You came in that?

Our PCs have had their first battle on board their ship, and I have been forced to think in detail about how large it is and how it is laid out. This is difficult, because many RPGs give guidelines on what to put in your ship and how much it costs, but very few talk about how it should all be laid out, how big it is and what it all looks like in the end. Some early games like Traveler provided deckplans but the ships they provided were very closely modeled on nautical ships and had a lot of flaws in their design (including that the final deckplans didn’t much match the design). So I did some thinking about how ship sizes and scales work in the Third Horizon, and came up with some guidelines, as well as some house rules for ship design. This post summarizes them.

The motivation: The Beast of Burden

The PCs’ ship is the Beast of Burden, a Class IV converted luxury yacht that they use for exploration and – as little as possible – combat. I have described the Beast of Burden elsewhere but its key modules of interest for ship design are:

  • 4 Luxury suites and 16 standard cabins
  • Two hangars, each capable of holding one class II or two class I ships
  • A single cargo hold, which in the original rules should hold 250 tons of cargo
  • A salvage unit
  • An arboretum

I ruled at the start of the game that the arboretum is a module, not a feature. The Beast of Burden is also armed and has various other modules, but for the purposes of ship design I think the ones listed above are crucial. So I need to figure out how all this is laid out and what it all looks like.

Ship size: The surprising scale of Coriolis ships

To figure out ship size I thought about hangars. These are the largest components of a ship, and are available from Class III up. A Class III ship should be able to hold a single Class I in its hangar, and a Class V should be able to hold one Class III. We can make some judgments from this. First of all, how big is a class I ship? It has 3 modules, so let us assume that each module is either a hangar capable of holding some small air raft or similar sub-orbital vehicle; or that each module is a 5x2x1 m cargo hold [for more on cargo holds see below] then we could imagine that if we laid these modules end to end the longest they would reach to would be perhaps 15-20 m long and 5 m wide. Add on a 5x5m floor plan for the bridge, and then a general padding for the external shell of the ship, engines etc, we can imagine that the longest a Class I ship would be is about 30m. Perhaps its total dimensions would be a maximum of 30m x 20m x10m.

This tells us that a Class III ship hangar would have to be about 50m x 30m x20m to comfortably fit such a ship. Realistically a Class III ship couldn’t have more than 4 modules for hangars, and we could imagine laying them in a 2×2 pattern (or in a ring of 4). So a Class III ship’s hangars alone could be 100m x 60m x 20m, or a cylinder 50m long and 60m in diameter. Add in some extra space on each end for cargo, service, engines etc and we can imagine the maximum size for a Class III ship would be about 150m x 80m x 30m. A Class IV ship needs to be able to hold 2 Class I ships in a single hangar, so that hangar must be about 100m x 50m x 30m. A Class IV ship could have 8 or maybe even 12 hangars, so its maximum size (with padding for crew space etc) would be 350m x 150m x 80m. Based on this we can present the following table for ships in the Coriolis system.

Ship class Max length Max width Approx weight Equivalent vessel (Earth)
I 30m 20m 600 tons Fast patrol vessel
II 75 m 40m 9000 tons Naval patrol vessel
III 150m 80m 60000 tons Container ship
IV 350m 150m 420000 tons Largest ships on earth
V 600m 300m 3600000 tons None
VI 1.2 km 1km An enormous amount None
VII 2.5 km 2 km None
VIII 5km 4km None
IX 10km 8km Coriolis station

The Beast of Burden herself is approximately 240m long, which makes her about the length of a Panamax cargo ship – some of the biggest ships used on earth[1]. Most of this is on the service deck, which holds two hangars, the salvage unit and the cargo. Without these modules she would be much, much smaller, but a Class VI ship with a hangar needs to have a hangar large enough to fit her, so its hangars need to be at least 300m long – in fact they need to be large enough to hold a much bigger Class IV ship than the Beast of Burden, which is why a Class VI ship can be 1.2km long.

Astute readers might notice that the weights given here are huge. I found some guidelines for calculating the weight of an ocean-going ship which suggest its weight is its volume divided by 5, and I have calculated the spaceship weights on the assumption that they would be half the weight of an equivalent-volume ocean-going ship. The reason for these enormous weights is that a terrestrial ship is long and slim, but no such restrictions apply to a spaceship. The Knock Nevis was 70m wide and maybe 80m in height, while a Class IV ship is twice as wide and higher as well. These larger volumes lead to much greater weights. In any case, in space weight is unimportant, so the main concern is volume, not weight.

