable artifact or relic. They decided to help the station. Their plan was rough and uncertain, because they had no time to make decisions. Saqr would travel back to the Beast of Burden to prepare it for escape, running along the viewing corridor above the entrance hallway. While Saqr did this Banu, Siladan and Reiko would go to the security station and secure it, and try to use it to close the doors on hangar 2. Oliver and Adam would go into battle in the hallway, to try and buy time and even up the odds for the station’s defenders. Oliver and Adam were not wearing their battle armour, but they had no time to go back and change. Battle was joined!

The next few minutes were a storm of chaos and blood. Adam and Oliver fought valiantly in the hallway but were overwhelmed by the superior force of the intruders, and would have died in the hallway along with the miners if Banu had not come to them in time. As the battle raged in the hangar zone the rest of the party were able to invade the security station, kill the intruders who had taken it, and return it to the control of the colony. They tried to interrogate an intruder but had no time, and were forced to leave him tied in the hallway so that they could rush to the aid of Oliver and Adam, who were being cut down in the lower level. With Banu’s medical help and Reiko and Saqr providing melee support they were able to push back some of the intruders, giving the colony enough time to seal the doors on the hangar. As the doors sealed shut and the miners mopped up one or two remaining intruders the party were able to breathe a sigh of relief, reload, and take a moment to rest.

It was then that the Algebraic Escalation fired her railgun through the hangar doors.

And then fired again.

Capitulation

The railgun wrought enormous damage on the colony’s ancient structure. It smashed a massive hole in the hangar door and carved a 100m long track of ruin through the centre of the residence district, caving in a part of a wall and leaving a steaming, smoking path of ruin in its wake. The second shot punched the hole wider and careered off through the residential section, tearing down a piece of wall and exploding in a cloud of dust and shards of rock on the far side of the asteroid. The PCs had to recoil from splatters of molten metal from the door, and crouched on the far side of the hallway watching the ragged fringes of the railgun’s hole fade from white hot to red to purple, dripping chunks of molten metal onto the steel floor. The whole hallway filled with the rank stench of burning insulation and singed steel, and people panicked and ran away in horror.

Everyone waited as the smoke cleared, and then the colony leader, Abraham, contacted them. The captain of the Algebraic Escalation had contacted him and told him he would lay waste to the colony using the railgun if they did not surrender. He had perhaps 10 minutes to make a decision. The captain of the ship and his soldiers were waiting inside the hangar for Abraham to step through the doors and surrender. What would the PCs do?

Their plan was suicidal but fast. Saqr and Reiko put on their exo suits and flew to a small airlock on the outside of Hangar 2, where they let themselves into the hangar. Then, when they were in place, Abraham opened the hangar doors enough for the rest of the group to enter, and they attacked.

With the benefit of the flank attack their operation was brutally effective. There were only five remaining soldiers waiting on the inside of the door, wearing exo suits and carrying carbines, but they were not expecting a rear attack. The PCs managed to kill most of the captain’s guard, and cut him down before he could retreat inside his ship. With the captain down the rest of the ship’s crew surrendered, and the battle was over.

Execution

The PCs realized that in order to find out what had happened they would need to offer at least one crew member mercy, but Abraham was not feeling magnanimous. He made clear that there was no circumstance under which the ship’s gunners would be allowed to live, and neither Aslam nor the captain were getting away safely. They narrowed the surviving crew down to three people who did not have to be executed, and offered the three of them a deal, prisoner’s dilemma style: the first one to reveal everything would be spared. Fortunately they identified that two of the three were a mother-daughter pair, and they offered the mother an easy death and freedom for her daughter if she would tell them everything. She immediately agreed, so they spaced the third crew member and took her story. Everyone else from the crew was spaced once the mother offered up her testimony.

The ship and the crew were from Samina’s Corsairs, a pirate outfit in the Hamura system. They had made contact with Aslam and used his greed to take over the colony. Aslam would sabotage it and they would arrive with the supplies the colony needed, offering the colony a simple deal: survival in exchange for becoming servants of Samina’s Corsairs. Their life would continue as before, though now they would be ruled by Aslam, but in exchange for their continued survival they would become agents of the Corsairs, with pirates based in the colony and using it to spy on activity in the Kua system, and as an outpost of their smuggling enterprise. By seizing Rockhome 3 the corsairs would gain a foothold in Kua, with all the intelligence and smuggling benefits such an outpost offered. Obviously a few people would have to be killed to send a message, and some of Aslam’s baser instincts would have to be tolerated, but the corsairs would ensure that life continued on the colony. A simple plan! Unfortunately the Beast of Burden had destroyed the picket ships that the corsairs had set in place to prevent anyone interfering with their plan, and had ruined the entire scheme.

Denouement

As they had promised, they gave the mother a quick death, and locked the daughter in their ship, to return her penniless to Coriolis station. They looted the Algebraic Escalation but left the ship itself to the colony, who had lost so much to the corsairs, though Abraham allowed them to take its encrypted data core with them. Abraham promised them safe harbour in the colony if ever they would need it, and after a few days spent recovering from battle they returned to Coriolis, releasing the daughter to find her own way in the Cellar. With the spoils of their victory they had enough money to pay off the first month of the debt for their ship, and to replenish their supplies.

Their exercise in disaster capitalism had been both more profitable and more ethical than they had expected. They had secured both a safe house and a contact in the Consortium. They had an encrypted data core from a corsair ship, which if they could hack it might provide them the location of the corsairs’ base, a very valuable piece of information. Their first excursion on the Beast of Burden had proved a huge success.

Now their gaze turned to the planet of Kua and the ancient secrets hidden in its fertile jungles. Could they be as successful delving into the secrets of the ancients as they had been in uncovering the fatal lies of the pirates? Let us see …

 

rockhopping

No Satisfaction prowling the asteroid belt

Holy water cannot help you now
See I’ve had to burn your kingdom down
And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out
I’m gonna raise the stakes, I’m gonna smoke you out
Seven devils all around you
Seven devils in my house
See they were there when I woke up this morning
I’ll be dead before the day is done

The cast for this session[1]:

  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Ship’s Doctor Banu Delecta (Medicurg)

Having fought off the unidentified pirate ships on their way to Rockhome 3, the PCs came to a halt in the dusty darkness of the asteroid belt, and spent a few hours repairing the hull of their heavily-damaged ship. Their repairs were barely enough to make the ship safe for travel, though, so they hurried forward to Rockhome 3, in hopes of finding safe harbour and repairs for their damaged ship. They arrived a few hours later and drifted into one of the space station’s four hangars, finally finding some safety on the 6th day of their journey.

The hangar they landed in was large enough to dwarf their ship, perhaps 400m square, big enough for a small class V vessel. Their ship was the only ship in the hangar, which was a battered and filthy affair, low-tech in all its components and rundown. When they emerged from their ship they noticed the air was freezing cold, so their breath misted in front of them, and had a rank smell. A group of about 15 locals were walking towards their ship, led by a thing, greying, tall man in a dirty flight suit. As he approached Al Hamra to shake hands Al Hamra noticed that he stank of body odour. Everyone in the group looked worried, and they were all wearing flight suits, coats and scarves or mufflers. The place was unusually silent for a working dock.

The man introduced himself as Abraham, colony spokesperson, and immediately cut to business: did they have spare parts? They assured him they did, and moved to the conference room of their yacht to negotiate prices. They managed to cut an excellent deal, selling the goods for more than twice the price they had bought them and selling him more than he immediately needed, leaving them with just a small stock of advanced and ordinary parts. He also agreed to have his dock workers repair their ship, and as final icing on the cake offered them accomodation in the luxury section of Rockhome 3, adding, “I hope the gravity will be stabilized by the end of the day.”

