And if you die by your own hand
As a suicide you shall be damned
And if you try to save your soul
I will torment you, you shall not grow old
With every second and passing breath
You’ll be so alone, your soul will bleed to death
Moonchild, hear the mandrake scream
Moonchild, open the seventh seal
Moonchild, you’ll be mine soon child
Moonchild, take my hand tonight

Our heroes have arrived at the Melik system, where they stop briefly at the famed Hormous station. For a day they explored its mysterious portal wonders, wandering around the white-washed halls of the ancient portal builder station and enjoying the mysteries of its many interconnected sections, before they received a message with an offer of work. A man called Aaryan Sin sent them a video message, telling them he needed the help of “Amadi’s combat archaeologists,” and inviting them to visit him on the surface of Melik 2, at the island called Terminus. To sweeten his offer, he was willing to pay them 1000 birr to transport some basic cargo to the base, where they could discuss – and refuse – his job offer if they wished.

The roster for today’s mission:

 

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Banu Delecta, doctor

Terminus island

Terminus is the only permanent non-native settlement on Melfik 2, and serves as the main supply and support base for researchers working all across both hemispheres of this strange planet. It is located at the furthest reach of the shadow of Melfik 2’s largest moon, on the equator, so enjoys the warmest weather that can be experienced within close reach of the dark side of the planet. Melik 2 has a strange celestial phenomenon, a massive moon half the diameter of the planet that is locked into a geo-stationary orbit with the planet, so close that it blocks much of the sunlight to one half of the planet. As a result one half of the planet is permanently in shadow, seeing sunlight only for a few hours at dawn and dusk, and the entire planet is very cold because of the lost energy. The planet’s original Firstcome inhabitants have regressed to a near-neolithic existence, likely under the catastrophic effect of the looming moon, and live in scattered islands on the sunward side of the planet, or remote and isolated communities in the ice of the night side. Because the planet was originally a Firstcome settlement there is much research here, with archaeologists and scientists attempting to find ancient ruins to investigate; and the looming moon draws the attention of physicists and biologists eager to learn about its influence. However, Consortium rules prevent direct interference in the lives of the natives, and so only one permanent settlement exists, the hard-scrabble island of Terminus.

The PCs flew in on their shuttle, the No Satisfaction, leaving the Beast of Burden in a nearby orbit to monitor their situation. No ships above class 2 are allowed to enter the atmosphere of Melik 2, and all movement around the planet is restricted to ground vehicles and native mounts, a kind of huge bison-like creature called a Hovva. This restriction is partly intended to protect the natives from interference, and partly intended to prevent accidents – under the influence of the moon’s gravity the smaller graviton projectors of class 1 or class 2 ships can be unstable, so flight is limited. This was clear when they arrived at the Terminus airstrip and found it deserted, with only a few crates to break the vista of mud-and-snow, and no one to meet them. As they waited on the desolate, frozen, windy landing strip a small crew of men arrived to being unpacking crates, and a petrochemical-powered vehicle rolled up to their ship. A middle-aged, brown-skinned man hopped out and introduced himself as Aaryan Sin. He was a cheerful, relaxed and voluble chap, welcoming them all with broad gestures and a loud voice, and inviting them all into his undersized vehicle. He gave instructions to the surly stevedores, and they headed into the settlement over bumpy, poorly-maintained roads.

At the settlement Aaryan explained himself and his situation. He was a long-term friend of their patron, Drefusol Amadi, and was thrilled to have them in his system – he had run into a small problem recently with which he could use their help. Aaryan was a fixer, a man who organized porters, security, transport and guides for researchers working on Melik 2. Recently one of the teams he had been supporting had gone missing, and he needed someone to go and find them. They had been out of contact for three days so he had activated their insurance clause, which meant he could pay the PCs 10,000 birr upfront to help find them, and 15,000 more if things turned dangerous. He expected that the research group was already dead, but he wanted the PCs to find out what or who had killed them, and if necessary bring them to justice. If it was something sinister, such as a Firstcome remnant, they were to kill it if they could and split any treasure with Aaryan. Aaryan gave them a brief overview of the research team – a leader, two students, three labourers and a data djinn – and their coordinates. Since he suspected that they might have been betrayed by competitors, and had some cargo to deliver, he would like them to first visit a research base, located three days’ journey by boat and Hovva from Terminus, and three days’ Hovva ride from the research team’s last location. He would like them to spend a night there investigating the activities of possible rivals, then go and find the team. Since the insurance clause had been triggered, they were able to use their spaceship for the mission – a rare benefit for anyone on this planet. Aaryan warned them that graviton projectors would not work well, and they would not be able to use advanced communications in the shadow of the moon – most people used radio. He gave them a simple radio set and loaned them a half-track, to which Adam attached the group’s machine gun, and they were ready to go.

The PCs agreed to the mission, and set off for the nameless exploration settlement that Aaryan directed them to.

The exploration settlement

They arrived at the exploration settlement within an hour, and were greeted by its manager, Col Maggarh. The settlement was a ramschackle collection of huts and warehouses, with about 70 residents of whom only about 40 were regulars, mostly bodyguards, porters and courtesans. They checked into the only hotel, a small series of capsules called the Ice Rose, and ventured out to the local tavern, the only watering hole within 1000km, an old but well-kept place called the Ice Louse. This tavern was some kind of converted warehouse, warm and decorated with idiosyncratic tables of driftwood and polished bone. Here they separated, with two members of the party heading to the local Ahlam’s Temple conveniences while two remained in the tavern to socialize and learn rumours.

They did not learn much, but it was enough. No one knew much of the group they were chasing, but one of Ahlam’s courtesans recalled one of the group, a Muhammed Ibn Har, spent a lot of money at the Temple, even though he was just a labourer. Others reported that the team’s leader, Alma Sinra, was extremely secretive about her mission. While they were here they also learned that most of the natives in the area were friendly and not dangerous, and that there had recently been some gravitational disturbances. These disturbances were so bad that the exploration settlement’s earthquake warning alarms – which are triggered by graviton waves – had been going off without cause, annoying the camp and creating conflict between the researchers and Col Maggarh, who did not want to repair them until he was paid.

While they were dressing in the rest rooms of Ahlam’s Temple, Oliver Greenstar and Siladan saw a disturbing news item on the public news channel. A few hours earlier someone had discovered that the entire complement of Church of the Icons monks on Hormous station had been murdered. Someone had infiltrated their rooms and murdered them. The news did not reveal exactly when or who had done it, only that investigations were ongoing. Why would someone murder peaceful monks, whose only job was to maintain constant prayer at their strange and unorthodox shrine? Most likely it was just some internal religious conflict, but it was still disturbing news. Something about the circumstances of this mission made them all jumpy.

They also met a woman, Argent Flame, who was a specialist in Firstcome languages. Adam invited her to visit their space station, and investigate its rich (but disturbing) writings. She agreed, though they did not settle on a time. The next morning, they all headed to the research team’s last known location.

The crash site

As they approached the coordinates they had been given a thick mist lay across the landscape, giving them only fleeting views of a small expeditionary camp. As they flew towards it Delecta activated her proximity sensor and identified eight shapes milling around pointlessly near the landing site. They came to a careful halt a short distance from the camp and rode the half track down the ramp towards the camp, coming to a halt a short distance from the milling figures. In the thick fog the half-track’s headlamps only reached 20m before the scattered light became blinding. Oliver Greenstar stepped out of the half-track and moved forward, covered by Adam’s machine gun, and Siladan moved the half-track forward slowly, its ancient petrochemical engine growling and coughing in the cold.

