Science Fiction


Distance  Separation
Leaving  Terra Firma

Darkness  Ringing empty
Lights out  Resurrection

Burn it down and start over
I want to leave this all behind
Abandon all the trepidation
Weighing heavy on my mind

 – Catechism of the Cult of the Dancer

Our heroes have ground their way through waves of soldiers defending the secret base of Samina’s Corsairs. Having destroyed more than 40 enemies, they stand in control of the elevator hall that leads to all levels of the remote star base, ready to descend to their final confrontation with Samina and her few remaining soldiers. The roster for this (last) session:

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

Oliver Greenstar remains on the Beast of Burden, ready to leave and warn the world of the corsairs’ location if the rest of the party are killed.

The PCs had been given floorplans for the corsair base, so they knew that the level above their current location was a public area, gardens and a few rest spaces. Immediately below them was the station’s main hangar, a space 100m long, 200m wide and 40m deep. Below that was a residential level, almost certainly mostly empty now they had killed nearly all the station’s guards, and below that the secret prison and medical level where Samina herself lived and worked. They needed to get down there, but only one elevator went all the way down and they could not fit their whole team into it. Two other elevators descended to the level below the hangar, and they could fit their whole squad into those two, then transfer to the elevator that went all the way down, and travel to the last level in two trips. They decided that Kaarlina would use her technomancy skills to control all the lifts, sending them down to the sub-level but sending signals to the central computer to indicate they were going up. They would skip the hangar and head down to surprise Samina in her lair while she thought they were heading up.

The monster in the hangar

Unfortunately their strategy failed, because Samina took control of all the elevators over Kaarlina’s mystic powers, and opened them all one level down, in the hangar. The doors opened into darkness, lit only by the faint red emergency lights in the elevators, and by one or two of the party’s suit lights. In the faint glow of these lights they saw a huge hall stretching out into darkness, scattered with crates and equipment in seemingly random piles around the elevator shafts. Somewhere nearby they could hear sounds of sniffling and desperate breathing, and the air of the room seemed to be faintly misty or suffused with a fine smoke.

This fine mist saved their lives. Adam saw it first, a beam of laser light questing towards them through the mist, and in the last moment realized there was a sniper about to target them. Since he was in overwatch he immediately opened fire, sending a wave of automatic fire in the direction of the laser. Clementine followed him but neither could hit their target, and a moment later a wave of thermal energy struck Adam in the head, almost shredding his remaining ear. Saqr, also in overwatch and carrying an accelerator rifle, fired along the line of the beam and killed the sniper with a single shot as the rest of the crew piled out of the elevator and into cover.

It was as the first of them began to emerge from the elevator that they saw it: a huge, hulking figure in the darkness just beyond their vision, charging towards them. It stopped and raised an arm and a moment later one of their entire teams of support marines died, cut down by a wave of thermal energy. Moments later the beast rushed into the light, and they saw what it was: an automaton constructed out of the twisted, still-bleeding and twitching bodies of Samina’s remaining soldiers. Two men in battle exos had been slaughtered and draggd into the mess of flesh, to be surrounded by the twisted bodies of 12 other men. It had misshapen, thick legs and arms wielding huge thermal rifles, with two more arms holding massive axes compiled from all the crew’s dura swords. Lights flickered inside the frame of its twisted flesh, and strange machine noises came from its joints and chest. It roared and stumbled forward.

Out of the elevator to meet it came Siladan, walking now in his own battle exo and eager to put its powers to the test. He surged forward and hit the thing in the chest, stopping it in its tracks, and the two began a monumental battle on the floor of the hangar. As they fought Adam, Clementine and Kaarlina poured rifle fire into the beast, seemingly doing nothing. Saqr could not join the battle, however, because moments after the marines in front of him were cooked to death by the beast’s weapons they reanimated as darkbound, undead humans bound by the Dark between the stars, and turned to attack him. Though they struck at him only with fists, they blocked his exit from the elevator and he was forced to deal with them before he could leave.

As the battle raged Al Hamra moved away from the elevator to the source of the sniffling, finding one of Samina’s soldiers crouched behind a crate, weapon at his side, panting heavily. Al Hamra wasted no time in conversation, going straight to mind reading using his mystic powers. The images that poured from the distressed soldier’s mind confirmed his suspicions: Samina had gathered all the soldiers in the hangar and enacted some horrific ritual that had slain them all and drawn them and their equipment together into the monster before them. Two of her soldiers, seeing the deaths begin and realizing they were betrayed by their own master, managed to break her mental control and flee, hopeless though this act was; now they crouched in the dark of the hangar, waiting to see which side would prevail in the battle and who would hunt them down and kill them.

Al Hamra saved this man the wait: he dominated his mind and sent him in to melee against the beast, in support of Siladan. The monster had been briefly stunned by Siladan’s first attack but soon recovered, unleashing some kind of mental blast that staggered Siladan and stunned him. It then smashed him once with one fist and marched past him to kill more marines. By the time Siladan could come back to melee the beast had beaten down the remaining marines and was in melee combat with Adam, smashing him with its fists as he tried to stab it with his dura knife. Fortunately Kaarlina had disabled its dura axes, so it could not cut through his armour the way it wanted. Adam had done furious damage on it with his machine gun, and in its rage it tried desperately to kill it as Siladan struck it with his dura halberd, Saqr fought off the darkbound that trapped him in the elevator, and the others poured fire into the beast’s heavily-armoured back. At the same time Samina poured healing magic into it from her remote location, somehow keeping it upright despite all the damage it endured.

Finally, however, Dr. Delekta was able to put a bullet into its back somewhere vulnerable. A battery pack from one of the absorbed battle exos exploded and the thing fell dead to the ground. They quickly killed the darkbound attacking Saqr, and the battle was done. All of Samina’s remaining soldiers lay in a rotting heap on the hangar floor, along with most of the party’s marines and almost all of their remaining sanity.

The Cadaver Clock

They rested briefly, Dr. Delekta providing medical care to the injured members and Saqr easing their wounds with his mystic powers. Al Hamra gathered the two corsairs who had escaped the ritual and gave them a choice: join their sole remaining marine in helping them clear out the base, or die. They took the better part of the choice, and once everyone had restocked and taken a breather they took the elevator down to the bottom level.

Following the marines’ instructions they passed a prison, where they found four starving victims of a past raid, who they released. They moved on to Samina’s personal quarters, at the back of which they found a tunnel leading down through the rock. They followed it, and at the bottom rushed into Samina’s lair.