He did not, however, offer to let them investigate the sabotage that had nearly brought his community to its knees. Al Hamra attempted to read his mind, but found only a vision of the community as a vulnerable and wounded animal surrounded by predators, that would be torn apart the moment it showed weakness. Abraham intended to find the saboteur himself.

Al Hamra did not care who the saboteur was. But the group thought back to those two fighters in the debris of the asteroid belt, and wondered what else would be coming for the colony, and if they would be gone before it came. They retired to the luxury quarters to think and to plan, leaving Adam and Oliver Greenstar on the ship to guard it.

Rockhome3

Rockhome 3

Rockhome 3 was actually a spacious and pleasant living space, though so primitive that even the PCs with a station background were uncomfortable living there. It had been built out of five asteroids, four smaller rocks connected to a larger central living space by strong tunnels. The whole thing was held together by gravitron projectors and connected to a large dock and mining complex, large enough to hold five large spaceships and about 12 small mining ships. The centre living space was a nearly spherical asteroid about 3km long by 2km wide, hollowed out and divided into two large residential sections and a central business section. The centre of all three of these spaces and the luxury sector were graced with wide, pleasant parks, and the walls of all the sectors were covered in creepers, ivy, and hanging plants. Large windows on one side of all the asteroids gave a view of the distant sun, and the slow rotation of the entire structure allowed this weak sunlight to shine into all the sectors for about 10 hours every day. Living spaces were primitive but spacious, and about 400 people lived there. No one was registered and no one could say exactly how many people lived there, but everyone knew everyone else’s comings and goings. By the time the PCs reached their luxury apartments they were already known to the entire colony.

Before the day was done they had received their first invitation to intrigue: an invitation to dinner from Ingrid Silwerstern. Ingrid was a representative for the Consortium, who had also sent a doctor called Dr. Angbat. It was only natural that she should invite them to dinner to give her the latest updates on news from Coriolis, and all the intrigues of that distant and splendid metropolis. They agreed, and soon found themselves in the company of an agreeable and charming middle-aged ambassador and the willowy young Dr. Angbat, eating Green Ahi[2] and discussing fashion trends in the Spring Plaza. However, before the night was over Ingrid made them a clear offer: find out who the saboteur was and she would give them 5000 birr (which they managed to negotiate down to 4000 birr). Ingrid’s fear was that the sabotage had been caused by the miners themselves and that they were planning an uprising – something that was always fatal for a large portion of a station, and something she wanted to avoid. Of course the PCs agreed, and went home to plan their moves.

They decided to make themselves useful, and in doing so to begin to find out what had happened in the colony. Reiko set off to help the colony’s workers repair the facilities that had been damaged by sabotage, while Al Hamra oversaw the unloading of the cargo and Siladan attempted to use the ship’s equipment to monitor outgoing broadcasts. Unfortunately Siladan’s personal problem distracted him, and instead of looking for signs of sabotage he found himself examining mining colony culture and trying to understand their life cycle. By evening he had learnt nothing. Banu offered her services as a doctor in the local medicenter, but after her first consultation – with a young domestic violence victim called Ilthid, who told her he could not leave his abuser because he was “rich and powerful offers me so much when he achieves his full potential here”[3] – was sent home for her terrible bedside manner, having learnt nothing about the local community[4].

They regathered in the luxury apartments in the evening, and Reiko was able to confirm that the sabotage had been caused by explosives, though she had not been given time to find out exactly what explosives had been used. They decided that next day Banu and Reiko would investigate the explosives in detail, while Saqr went outside in the No Satisfaction and searched the vicinity, and spent some hours eavesdropping on the communications between the miners as they worked on remote asteroids.

They set out the next day to these tasks. Reiko and Banu were able to determine that the explosives used were low-yield shaped explosives of the type used by miners, and Reiko – by chatting with the friends she made while doing repair work – learned that the mining ship docks were equipped with a kind of vending machine system for dispensing exactly the kind of explosives they suspected had been used. Only one mining ship was out at present, so they guessed that it would be easy to trace who took the explosives. All they needed to do was get into the security control centre and download footage of security cameras watching the docks. Meanwhile Saqr, listening in on miners’ talk, was able to confirm that the miners had not planned any sabotage, and showed no signs of rebelliousness. Whatever motivated their saboteur was much more sinister than mere plebeian discontent!

In the afternoon they gathered and decided to get into the security center. Reiko, Banu and Al Hamra approached the guards at the centre and, using Reiko’s newfound camaraderie with the locals, struck up a conversation about a place to get a decent bath. The guards let them in on the secret of Edith’s Repose, a Courtesan’s establishment in the centre of the business area, and with a few snide insinuations and offers of payment they managed to lure the guards away for an evening of drinking and relaxation. While they were gone Saqr and Siladan crept in and downloaded the camera footage they needed.

Algebraic Escalation

That night, looking at the footage, they found a picture of the likely perpetrator, a young man who accessed the vending machine after the last mining ship left, and showed no signs of going out mining. They thought of asking Ingrid Silwerstern to identify the man but there was no need: Banu recognized his picture as the picture on the file of the boyfriend of Ilthid, the abused man whose case she had handled so badly the day before.

They visited Ilthid immediately, finding him at his home in the first residence. After some pressure he revealed that his lover, Aslam, was a rich man, the youngest child of the Founders, a rich family descended from the original Founders of the colony. The Founders were rich from their historical possessions but had little power on the station, and most of them were now distributed around the colony’s diaspora, on Coriolis or Lubau. Aslam had stayed on Rockhome 3 and was not happy about it, but had recently started talking about how great his future would be. He assured Ilthid that he would soon be a powerful and great figure, and Ilthid tolerated violence and unspeakable acts in hopes of having great favour in the future. The PCs realized that Aslam had some plan, and decided to confront him. They left Ilthid crying softly in his rooms, and returned to their accomodation to send Aslam an invitation to a breakfast meeting to discuss investments.

Their breakfast meeting with Aslam did not go well. He was arrogant and insufferable, but gave them no evidence of his plans. Eventually when he realized they were confronting him about the sabotage he told them they would be well-served leaving the colony immediately, and then walked out. After a few minutes’ discussion the PCs decided to follow him to his residence, and were halfway across the gardens of the luxury quarter when a large screen over the entryway to the quarter came to life and provided them with a simple announcement:

Incoming ship

Docking: Hangar 2

Name: Algebraic Escalation

They were no longer alone on these distant rocks. Something had emerged from the Dark.


fn1: for this campaign we have 7 players but usually we don’t have a full group, so we get different players attending every session. So I think I will give a cast at the beginning of each report so we can see what is happening and who is present.

fn2: A kind of large grasshopper, grilled alive.

fn3: All the players missed this opportunity to find out things about Ilthid’s lover, and promptly forgot Ilthid’s name, because they are – like all players everywhere – completely useless.

fn4: Banu is a rich girl slumming it, so you can see where things went wrong when she tried to provide medical care to a belter victim of domestic violence during her gap year …

And down there somewhere among the noise
The magazine dolls and the big money boys
Move silently on their easy heels
They move silently on their greasy wheels
This town has turned me into what I have become
This town dresses you up like a stranger
This town hangs around in the doorway and tells me I’m late
This town takes us down, takes us down
I feel like I’m losing you to this town

The PCs are trying to find Lavim Tamm, a young man who is in possession of a valuable statue that their employer, Merez, hopes to buy. They visited the White Tugur and the owner told them that they could find Lavim at a boarding house called the Quiet Eunuch. So they set off along the promenade to find his flophouse.