After a short distance they found the body of a dead man, badly disfigured. As Oliver approached the body, a gang of huge scavenger-beasts scattered and ran away – the source of the eight points on Delecta’s proximity sensor. They had obviously been eating the body, which was torn apart and scattered over the frozen ground. Beyond it the temporary accommodation of the research base loomed in the mist, three auto-erecting prefab buildings. Dr Delecta exited the half-track and checked the body, but her university education and residency in a swish plastic surgery in the upper levels of Coriolis had not prepared her for this kind of wreckage, and she could not sort through the gore to identify how the poor person had died. They identified the body as Mohammed ibn Har, the man who had been splashing his newfound cash at Ahlam’s Temple, and when they searched his body they found a strange, small tabula that was too thin and too small to be normal.

The tabula’s battery appeared to be drained and the camp was deathly silent, so they decided to explore the buildings and see if they could charge the tabula or find other evidence of the activities of the camp. Adam remained on guard duty in the half-track, machine gun at the ready, as the team fanned out to check the accommodation. Dr Delecta searched the labourer’s accommodation, finding ibn Har’s bunk and looking for evidence of spying, but was attacked by one of the strange scavenger dogs as she searched. It attacked her from behind, its vicious bite failing to break her armour, and she ran outside screaming. The beast followed, a huge ragged six-legged furry slug of a thing, the size of a dining-room table and made entirely of claws and thick, stinking fur. As it burst out of the door, snarling and breathing noxious rotten-meat breath, Adam hit it with the full force of the machine gun and smeared across the accommodation walls. Somewhere far away the other dogs wailed and ran away. Delecta retreated to the safety of the half-track, chastened.

Siladan found Dr. Sinra’s office and accommodation. He found a map that showed where the dig site was, but seemed to indicate that there was a strange geological structure between the camp and the site, though he could not understand from the map what it was. He searched her research tabula and learnt the reason she had come here: she had learnt rumours of a crashed Firstcome ship, probably from the Emirate planet, and had come to investigate it. She seemed averse to writing down details, so he could learn nothing about how she had discovered its existence or what she was looking, except that a native had stumbled upon a fresh rockfall that revealed the ship, and someone had alerted her to it. This seemed very suspicious to Siladan, but he could not pin down why. He dug around in the research room and found a charger, which he modified to fit into ibn Har’s strange tabula, but was surprised to discover, when he tried to activate it, that the tabula was not drained. Rather, its battery had self-destructed and melted much of the inside of the tabula, apparently intended to render it inoperable. Siladan fiddled, and was able to liberate an undamaged memory chip. He linked this up to his own tabula, and discovered that the strange tabula had been used only once, and for one purpose: to send a tight-beam burst on a highly advanced communications system directly to the Order of the Pariah troopship, the Judgment of the Dancer, which was docked at Hormous station. The message was a single, ominous phrase:

The worst has happened. Activate all measures immediately.

It appeared that Mohammed ibn Har had been working for the Order of the Pariah. Something must have happened at the dig site, and he had fled back to the camp to release this message. What were “all measures”? And what was “the worst”?

Adam grunted. “I’m getting sick of careless archaeologists,” he muttered, and they boarded their ship to head for the dig site.

Behind the seven seals

The dig site was just 2 km from the camp, but they were glad they flew there. Beneath the No Satisfaction they saw a huge expanse of broken and tumbled ice, that would have been almost impossible to navigate with their half-track and which looked dangerous even for a small team on foot. They skipped over it and landed within a short distance of the dig site itself, again rolling down the ramp from the ship in their coughing, roaring old half-track, which crawled over shallow snow and gravel to a small hillside, where a recent rockfall had revealed a narrow cut into the hill. A single long-lasting expedition lamp cast a smouldering, sulphurous glow over the outside of the cave. They had found the dig site. The ship must be behind the rock fall. What icy aeons had encased this ship, and what had the ship been carrying? There was only one way to find out, so they drove the half-track close to the hole, parked it with the machine gun facing the hole, and exited into the chilly, filthy planetary air. As they walked towards the hole in the rockfall they received a message from Saqr, on the Beast of Burden. It had been hanging in orbit above Melik 2, in a position from which they hoped to be able to receive broadcasts, but Saqr’s message dashed those hopes, and brought far worse news:

Adam, team. I’m sorry but there is gravitational disturbance up here and the Beast’s graviton projectors aren’t working well. I am returning to Hormous station to check them, and for safety. Also, I know you’re not going to believe this but please do. I think the moon has begun to fall towards the planet. I think you should come back, because my calculations are it will destroy the planet in a week if nothing changes. Whatever’s going on down there, please figure it out and get out soon. If I don’t hear from you within 12 hours I’ll come looking. Somehow.

Something terrible was happening, and after the news at the research base the PCs had a good idea of what. Whatever was happening in orbit was connected to whatever this archaeological team had been doing in this hole in the ground. They had no choice but to continue, even as the moon began to fall.

They crept through the narrow culvert and into the bowels of the ship. First they entered a large, empty cargo hold. They searched it and found two strange sarcophagus-like stasis pods. Both were empty and closed, and were not connected to any power source. They appeared to have been simply cargo. Both were of amazing beauty and probably great worth, just sitting there untouched in the first, most easily-accessible room of the ship. Why had the dig team not taken them?

The cargo hold was maybe 40m in diameter, its inner side holding two large doors. A firstcome symbol had been painted on both doors in bold, strong strokes of red paint that had not faded in however many centuries the ship had rested here. They could not read the symbol, but it seemed freighted with menace. The right hand door was locked, but the left hand door had been hacked using a common archaeological device, which was low on batteries but still active. They pushed the button, slid the door open and stepped inside.

Beyond this door was a 15m long, 10m wide hangar. It held a single Firstcome flyer, a beautiful example of its kind, splendidly worked in strange metals with beautiful designs etched in its slim and stylish form. It was clearly a very high quality, and extremely rare specimen of its kind, probably priceless on the antique market. They stared at it in stunned silence, until they noticed a blood stain on its bow, and a body lying in a pool of blood on the ground. Approaching carefully, they identified it as one of the expedition’s students, Jiwanna. She was a 23 year old third year master’s student with a stationary background, obviously attacked by something that had bitten her throat and back. She must have fled here but succumbed to her injuries, falling on the front of the flyer and then dying in the dark, cold of the ship’s bowels.

At the far end of the room they found another door with the same disturbing symbol carved on it. This door, too, had been hacked with a common archaeological device. They slapped the button and stepped through into a room of darkness and horror.

It was 40m wide and about 30m deep, an octagonal shape. There were no lights or energy in the ship, so they could only explore it using their suit lamps, narrow beams of forlorn blue light that only showed them small parts of the disturbing scene at a time. The first thing they saw was a dead person, preserved by an aeon of frozen dry air, their skin dry and clinging to their bones. The person was wearing a ceremonial robe and lying in a circle that appeared to have been hastily painted on the floor, a silver knife lying by their side and a thin film of dessicated dried blood surrounding their body. The painted circle was part of a larger arrangement, two circles that touched it on opposite sides. These two painted circles were filled with Firstcome writing, hastily scrawled in large, messy, sweeping patterns between the circles. They followed the circles around the room, peering into the gloom with the weak blue light of their suit lamps and confirmed their worst fears: a ritual had been enacted here. Two huge circles had been drawn on the floor, linking together seven smaller circles and filled with ancient writing. In each of the seven smaller circles a single robed person lay dead. In one circle was a book, full of Firstcome writing, that appeared to be made of some kind of cured flesh bound between two plates of bone from some kind of large animal. The ritual must have been enacted hastily, because the room had once been a kind of rest room or ready room for nobles, but all the furniture and items in the room had been torn up and hastily thrown against the walls to make space for the circle. The PCs guessed that the ship had crashed and whoever was in the ship had hastily moved everything in the room aside to make space for the ritual. Why?

There was a large door on the far side of the room, again painted with that strange symbol. The two doors that opened in the room from the direction they had come were not painted with the same seal. This seal was only painted on doors on the face that pointed towards the ship’s only viable exit. Why?