Their three marines died as they entered the room, brought down by Samina’s mystic powers, but the rest of them were able to break into the room before she could act again. She stood in the centre of a terrifying construction of cogs and chains, arranged in a large rough-cut stone chamber. The cogs were ancient iron, embedded in the wall and connected with a complex network of heavy old chains. At points around the network of chains dead bodies were hung from the chains by meat hooks, slowly rotting and suppurating in the slightly stuffy air of the room. On one side of the room stood an ancient stone altar, covered in dried blood. In the middle of the room, under the dripping corpses, stood a collection of plinths of different heights. On two of these plinths stood the strange ugly statuettes of the dancer, and between them stood Samina. She was tall, impossibly skinny, obviously old but not worn or wrinkled. She wore simple silk robes, her hands empty and free, and looked at them from dark, deep-set eyes.

As they came to a halt in the room facing her, the collection of cogs and chains shuddered and the entire apparatus took a single, lurching movement according to some strange geometry. A loud tick! rang around the room as all the cogs turned over once, the bodies shuddered and jolted on their hooks, and a drop of rotting gore fell onto Samina’s cheek.

She ignored it, and said to them, “I am your only way out of this darkness.”

They ignored her, and opened fire.

The battle was short but almost deadly for them. At her waist Samina had a gravitic sink, which absorbed the first four shots from their weapons. She unleashed a dark mystical energy from her cadaver clock, which wracked their bodies with pain and, had she had a second chance to unleash it, would surely have killed them all[1]. Fortunately before she could do so her gravitic sink expired, and they slaughtered her where she stood.

Epilogue

They searched the base and found a huge stock of money and artifacts, which they stole. They should have rushed to escape before the portal out of the area degraded, but Al Hamra announced that since he had died twice and his soul was trapped inside a machine, he chose to end his time here. He would use the cadaver clock to hold the gate open until they all could flee, and then wait in the dark until his batteries powered down. He gave a stirring speech that convinced all the PCs that their captain would choose to die in this dark and lonely rock, but all the players knew that Al Hamra was going to use the cadaver clock to become the next Samina.

They left, having destroyed the corsairs that had plagued the Horizon for 30 years, and became fabulously rich and famous selling off their story and success across the Horizon. All that remained was to recapture the space station they had lost to an Efrit, and to establish their new Order, a movement committed to hunting down and killing evil mystics.

Here the Coriolis campaign ended, after 41 sessions. A challenging, bloody and sinister ending to an excellent 18 months of gaming!

 


fn1: The first wave of the attack did 7 damage I think, though I rolled very well, and it was pretty likely that the second one – due after three more actions – would finish the job. I rolled randomly for the gravitic sink’s charges and got 4. Had it held two more, things would have been dire, especially since her dancer’s talent guaranteed she could evade Siladan’s halberd. I did warn the group that I was happy to end the campaign on a TPK, but actually that was a lie: Oliver Greenstar was going to rescue them at the last if Samina prevailed.

 

 

Give yourself unto your god
Sacrifice yourself again
Burn your thoughts, erase your will
To gods of suffering and tears
Tie hallowed bonds around your hands
Kneel before this seat of shame
To gods as lost, gods as blind
Gods of suffering and pain

           – Catechism of the Dancer Cult

Our heroes have invaded the sanctum of Samina’s Corsairs, which is the home of an ancient, vile and long lost cult to a degraded form of the dancer. At its heart is Samina, a powerful mystic who possesses all the secrets of her long lost and abominable cult, and uses them to guide a vicious lair of pirates in raids across all of the Third Horizon, striking safe from within their asteroid base far outside of any star system. Our heroes have found this base and aim to kill Samina and tear down her cult; between them and her stand her last few score soldiers, their leaders and champions in battle exos. Dominated by Samina’s mystical powers, they feel no fear and throw themselves into the defense of their leader, which is why the PCs have already slaughtered 36 of them in a vicious battle at the docking station where they entered the station. Now they must move on, and begin to penetrate the base. There remain 32 soldiers, with 4 leader and 4 champions in battle exos. The roster for today’s mission:

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

In the docking station battle Al Hamra had taken control of the mind of two of the leaders, and used their voice to tell the station’s central command lies necessary to buy the team a little time. Now they stood among the ruins of the battle, in a smoking and bullet-scarred welcome area, injured and exhausted. On one side of the room Al Hamra’s droid body lay smoking and sparking, shattered beyond repair. They had perhaps one hour to transfer Al Hamra’s consciousness to their last remaining drone, attach a weapon to it, repair several jammed weapons, rest, and heal minor injuries.

They set about this task with resigned exhaustion, catching their breath as they cleaned up, reloaded, and repaired. Al Hamra successfully transferred to a new droid, to which Siladan attached a thermal cricket pistol, with a spare reload; further reloads would require someone to attend to the machine. Dr. Delekta provided medical care, and Saqr risked the Dark between the stars to heal a groin injury on Adam that threatened to wear him down before they had traveled too much further. They all rested, recovered their wind, and prepared to push on.

From the docking station a corridor ran perhaps 100m to a central elevator shaft. They guessed a large contingent of soldiers would be waiting for them there, and they were right: a brief scouting excursion by Al Hamra confirmed 8 soldiers, a leader and a champion in a battle exo. Kaarlina took control of the blast doors facing them using her mystic powers, they prepared their moves, and triggered the battle.

Al Hamra used his droid movements to trigger the door to open, and used his mystic powers to take control of the mind of the exo champion, forcing it to fire on the soldiers’ leader. Saqr threw in a grenade and Adam fired a rocket at the main team of soldiers.

At least that was the plan, except that everyone in the room was on overwatch, and as soon as Al Hamra triggred the door a nightmare storm of vulcan shells, thermal blast and accelerator slugs poured through the door. One of their teams of soldiers was eviscerated and several of them took damage before Adam could squeeze off his rocket, which eliminated several of the soldiers. They charged into the room to find cover where they could while Al Hamra dominated the champion in the exo suit, and the battle began. Reinforcements immediately began rising up one elevator, which Kaarlina stopped with her mystic powers, but they were not able to stop another elevator, which arrived after a short time bearing the Oracle, the old man they had fought in Hamurabi station. He dominated their other marine team and turned it on them, but fortunately the dominated exo champion was there, and was able to immediately melt the Oracle to slag with its thermal rifle.

By the time they had dealt with the remaining soldiers in the room more reinforcements had arrived in a third elevator, but by now they were ready. They set a careful cordon around the elevator and destroyed the entire team as it rushed to emerge. Within seconds the entire team lay smoking and bleeding on the floor, and by Siladan’s count they had slain another 16 soldiers, two champions in battle exos, and all but two remaining leaders. Very few of Samina’s fearsome corsairs remained.

They checked their weapons, tended to their wounds, and prepared to head down to the final showdown. They would burn this whole cult and destroy all its hideous ancient secrets, or die trying.

 

 

 

I have been running a Coriolis campaign for 39 sessions now, with the PCs having accrued a lot of experience and a large number of talents and skills. The Coriolis rules are generally very tight and have been very easy to work with (except perhaps the space combat rules), but some parts of the basic rules lack a little depth as you gain levels, and there have been some ways in which my group and I have worked together to enhance the rules and in some ways to change them. Here I list some of those changes, and one change I should have implemented but didn’t.