The promenade is a broad and beautiful thoroughfare, but as one climbs higher up its walls the beauty fades, first to functional and practical walkways lined with lawyers and computer businesses and recruiters and other practical, sensible but unromantic businesses; and then to a narrow, shabby and cramped line of dubious cut-rate opportunists. Up near where the arc of the promenade reaches its apex the shops are small, grubby and sometimes indecent: barber shops, cheap masseurs, cyber doctors, flophouses, the occasional capsule apartment, brothels and pawnshops. Up near the arc the two sides of the promenade are close enough to almost touch, or to jump across if one is desperate, criss-crossed frequently with bridges and festooned with cables and conduits. Outside the shops shifty-looking men lounged and argued, chewing kat and smoking cheap tabak to pass the time. In between these sections of bustling but despairing business the promenade would fall into disrepair, and the walkways would pass into dimly-lit and unpopulated stretches through which people hurried, looking around carefully as they stepped through the shadows.

At the edge of one of these patches of blank steel wall the PCs found the Quiet Eunuch, a boarding house with a narrow door and a single reception room looking out over the promenade through a grubby window. They ventured inside to find a small reception at the foot of stairs leading up to two floors of narrow rooms. The receptionist was unhelpful until they flashed some birr, then gestured them up to a room on the third floor. They took the stairs carefully, listening at doors and checking for trouble. Finally they found Lavim Tamm’s room, and knocked on its flimsy door.

Lavim Tamm’s Story

Lavim Tamm was suspicious, and refused to let them in at first, arguing with them through a viewing slot in the door. After they spent a little time convincing him of their good intentions – and flashed him a bottle of Fire Kohol – he let them in, and they found themselves facing off with him in a narrow room with a bed, a screen and a tiny shower booth. It stank of Kohol, and Lavim was drunk. He stood swaying in the middle of the room, wearing the dirty hotel gown and looking worn and tired. Adam noticed that he was obviously sick, his hair shaved to hide the possibility that it was falling out and his skin sallow and almost jaundiced. As he dragged out some plastic cups for them to pour Fire Kohol into, the pilot Saqr noticed that he had bundled up a worker’s uniform of some kind and thrown it onto the floor of the shower room, but from the door Saqr could see it had been burnt in places and was bloodstained.

Over Fire Kohol they slowly put Lavim Tamm at his ease, and learnt his story. He had been part of an archaeological dig on the surface of Kua, a simple worker lifting and digging, when something happened and they were attacked by creatures from the Dark Between the Stars. He could not explain the beasts he saw in any other way – they attacked with fire that was made of shadow and cold, and tore his comrades apart with contemptuous ease. Lavim hid and somehow escaped the battle, carrying a single artifact from the dig, the weird black statuette he had been dusting off when the attack started. Now he was back on the station and wanted to forget the whole experience, but he was convinced someone was watching him, and that people were after the statuette. He was terrified, but had no idea about how to escape his situation. The overalls in the bathroom were the only clothing he owned, and it was covered in his comrades’ dried blood. He was in trouble.

The PCs offered to escort him to their ship, and told him they had a potential buyer for the statuette. If he would trust them they could give him medical care on the Beast of Burden, and then he could negotiate the sale of the statuette, and be free of all his worries. Lavim Tamm agreed, telling them he had hidden the statue in a bridge over the promenade, along with a tag that contained the coordinates of the dig location, and if they agreed to take him to the ship he would collect the statuette on the way. They set off.

Merez intercedes on his own behalf

The bridge where Lavim Tamm had hidden the statuette was a level down from the flophouse and some distance away. Looking over the bridge the PCs could see down the dizzying heights to the base of the promenade, busy and cheerful far below, but the view was obscured by layers of conduits, cables, wires and nets. They accompanied Lavim onto the bridge and stood patiently while he dug around in a loose panel of the bridge and pulled out a small sack and a tag. Adam took the tag, while Saqr and Siladan Hatshepset investigated the statuette. Neither of them saw anything worthwhile in it, and in fact Siladan – who had some training as an archaeologist – was convinced it was a fake, of no value at all. Still, somebody valued it, so they figured they could sell it for Lavim Tamm anyway, so they turned to leave the bridge …

… and found themselves facing Merez, the man who had employed them to find Lavim, accompanied by three goons. The goons were armed, wearing light combat armour, and quite obviously hired Syndicate muscle. This situation did not look quite the way they had envisaged their reunion with their employer.

“Well done boys,” Merez congratulated them. “Now, I want to take possession of that statuette, and I don’t want to pay market price, so I’m going to cut a deal with you. You hand me the statuette, I pay you the 3,000 birr for finding it, and nobody gets hurt.” He waved a tag at them. “This is all the money you’re going to make today, my friends, so I suggest you make the most of my good mood and do as I ask.”

Behind him the Syndicate thugs flicked aside their coats to reveal Vulcan pistols and knives. They appeared to be ready to commit serious violence if things went awry. With most of the PCs back on the ship and only three on the bridge[1] they did not feel they were in a position to argue. With a resigned shrug Adam handed over the statuette and took the tag, quickly transferring its contents to his own.

“Good, very wise,” Merez crooned as he pocketed the statuette. Then he turned, waved his hands to the thugs, and ordered them to kill the entire group in an airy voice. They drew weapons and moved in for the kill as he walked away into the darkness.

The fight was brutal and over quickly, ending with two of the goons bleeding on the bridge, and Adam choking the third into unconsciousness and banging his head on the rails. They waited for him to come around and asked him a few pointed questions, from which they received little joy. He and his mates were hired guards, with no interest in whatever Merez wanted the statuette for. They had been paid and as far as he was concerned their job was done. He happily told the group where Merez was based in exchange for being allowed to drag his friends away for medical care, and they agreed to let him go.

They returned to their ship to recover and fix the teeth that Saqr had lost in the fight, and then decided to pay Merez a visit and ask for the statuette back, or for proper payment. Before they left Siladan spent a little time investigating the area where Merez was based. Saqr, the ship pilot, also had a mystical power, and he decided to use this to locate the statuette. To everyone’s surprise, it was not in Merez’s office – it had somehow been moved in just a few hours to a location near the docks under the Spring Plaza.

Confused, they decided to see if they could steal the statuette from wherever Merez was storing it.

The Draconites intercede on their own behalf

Unfortunately the statuette was not in any warehouse belonging to Merez. When they arrived at the location that Saqr’s mystical powers identified, they found themselves staring at the locked gate of a Draconite compound, guarded by two heavily-armed soldiers. Was Merez working with the Draconites, or had he already sold it on to the Draconites? They decided that if he had sold it on already they would force him to pay them the money for it. They had promised to keep Lavim Tamm safe, and now he had basically been robbed while they were trying to help him.

Angry and determined, they headed to the small Souk near the Spice Plaza where Merez had his office. His office was a small demountable building in the centre of the Souk, reached through winding paths through mercenary brokers, Syndicate fronts and gambling dens. It was a nondescript affair, a building with no sign, a simple door flanked by large tinted windows, and no guards. The door was open, the view inside blocked only by a beaded curtain. From inside they could hear Merez on his phone, yelling at an underlying:

“What do you mean they’re not at the ship? They have to be!”