As they were pondering this the party were attacked by Bokor. Thin, shadowy beasts emerged from the second door on the wall next to the door through which they had entered, and tried to kill them. There were four of them, almost completely insubstantial with their hunger, reaching desperately for the only warmth they could hope for in this Icons-forsaken ship. The PCs fought the starved shadows off easily, killing them quickly without injury. When they searched the room the Bokors had come from they found the other two labourers from the dig crew. They must have entered this room and been ambushed by the Bokors. Perhaps the Bokors had been sealed in here and the labourers had opened the door? In the main room they found the body of the dig crew’s data djinn, Azzar Akter, a 25 year old man. All of them had been killed by the Bokors. It was tempting to think they had been ambushed here and fled, but where was Sivada, the other student? And where was Alma Sinra? The door on the inner side of the room, protected by its seal, had the same hacking device attached to its control panel. They activated it, and stepped through.

Inside was a small ante-chamber, separated from the ship’s bridge by a glass door, on which the same seal was painted. The remaining student, Sivada, lay dead on the floor in the middle of the room, and Alma Sinra was prowling around the bridge, looking ragged and haunted. A sarcophagus lay open in the bridge area. As they entered Sinra ran to the door and yelled at them,

Don’t go back! Die in here with me!

Then suddenly her expression changed, becoming wild and frenzied. Her whole body, short and frumpy from years of deskwork, shook with rage and anguish, and then she screamed a super human scream of rage that could never come from a woman of her frame. She hit the door button, and it slid open.

Moments later, a strange shadowy form slid across the space from the door, and took control of Dr. Delecta. She opened fire on Adam and turned to run for the next door. By now the PCs were used to this kind of thing – they had seen djinn[1] before on the Orun 2 – so they tried to tackle her. Two of them failed, but Siladan beat her down with his halberd. He knocked her down, and Adam grabbed her and dragged her towards the sarcophagus, hoping to stuff her in and seal it before the djinn could escape. He wasn’t fast enough, and as he was trying to push her in a dark shadow slid out, took control of poor confused Dr. Sinra, and fled for the door. She turned towards them and hit them all with a blast of Mystic power that completely floored them, smashing them with a wave of panic that threw them all away from her. As they cowered in the corners she hit the door open button and ran outside before anyone could stop her.

By the time they recovered the Efrit was gone, the last door closed behind it and sealed against them. Whatever madness had possessed it over the past aeon was now free on Melik 2. And the moon was falling.

They had failed.


fn1: Actually this beast is an Efrit, the elite of Djinn, and makes the djinn they met in the Orun 2 look like small fry. Big trouble here, and it’s only getting worse!

 

 

Star: White

Planets: 5G

 

Known for:

The Blue Gas giant of Jibri

The Hormous Spaceport

The Radiation Spires

 

Astrography

 

Melik has a stable portal and system, but the strange situation of the moon around Melik 2 means it is a site of intensive research on gravitation.

 

Introduction

 

A relatively straightforward system astrologically, Melik has a very strange set of inner planets that make it a magnet for scientists and archaeologists from the rest of the Horizon. Its innermost planet, Melik 1, was once the home of a large civilization that was extinguished hundreds of years ago for reasons no one knows. The general theory is that it destroyed itself through climate change and industrial pollution, but there is no extant record of its existence, its cities and settlements have long since crumbled to dust, and the atmosphere of its planet is too toxic to make research worthwhile. Other planets in the system are rich with Firstcome ruins and history, and the system is busy because of research on these systems and the strange gravitational situation in Melik 2.

 

Melik 1

 

Size 13000 km (1.1g)
Orbit Empty
Atmosphere Infiltrating, toxic
Temperature Burning (90c)
Geosphere Earth-like
Population Uninhabited
Space port Nothing
Hooks Emirate (extinct)
Number of factions
Factions
Special
Distance 1.3 AU

 

Notes

 

This planet used to be ruled by an Emirate, but its industrial waste destroyed the planet. They all died or left, and no one knows what happened to them or why.

 

Melik 2

 

Size 10,000 km (0.7g)
Orbit 7 moons (biggest one is 5,000km, geostationary)
Atmosphere Breathable
Temperature Cold (-50c)
Geosphere Island world (oceans with some dry land)
Population 80,000
Space port Trade Cluster (Hormous space port)
Hooks Primitive first-come (Eskimos on one side and islander-types on the other)
Number of factions 5
Factions Nomad Federation, Church of the Icons, Syndicate, Consortium, Order of the Pariah
Special The Hormous space port is here
Distance 1.7 AU

 

Notes

 

This planet was originally a Firstcome civilization, but over the 1000 years since they arrived they regressed and fell into barbarism. Some think this is because they settled a planet with a strange gravitational anomaly, while others think the gravitation anomaly caused their civilization to collapse. The gravitational anomaly in question is the huge moon that hangs in a geostationary orbit that is too close to the planet to be physically possible. One side has little sunlight due to the geostationary moon, while the other is warmer. There is a large island in the terminus where the tribes meet regularly, but where there is also a Syndicate presence. The Consortium is sending anthropologists to deal with the Firstcome to find out what secrets are buried in the planet’s ice. There is only water on the equator of the bright side of the planet. What are the Order of the Pariah doing here? And are the Church of the Icons illegally converting the locals? The Church of the Icons faction here is a radical splinter group who believe that the geostationary moon is holding back some dark power from the Emirate on Melik 1. If they stop their religious observances, the moon will begin moving and whatever dark force caused the emirate to disappear will be unleashed on the horizon. They pray seven times a day and hold special ceremonies.

 

Melik 3

 

Size 10,000 km (0.6g)
Orbit Empty
Atmosphere Breathable
Temperature Temperate (10c)
Geosphere Earth-like
Population 900,000
Space port Simple space port
Hooks Corsairs
Number of factions 3 competing
Factions Zenithian Hegemony, Consortium, Order of the Pariah
Special  
Distance 2.0 AU

 

Notes

The space port is run by the consortium and the zenithian hegemony. Pirates operate from the planet.

 

Melik 4

 

Size 2,000 km (0.1g)
Orbit Empty
Atmosphere Toxic
Temperature Temperate (5c)
Geosphere Wet (some oceans but mostly land)
Population Uninhabited
Space port  
Hooks  
Number of factions  
Factions  
Special Radiation spires
Distance 2.3 AU

 

 

Notes

Melik 4 is a small, empty planet with a temperate and wet environment that would be earth-like but for its toxic atmosphere. The atmosphere is toxic because the planet is inside the radiation spires, huge plumes of radiation that bloom periodically in space and always encompass the planet. No one understands how these spires appear out of nothing – the consensus is that it must be an inexplicable quantum anomaly – but some small research stations lie in the spires in far orbit around Melik 4 to study them.

 

Melik 5

 

Size 15,000 km (1.5g)
Orbit Nothing
Atmosphere Breathable
Temperature Temperate (15c)
Geosphere Arid (huge deserts, dry steppes and a few small oceans)
Population 40,000
Space port Trade cluster
Hooks Scientists
Number of factions Two competing
Factions Zenithian Hegemony, The Legion
Special
Distance 2.8 AU

 

Notes

The scientists here have built a huge research base to study the entire system. It has a massive telescope and is used to try to understand the radiation spires and the locked moon. These scientists are connected to the Zenithian Hegemony. The Legion also have scientists here, trying to develop a gravitational weapon. This is basically a planet of scientists.