Talent tiers

Pretty early on we realized that talents should have tiers, with more powerful and versatile effects at higher tiers. So we have made some additional talents that apply beyond the first tier. They still only cost 5xp to buy, but they require the previous talent in the tier first. Here are three examples of these tiers in action.

Tenth life: This is absolutely fundamental to enjoying this game. Once you’ve invested 50 xp in your pc you want some way to cheat death, and this is it. It’s the second tier of Nine Lives, and it has one purpose: you burn the talent to nullify a critical roll of 66. This is the game’s only one use talent, meaning you have to buy it again every time you used it. In our most recent session the PC Al Hamra used this to nullify a 66, and then got hit later in the same battle with another 66, which he could not nullify, and two other PCs (I think) have been forced to use their Tenth Life (then immediately bought it again). This talent is tier 2, with Nine Lives at Tier 1, but I think actually Nine Lives is a massively over-powered talent and should itself be Tier 2 – Tier 1 of this talent tree should be something like rerolling a crit and being forced to take the second roll, or being able to use Nine Lives only once a combat or something. But given how lethal this game is we haven’t quibbled with it: Nine Lives is basically a mandatory talent.

Machine gunner: The Machine Gunner talent now has two additional tiers. The first enables the PC to ignore the bulky quality of weapons (enabling them to carry vulcan machine guns as if they were carbines) and the second to fire full auto using 2AP. Adam has all three tiers, which means he can ignore an extra 1 when he fires his machine gun, he can carry a full vulcan machine gun as if it were a normal weapon, and can reload and fire in one round (he has rapid reload too). This makes Adam absolutely lethal when he rolls well, since he can ignore the first two 1s in an auto fire attack and do it every round even if he exhausts his ammunition. This is just as well since Adam’s player always rolls really badly.

Executioner: Tier 2 of the executioner allows the player to roll a second critical and choose the best one before reversing the dice. It partially nullifies Nine Lives and is used by Siladan, who is a melee fighter and consistently suffers the disadvantage of having to charge through a round of missile fire before he can engage. This is a very bad disadvantage in melee! I suspect that if combined with machine gunner this talent would be horrific.

Combat medic: Tier 2 of the combat medic talent enables the PC to heal damage when stabilizing a crit (but only when stabilizing a crit) so that each additional success grants one wound. Until we expanded mystic powers this was the only way that the PCs could recover damage during combat if they weren’t broken, and avoided this weird and unholy ping pong in which Dr Delekta had to wait for a player to be broken, heal them up a few wounds, and then let them be broken again (I think this ping pong happened in the first few sessions because we misunderstood the healing rules). In any case it’s super important because things spiral down the tube really fast if you can’t heal wounds along with stabilizing criticals. I think this system is far more lethal than even Rolemaster and a lot of our house rules were developed to make it survivable[1].

Expanded mystic powers

These have been described before but I include them here for completeness. In particular the higher levels of the Stop power (which give domination ability with almost no resistance) and the healing powers have been very useful. One of our mystics, Saqr, usually keeps an action point spare for a reaction that increases his armour. Another PC, Kaarlina, has all the levels of technomage and has found them very useful in a lot of situations, and of course Al Hamra loves both the second tier of the mind reading power and his domination abilities. I haven’t really deployed these powers to great effect against the PCs yet but I feel this will come soon.

Enhanced minion powers

I have been following the rule that minions add one die to their attack for each extra member of the group, but I have further enhanced the rules to make them a little more dangerous, enabling extra dice in additional situations.

  • Observation checks: Obviously with more people looking the chance of success should increase
  • Dexterity and force checks: When an entire team tries to get out of combat someone should be able to break through, so I increase dexterity checks accordingly; similarly for force checks, even in grappling-type situations (it’s hard to grapple one mook when three others are whaling on you).
  • Auto-fire: This is the key enhancement. Every extra minion in a group increases the number of 1s that need to be rolled to exhaust their weapons’ ammunition, so for example if there are four minions in a team they need to roll four 1s (the first 1, plus 3 more) in order to exhaust their weapons ammunition when using auto-fire. This makes minions with vulcan carbines absolutely lethal and ensures that my PCs are forced to take minions seriously, especially if I have enough darkness points to pray…

Group and individual skill checks

I follow a ruthless rule for adjudicating skill checks now: if the entire group fails from a single failure, everyone must roll separately; if the entire group benefits from a single success, the person with the highest pool rolls once and gains a +1 for each supporting person. This is done to ensure that the PCs do not basically automatically succeed at everything just from luck, and is something I learnt in D&D. Basically even if an observation check is super hard, if everyone rolls for it one of the group is likely to roll high. So I force the players to roll a single pool for observation checks, research, negotiations and the like – anything where even a single success from one PC is sufficient. In contrast, for stealth checks, where even one failure affects the whole group, I require everyone to roll separately and the entire group suffers from the worst roll. I recommend everyone apply this rule to a party with a fighter in plate mail!

You can really take this rule to new heights of nastiness by rolling some of the players’ dice pool secretly, yourself, so that they don’t know the exact result. I tried this a few times but the uproar led me to give it up. In this embellishment you roll perhaps a third of the dice yourself, so that if the players get no successes they don’t know whether to pray or not (since you might have rolled the one success they need); and if they don’t pray, they cannot guess whether the information they have received is untrue. It also means they cannot tell if they have got a critical success unless they see three dice in their part of the pool.

This is a real dick move, but if you like that sort of thing I strongly recommend it.

Strain from armour

When I played in a long (and excellent) Cyberpunk campaign we had to make a lot of house rules, and one modification we had to make was to armour, which proved invincible once you had more than a certain amount. We house-ruled there that if your armour fully absorbs damage you still take a point of stun damage, to ensure that no one can stay in combat for an infinite period of time just absorbing damage, because armour was so obviously over-powered in those rules[2]. Armour is not over-powered in Coriolis, but I think it would still be good to have a rule that if your armour absorbs all physical damage you still take a point of mental damage. Since absorbing physical damage often means avoiding a potentially lethal[3] critical, it seems reasonable that this should be a stressful experience. This also means that if you’re crouching behind cover absorbing huge amounts of incoming fire without taking damage, you will slowly lose your shit, which also seems reasonable. Unfortunately, however, I forgot this rule until recently and it’s definitely too late to implement it[4]. I recommend that you do!