“… I don’t fucking care! They stole my statue! Get in there and find it!”

“How can I fucking know?! I know the fucking things big, you’ll just have to search it you useless fucking mook! And make it snappy, I pay you no good shits by the hour!”

“… Yes! And if they come back I want you to fuck them up! Those fuckers stole my statue!”

He was still yelling on the phone when they entered his office, but their entrance stopped him dead. After a moment he said, in a desultory voice, “Forget it. They’re here now,” and put the phone down. Adam noticed he probably tripped an alarm of some kind as he stood to meet them.

“Where’s my fucking statue!?” He demanded. From there the conversation did not improve. Merez was certain that they had stolen the statuette, and they would have been sure he was bluffing if they had not overheard his instructions on the phone. Someone had stolen his statuette almost as soon as he returned it to his office – and that thief was either a Draconite, or a friend of the Draconites. Not a pleasant prospect.

After about a minute of pointless low-grade gangster dialogue the PCs noticed Merez looking over their shoulders, as if someone was standing outside. They dropped to the floor in the nick of time, as two guards outside opened fire on full automatic. The PCs rolled in to cover near the door, covering themselves as the windows fell all around them in shattered piles, and watched and winced as Merez’s guards turned the room into a killing zone. Merez himself had ducked behind his desk, which was obviously bullet proof, and was laughing maniacally as his guards shredded the room.

None of the bullets touched the PCs, and when the guards had exhausted their magazines the PCs returned fire. A short battle followed, in which Saqr leapt over the desk and destroyed Merez’s knee before he could run, one of the guards shot Siladan’s foot into a bloody mess, and Adam fought with ruthless efficiency from the cover of the window. In just a few moments both guards were dead, and their relationship with Merez was finally and irrevocably finished. They took what they could from his belongings and left him bleeding and squealing behind his desk.

To the asteroid belt

The PCs decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and that it would be better not to enter the lair of the Draconites for a statuette that their archaeologist was convinced was worthless. They had the tag with the coordinates of the dig, and the promise of further Firstcome artifacts if they were willing to brave it, so they decided to cut their losses with Merez and find a way to make money.

Before they met Merez they had been told a rumour about a mining colony in the asteroid belt that had been sabotaged and was about to become desperate for spare parts. They had also heard about a shipment of spare parts on the Divine Grace, that was so large it had pushed down prices in the station. They decided to buy a large supply and head for the asteroid colony, to profiteer from the misery of belters. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

They bought the spare parts at a good price and organized their delivery over the next two days. By the time the parts were safely in their cargo hold the Beast of Burden had been fully refit, and was ready to leave Coriolis station. They set off that same day, heading to the mining colony Rockhome 3, six days’ travel through the Dark Between the Stars.

Their journey was uneventful until the last day. As they neared Rockhome 3 they were ambushed by two small fighters, which refused to identify themselves but fired torpedos at their ship and threatened to blow them away unless they jettisoned their cargo and left the area. They refused to do so and instead turned to join battle, trusting to their larger size to win out over two class I fighters. This almost proved to be a grave misjudgment, and their ship was heavily damaged by repeated attacks with an Accelerator cannon before they could finally destroy their attackers. In the frozen darkness of the belt, flying through clouds of dust and ice, lines of hyper-velocity metal shards glittered like stars in the dark, their torpedo counter-measures spread like squid ink in a starry sea, and torpedos streaked past their ship like vengeful demons. Finally they closed on the torpedo ship and rammed it, tearing it apart so thoroughly that the pilot’s ejector pod exploded in its mount, and the ship tumbled away in shattered chunks. The second ship would not relent and closed for the kill, damaging their weapon systems and tearing holes in their reactor, before they managed to score a lucky hit that blew away its engines and sent it spiralling off into the darkness. The pilot ejected and disappeared amongst the detritus of the belt, leaving their ship limping and bleeding oxygen in the cold and merciless Dark.

They had survived their first space battle – just. Ahead of them lay the sanctuary of Rockhome 3, and the mystery of its sabotage. Ignorant of its politics and uncaring of its politics, they headed to the asteroid to profit from whatever petty feud had brought it to ruin.


fn1: A bunch of players had to cancel …

We join our PCs for the beginning of the Coriolis campaign in the third observation deck on their ship the Beast of Burden, in the docks beneath the Ozone Plaza on Coriolis station. The Beast of Burden was undergoing her final refit, so below decks, in the hangar and in the crew cabins deckhands and engineers were coming and going, repairing and fixing and installing the final components of their reconfigured yacht. The PCs had arrived at Coriolis station to take possession of their ship a few days ago, from separate parts of the Horizon, and still being new to each other were taking the time while their ship was reconfigured to lounge around in its more luxurious upper decks, talking and learning about each other very much in the way of new housemates.

They also had a guest, in the stasis hold. When they first met on the 14th day of the Merchant, CC 79, they realized that between them they had very little money and they would need to find work quickly if they were to pay off their large monthly debt and find money for their own living expenses. In their quest for quick paying work they soon found themselves at Wahib’s Cantina, and very quickly a woman called Arkial Lima had found them and begged them for help. She was a gambler on the run from a contract taken out on her by one of her debtors, and needed somewhere to lie low for a few days until a man she knew could organize to bail her out. She could not pay them in birr, but she had a solid rumour to share with them if they would help her. Finding other offers thin on the ground they agreed, on the condition that she spend the time in one of their stasis chambers, where no one would find her and she would cost them nothing. She agreed, and in return told them her rumour: a small mining colony in the asteroid belt, called Rockholme 3, was about to run out of essential spare parts due to sabotage by a disaffected member of the colony. She had learned this from a drunk merchant a few days earlier, and he had also told her that he knew of a large shipment of spare parts that was due to arrive any day soon on a salvage ship called the Divine Grace. Once its captain, Solomon Hulam, dumped his parts on the market in Coriolis the price would plummet, and anyone with a couple of thousand birr to spend could clean up easily, then take the parts to Rockholme 3 and arrive just at the right moment, to make a huge profit selling the spare parts to the desperate station. It just needed timing! The PCs checked a few basic details of Arkial’s rumour, confirmed at least the names and ships, and decided to take Arkial in, keep her in stasis, wake her on the evening of the 18th and escort her to Wahib’s Cantina to meet the shady man who was going to help her out of her bounty hunter problems. An easy job – what could possibly go wrong?

And so they found themselves in bloody combat in their own stasis hold on the afternoon of their first day of rest in Coriolis station.

The nameless enforcer

They were lounging around in the third observation deck, watching screen and taking tea, when an alarm chime sounded and the ship computer informed them that Arkial’s stasis bed had been set to open. They sprang to life, with Reiko Ando and Siladan Hatshepsut rushing down to the stasis hold while Oliver Greenstar and Al Hiram went belowdecks to grab their weapons. The Beast of Burden’s stasis hold held 64 stasis chambers in three rooms, with Arkial resting in the innermost room. At the door to the outer room Siladan activated a screen and they turned on the security camera to the stasis hold, to see a team of six men standing around Arkial’s casket. The chamber was slowly opening, and the leader of the team was pointing a nasty-looking accelerator pistol at the seal, waiting for it to fully unfold and for Arkial to groggily come round. They had perhaps a minute to act.