 

Jibri

 

Size 40,000 km
Color Blue
Temperature -200c
Characteristics Super storm
Orbit Empty
Moons 13 moons
Population  
Space port  
Hooks  
Number of factions  
Factions  
Special  
Distance  

 

 

In the last session the group raided a space station in Assager’s Ghost, a huge asteroid belt in the Algebar system. Here they found a mad mystic/scientist, who was conducting vivisection experiments on mystic prisoners and using them as fuel for some ancient portal builder technology that enabled him to massively boost the range and effect of his mystic powers. At the base of his twisted and decayed station he had a large lab, with dead and dying mystics on vivisection tables and a few mystics held in cages. All this was in service of a strange Firstcome machine in which he lay, held in a cocoon something like a stasis pod, and projected his powers across the system.

The PCs destroyed the machine and set about cleaning up the station, with the idea that they would take possession of it. What could go wrong? The cast for this session:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic

They discussed hiring some people in Algebar to conduct repairs, but decided against this action and in favour of secrecy. Instead they set about repairing the damage to the docking area themselves, and cleaning up the research lab. With the Beast of Burden hanging in space very close to the station, Oliver Greenstar and Banu Delecta on alert on the ship, they set about repairing the station. Saqr and Reiko worked in the basement laboratory, cleaning out the dead bodies and slowly breaking down the ruins of the machine, while Siladan and Adam worked in the docking station area, repairing the damage they had done with their ship’s heavy accelerator cannon. While they worked the three mystics they had rescued rested in the accomodation section of the station, attempting to overcome their nightmares.

The dead attack

Siladan and Adam were working in quiet companionship on the top deck of the station when something emerged from the dark to attack Adam. Fortunately he saw it coming, and reacted in time to defend himself. It was a torn body in a heavily damaged exo suit, its fragmented body parts held together by a web of shadow and ghost-like ephemera. He recognized the uniform as belonging to one of the men they had first encountered when they raided the station, and as he fended off its attack he realized that the guards who had been blown out into space by their accelerator cannon had been reanimated by something in the Dark between the stars – and had come back to get them.

As he raised the alarm another came down the hallway, towards Siladan, who was now warned and able to open fire. They fought. The beasts attacked with claws and strange webs of darkness that threw tendrils of freezing cold over their targets and attempted to confuse and horrify them. Their touch was deadly cold and numbing, and they were fast but not strong. Adam was able to quickly defeat his but two more entered the ship and headed down into the hangar deck.

Hearing the alarm, Saqr and Reiko headed to the elevators and began to head up the station towards the hangar deck. However halfway up something turned off all the gravity in the station, and they realized that something was taking control of the station. Reiko moved up to the hangar deck to join the battle while Saqr tried to find the source of the problem. Up above Siladan jumped into the elevator shaft to follow the undead down into the hangar deck, and found strange, thick tendrils of darkness had entered the station through the damaged outer hull of the docking station. They were snaking around the hangar deck, destroying parts of the wall and moving into the elevator shafts. He attacked the tendrils, destroying one, and sent messages to the other PCs.

Up above, Adam fought the monsters. Down below, Saqr realized that the entire station was being controlled by some dark power, the leader of these beasts. He fought and regained control of the station, and then headed to the elevator. A battle in the elevator followed, as the leader of the undead attempted to take the elvator down, and Saqr found himself trapped in the elevator with it. Siladan leapt onto the elevator roof and struggled to open an access hatch, and between them they fought the leader of the beasts.

Up above, Adam finally defeated the last of the undead and followed the rest of his team down to the basement research facility. Siladan, realizing that the shadowy tendrils were growing thicker and harder to stop, called the Beast of Burden and asked them if there was something outside the station. They realized there was, and Al Hamra’s spirit in the ship used his power of solidifying beasts of darkness to force the shadowy beast to become corporeal. It emerged from the darkness, a huge squid of inky-black and suppurating flesh, its tentacles wrapped in a death grip around the station. Oliver Greenstar opened fire on the suddenly corporeal beast with the ship’s accelerator cannon, destroying it after two hits.

Their station was saved, and the creatures of the Dark had been repulsed.

Travel to Melik

They spent a little more time repairing the station, and once the docking station was intact and atmosphere had been returned to the uppermost level, they left the mystics in the station and headed to the portals. Although Algebar’s portal is unstable they navigated it successfully, and jumped without incident to Melik. They were one step closer to their goal, and ready to explore the strange, fate-bound system of Melik.

My recent post on the case fatality ratio of the new Wuhan Coronavirus sparked a long discussion about the role of European epidemics in the colonization of the new world. There is a theory that after Europeans came to the new world (the Americas, Australia, etc) they brought with them diseases that went through the local populations like wildfire, killing huge proportions of the local populations because they were not previously exposed to these diseases, and so lethality was much higher and even simple diseases that Europeans were used to (like influenza) were highly destructive in these naive populations.

This theory sparked my statistician’s skepticism, and also my cynicism about colonial narratives. Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492, an era not known for its highly advanced demography, and when they arrived counting the locals wasn’t their primary priority. Epidemiology wasn’t particularly advanced at that time either, and medicine incredibly poor quality, not to mention the difficulty of preserving accounts from that time. Furthermore, I don’t see any evidence that the mortality rates due to diseases like smallpox and plague have changed over time in western populations, and because our recent encounters (in the past 500 years) with immunologically naive populations have been very hostile it’s hard to believe that people bothered to adequately (let alone accurately) record what happened in that time, and it’s hard to imagine that there have been any actual, valid studies of immunologically naive populations in modern times.

Furthermore, there has been a major revisionist movement in the west in the past 20 years, which has tried to deny the reality of genocide in the Americas and Australia, and to cast the white invaders as innocent of any crimes, or at worst having made a few well-meaning mistakes. In Australia this has been spear-headed by Keith Windschuttle, whose Fabrication of Australian History series explicitly attempts to deny violence towards Aborigines and recast the destruction of Australian Aborigines as a consequence of disease and demographic decline. This has been pushed by national newspapers (The Australian, of course, fulfilling their role as propagandists for Satan) and our former prime minister, and its “success” has no doubt sparked similar narratives in other countries. There is even a counter-narrative in the Spanish world of the “Black Legend“, which dismisses claims of violence by Spanish conquistadores as propaganda by England and France. It’s very convenient for these people if they can claim that immunologically naive populations are especially vulnerable, and population decline due to violence is actually the consequence of disease. They can even claim that mass movements of indigenous populations occurred due to disease, not genocide. Handy!

This led me to ask two related questions:

  1. Are immunologically naive populations actually subject to higher mortality rates when disease hits them?
  2. Did disease kill the majority of the population in the Americas, and was that disease introduced by Europeans?

The first question can be answered by looking at the history of black death in Europe, and by genetic studies. The second depends on demographic and epidemiological data, and as I will show, there is none, and all the accounts are extremely dodgy.

The history of diseases in naive populations

A population that is naive to a disease is referred to as a “virgin soil” population, although it appears that this name is never used to describe European populations affected by the plague (which was imported from Asia) – “virgin soil”, along with terra nullius, is a concept reserved for the new world. In fact Europe was virgin soil for the plague in the 14th century, and experienced repeated and horrific epidemics of this disease from the 14th century to the 16th century, with smaller plagues later on. In total the black death is estimated to have killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, and to have precipitated huge social changes across the continent. That was 700 years ago, and yet today the case fatality rate due to plague remains 60%, so 700 years of exposure to this disease hasn’t changed European susceptibility at all.

We can also see this in influenza. The H1N1 epidemic of 2009 killed only 0.01% of people who caught it, even though it was a new strain of influenza to which people could be expected not to be immune. The Spanish flu probably killed 10-20% of people it infected, but it did not do an especially greater job in isolated communities who had never experienced influenza before. For example in Samoa it probably killed about 20% of the population, having infected 90%, which suggests it did not behave particularly egregiously in an unexposed population. Smallpox, which has existed for 10,000 years in humans, had a similar mortality rate over most of its history, with variations in this mortality rate primarily driven by the number of people infected and the quality of the healthcare system. There is some evidence that the mortality rate is lower in Africans, who had been exposed to it for longer, but if so this has taken 10,000 years to manifest, which suggests that in general infectious diseases do not behave differently in “virgin soil” populations, though they can be much worse in populations with inadequate health care or infection control methods.