Final comment on the rules

I have found the Coriolis rules to be very smooth, enjoyable and easy to use, with very little need for house ruling beyond judgements about positives and negatives, and winging it a bit with the use of darkness points. It’s a really well-designed and smooth system that is very fun to use. My only criticism would be that the talents and mystic powers are a bit superficial, and don’t allow the richness and depth of character creation that players demand over a long campaign. But this is a very minor criticism, and embellishing rules is much more fun than hacking them because they don’t work. So I present these rule modifications in that spirit, with the clear qualification that the system works completely fine as it is. Nonetheless, I hope you will consider using some of these rules in your own campaign, and even if you decide to ignore all of them, I strongly recommend the enhanced auto-fire rules for minions. Because, let’s face it, your players deserve the best!


fn1: Perhaps if my players were less reckless this wouldn’t be an issue … but they would argue I’m an arsehole GM and they have no choice. There were good people on both sides of the debate …

fn2: Don’t play Cyberpunk, the rules are thoroughly broken.

fn3: 50% of the time!

fn4: I suspect if my players read this they’ll be clamouring for me to implement the rule, since they’re about to face off with four guys in battle exos.

 

 

 

Inert flesh
A bloody tomb
A decorated splatter brightens the room
An execution, a sadist ritual
Mad intervals of mind residuals

Close your eyes
Look deep in your soul
Step outside yourself
And let your mind go

– Catechism of the Dancer cult

 

Our heroes have invaded a docking station of Samina’s Corsairs’ main base, and having broken through the inner door are about to begin their final assault. Inside the station are 60-something soldiers, a small number of leaders and some elite fighters in exo armour. Our roster for this session:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner
  • Saqr, pilot

They are accompanied by two teams of four mercenaries. As ever they burst into the station without a plan, hoping to prevail by superior grit and better weapons. They were, of course, right, though the battle was a close call[1].

Beyond the docking station was the standard entry chamber, perhaps 10m in diameter and interspersed with standing steel defensive barriers, behind which two teams of corsairs and a leader hid. Two of the PCs ran into the room to take cover behind the closest barrier and were immediately fired upon by all the teams in the room, to little avail. Behind them Saqr threw a thermal grenade over the barriers, failing to do much damage to the defenders, and their back-up mercenaries laid down covering fire as the rest of them moved slowly into the room. Adam used one of his only two rockets to clear the back of the room, and they soon overwhelmed the first defenders.

They had no chance at respite though, because no sooner had the first team died than a second entered the room, laying down a carpet of automatic fire as they came[2]: 8 more soldiers with their leader. Fortunately however, as soon as the group arrived Al Hamra used a dominate spell on their leader, forcing him to attack his own team, and the squad broken down into internecine combat as one team of soldiers traded fire with their own leader. The others, however, were in cover, and the PCs did not deal with the second wave as well – some were still barely alive when the third wave hit.

The third wave walked straight into the full fury of Adam’s machine gun, and were cut down viciously. As soon as the second wave’s leader had been put down by his own men Al Hamra dominated the third wave’s leader and forced him to attack his own men, and also to tell the station’s central command that the intruders had been killed. This strategy only partially worked; the fourth wave hit while they were cleaning up the remains of the third wave, and finally they were forced into a pitched battle with the remaining troops. By this time Siladan had been disarmed of his dura halberd and was fighting with his hand fan, several of the team’s weapons had overheated or malfunctioned (including Clementine’s meson pistol, which they needed intact to fight the exo armours), and finally Al Hamra took a hit from a vulcan carbine that completely destroyed his droid casing, killing his robot shell and forcing his consciousness back to the ship.

When the battle was over they had severely depleted their ammunition and reloads, taken several light criticals, lost their Firstcome battle droid and one mercenary, and ground out quite a few wounds across the party, but they had prevailed. A total of 36 men – 32 soldiers and 4 leaders – lay dead in the small room, which was coated with blood, smoke stains and bullet holes. Al Hamra’s domination of the leaders meant that for a short time the corsair’s central command believed they had been neutralized and their ship was being searched, so that they had bought themselves perhaps an hour of rest time. During this time they had much to do: restocking ammunition, repairing weapons, restoring Al Hamra’s consciousness to a floating camera drone (the only freely mobile drone remaining in their arsenal) and attaching a weapon to it, and some basic medical care.

And after that one hour of breathing space, on to the next charnel house …

 


fn1: In fact Al Hamra used his 10th life talent and then got a second 66 crit, so he has gone from storing his soul in a Firstcome defense droid to using a simple camera drone. How the mighty have fallen!

fn2: I set this up so that the number of successes on Saqr’s piloting roll to deceive the defenders determined the speed at which reinforcements arrived: Saqr got 1 success, so this meant that there would be 1 round of respite between new waves of 8 soldiers and 1 leader. Given that these teams of soldiers are all able to use automatic fire, and I have significantly beefed up the auto-fire rules for groups of minions, this is a pretty challenging battle.

I was very excited to discover Max Brooks, author of World War Z, has a new book out, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, and bought it as soon as it was released. It turns out to be excellent airplane reading (I went to Okinawa for a few days’ relaxation) and not so great night time reading, because it is a very disturbing and well-crafted tale. This is a review of that book, hopefully basically spoiler free.

The novel purports to be “found footage”, based on the journal of a woman called Katie who was part of a small alternative off-grid community deep in the wilderness outside Seattle. This high-tech community consists of a few rich oddballs living around a central common house, intended to recreate some kind of image of native American traditional community living while also merging the high-tech lives of the modern urban rich with sustainable living blended deep into the nature in which the community is embedded. There are only a handful of people living in this off-grid place, which is served by drone deliveries from Seattle, has solar power, methane fuel from human waste, careful insulation and water recycling, fiber optic internet, etc. It is serviced by one road that may get cut off in winter, and is intended to be completely self-sufficient once you factor in the regular drone deliveries. Katie and her husband are borrowing their friend’s home for a winter to reconnect or somesuch American bullshit, and as part of this conscious recoupling or whatever it is Katie is keeping an extensive daily journal of her thoughts and feelings (for her therapist of course!). The journal is supplemented by interviews the putative author of the book mixes in with the park ranger who found the journal, the family member who sent Katie and her husband to the shack, and a few newspaper or science articles. This is a bit of a challenge for Brooks to pull off since he has only really ever been able to write in one voice, a criticism I had when I read World War Z, but brave of him to try. The events are set in approximately now, obviously under a Trump presidency, with America involved in an intervention in Venezuela and already experiencing significant internal dissent, as well of course as the kind of anti-science and anti-public service cuts that characterize this particular period in American history. There is major civil unrest happening around Seattle at the time the story is written, which really makes it perfect reading for the current climate.