Siladan acted quickly, setting up a radiation release alarm that began to wail ominously throughout the ship, informing everyone there had been a major radiation leak and everyone had to abandon the vessel within a minute. On the screen the gangsters reacted suddenly, looking around in horror and then dragging Arkial from her pod, still barely conscious as she woke from stasis. As they began to drag her from the room Siladan and Reiko ran into the outer room to take positions under cover by the sliding doors, and Oliver and Al Hiram took places by the exit doors, pistol and carbine out and ready.

They sprung their trap well, hitting the gangsters hard as they fled. Their leader was first through the door, looking lethal in protective clothing and carrying a pistol. Behind him came three goons carrying Arkial, backed up by two more goons. These last two were late to the action and unsurprised, but everyone else was caught flat-footed. Reiko and Siladan stepped from the shadows to strike at the goons carrying Arkial while Oliver and Al Hiram shot the leader. One bullet hit but the other missed and no one went down in the ambush; battle was joined. Almost immediately Oliver took a shot to the leg and fell to the ground, where he rolled around in pain as he attempted to reload his carbine.

The group were outnumbered and in trouble, so Al Hiram decided to try something reckless and desperate. He charged forward to where Arkial lay stunned in her pod-vest on the floor of the stasis hold, and pointing his gun at her head yelled “Stop this madness or your hostage dies!” Everyone halted and turned to stare at him in awe.

Except the leader, who shot Al Hiram in the face.

The rest of the gangsters were about to rejoin the fray when, in response to this bold negotiating tactic, Oliver Greenstar unleashed his carbine’s full automatic fire. Two of the goons went down and a third staggered, and Al Hiram – who somehow was not dead despite the leader’s vicious shot, returned fire from point blank range and cut him down. Siladan stabbed an injured goon and brought him down too, and one of the remaining goons threw his knife down and started yelling for his surrender.

After a short negotiation – during which the goons recognized Al Hiram as a mystic on the run from bounty hunters, and became even more terrified – they allowed the surviving goons to leave, dragging one of their friends with them, but leaving all their gear. They profited to the tune of 2,000 birr and a brace of guns and armour, and Arkial was fine.

cantina

Wahib’s Cantina

Work in the Spice Plaza

Once Arkial had woken they took her to Wahib’s Cantina, skirting the promenade and traveling by narrow alleys. They arrived safely and delivered her to an oily-looking man with dubious intentions, and she thanked them and wished them luck on their travels to the asteroid belt.

They decided to spend a little time at Wahib’s looking for leads for work. This plan soon fell apart when Siladan managed to insult a grieving pilgrim by suggesting that his home system’s mourning pilgrimage was a manufactured culture that was “not even 30 years old, and how could you possibly subject your family’s memory to such a travesty? I’m fascinated by your culture’s plasticity!” After Al Hiram had dragged them out of that brewing fight they retired to a booth, where they sat nursing kohol and bruised ego until a man came up to offer them work. His name was Merez Alcan, and he was looking for an artifact that he had reason to believe was on Coriolis station. It was a Firstcome statue of the Dancer, worth a lot of money, and he was interested in buying it from its current owner, a young man called Lavim Tamm. He simply needed the PCs to find Lavim Tamm and negotiate for him to meet Merez to sell the statuette. Unfortunately Lavim had gone to ground, and some effort would be needed to find him. For that effort Merez was willing to pay 2000 birr. He described Lavim and told them he was known to be addicted to Miran Fire Kohol, and was known to hang around the spice plaza. With this information the PCs agreed to look for Lavim Tamm. They set off immediately to search the plaza.

The spice plaza was bustling chaos when they arrived, with merchants from all over the Horizon bragging of the quality of their wares, and a million different sweets and coffees and kohol being thrust under their noses wherever they walked. In the mayhem they could not find Lavim Tamm, but they did discover that there was a specialist Miran Fire Kohol cafe called the White Tugur, run by a woman called Jasina. A tugur is a kind of six-legged feline-like hunter found in the wastes of a planet in the Algol system, famous for its size and ferocity. The White Tugur was built in the shape of a Tugur, with the bar in the head and comfortable reclining seats arranged around the inside walls of the Tugur shape. It was high above the spice plaza, where the spice dust rose slowly on gentle currents of warm air from the shops below, to hang in lazy spirals and slow dancing clouds of multi-coloured fragrant haze in the air outside the windows of the bar. Lights from above and below pierced the haze, casting a million rainbow streaks of light across the air in the plaza outside the windows. They sat on a bench looking out over the distant riot of the plaza, breathing in all the smells of the Horizon and nursing their Miran Fire Kohol, and in that moment they all, surely, fell in love with Coriolis station. Baklava, Miran Fire Kohol in a delicate rose-water mix, incense, the distant sound of the bustle of the greatest space station in the Horizon, the spice haze … a perfect way to spend an early afternoon in space.

But they had work to do. They broke their reverie to ask Jasina questions. She was unwilling to answer them at first, expressing fear of the mystic[1], but ultimately they convinced her to tell them what they needed to know. Lavim Tamm was lying low, terrified of something, and could be found at the Quiet Eunuch, a guesthouse in a seedy sector of the promenade. Perhaps they could visit him there and see what he is so terrified of?

They thanked her, finished their Kohol, and gathered their things. Somehow this mission had turned sour, and something was in the air. They would need to have their wits about them now. They stepped out of the White Tugur, and turned their attention to the promenade …


fn1: Al Hiram’s personal problem is that he is being hunted. It’s fun to have everyone in Coriolis recognize him from wanted posters, and refuse to help him.

bob3

The Beast of Burden

Tomorrow my Coriolis campaign begins, and in preparation the players have generated their ship, and their group concept. Here I describe both.

The Beast of Burden

The Beast of Burden is a reconfigured Class IV luxury yacht, built in the Harima shipyards. After 15 years of faithful service she was sold off by her owner and taken over by a criminal gang, before their leadership was slaughtered in a Legion raid in Sadaal. Desperate for cash the remnants of the gang sold her on to the Free League, who reconfigured her as a luxury hotel for senior members before an unfortunate series of accidents caused all on board to die horribly and the ship to go missing. After two years she was found and claimed as salvage by some intrepid scrappers in the Tarazug system, but they soon lost her after some faulty repairs caused a portal jump mishap in Sivas. Whatever creatures from the Dark Beyond the Stars killed the crew were gone when she was rediscovered in Altai, though considerable cleaning was required to make her spaceworthy again. By now her reputation was stained far worse than the Medlab floors, though, and the salvage crew that found her sold her on for scrap. It was at this point that the media mogul Drefusol Amadi saw a chance at a bargain, bought her and reconfigured her for long distance exploration and research. In CC69 he handed her over to the PCs, saddled them with 50% of the debt for the scrap purchase and refit, and told them they would be hearing from him in due course. Whether their motives were best described as confidence, stupidity or desperation, the group agreed, and traveled to Coriolis station to collect their new ship.

bob2

Her origins in the Harima shipyard mean that the Beast of Burden is a graceful, fast and luxurious vessel, capable of surprising feats of power despite her apparently playful interior. She is large, with a 250 ton cargo hold and two spacious hangars. The cargo hold was originally a pool and party area, which is rumoured to have hosted some crazy parties, but which has now been converted to storage specially designed to enable its easy reconfiguration into a research facility or a cage for alien species.