It’s worth noting that many estimates of the impact of these diseases rely on extremely dubious estimates of population. Putting aside demographic methods of the 14th century, Samoa in 1918 was a colony managed by New Zealand, with a colonial management so incompetent that they allowed people to disembark from a plague ship flying a yellow quarantine flag, and then mismanaged the resulting epidemic so badly that everyone on the island got infected. Did New Zealand’s colonial administration have any incentive to accurately count the population before the epidemic? Did they accurately register newborns and elderly people, or did they only record the working age population? How good were their records? If the Samoa population is underestimated by a small amount then the mortality rate plummets, and conclusions about the effectiveness of the disease in this naive population are significantly changed. And was the population even naive? Were the NZ colonial administrators previously recording every influenza epidemic on the island?

These problems are an order of magnitude worse when we try to understand what happened in native populations.

How many Spaniards went to Mexico?

Accounts of the effect of epidemics depend ultimately on our knowledge of the population affected, and population estimation is a very modern science. How was this done in 15th century America, by people who were busy slaughtering the people we now wish they were counting? What was the variation in population estimates and who was recording population, how and why? Fortunately we have a partial answer to questions about how population was recorded, because a historian called David P. Henige wrote a book called Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate, much of which can be read on google books, that makes a lot of strong criticisms of recording of population at that time. Sadly his specific chapters on over-estimation of epidemics are not available online, but he does provide an analysis of accounts by Spanish reporters of the numbers of Spanish soldiers present at certain actions on the continent. As an example, he reports on the number of deaths recorded during the noche tristes, an uprising in the city of Tenochtitlan in which the Aztecs rose against their Spanish occupiers and slaughtered them, driving them out of the city. Spanish accounts of that event – by people who were there – record the number of deaths as between 150 and 1170, with Cortes (the general in charge) recording the lowest number. Henige also notes accounts of expeditionary forces that vary by up to 10% between reporters who were on the scene, and may not even mention Indian attachments that probably far outnumber the Spanish forces. He reports on a famous Spanish reporter on the continent (las Casas) who misreports the size of the continent itself by a huge amount, and notes that a room that was supposed to be filled with treasure as tribute was given radically different sizes by different Spanish observers, as was the amount of treasure deposited therein. He also notes huge discrepancies (up to a factor of 10) in population estimates by colonial administrations in north America. He writes

If three record books showed Ted Williams lifetime batting average as .276, .344 and .523 respectively, or if three atlases recorded the height of Mt. Everest as 23,263 feet, 29,002 feet, and 44,083 feet, or if three historical dictionaries showed King William XIV as ruling 58 years, 72 years and 109 years, their users would have every right to be thoroughly bemused and would be justified in rejecting them all, even though in each case research could show that in each case one of the figures was correct. Yet these differences are of exactly the same magnitude as those among the sources for the size of Atahulpa’s treasure room that Hemming [an author reporting this story] finds acceptable

These are all relatively trivial examples but they make the point: almost nothing reported from the colonies in the 15th century was accurate. In the absence of accurate reporting, what conclusions can we draw about the role of infectious diseases? And what scientific conclusions can we draw about their relative mortality in virgin soil populations?

Scientific estimates of epidemic mortality in Latin America

A first thing worth noting about scientific reports of epidemic mortality in the Americas is that they often use very old sources. For example, this report of the environmental impact of epidemics in the Americas  cites McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples (1977), Dobyns’s estimates of population from 1966 and 1983, Cook’s work from 1983, and so on. It also relies on some dubious sources, using references extensively from Jared Diamond’s 1997 breakout work Guns, Germs and Steel. Some of these works receive criticism in Henige’s work for their credulity, and Diamond’s work has been universally canned since it was published, though it has been very influential outside of academia. Many of these works were written long before good computational demography was well established, and though it’s hard to access them, I suspect their quality is very poor. Indeed, McNeill’s seminal work is criticized for using the Aryan population model to explain the spread of disease in India. These works are from a time before good scholarship on some of these issues was well established.

Dobyns’s work in turn shows an interesting additional problem, which is that no one knows what caused these epidemics. In his 1993 paper Disease Transfer at Contact, (pdf) Dobyns reports on many different opinions of the diseases that caused the demographic collapse in south America: it may be smallpox, or plague, or Anthrax, or typhus, or influenza, or measles. Dobyns’s accounts also often note that people survived by fleeing, but do not ever consider the possibility that they were fleeing from something other than disease. Contrast that with accounts from north America 400 years later (such as the story of the Pince Nez reported in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), which make clear that native Americans were fleeing violence and seeking sanctuary in Canada. There is a lot of certainty missing from these accounts, and we need to be careful before we attribute population decline to disease if we don’t know what the disease was, and are relying on accounts from people who refused to consider the possible alternative explanations for the social collapse they are witnessing.

This is particularly complicated by recent studies which suggest that the epidemic that wiped out much of the Mexican population was actually an endemic disease, that jumped from local rats to the indigenous population, spread from the mountains to the coasts (not from European coastal settlements), and had symptoms completely unrelated to European diseases. In this account, a long period of drought followed by rain triggered a swarm of a type of local rat into overcrowded settlements of native peoples, where a type of hantavirus jumped from those rats to humans and then decimated the population. The disease started inland where the drought had been worse and spread outward, and it primarily affected indigenous people because they were the ones forced to live in unsanitary conditions as a consequence of slave-like working conditions forced on them by the invaders. Note here that the western invaders, presumably completely naive to this disease, were not affected at all, because the main determinants of vulnerability to disease are not genetic.

Further problems with the epidemic explanation for native American population loss arise from the nature of the transatlantic crossing and the diseases it carried. The transatlantic crossing is long, and if anyone were carrying smallpox or influenza when a ship left port the epidemic would be burnt out by the time the ship reached the Americas. In fact it took 26 years for smallpox to reach the continent. That’s a whole generation of people slaughtering the natives before the first serious disease even arrived. During that time coastal populations would have fled inland, social collapse would have begun, crops were abandoned, and some native communities took sides with the invaders and began to work against other native communities. In 9 years of world war 2 the Germans managed to kill 50 million Europeans, several millions of these due to starvation in the East, and created a huge movement of refugee populations that completely changed European demographics and social structures. What did the Spaniards do in 26 years in central America?

It is noticeable that many of the accounts from that time seem not to account for flight and violence. Accounts at that time were highly political, and often reported only information that served whatever agenda the writer was pursuing. Las Casas, for example, whose accounts are often treated as definitive population estimates, appears not to have noticed massive epidemics happening right in front of him. Others did not notice any possible reasons why natives were abandoning their fields and farms, and didn’t seem to be able to consider the possibility that something scarier than disease was stalking the land. The accounts are an obvious mess, with no reliable witnesses and no numbers worth considering for serious study.

Conclusion

Without good quality demographic data, or at least even order of magnitude accuracy in population estimates, it is not possible to study the dynamics of population collapse. Without decent information on what diseases afflicted local populations, it is impossible to conclude that “virgin soil” populations were more vulnerable to specific diseases. There is considerable evidence that disease mortality is not different when populations are naive to the disease, drawn from European experience with plague and global experience with influenza, and there is no solid evidence of any kind to support the opposite view in indigenous populations. Historical accounts are fundamentally flawed because of their subjectivity, lack of accuracy even when their interests are not threatened, and the unscientific nature of 15th century thought. A whole generation of conquistadores acted with extreme violence before dangerous diseases arrived on the continent, so many accounts of population collapse must reflect only war, but even after the diseases arrived it is likely that they were no more dangerous in native populations than they were in Europe, which by the 16th century was experiencing endemic smallpox that regularly killed large numbers of people (in Europe in the 18th century it killed 400,000 people a year). There is no reason to think that the Americas were special, or that their local population was especially vulnerable to this or any disease.