The first few chapters of the book are spent introducing the other characters and then the shit hits the fan: Mt. Rainier erupts, cuts off their path back to the city with huge rivers of lava, and wipes out just enough other local communities to create major chaos in the emergency response (which is already underfunded and incompetent). To make matters worse the community’s internet and cell connections are destroyed, and there is a strong implication that their drone deliveries are cut off because their drone took out a rescue helicopter. But this is just the beginning; as the characters are settling into the knowledge they may be cut off all winter and are going to have to get very creative with food, they discover something much worse: a small colony of Sasquatch (Bigfoot in the popular parlance) has been driven from their secret home in the slopes of Mt. Rainier by the eruption, and having had no food for days they settle on the people living in the little isolated community as their main calorie source. This is when the novel turns from a slightly ham-fisted exploration of rich urbanites’ insecurities and vanities to a rapidly escalating tale of survival horror.

Because this is a Max Brooks book the horror is interspersed with snippets of science and wisdom from various sources, so that we get a full and rich disquisition on the history of Bigfoot scares in the US, the possible genetic and evolutionary tale of the Sasquatch, detailed description of how primates hunt and kill each other and why, critical assessment of modern rich urban Americans’ obsession with anthropomorphizing and misunderstanding “nature”, and Max Brooks’s personal view of the role of survival and experience in shaping refugees’ lives in the US. These interludes are probably essential, because over the course of the middle half of the book he ratchets up the tension with excruciating care, taking us from hints of Sasquatch presence (stolen berries, a bad smell) to pitched battles in the middle of the community space. Because it’s found footage we, the readers, know approximately what is going to happen: we know that the whole thing is caused by Bigfoot and we know everyone dies. This, too, is frankly a relief – if you were sitting through the increasingly desperate and disturbing middle parts of the book hoping anyone would survive you would be close to an apoplexy by the end of this novel. The fact that it’s essentially an After Action Report means that we don’t get to find out exactly what happened to the author (since they can’t journal their own death) and so it enables Brooks to close off the whole story with a sense of mystery and a slight lack of fulfillment for the reader, which to me is perfect, since the story itself is so improbable and the possibility of anyone surviving so remote that leaving the fate of the group’s last member unexplained is a fitting end.

The strength of the novel is in this careful ratcheting up of pressure over its middle period, the growing sense of dread and impending destruction, and the reader’s helplessness as various members of the community completely Fail to Get It and make accordingly increasingly stupid mistakes. This is helped by the way that various characters either get it together or come undone as the intensity grows, though three of the characters go through changes that are too rapid and sudden to make sense (see below). Brooks supports this by quotes at chapter headings and a few interludes with references to other times in history or other peoples’ speculation about how events might have unfolded, which helps to get the reader engaged in the characters’ struggle even though they’re actually quite unpleasant people who you mostly just want to die. Which, of course, they do. Horribly. It’s quite satisfying but also very nasty, and although I’m not easily scared this book gave me the shivers by the time the tension reached its peak. This is good survival horror!

It’s not without its flaws though, primarily three: the pretentiousness and narrowness of some of the theorizing in the interludes; the clumsy and personally quite awful characters; and Brooks’s inability to diversify his writing voice.

The interludes involve a lot of speculation about science and evolution and group psychology and the conflict between humanity and nature that struck me as overly pretentious and often quite simplistic or weak. I also wondered if some of the facts Brooks presents are actually facts or just things he has heard and just accepted as true (I didn’t bother to check). This is a hallmark of his work in World War Z too (I guess worse in that book because fact-checking was harder back then and he probably had less support). I always read this kind of stuff as bar-room waffle, but it’s presented in this book as serious inquiry, and it’s a bit cringey (not very though!) Also he has this big problem of stereotyping cultures, which he does in the interludes and also in some of the character archetypes: one of the characters in particular is a survivor of the Yugoslavian civil war, a refugee of a particularly vicious part of it, and is obviously just Brooks’s stereotype of what a refugee from a war zone would have learnt about survival and human nature that has made them wise and resourceful and insightful, in a way that is a bit like if you could noble-savage a refugee. (Brooks always does this with Israeli soldiers, who also feature in the interludes in what I thought was the clumsiest piece of writing in the book). To be clear though I enjoy this kind of speculation and waffle even as I’m cringing, and somehow Brooks manages to pull it all off, which is why I guess I loved World War Z. I think it was a bit weaker in this book but it still really helped to pull the whole story together. The brief quotes and discursions on how and why primates kill each other, and how in particular chimpanzees hunt other primates, really sets the tone for the Coming Bigfoot Apocalypse, and serves as a forewarning of just how nasty the humans’ end is going to be; and when the humans start going primal it also serves to orient them as just another kind of primate cast back into a bigger evolutionary game. So though occasionally cringey and quite possibly wrong or distorted, these interludes work really well to establish the framework for the horror. That is vintage Brooks.

The characters, when they’re not stereotypes, are just generically awful Americans. The lesbian parents of an adopted Bangladeshi child who’re so sensitive to her culture but haven’t figured out she’s Muslim (yeah right); the pretentious GRR Martin-esque anthropologist who’s a man-splainer and is wrong about everything; the mild-mannered vegans who can’t be convinced to harm an animal to survive; and Katie herself, the very perfect stereotype of a neurotic upper class white American girl. Ugh. They all need to die. You start the book knowing they’re going to die but you still can’t wait. It makes you wonder if Brooks designed them to make you want them to die, which may not have been a bad thing given how excruciating their ends are. But still, it would be nice if I could enjoy pop culture stories with actually nice characters in them! These characters go through rapid development over the story as the pressure of their collapsing civilization comes to bear on them but three – Katie’s husband and the couple who established the community – go through lightning-fast changes that don’t make sense to me. In particular the psychological changes in the owners hint at a much bigger back story to how and why they established the community, and in my reading of the book suggested some form of culpability or guilt for what happened, which Brooks fails to explore. This lets us down a bit, since some important characters just suddenly get slotted into new roles without any reason. I think this is meant to be linked implicitly to the concept of Devolution introduced in the title and the discussion of Sasquatch’s evolutionary niche, but that discussion is too tightly focused on the Sasquatch to work in the context of the humans’ changes until the very end of the book, by which time it is half-forgotten and buried under a frenzy of destruction and bloodlust. So some of these sudden transformations don’t quite work, but the new roles they get are great, so who cares, really?

Finally, Brooks’s inability to modify his writing voice lets him down again, so that everyone the curator of the story interviews sounds just a bit too close to Katie herself to be able to separate them from her. I guess Brooks isn’t aware of this problem, because if he was he might not write these kinds of curated multi-part interview/story novels, since it’s a recipe for having your own shortcomings found out. It doesn’t let the novel down in the end – I devoured this book like a Sasquatch on a psychiatrist – but it does stop it from being the pitch perfect masterpiece it could have been in the hands of a more capable prose-wrangler. Brooks is a great writer, capable of great plot and perfect timing, very good at establishing and changing mood and a very good judge of pace and tension, but this one thing he can’t quite get right.