One of the Beast of Burden‘s hangars originally held a large number of small entertainment vessels, but has been reconfigured to hold a fighter, the No Satisfaction, and an unnamed space scooter for movement between vessels. The second hangar holds the Kashmir, a class II shuttle capable of ferrying 24 passengers. In addition to the No Satisfaction, the Beast of Burden is armed with a torpedo launcher and an accelerator cannon. Though not sufficiently heavily armed to provide real military power, the combination of fighter plus two weapon points means that she is capable of defending herself until escape (or until help arrives). During her refit by the criminal gang she was equipped with advanced stealth technology, which adds to her capability in both escaping combat and exploring planets where open approach might be considered unwise.

kashmir

The Kashmir prepares to leave the hangar

Designed for long distance exploration and research missions, the Beast of Burden has an onboard workshop, service station, medlab and Arboretum. The Arboretum hosts a lizardlike Threng of Algol stock, called Neverwhere, and three colorful and raucous parrots from Kua. The two ships’ cats are allowed to prowl the Arboretum, but have come to an agreement with the parrots and prefer not to venture into the garden too often, as Neverwhere is aggressive with smaller animals. None of these animals are allowed into the Chapel. The Chapel is an essential part of the Beast of Burden, since the ship is generally considered to be cursed and homage at the chapel is essential before attempting any portal travel. The PCs have yet to grow used to the curse, or the strange sounds and sudden chills that they encounter in the darker sections of the ship.

bob deck

The Beast of Burden’s observation deck

The Beast of Burden has retained her core luxury service area, and is graced with four luxury suites and their attached galleys, entertainment spaces and cinema. The library has been converted into a media room, capable of broadcasting radio and including an encrypted messaging station for communication with their patron. On a lower deck are 16 standard cabins for crew. There are, unfortunately, only enough escape pods for 16 people, so the ship is not capable of safely operating at full complement. It does, however, have a stasis hold capable of storing 64 people, so in an emergency it could serve as an evacuation or rescue vessel, though life would be very uncomfortable for all on board. The hangar also holds two ground vehicles and a few basic drones, which can be used for mundane surface exploration, though they are not armoured or capable of all terrain travel.

The Beast of Burden offers a luxurious living space for all purpose extended missions on exploration, research or journalism tasks, ideally suited to a team of explorers hired by a media mogul with dubious intentions. Let us explore this team’s background and composition.

the group

Exploring

The Group: Explorers

The players have configured their group as explorers, with the group talent Survivors. Their members are listed here.

  • Al Hamra, a mystic, captain of the ship
  • Adam, a humanite soldier, the ship’s medic
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist, the ship’s gunner
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist, the sensor operator
drefusol

In the palaces of the powerful

The group’s patron is Drefusol Amadi, a media mogul who runs the Free News. He is a rich man who has been forced out of the centers of power, for reasons the PCs do not know, and intends to use his vast wealth to finance a media organization that will dig up secrets on the rich and powerful, their schemes and private lives. He funds paparazzi and private investigators in the central cities of the Third Horizon, paying them to dig up salacious gossip that undermines politicians and religious leaders, keeps them honest and keeps him paid. He also finances investigative journalists who risk their lives to hunt out the deeper and darker secrets of the powerful factions that vie for authority in the systems of the Horizon. As a side project he pays a smaller number of elite adventurers to explore the old ruins of the Horizon, and to visit frontier colonies searching for dirt, stories, rumours, and hints of ancient ruins and origin myths. His real motivations are unknown, but his animus towards the ruling powers of the Horizon is legendary. He has given the PCs no limits or obligations, simply the responsibility to pay back the debt on their ship, and has made clear to them that at some time in the future he will call on them for aid.

Opposed to Drefusol is Dr. Wana, an unconventional and reckless archaeologist who works for the Foundation’s Archaeological Institute. She has been opposed to Drefusol since his reporters uncovered the damage she was doing in a dig on a frontier planet, and the way she was treating her local labourers. It does not help that Siladan is an untrained amateur archaeologist, the kind of neophyte she hates – were he to make any major discoveries it would drive her crazy. As soon as the PCs took up Drefusol’s offer to work for him they became her enemies, and she is not a nemesis to be taken lightly – she has contacts in the Colonial Agency, the Legion, and – it is rumoured – the Draconites. She is also very well endowed with grant money and the legacy of her mother’s money, inherited from a mercenary business her mother ran in the early 40s. That mercenary company is long gone, ground to blood and bone in a brutal war on Menkar, but that isn’t to say that her contacts in the world of independent military contractors died with her mother’s sellswords … she is not one to be crossed lightly.

It is against this background that the PCs arrive at Coriolis station, to take control of the Beast of Burden, and their destiny in the Dark Beyond the Stars …

 

These guys only run forward!

I have just completed a three day trip to Chengdu, China, where I was visiting an NGO that provides HIV testing and counselling to men who have sex with men. There’s not much to report about the trip itself – the NGO is doing well and we came up with some interesting research opportunities, and I spent a lot of time eating exhausting spicy hotpots – but the Sichuan Airlines flight I took there gave me an opportunity to watch Operation Red Sea, the new hyped-up Chinese action movie. I previously reviewed Wolf Warrior 2, which I watched on a work trip to Guangzhou, so I thought this time I would give a review of this new phantasmagoria of action violence.

This movie is apparently based on a real event in which a Chinese warship evacuated Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015. I think “based on” is doing a lot of work in this claim, however, since the sheer volume of damage and destruction handed out by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in this movie could be seen from space if it actually happened, and I suspect that the only thing the real events and the movie have in common is the words “Chinese warship”. But don’t let that discourage you, because this is an action movie and we all know that action movies are at their best when they ignore reality.

The basic plot of this movie starts simple but gets over-complicated very quickly. A coup breaks out in a fictitious north African country, and as the coup unfolds an Islamist revolutionary group takes advantage of the situation to create havoc and try and steal some yellowcake and the plans for a dirty bomb. A bunch of Chinese nationals are caught in the country, working at various businesses, and so a Chinese warship (the Guangdong, I think) enters the port of the capital and deploys teams of soldiers to evacuate Chinese nationals. The parameters of their mission are very very clear: they are only to act with permission from the government (which they seek every time they expand their mission), and they are only there to save Chinese nationals. Anything else is a bonus, but they have to get permission for every bit of mission creep. This was also a strong theme in Wolf Warrior 2: as opposed to certain nations, these movies make very clear that the Chinese government does not interfere in other nations’ affairs unless it has permission from the UN and local governments, and only to protect Chinese interests.

Pretty much as soon as they enter the town where the civil war is unfolding things begin to go wrong. They get attacked from all sides, there are suicide bombers, the people they’re evacuating have been split up, and then they learn of more nationals who have been kidnapped and taken inland. One of these nationals is a female journalist who is hot on the case of a bunch of Islamists who are planning to steal some uranium ore, and a dubious scientist who has the plans for a dirty bomb that can be made with it. The soldiers have to go and save her but are attacked on the way, which requires much slaughter, and then find that to rescue the journalist they will have to fight an entire platoon of terrorists – 8 against 150, which of course they pull off because China! Then things go a bit awol, when the journalist tells them about the yellowcake and they decide – without permission from their superiors on the ship – to go foil the yellowcake plan. Rescuing the journalist leads to quite a few of the soldiers dying, and ends in a rather fantastic tank chase with strong hints of Mad Max.

Aside from occasional 5 or 10 minute breaks to set the scene of the next clusterfuck, and to lay out or reinforce a few nationalist themes, this movie is a non-stop warzone. It’s like your GM squeezed a whole campaign into two hours, with stirring music and a lot of stern faces. The soldiers level up between each scene too, because the challenges they face become more and more extreme and they rise to every single one. I didn’t know that Chinese special forces are also elite tank stunt drivers, but apparently they are, or at least in one of their level-ups they picked that skill to a pretty high level, and I think one of them must be able to fly heavy transport planes too. This movie is basically a team of 8 Rambos, doing Rambo things for two hours against exponentially increasing levels of difficulty.