It is important to recognize that these issues – accurate diagnosis of disease, accurate estimates of numbers who died, and accurate population numbers – are not just academic exercises. You can’t put them aside and say “well yes, we aren’t sure what disease did it, how many people died, and what the population was, but by all accounts it was bad in the colonies.” That’s not how epidemiology works. You would never, ever accept that kind of hand-waving bullshit when applied to your own community. Nobody would accept it if the Chinese government said “yeah, this coronavirus seems bad, but you know there aren’t that many people affected, the population of Wuhan is anywhere from 1 million to 20 million, and we don’t even really know it’s not seasonal influenza or smallpox.” You would rightly reject that shit out of hand. It’s no different when you’re talking about any other population. We have no reason to suspect any special impact of epidemics in the Americas or Australia, and no reason to conclude that they were especially influential in the history of those regions compared to the violence inflicted on the locals – which we know happened, and we have many accounts of. To look at the accounts we have of disease in the new world, and conclude anything about them beyond “it happened” is to put undue confidence in very, very vague and very poor reporting. There is no empirical evidence to support many of the claims that have been made in the past 40 years – and especially, by genocide deniers, in the past 20 years – about the role of disease in the destruction of indigenous populations of the new world.

This matters for two reasons. First of all, it matters because it has interesting implications for how we think about the threat of disease, and how new diseases will affect naive populations when they jump from animals to humans (which is how almost all new diseases start). These diseases can be extremely dangerous, killing 30-60% of the affected people in some cases, but the reality is that for them to become pandemics they need to mutate to facilitate human-to-human transmission, and that mutation significantly reduces their mortality rates. It is rare for a disease that transmits easily to also be dangerous, and there is very little in the history of the human race to suggest otherwise. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is perhaps the sole exception, and if so it should show just how rare such events are. We should, rightly, be concerned about coronaviruses, but we should also not expect that just because we’re naive to them they’re going to be extra dangerous. Diseases do what they do, and that is all.

But more importantly, we need to reject this idea that the catastrophe that unfolded in the new world between 1492 and 1973 wasn’t the fault of its perpetrators, white Europeans, and we need to reject even partial explanations based on epidemics. It was not disease that killed the people of America and Australia. There is no evidence to suggest it was, and a lot of reasons to question the limited evidence that some people present. The epidemic explanation is a nice exculpatory narrative, which tells us that even if white Europeans had approached the people of the new world with open minds and hearts in a spirit of trade and collaboration they would still have been decimated by our diseases. In this story we may have done some bad things but it doesn’t matter, because contact was inevitably going to destroy these fragile and isolated peoples. And this story is wrong. It isn’t just uncertain, it is wrong: there is nothing in the historical record to support it. If white Europeans had approached the new world in this spirit, there would have been a generation of trade and growth on both sides before the diseases struck, and then we could have helped them to escape and overcome the diseases we were familiar with, that were no more dangerous to them than they were to us. Their communities would have been better prepared to resist the social consequences of those diseases because they would not have been at war, and would not have been experiencing social collapse, overcrowding, starvation and poverty because of western genocidal policies. They would not have been forced into overcrowded and desperate accommodation on drought-stricken plains as slaves to Spanish industry, and the homegrown epidemic of 1545-48 would not have affected them anywhere near as badly. It’s important to understand that the tragedy that befell native Americans was caused by us, not by our diseases, and our diseases were a minor, final bit of flair on a project of destruction deliberately wrought by western invaders.

This other story – of diseases we couldn’t help but strike them down with, even if we had been pure of heart – is a genocide denier’s story. It’s self-exculpatory nonsense, built on bad statistics and dubious accounts of native life presented by biased observers. It is intended to distract and to deny, to show that even if we did a few bad things the real destruction was inevitable, because these frail and noble savages were doomed from the moment they met us. It is a racist narrative, racist because of its false assumptions about native Americans and racist because of what it assumes about the balance of mortality in the continent, racist for trying to pretend that we didn’t do everything we did. It is superficially appealing, both because it adds interesting complexity to an otherwise simple story, and because it helps to explain the enormity of what Europeans did in the Americas. But it is wrong, and it is racist, and it needs to be rejected. There is no evidence that epidemics played a major role in the destruction of native American communities, no evidence that native Americans were especially vulnerable to our diseases, and nothing in the historical record that exonerates European society from what it did. White Europeans enacted genocide on native Americans, and just a few of them happened to die of some of our diseases during the process. European society needs to accept this simple, horrible fact, and stop looking for excuses for this horrible part of our history.

Since 31st December 2019 there has been an outbreak of a new coronavirus in China. It originated in the city of Wuhan, and over the past 22 days has spread rapidly, including cases in several cities outside China. Initial reports suggested it originated in a seafood market in the city, which had me hoping it was the world’s first fish-to-human infectious disease, though I think we need to wait a while before we establish exactly where it started. It appears to have achieved human-to-human transmission, which is unusual for these zoonotic (animal-origin) viruses. International media are of course reporting breathlessly on it, and you can almost feel them salivating over the possibility of another SARS-style catastrophe. But how dangerous is it?

In this blog post I would like to use some initial data and reports to make an estimate of how dangerous this disease is, for those who might be considering traveling to (or canceling travel to) China. I’d also like to make a few comments on the reporting and politics of this disease, and infectious diseases generally.

The Case Fatality Ratio

For the sake of easy writing, let’s call this new disease Dolphin Flu, since it originated in a fish market. The main measure of how deadly any infectious disease is is its case fatality ratio (CFR), which is the number of people who die divided by the number of people infected, multiplied by 100. It seems to be a natural law of infectious diseases that the more infectious a disease is the less fatal it is, and anyone who has played that excellent pandemic game on their phone will know that there is a cost associated with a disease being infectious, which is usually that – like the common cold – it spreads fast but kills no one. Understanding the CFR is important to understanding how nasty a disease is likely to be. Here are some benchmark CFRs:

  • Untreated HIV: 100% (i.e. 100% of people infected with HIV die if they aren’t treated)
  • Untreated Ebola: 80-90%
  • Malaria (Africa): 0.45%
  • Spanish influenza (1918): ~3%
  • Measles: 0.2%

Nature is pretty, isn’t she? It’s worth noting that Spanish Influenza was a global catastrophe, which had major political and economic consequences, so any disease with a CFR around the level of influenza that is similarly infectious is a very scary deal. Ebola and HIV are extremely deadly but also not very infectious (you have to have sex to get HIV, which means my reader(s) face almost zero risk). It’s the respiratory diseases (the lungers) that really worry us.

Calculating the Case Fatality Ratio for Dolphin Flu

In order to calculate the CFR we need to know how many people are infected, and how many have died. Official government data this morning (reported here) puts the death toll at 17 people, and we can be fairly sure that’s correct, so next we need to calculate the number infected. This excellent website tells us there are 555 confirmed cases, but this is not the right number to use for this calculation, because with all of these respiratory-type diseases there are many cases who never go to a doctor and/or never get confirmed. In ‘flu season we call these “influenza-like illnesses” (ILI) and they are important to understanding how dangerous the disease actually is. In fact for many of these diseases there is an asymptomatic manifestation, in which people get the disease and never really show any symptoms. So we need to have an estimate of the total number of cases including those that were not confirmed. Fortunately the excellent infectious disease team (who do a great course in infectious disease modeling if you have the money) at Imperial College have used the number of cases appearing at non-Chinese cities to estimate the total number of cases using data about travel flows from Wuhan city. Their headline estimate at this time is 4000 cases, with an uncertainty interval from 1000 to 9700.