Despite these flaws though this is an absolute barnstormer of a book. It is tense, gripping, vicious and callous, as all good survival horror should be, and it plays out perfectly. It’s a quick but incredibly absorbing read that will have you thinking back on it for days after, wondering “what would I have done” and “how would I have coped”, and marveling at the horrific monsters you would be expected to face. It’s an excellent addition to the horror genre for those with a strong stomach and iron will, and I strongly recommend it to horror fans and Brooks aficionados alike.

 

Our heroes have jumped through a mystical portal into the vicinity of the hidden Corsair base, where they have immediately been attacked by a detachment of Corsair attack ships. The roster for this session:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist and roustabout
  • Saqr, pilot

The four ships arrived in sensor range together, captain Saqr’s attempts to manoeuvre away from them having proved unsuccessful. They swooped in to attack, and the Beast of Burden faced off against them in the cold Dark.

The destruction of the Corsair Fleet

The four corsair ships were small class II gunships, perhaps 30m long and designed purely for space battle around the corsair base. They moved in fast but disorderly, each trying to be the first to kill the intruder, so one rushed ahead and into the Beast of Burden‘s missile range. Using the ship’s advanced sensors Siladan was able to quickly lock onto it; they fired a torpedo while Adam opened fire, Saqr throwing the Beast of Burden into complex defensive manoeuvres just in case the incoming ships secured a lock.

They did not, and as the remaining three ships moved more cautiously into range they finished off the frontrunner, hitting it with data pulse and the energy weapon they had stolen from the First Horizon holdovers. Two more ships entered torpedo range but failed to secure locks, and before they could close into a better range Clementine and Siladan hit them with data pulses[1], cutting their systems and leaving them drifting helpless in space.

Now the battle had become easy. It is easy to imagine the corsair crew running around in their disabled ships, desperately trying to restart their reactors and sending djinn into the computer system to fight the data attack as torpedos streamed in and Adam picked away at the hull with the Beast of Burden‘s new energy weapons. Perhaps they were still fighting to regain control of their systems when the torpedo hit and blew away the entire bridge; maybe they were desperately repairing hull damage, praying loudly to the Dancer, as Adam carved their ship open from bow to stern with a single concentrated pulse of energy, and spilled them all into the Dark, still struggling and begging their disfigured Icon for aid. In any case, once the middle two ships were disabled the tide of battle turned quickly and they were soon left facing four disabled hulks. Three were breached and collapsed, mere salvage with perhaps a few dead crew left onboard who had not been sucked into the Dark when Adam burnt their hull away, but one was simply disabled, floating helpless as they moved into board, Siladan bombarding it with data pulses to keep its reactor quiescent as the rest of the crew suited up to move in for the kill.

Assault on the base

They boarded the remaining ship and captured the remaining surviving crew member easily, dragging him back to the Beast of Burden for interrogation. They were not gentle, but extreme measures were unnecessary – Al Hamra read his mind when they asked him questions, and they soon learnt all they needed to know about the Corsair base. It had no remaining defenses, Samina having assumed that sequestering her base in the Dark between the stars and hiding it behind a mystic portal, defended by four class 2 gunships, was a sufficient defense in itself. They could cruise in and take it at their leisure. Except that its remaining complement was formidable:

  • 64 soldiers, in teams of 4
  • 8 sergeants, each responsible for 2 teams
  • 4 champions, elite soldiers in battle exos
  • Samina
  • the Oracle
  • Whatever Darkbound Samina and the Oracle chose to summon

And of course, the Oracle could teleport between statues, so no doubt could appear behind them, perhaps to animate the dead they left in their wake.

They headed to the base. Sometimes you just need to take a risk. They had taken floor plans from the captive’s ship, so they knew that it had a large hangar section that their ship could not enter, and above that a level with four docking stations connected by wide corridors to a central elevator shaft. Each docking station was defended by two teams of soldiers and their leader. Saqr moved in fast and purposively to one of the docking stations, then diverted the ship and cut a rapid loop to a different station. Siladan hit the docking station fast and hacked its lock and they were through, into the first docking station, piling in to attack the soldiers on the other side before reinforcements could come from the other stations.

The final fight was on. It was five to one, but they would prevail. Right?


fn1: There is a lot wrong with the space combat rules in Coriolis, and in amongst them is the fact that the data pulse is massively overpowered. I suspect ion cannons are even worse.

 

Our heroes are trapped in a ransacked cultist sanctuary in Hamurabi station, facing off with a draconite hit squad that has surprised them. They were here to capture an Oracle and learn from him how to travel to the secret lair of Samina’s Corsairs, but he has teleported away using a large and ominous statue of the Dancer, their secondary objective; they cannot now move to take it, because they stand under the readied guns of a draconite hit team[4]. The roster for today’s adventure:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist and roustabout
  • Saqr, pilot

They decided that in this case discretion was better than bloody valour, especially considering they had had no time to recover from the many injuries they had incurred over the past week of frantic pursuit, and now even a light smattering of damage would likely go badly for them. Adam and Clementine eyed up that meson pistol, and considered the options for killing the draconites and taking it, but even though they both thought their team would prevail, likely one or more of them would die in the exchange. They decided to talk.

The draconites also seemed disinclined to fight, a good sign given that they had held the element of surprise. Al Hamra asked them what they wanted and they indicated that they had come for the statue. He suggested to them that he would happily hand it over if they helped him catch the Oracle, which offer the draconites declined: they did not care for the oracle, and would not waste their time helping the PCs. They wanted to get the statue and go.

Here the party had a small advantage over the draconites: Al Hamra could read minds. He asked a question and applied his mind-reading mystic power, learning quickly that the leader was in telepathic conversation with another, hidden draconite, presumably a mystic and definitely their leader[2]. From this little exchange Al Hamra also discovered that the draconites thought they could control Adam[5], and with that he realized that they really were going to need to talk their way out; but he also learnt that the draconites genuinely only cared about the statue. “Why do you need it?” He asked, and a moment later, against all expectations, the negotiator told them:

“It holds the soul of our founder.”

Well, that drew their attention. Realizing that this statue must be very valuable to them, Al Hamra decided to cut a deal: he offered to have Saqr bring it to them if they would hand over the leader’s meson pistol and leave in peace. It took the leader only a minute to accept this deal, and he even threw in the kind consideration of not killing dr. Delecta and taking back the draconite technology she carried. An agreement was reached, and Saqr walked over to pick up the statue.

As soon as he touched it Saqr was assaulted by a mystic wave of horror, fear and rage, an ancient and powerful force desperate not to be contained. He fought with all his will to resist the force possessing him, and resisted it long enough to hand the statue over to the draconite. Unable to tell anyone what he had experienced, he could only hope that the same force would not overwhelm the draconite. It appeared not to, and the draconite calmy took the statue, and handed the meson pistol over to Saqr. All five men then withdrew carefully, maintaining a cautious watch on the PCs until they were out of sight.