Which would be frankly ridiculous but the action scenes are very good and the challenges are super fun. The whole thing is also anchored by the story of the sniper and his assistant, who seem to be the pivot around which the rest of the action takes place. The sniper scenes are really cool, and although one of the snipers is a typical East Asian hard-faced bullyboy[1], with vulnerable sidekick, they work out in the end. At several points in the action they are forced to face off against a baby-faced Arabian sniper, who is presented in a surprisingly sympathetic way and is actually pretty cool, though like pretty much everyone in this movie he gets it in the end (I think it’s safe to say that there’s no risk of spoilers here). The bad guys aren’t as one-dimensionally awful as the bad guys in Wolf Warrior 2, but they’re still very nasty, with a fondness for forcing innocent people to be suicide bombers by threatening their children, beheading journalists, that sort of thing[2]. It’s one of those movies where you really don’t feel bad about viscerally hating the enemy. Which is just as well because the body count is very high.

Along the way our team of heroes save a couple of victimized local women and some non-Chinese foreigners, and bravely also rescue a suicide bomber from his bomb, while under fire, but mostly their position is non-interventionist: they’re here to do a specific, limited, internationally-sanctioned job and they absolutely will not deviate from that mission unless there is zero risk that they will screw it up by helping out a local. They may be disgusted at the local brand of terrorism, but there’s no liberal interventionism here! The movie also makes a point of pausing regularly to reiterate basic Chinese government policy: we don’t intervene, we absolutely will not allow Chinese citizens to be victimized by other countries, all our actions are in accordance with international law, and everyone from China loves China. The movie also finishes with a shockingly nationalist epilogue: after all has been said and done and the special forces have returned to China, we have a final scene in which some unnamed ships from an unidentified nation are seen moving towards the screen, and a voiceover is saying something like “This is the Chinese navy. Do not enter Chinese territorial waters” with threats of escalating intensity. I think it’s clear enough to everyone who the unidentified nation are and where the territorial waters must be, and I think this might be the clearest case I have ever seen of current great power politics being expressed directly in a movie (barring the infamous final credits from Rambo IV, I guess).

This nationalism is an interesting experience in watching Chinese action movies like Operation Red Sea. Occasionally things happen on screen that are so blatantly intended to push nationalist buttons that you think “wow, this is super unsubtle and really close to fascist!” but then you pause and realize – because you’re viewing it from more of a distance than usual – that what you’re watching is no different to any number of American action movies. It’s probably less blatant than gay porn like Top Gun, and although nowhere near as self-critical as First Blood is definitely no worse than Rambo IV. Because we are not used to seeing military action movies from anyone except America, the kind of nationalism that is routine currency in American movies and that we’ve been raised on suddenly seems shockingly blatant and unpleasant. There’s absolutely nothing in Operation Red Sea that you would not see over and over in any episode of The Last Ship (remember when they pick up that mercenary at Guantanamo Bay? Good times!) But it stands out like dog’s balls when it’s not being portrayed by someone on “our side”. I think it’s very educational to see nationalism from the outside, and reminds me of how much we grow accustomed to in American movies that we really shouldn’t.

Overall this movie is a fun ride, though it has a few problems. The team really is a team, with no strong candidate for a single lead character, and so it’s hard to keep track of exactly who dies and who doesn’t because they’re largely interchangeable. It also seems to hand-wave away some important plot problems, like for example when they’re stranded in the middle of the desert with a bunch of foreign nationals and injured soldiers after the Islamists blow up their ride, and then suddenly we’re at the next battle and all their non-combatant charges have disappeared. They don’t spend much time on character development and aside from the chick, the dude who eats sweets and the sniper team we don’t have a lot of character to hang onto from half of the team (but it’s okay; most of this team aren’t going to go the distance). The first scene with the pirates and the ship also seems kind of unnecessary, like we could have just skipped that, but I guess the GM needed an introductory adventure for the characters. Other than these problems though the movie is a pretty solid contribution to the military action movie genre. It has a little bit of the feeling of Blackhawk Down, though it’s not as good as that (but most action movies aren’t). I recommend seeing it as both a cross-cultural experience, and a rich two hours of exhausting violence, with a tank chase!


fn1: I realize this might sound harsh to my reader(s), but if you have lived and worked in East Asia you’ll know the character I mean.

fn2: It says something about how awful the bad guys were in Wolf Warrior 2 that the journalist-beheading terrorists in this movie are less extreme. At least no one in this movie executed an entire hospital full of Doctors Without Borders volunteers, or blew up a bus full of refugees! (Actually on reflection they did do the latter, but in this movie the bus was part of a military convoy and was also carrying soldiers). But what does it tell us about the movie-maker’s point of view that the enemies in Wolf Warrior 2 were primarily western mercenaries, while the (not as nasty) dudes in this movie are Arabian?

And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

Avengers: Infinity War is essentially a terrible movie. It’s about an hour too long, it has too many characters and too many plot threads running at once, and most of the characters are either not introduced or barely introduced, get very little dialogue and don’t get any development. If you haven’t watched a long train of interminably dull prior movies in the sequence, you have nothing invested in this shlock, which is just as well because the movie suffers from a more fundamental problem: it bullies its viewers. This movie is basically a series of scenes in which a giant, invincible arsehole does whatever he wants and takes whatever he wants, and all the efforts of the people that we the movie-watchers are supposed to have emotional investment in amount to nothing. If this were an actually serious, well-made movie about a real topic – sexual abuse at Ohio State University, for example – we would be watching the same series of awful bullying scenes, and we would leave exhausted and shattered by the sheer brutal abusiveness of the experience. This isn’t how you make entertainment, it’s how you make documentaries.

Perhaps the movie-makers knew this, and this is why they made sure that not only is a casual viewer unable to invest anything in the characters, but is also unable to engage with the substance of the movie itself. The script wavers between a serious adventure/sci fi, a classic superhero movie, and a comedy. This means that the viewer cannot properly get into the flow of things. Has Thor just seen his entire crew murdered by a fatally powerful demon who aims to destroy half the living creatures in the universe, or has he had an entertaining evening at a bar with some friends? It’s impossible to tell. Is Spacedouche fighting to save his loved one from a fate worse than death, or just hamming it up for his friends at a keg party? It’s impossible to tell. This is one of the (many) fatal errors that sank the recent Star Wars effort, and it did no favours for this movie either. Well, perhaps it did the movie a small favour – the only reason I finished watching it was the dialogue. I watched the whole thing at a remove though, as a disengaged critic, because I had nothing invested in it or its characters.