Next we need some information on other diseases. The CDC website for seasonal flu tells us that in the 2017-2018 season in the USA there were 20,731,323 confirmed cases of influenza, 44,802,629 total cases (including unconfirmed) and 61,099 deaths. A Japanese research paper on the H1N1 pandemic tells me there were 637,598 total cases (including unconfirmed) and 85 deaths due to H1N1. The Wikipedia entry on H5N1 bird flu tells me there were 701 confirmed cases and 407 deaths (I think there were very few unconfirmed cases of bird flu because it was so nasty).

Putting this together, we can get the CFR for confirmed and unconfirmed Dolphin Flu, and compare it with these diseases, shown below.

  • Unconfirmed Dolphin Flu: 0.43%, ranging from 0.22% to 1.7%
  • Confirmed Dolphin Flu: 2.98%
  • Unconfirmed Seasonal Flu (2017-18 season, USA): 0.14%, ranging from 0.11% to 0.16%
  • Confirmed Seasonal Flu (2017-18 season, USA): 0.29%
  • Unconfirmed H1N1 (Japan): 0.01%
  • Confirmed H5N1 (Global): 58.06%

This suggests that Dolphin Flu is between 2 and 10 times as dangerous as seasonal influenza, and about as dangerous as malaria if you are infected with malaria in an African context (i.e you may not be able to afford and access treatment, and you’re so used to idiopathic fevers that you don’t bother going to the doctor until the encephalitis starts).

That may not sound dangerous but it’s worth noting that seasonal influenza is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to an adult of child-bearing age except getting in a car and childbirth. It’s also worth noting that depending on the degree to which the Imperial College team have overestimated the number of unconfirmed cases, Dolphin Flu could be heading towards half as dangerous as Spanish Influenza. We don’t yet know if it is as contagious as influenza, but if it is …

I would say at this stage that Dolphin Flu looks pretty nasty. I probably wouldn’t cancel travel, because it’s still in its early stages and the chance of actually getting it is tiny (especially if you aren’t in Wuhan). But tomorrow is Chinese New Year, the largest movement of people on the planet, so in a week I expect that it will be all over China and it may be much harder to go there without getting it. I guess in that context the decision to quarantine Wuhan makes sense – if it’s half as dangerous as Spanish Flu, it’s worth suffering the short term economic damage of shutting down one of China’s largest cities to avoid spreading a disease that could be a global catastrophe.

So, given that information, would you travel? And what decision would you make if you were an administrator of public health in China?

About Cover Ups and Authoritarianism

Media coverage of disease outbreaks almost invariably follows western stereotypes about the country where they happen. With Ebola it’s all about bushmeat-eating primitives who can’t understand modern medicine; with MERS it was secretive religious lunatics; and with anything coming from China it’s a weird mix of Sinophobia, orientalism and obsessions with China’s authoritarian government. Because China fucked up the SARS response, we can see Western media basically salivating at the chance to report on how they’re covering this up too. But it’s important to understand that unconfirmed cases are not covered up cases. With respiratory diseases there will always be unconfirmed cases and there will always be someone who slips through the net and goes traveling, spreading the disease to other cities. Indeed, with a completely new disease it’s entirely possible that there are asymptomatic cases that no health system can detect.

In fact this time around the Chinese response has been very quick, open and transparent. They notified the disease to the WHO on 31st December, probably very soon after the first cases appeared, and the WHO Director-General has been fulsome in his praise of the Chinese response. Within perhaps 10 days of notifying the disease to the WHO they had isolated the virus and developed tests, and now they have quarantined a city of 12 million people because they know that the impending Chinese New Year could cause major transmission risks. Before complete quarantine they had introduced fever checks at exit points to international destinations, another sign of taking the disease seriously. This is unlikely to be successful if the disease has an asymptomatic phase (since you get on the plane before you have a fever) but short of blood-testing everyone in the city, there is little more that anyone could expect the government to do.

How to handle western media panic

None of this will stop western media from playing to the west’s current fear of China, and once the disease is over you can bet they will start talking about how the Chinese response was too authoritarian. You can also bet that the mistakes the administration inevitably makes will be discussed as if they are hallmarks of a Chinese problem, rather than mistakes any government could be expected to make when trying to control a disease that spreads at the speed of a cough. And this will all be made worse by the way western media get into an absolute lather about infectious disease stories. So be cautious about stories about China’s cover-ups, about authoritarianism, and avoid believing disease panics. Check in with the WHO’s updates, read the Imperial College website, and be careful about the western media’s over-hyping of disease threats and Chinese collapse. For a balanced view of infectious disease issues generally (and excellent coverage of the tragic, ongoing Ebola Virus outbreak in DRC) I recommend the H5N1 blog. For understanding how to interpret risk, I recommend reading David Spiegelhalter’s twitter. And remember, when you’re balancing risks, that getting in a car, or choosing to have a child (if you’re a woman) are probably the two most dangerous things anyone in a developed nation can do in their lives. You don’t need to go to China to experience any of those risks!

Let’s hope that this disease turns out to be another fizzer, keep a level head, and don’t let western media hype scare us!


About the picture: The picture is from the Twitter thread of @CarlZha, an excellent independent Chinese voice. It’s a photo of some guys doing renovation work on a clinic somewhere in China. There isn’t actually a Zombie outbreak yet!

Our heroes have found the location of the Collector, the man who was willing to pay a million birr to procure a Skavarran mystic and smuggle it onto his research base. They have raided the secondary entrance to the station, but after taking heavy casualties have withdrawn to the relative safety of their ship to rest and recover. The roster for this session:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Dr Banu Delecta, medic

By now, Saqr has developed new mystic powers that enable him to heal minor critical injuries, so he tended to the smaller critical wounds that the rest of the team had accumulated, though he was not able to treat his own punctured lung, and Dr. Delecta’s ministrations were not able to prevent the injury from slowing his movement and actions.

As the Saqr and Delecta tended to the wounded Adam watched the docking area through the umbilical passage that linked their ship to the station. They had used a laser cutting tool to make a hole in the inner entrance and break in, so there was nothing the surviving guards inside the station could do to prevent them coming back, but Siladan’s proximity sensor told them that there had been two survivors of their first attack, who were now joined by several other guards in a loose cordon behind cover in the far side of the entry chamber. One of those guards was a mystic, with the stop power, which had been used with dangerous effects in the last battle. Another of the guards was moving around just out of sight beyond the broken door, doing something near enough to it to make Adam think that a mine or explosive trap was being set at the entrance. The guards were setting up a death trap for them, and they were already injured.

They decided to use a space walk to re-enter the station from an external air lock. They detached the docking station, moved away from the loading area, and opened fire on it with the Beast of Burden’s accelerator cannon. This tore the docking station apart and blew open the entire loading deck area behind, killing the entire guard squad and destroying much of the superstructure at the top of the station. Once debris had dispersed Saqr space-walked across to an external air lock at a lower level, attach a zero-g rope, and the rest of the team crawled across without incident. They breached the outer door of the airlock with a breaching charge and moved inside, finding themselves in a large hangar that held a class 2 spaceship – the spaceship the Collector’s messenger had used to travel to Algebar.

Descent into hell

From the hangar the PCs hacked a small side elevator and descended to a mostly-abandoned living area. Following Siladan’s proximity sensor they crept into an overgrown garden/observatory, where a mystic attacked them from the shadows with an accelerator pistol and bursts of hellfire. He was well hidden but they found him and killed him quickly enough, with Adam taking significant fire damage before they could silence the man. They stood in the darkened garden, looking out of its huge observatory window at streaks of pale sunlight against the veil of the asteroid belt, and wondered what strange place they had entered. The garden was unkempt and long-abandoned, its plants grown into impenetrable thickets and the windows and garden fixtures overgrown with mould, slime and algae. The rest of the living quarters were powered down and poorly lit, as if no one had lived here for a very long time. The elevator controls and some of the room doors had information printed on them in some ancient Firstcome language, which had been overwritten with sloppily-painted modern logos. It appeared that a small group of armed soldiers and mystics were squatting in an ancient Firstcome space station.