They had lost the statue, and for little prize. They retreated to the ship to nurse their pride and think about the next step in their mission against the Corsairs.

The legacy of the Dancer

Back at the Beast of Burden Saqr performed a mystic powers search, and located the Oracle in the Corsair base. They guessed then that he had teleported there to warn the Corsairs, who they could expect to be readying a welcome party. They guessed that the only way to get to the Corsair base was to travel to the coordinates they had found on the tabula, and there find some lost portal that would take them to the base. They guessed that they only had three days before the coordinates in the tabula expired, and they did not expect another message to arrive, so they had to act fast. However, they wanted to go in with some basic knowledge of what they were doing, and with a little recovery time. They took a full day to recover, during which time Al Hamra and Adam went in search of a weaponsmith to improve their weapons, and Siladan dug into his tomes of ancient knowledge to try and learn something about the connections between the corsairs and the cult of the Dancer that seemed to be so widespread throughout this part of the Horizon.

From fragments of text, stories and hints in the ancient histories of the Dabaran Circle, Siladan was able to piece together an outline of the story of the Dancer in this part of the Horizon. He learnt that when the Dabaran Shipbuilders came to the Third Horizon from the First Horizon they brought with them a dark cult, some kind of heretical nonsense connected with the original religion that they had believed in Al Ardha. This cult had survived for a while in the community those first shipbuilders formed around Atuta, the Unbroken, in Dabaran, but evnetually they were found and driven out, their terrible rites deemed despicable and evil. They fled to neighbouring systems, and in their flight they either discovered or were taken over by some power from the Dark between the Stars – or perhaps it had infected them in the long flight from the First Horizon and corrupted their religion that way. It was possible they laired in some ancient Portal Builder ruin, where they learnt dark secrets, but in any case somehow in this time of flight and conflict they mixed stories of some feminine energy called Lilith, from their original religion, with images and iconography of the Dancer. So their cult formed, hiding in the dark reaches of the lonely systems at the extreme edge of the Dabaran Circle, an area ignored by much of the rest of the Firstcome as they expanded into richer systems in the rest of the Third Horizon. Stories then told of a fresh assault on the cult by forces of the Nomad Federation, in allegiance with the Shipbuilders of Dabaran, in which a small militarist cult of the Messenger (or perhaps the Messenger himself; legends differed on the details) finally vanquished the emissaries of this twisted shadow of the Dancer. The cult was scattered, but over the succeeding centuries tales would arise hinting at the continued existence of fragments of the cult. Stories were also told about lost stars, dark stars, portal builder ruins far away from the portals themselves, wandering portals, and tears in the Dark itself which some creatures from the Dark between the Stars could use to travel between systems.

The PCs had been told before that the Corsairs were a kind of cult, and in the writings of the Collector at the space station in Algebar they had learnt of rumours that Samina herself was a powerful mystic in possession of a horrifying artifact that could boost her powers. Siladan surmised that the remnants of this ancient, corrupted cult of the Dancer had somehow formed Samina’s Corsairs and that Samina herself was the leader of this cult, perhaps taking on the form of the Dancer herself, or some twisted version thereof. This cult must have been twisted by exposure to the Dark between the Stars, and now dwelt in some lost Portal Builder ruin, from whence Samina used her strange powers to send ships to raid any system they chose. Perhaps the Corsairs’ plan to take over a small mining community in the Kua system, near Coriolis station itself, had been more sinister than a mere attempt to have a presence near Coriolis – perhaps she had known about the Cadaver Clock on Kua and aimed to take control of it or study it, with Rockhome 3 as a staging post for the mission. Or perhaps her plan had been to take over that community and slowly convert it to a cult, giving her a base of religious affairs from which she could easily touch Coriolis itself …

Whatever the reason, Siladan’s research confirmed for all the group that the Corsairs needed to be exterminated. Their mission was personal, religious, and essential. The next day they set off for the coordinates on the tabula, taking the Beast of Burden, the Grace of the Icons 7132, and the Shield of the Faceless. The Grace of the Icons 7132 had been reconfigured as a gunship at Dabaran, and the Shield of the Faceless, originally an Order of the Pariah troopship, had been reconfigured as a multipurpose attack ship with more weapons and a different signature. They hired 8 mercenaries, who took positions on the Beast of Burden, and left Hamura station in force.

The Corsair Base

They traveled for a day to reach the coordinates and when they arrived found themselves floating in empty space. They were an astronomical unit further away from the Hamura portals, far from any planet, and there was nothing to see but empty space. Unfazed, Al Hamra retired to the Beast of Burden’s observatory with a pair of spectacles of mystic vision, and under the glass dome lay back to stare into empty space through the spectacles. With their special power to see the Dark between the Stars the emptiness of space was transformed into a horrifying web of darkness, as if some hideous gigantic spider had stretched its lethal gossamers over an entire star system. Hanging in space in the midst of that web, some distance from their ship but visible through the lenses, was a ghostly portal wreathed in shadow. Their portal was a mystical gateway, and they would have to fly through it.

Using their two sets of glasses, Al Hamra and Saqr plotted a course through the portal. Everyone retired to their stasis pods, Saqr set a course, and the three ships entered the Dark Gate.

An hour later they awoke to the sound of proximity warnings, alarms ringing to warn them of incoming ships. They rushed to the bridge, activated sensors, and found themselves in uncharted space. The ship’s astrolabe told them they were in the centre of the Dabaran circle, equidistant from all of its stars, in a part of space with no star. Visual scanners showed them a stunning vista of stars, their sparkling light undiminished by any nearby star, and far away in the distance a single rock floating in space – the Corsair base. And from that rock had come four attack ships, which now bore down on them from four distant points. They had been warned, and had been waiting in orbit of the portal exit, and now they were incoming. Worse still, the Beast of Burden was alone: the Grace of the Icons 7132 and the Shield of the Faceless had not come through the portal, and were now lost in the Dark between the Stars, no doubt being torn apart by horrifying beasts of gigantic and terrible form. Only the Beast of Burden stood against four class 2 attack ships.