And how bad were these characters? I have no sense of Thanos’s motivations, or any emotional engagement with his drive to get the infinity stones and destroy half the universe, which is terrible because a fundamental requirement of these kinds of movies is that you be on board with the bad guy’s plans. I felt more in common with the Alien queen in Aliens than I did with this boring dude and his gold fist. Spacedouche, obviously, is a waste of my effort and a completely awful character. Iron Man long since lost his shine and, like late-vintage Elon Musk, has become just a rich entitled white dude with bad ideas. Dr. Strange is a condescending prat who should have stuck with his original career as a detective. Insipid Witchgirl is weak and boring, and I have no idea why she is in love with Useless Robot (Phase? Nobody introduces themselves), who seems to have no purpose in this movie except spare parts. Black Panther might as well also be a robot for all the energy in his performance, and who was that Steve Rogers guy and why is he so useless? I think I was supposed to feel some emotion other than relief when Spiderman died but why would I, when his sole role in this movie is to act as a ham-fisted tool for breaking the fourth wall (and why are we breaking the fourth wall in a supposedly serious movie?) What is Black Widow’s purpose, and what is wrong with this world that Scarlet Johanson can be paid millions of bucks to turn up, say three lines, and then sit in a chair while her stunt double does 90% of her moves[1]? I think there was a guy who flew a thing and blew stuff up, but I don’t know his name and I don’t even remember if he died. Bruce Banner has now thoroughly ruined the Hulk, turning him from a metaphor for adolescent angst into a metaphor for middle aged male sexual dysfunction. Groot – now Groot is an example of how to really terribly mistreat a great character. In the original Space Daddy Issues movie he was a fun and interesting character, but baby Groot in Daddy Issues 2 was just a waste of space and this teenage Groot is such a depressingly bad form of comedy relief that it makes me want to go back in time and destroy the original movie.

A further mark of how bad this movie is is that it introduced time travel. It is a universal truth that a movie with incidental time travel is a bad movie, and that only two movies in the history of cinema have done time travel well: Terminator and Back to the Future. As soon as you casually insert time travel into a movie you ruin it. This was easily avoidable in this story simply by replacing the time stone with some other noun (the shit stone? the mcguffin stone? It doesn’t matter, because there is no sense in which anything Thanos does with his golden fist corresponds in any way to the supposed functions of the stones embedded in the fist). But no, the directors had to go there because there is no stupid thing that cannot be loaded into a modern American action movie. Of course, in keeping with this principle there were a bunch of other incredibly bad decisions that completely undermined the good guys’ efforts and made all their failures both predictable and frustrating:

  • Spacedouche’s decision to punch Thanos in the face while he was sleeping, just as his friends were about to pull the glove off and save the universe, and indeed his decision to stand there arguing with sleeping Thanos and making everything in the universe all about him instead of helping his friends remove the glove and then punch the stupid blue dude when he was actually vulnerable
  • Dr Strange’s decision to go with stupid Iron Man’s stupid plan to confront Thanos while holding the very thing Thanos wants, and then to give up that thing even though he asserted very strongly earlier in the movie that he would let Iron Man die rather than hand it over (we all know why he did this – see below).
  • Dr Strange’s decision to scan all possible futures for the wisdom of his actions after going to confront Thanos instead of before
  • The decision by the idiots at Wakanda to spend precious time and lives defending Wakanda against invading alien hordes so that Little Sister can extract the stone from Useless Robot’s head without killing him, thus ensuring Insipid Witchgirl doesn’t cry, even though ultimately Insipid Witchgirl has to kill Useless Robot anyway, but does it in front of Thanos so that he knows where the stone is[2] and can go back in time and stop her destroying it (but Useless Robot still dies at least)
  • The dumb-arsed series of historical decisions which led the super people of Wakanda with their super-powered Bullshitanium super mineral and hyper high-tech social order to develop an army that fights with spears, has no air support, no artillery, and no projectile weapons of note, and also lacks the strategic sense to stay on the high ground focusing the piss-weak projectile weapons they do have on a narrow breach in an otherwise almost impassable wall
  • Thanos randomly and incoherently spares people, like the entire crew of Spacedouche’s ship (who subsequently go on to try and remove his glove, almost successfully) and Iron Man, who is going to kill him in the next movie

It’s become a pretty much constant aspect of modern American movies that the main characters make bad decisions based on emotion rather than heart, and then at the end have to save the day by sheer grit and determination in the face of the avalanche of consequences their hot-headed decisions unleashed[3]. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Often these stupid decisions simply lead to long unnecessary extra scenes to undo the damage, and plot complications that make the movie less believable than it would otherwise have been, and frustrating. I have got to the point with movies like this and Star Wars that I am basically just hate-watching them: I watch them to see how terrible they are and to get angry at my cultural overlords, more than to enjoy the actual content of the movie. In truth this is why I skipped most of the Marvel movies leading up to this one, and only watched this one because I was on a plane[4].

I also previously avoided this movie because there is one crucial scene, where Dr. Strange hands over the time stone to prevent Iron Man being killed, which basically tells us that Iron Man is crucial to the one possible future in which Thanos is defeated. This means that the rich entitled white guy is going to be the person who saves the universe. Who could have guessed!? That amongst a cast of thousands of super heroes, all the non-white and non-human characters die “randomly” after Thanos gets the final stone, leaving white Iron Man, white Spacedouche, and white Black Widow[5] to save the universe, with rich white Iron Man as the central hero. I can’t wait to see this unusual and novel ending to a movie! It’s highly unlikely I’ll watch the next one, unless it’s playing on a plane in a typhoon, so it seemed like a waste of my time to watch this one too. Perhaps one day someone can remake these movies without all the stupid decisions and white entitlement, and then they might be actually enjoyable. But probably not.

There is one more aspect of this movie which I found amusing, though. It seems to me that there is a metaphor in this movie for the 2016 presidential election, with Thanos as Trump and the six stones as the swing states that he had to pick up to win the electoral college. Everything our heroes throw at him doesn’t stick or slides off, and while some of his buddies are sacrificed on the path to victory, he is ultimately unscathed, and seems to be protected by this strange otherworldly power that enables him to change reality to suit his whims and battle off any enemies. In this metaphor the glove is Russian interference, and the central scene is the moment where the intelligence agencies are trying to reveal the truth to the electorate – this is Spacedouche’s friends trying to pull the glove off – but instead of helping to reveal the horrible truth and fatally weaken him, the mainstream media (represented aptly in this metaphor by Spacedouche) is distracted by Hilary’s emails – a distraction put there by Trump himself – and the moment is lost in their fury. Thanos wakes up and shakes off the people trying to drag off the source of his power over reality, and he goes on to get everything he needs for ultimate victory. It’s up to you to decide whether the half of the universe destroyed by this are a metaphor for women, the Democratic electorate, or most of the rest of the planet. I guess we’ll find out in a year or so.

It’s a nice metaphor, but I have to ask the directors – why did you make us sit through your pain? Couldn’t you have made some other movie, in which the evil arsehole isn’t an invulnerable bully who rampages through the world taking whatever he wants until he gets ultimate power, and the people ranged against him were annoying, powerless losers who consistently make bad decisions? Because I’m not interested in workshopping your pain, and what the world needs now is more superheroes, not more shit superhero movies.

Other reviews you might be interested in

My review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was a horrible movie in every way

My review of Mad Max: Fury Road, as an exemplar of eco-feminist violence

My review of Dunkirk, as a story set in the in-between


fn1: Sorry in advance if this is a slur on Johanson and she actually does all her own stunts. Even if she did, though, she still was almost not present in this movie.

fn2: This is the best gloss I can put on the insertion of time travel into this movie. Otherwise, why doesn’t Thanos just go back in time to the beginning of the universe and hoover up all the remaining stones as they come out of the big bang? This is why this movie is a railroad – you know Thanos is going to get what he wants, you just have to watch everyone suffer and die until he does.

fn3: See also, Battle of the Bastards

fn4: Did I mention that? I didn’t watch this movie by choice, but because I was flying past a typhoon and couldn’t work on my computer for fear it would fly up into the ceiling of the plane during turbulence

fn5: Wait, isn’t Major Kusanagi Asian?

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