Siladan was able to break into the dead mystic’s tabula using biometrics, and through it called up floor plans, crew rosters and communications. They identified another level of living quarters, a huge garden level, and two levels of laboratories. There was another mystic called The Fey, a second security team led by a captain wearing Scarabaeous Armour (an artifact!), a golim armour defense system, and the Collector himself. The Collector had informed his underlings that he would be in “the machine” in the bottom-most lab, and after using it to repel the PCs’ ship he would be rendered unconscious by the strain for several hours.

They guessed that the Collector had a machine that boosted his mystic powers, and had enabled him to hurl asteroids at them while they were approaching the station. Adam suspected a Cadaver Clock, but in any case it must be a terrible device. They decided to go straight down and attack him while he was unconscious.

They took the elevator down and emerged into a scene from hell: flayed and vivisected corpses stretched out on benches and floating in gel, a cage holding a body completely drained of all its liquids, and smears of blood and gore on the walls and furniture. The Collector was obviously a deranged experimenter of some kind, and a mad mystic. He and his strange machine were in an adjoining observatory room, and the PCs were moving towards it when the security team emerged from the second elevator, guns blazing.

The battle was vicious and merciless. Adam had brought their machine gun, and used it to gun down the leader in his Scarabaeous armour, though not before he had injured one of their team badly. As they were fighting The Fey appeared in the second elevator, accompanied by the Golim Armour, a 3m tall monstrosity of black composites carrying a huge thermal carbine that it used to break Reiko Ando and Siladan. Saqr and Dr. Delecta tried to help them up while Adam fought the Golim, and finally Siladan was able to crush its chest with his dura halberd, bringing the fight to a bitter end. The Fey fled, but was shot down as he tried to escape from the second hangar in a small shuttle.

The PCs entered the adjoining room and found what they had expected. The Collector was resting in a small stasis pod, which was connected to an evil machine of Firstcome design. This machine was shaped like a huge inverted cone, built of organic parts and steal and ceramics, with the wider part of the cone opening over the stasis pod and the small end pointing at a cage suspended from one wall. The small ended in a nozzle-like apparatus, like the mouthpiece of a trumpet, which had a disgusting fleshy countenance as if it were  a pair of evilly sensual lips. In the cage lay a dead person, killed in the past few hours, whose body had been completely eviscerated from within as if impelled to tear itself apart by some huge force. Dark whispers and evil thoughts surrounded them, and they understood immediately what they witnessed: some strange device that could draw the mystic energies from a person, concentrate them, and use them to amplify the powers of whichever mystic lay in the pod.

Adam tossed a frag grenade into the pod and they left the room to catch their breath. After the explosion, they returned with flamethrowers from their ship and set to work on eliminating this monstrous device.

While Adam and Reiko cleaned up the observatory, Siladan hacked into the Collector’s poorly-protected computer systems and confirmed everything they had suspected: the Collector gathered mystics and performed horrific experiments on them, to try to understand mystic powers and their origins. Delecta and Saqr found three surviving mystics in cages in the second lab level, and returned them to the Beast of Burden for observation. They also liberated a large amount of funds from the Collector’s accounts. Finally Siladan learned three other interesting facts from searches of the Collector’s messages and notes:

  • Samina’s Corsairs have some kind of mystic defense that enables them to hide their base and prevent access, which the Collector wanted to get hold of
  • Wana has been trading information and data with the Collector – she wanted access to a Cadaver clock but had only learnt rumours of them
  • The Collector knew of a Cadaver clock on Kua and had paid a team to find it, but they had been killed at a nearby dig site. The PCs had helped the sole survivor of this mission on Coriolis and subsequently discovered the Cadaver Clock themselves
  • The Draconites are also looking for information on the nature of mystic powers, and the Collector had been looking for ways to infiltrate their outpost on Coriolis

This was useful information, and helped them to understand what they would face when they dealt with the Corsairs. But now they had a base in a hidden location, which they could register as theirs once they found Samina’s hacker on Dabaran, and another spaceship to add to their growing fleet, with money to upgrade their own. They were ready to move closer to the Corsairs.

But first they needed to shake off the nightmares, and find a way to sleep again …

 

Let him walk down your hallway
It’s not this quiet
Slide down your receiver
Stand across the wire
Follow my number
Slide into my hand

In their last adventure our heroes have killed Mr Ting and discovered the location of the Collector, the mysterious figure who was willing to pay a huge amount of birr to take possession of a Skavarra Mystic. The PCs suspect that there are deep secrets at work in this story, and have decided to pursue the Collector and learn what he knows. The roster for this session:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Dr Banu Delecta, medic

Using Saqr’s mystic powers the PCs have learnt that the Collector is hiding in a station in the Algebar system’s enormous asteroid belt, Assager’s Ghost. Assager’s Ghost is a veil of ice and gravel 10 AU thick and 10 AU high, which encircles the system and blocks light from passing beyond to the outer planets. It is a stable, relatively low density asteroid belt but its enormous depth prevents light passing through, and also makes it an ideal location to hide criminal activities. Although crews from the inner planets mine the asteroid belt, its vast size makes it impossible to discover a hidden location by chance in even a million lifetimes. Without using Saqr’s special powers, the PCs could never have hoped to find the Collector.

The Collector’s Stellar Guardians

The PCs set off in the Beast of Burden to raid the Collector’s space station. After 10 days’ travel, as they neared the station, they were attacked by a small vacuum beast, similar to the creatures they had encountered in Marfik. However, after they killed this beast two more appeared, accompanied by a much larger, more nebulous thing, like a jellyfish the size of a class 2 spaceship. At the same time, asteroids started hurling towards them out of the inky, clouded darkness. While they fought off the vacuum beasts they found they had to fire torpedoes at the asteroids to destroy them, out of fear of suffering massive damage to their ship.

After they destroyed the first asteroid and the larger vacuum beast another asteroid came spinning out of the Dark, obviously propelled by some monstrous force. They destroyed this one too, shook off one of the monsters that had gripped onto their ship, and destroyed both remaining beasts. Finally the Dark around them settled back into calm, dusty silence. They all realized what this meant: the Collector could somehow control vacuum beasts and hurl asteroids at them. Saqr had been feeling strange ripplings of mystic powers during the battle, and realized what they all suspected. The Collector had been using mystic powers to watch their approach, to hurl asteroids at them, and to control vacuum beasts. Dark secrets lay hidden in his base.

The Collector’s base: First incursion

They soon found the base, a huge, asteroid-battered space station floating near the edge of the asteroid belt. It resembled a spindle, hanging in space in near complete darkness, with occasional lights flickering along a hull that was so old and weathered that they guessed it must be a Firstcome station. As they approached they saw a huge section in the middle of the station had been converted into a large garden, perhaps 100m in diameter and 100m high, overgrown now with trees and vines and rich with shadow and streaks of weak sunlight from the distant, filtered sun. The station looked abandoned, or at least untended.

They flew to the top of the spindle and docked with an external docking station, just above two hangars for class 2 ships. After running the necessary checks they disembarked into a huge cargo loading area, and set up a defensive position at the entrance to the dock. They waited.

They were soon rewarded, as a strike team came through doors on the far side of the cargo area, firing as they entered. The battle was short and vicious, with several of the PCs taking heavy injuries before they could subdue the attackers: four mercenaries in battered light armour carrying vulcan rifles and fighting with fanatical dedication. When the smoke cleared none of them were left alive, and a mystic who accompanied the team lay dead on the floor.

It was as they suspected: the Collector’s base was a nest of vicious fanatics, supported by deranged mystics.

They checked their weapons, and pushed inward, to victory or a hideous, nightmarish end…