Saqr desperately manoeuvred to try and make space between some of the ships, so that they could fight at least one on its own before the whole squadron arrived, but he failed. All four ships came hurtling in, and the crew of the Beast of Burden turned their ship about, and prepared for the fight of their lives …

 


fn1: In game terms this means that all 5 of the draconites are in overwatch, and will get an automatic attack as soon as anyone tries to do anything aggressive. The leader is carrying a meson pistol, which ignores armour; as one player noted, Dr. Delekta is wearing an invisibility sphere stolen from the draconites, so it is likely that there are more scattered about, invisible, also in overwatch, possibly with meson rifles.

fn2: Just as that player predicted, I had a sixth draconite hidden, with another meson pistol, in overwatch, using telepathy. So there was a very good chance that in the first round of combat these two would eliminate two of the PCs, since their weapons can cut through armour, and then things would get very nasty very quickly[3]

fn3: This might seem like overkill but my party by now have accrued probably 80xp each, three attribute increases, a second group talent, and a shit-ton of high quality weaponry[4], and it is almost impossible to set them a challenge when they’re geared up; the draconites know this, because they aren’t stupid, and have acted accordingly.

fn4: We are a couple of sessions from the end of the campaign and they deserve every hard-earned point of advantage they have accrued so far; indeed, the denoument of this campaign is going to be a raid on their own space station to dislodge an ifrit they accidentally teleported in there. They still have a lot of work to do!

fn5: At the very beginning of the campaign Adam’s player chose “creature of the draconites” as his personal problem and, well, that’s really too luscious a peach not to pluck at a time like this isn’t it? Had the PCs decided to fight these guys, Adam – their machine gunner and most powerful combatant – was going to be forced to switch sides, or at least to make very difficult skill checks to resist commands.

Our heroes have defeated a squad of assassins sent by Samina’s Corsairs, though they do not know how they are being tracked, and are ready to move on to Hamura station. The roster for today’s session:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner

The trip to Hamura was easy enough, their whole fleet arriving with no mishaps in the Dark between the stars, and docking comfortably with the Hamurabi portal station. As they docked they noticed a small Draconite ship, the Elegy, sitting on one of the station’s landing platforms. Could it be a coincidence that this sleek and beautiful vessel from the Third Horizon’s most enigmatic faction was here at the same station as them? The Draconites were too dangerous a faction to meddle with, so they hoped they were not, and guessed that if the draconites shared their purpose they would discover soon enough, one way or another.

Hamura has only two planets, one a barren rock and one a water world, and a single gas giant that is mined extensively for ice and minerals. They arrived at Hamurabi station during a mining period, so the roughneck miners were not clogging its old and dusty corridors to spend their hard-earned money, and the station had an air of emptiness and decay about it. They were met by obsequious local officials who had heard much of their reputation on the Dabaran circle, and were eager to make their acquaintance and take their money. They found accommodation in Hamurabi station’s most expensive hotel, and set about searching for information on the Oracle, the strange mystic who was rumoured to hold the key to traveling to the Corsairs’ secret base.

Their first attempts to make conversation with local workers did not go well, with the off-duty station hands that Siladan approached being completely uninterested in sharing any of their precious downtime with a stranger. After this attempt failed, however, they were lucky: the local Colonial Agent, Yasintra Hur, invited them to dinner, and they were able to pass a comfortable time with her eating luxuriantly and discussing the problems of the station. From Yasintra they learnt of a strange cult that operated beneath an old water reclamation plant in the bowels of the station, that was run by an old man who claimed to his followers to have a direct insight into the soul of the universe. It was said that this cult had an obssession with the dancer, though Yasintra herself had not confirmed it.

This was enough for the characters: they set off to deal with the cult.

The Statuette of Souls

They learnt that the station had a fairly relaxed approach to weapons, and that the route to the water tower would take them mostly on deserted corridors linked by a service elevator, so they decided to risk traveling through the station fully armed and armoured. This was a good idea, because they soon discovered the cult was not a friendly operation. They found it where they had been told it would be, a small chapel with a couple of side rooms on the first floor, and a second floor they guessed held living quarters for the cultists. Its position under the water reclamation system made it hot and humid, and the environment around the cult entrance was squalid and foreboding. There were two entrances to the chapel, both surmounted by poor quality frescoes of the Dancer.

When they opened the doors they found a small room occupied by four skinny cultists in rough robes, praying before a small dais. A large black statuette, perhaps a meter high, stood on the dais: it was a carbon copy of the statuette they had found in Ahura, and lost on Coriolis, and their guess was that it was of similar age and provenance. The cultists seemed to be worshiping it. Dr. Delekta engaged her invisibility sphere and crept around the edge of the room to stand near it, just in case, as the cultists broke from their religious reverie and turned to face the PCs. At the same time an old man emerged from a side room and walked over to stand in front of the statue – apparently unaware of Delekta’s presence – where he began berating the characters for their impertinence.

The following discussion fell apart rapidly, and after a couple of seconds of poor negotiation the angry old man ordered his followers to attack the PCs. Another group of wretched cultists charged out of a side room to attack, and the PCs prepared to put them down like dogs. Delekta, seeing a chance to save lives, put her gun against the old man’s temple and ordered him to call off his followers or die. He merely looked at her and with a simple act of will forced her to turn and shoot her fellows. Fortunately she missed, and Al Hamra, realizing the oracle had mystic powers, used his own power of domination to force the old man to call off his followers. No sooner had he done so, however, than four horrible creatures came slinking out of another room and attacked Siladan. They were darkbound, bodies of dead humans that had been taken over by some power from the dark between the stars. These darkbound wore tattered cultists robes, and they guessed must be former members of the church. Was the oracle a necromancer!?

As Siladan, Clementine and Al Hamra dealt with the darkbound Adam and Dr. Delekta attempted to tackle the old man. They grabbed him successfully but he was able to reach out and touch the statue and a moment later he was gone, physically removed from the room. His followers fled, though Al Hamra was able to grab one as he passed, and the temple was theirs.

Old Friends

They searched the temple, finding nothing but the stinking rags of the cultists and a few worthless religious items. In the room that the darkbound had emerged from they found a set of spectacles, of the same kind used by Saqr, that enable the user to see mystic powers and the influence of the dark between the stars. They also found a tabula, which was completely blank except for a single message chain that consisted of messages arriving once per week containing a set of coordinates. The sender had no address or connection details, and the old man had never replied. They took the tabula and spectacles and interrogated their captured cultist.

The unfortunate man revealed that they all worshiped the dancer, and the statuette of the dancer. The oracle had told them that this statuette contained all the memories of anyone who had ever lived in the Third Horizon, and by worshiping it they could learn the secrets of all of history and humanity. Every time they attended rituals with him, the statuette would share a little glimpse into the soul of a long dead person, and they would gain a little insight into humanity. Once their insight was complete they would transcend the mortal realm and become like Icons themselves. There were four small empty plinths next to the large statuette, on which the cultist told them the old man would sometimes place a smaller statue. These plinths were just the right size for the smaller statuettes the PCs had seen in Coriolis station, and now possessed one of themselves.

This interview wound up prematurely, however, when they heard a cough from the door and turned to find themselves facing a draconite hit squad. Four men in full draconite armour and their leader, all carrying meson pistols, stood at the door looking in, with their weapons trained on the characters.

They had been found, and now they would have to reckon with the draconites.

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

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

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

Ambushed

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

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

Backlach the Feeder

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

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

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

The Taoan Blockade

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

 


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

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

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

 

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

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

The abandoned mine

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

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

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

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

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

The statuette

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

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

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

The sentinels

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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