For comparison purposes, I estimate the Coriolis space station is about 4.8 km wide and 7km long, making it a Class IX ship.

Dimensions of some components

It’s worth noting that ships of the same class can be remarkably different in size. A Class I ship with three weapons modules might be only 10m long, and a class IV ship that was devoted to carrying pilgrims in coffins might be only 100m long. Without hangars and cargo we can expect they are much more compact, but the ship class is decided by the total quantity of its components, not its size. Let us consider the size of some of these components.

For living space, I assume that a luxury suite is a 10mx10m floorplan, while standard suites are 5mx5m. I assigned 1m3 of space to the service station per 10m3 of volume of the ship. I decided not to measure cargo by weight, but instead by volume – 1 ton of cargo can be tiny if it is iron ore, or large if it is raw cotton. So instead I assign 10^class m3 of volume to cargo per module (so a class IV ship cargo module is 10,000 m3). The salvage station should be half the size of a hangar on a ship of that class. For class 1 and class II ships I assume a hangar (for sub-orbital small vehicles) might be about 10mx5m. Everything else I consider to be malleable in size and allocation, and I assume extra space for luxury suites or shared living space is natural. Docking stations, etc. scale up with the ship.

I assume the height of a deck for living space is 2m, or 3m if the ship is spacious, plus 1m per class of the ship. The Beast of Burden has two levels on top of its service deck, so as a class IV luxury yacht each of these levels would be assumed to be about 7m in height, with 3m of actual space experienced by the people in the ship. Obviously service decks don’t follow this plan.

Finally, I multiply the total volume by a small amount (perhaps 10%) for super structure, and then by a percentage equal to the cost inflation of the ship’s features. So if a ship’s features make it cost 30% more, then it also takes up about 30% more volume.

House rules for ship design

I made a few house rules for ship design, which I list here.

  • Cargo by volume: As mentioned above, I think cargo should be measured by volume. I assume 10^class m3. On a class IV ship this means one module takes up 10,000 m3, which is a 100mx10mx10m cube. On the Beast of Burden this is two sections, each 25mx20mx30m, forward of the hangars. A Class IV ship with 12 modules devoted to cargo could have 200mx60mx10m of space, 100mx60mx20m, and so on. By way of comparison I think the largest super-tankers can hold about 500,000 m3 of oil, about 4 times as much as a Class IV bulk hauler.
  • Divisible modules: If modules scale with class, I have decided ship designs can swap a single module for multiple smaller class modules. So for example a single class IV module could be composed of two Class III modules, four Class II modules, or eight Class I modules. So instead of having 64 stasis pods, a Class IV ship could opt for 32 stasis pods and an extra 8 escape pods (both class III modules). This will cost more because module price doesn’t scale with class, but it makes the ship design more versatile
  • Extra class I modules: For ships of class III and above, a couple of free class I modules can be chucked in to represent the vast space in these designs. These ships get 2^(class-2) extra class 1 modules, so a class IV ship gets 4 extra Class 1 modules. For example, an extra tiny hangar for sub-orbital vehicles, one more coffin, an extra escape pod, etc. This is just flavour.
  • Prison modules: The cabins module can be exchanged for a prison that holds as many people as the coffins option. Put it next to the medlab for added torture chamber options.
  • Hangar expansion: The rules suggest that the number of ships should increase as 4^class (so a class V ship can hold 16 class I ships) but this is madness: I have chosen to make it 2^class. On my calculations this means that Coriolis station can hold up to 192 class I ships at any time. I think that’s okay!

With these rules it’s easier to design flexible ships that suit their purpose.

Ships beyond Class V

I have included ships up to Class IX in my table of sizes to allow for the Coriolis to be described by the rules. I have not considered how modules, hps etc. scale up with these sizes, but a basic progression from the rules would suggest a Class IX ship has 640 modules, 24hp and 11 EP, and 17 armour. I would guess that some of these values (particularly armour and hp) would scale further, and modules might plateau, so you might expect 400 modules, 40 hp and 30 armour or something similar. That’s basically indestructible. Good thing there’s only one, and it’s not mobile!

Conclusion

The Coriolis ship rules lead to staggeringly large and very cool ships, with a lot of variation in size and structure within a class, and a lot of flexibility to describe different ship designs. Coriolis station is outside the core rules, but probably the way the rules work they could be scaled up to describe Coriolis station accurately. It’s likely that your PCs will encounter ships up to 1 km long, and they’re probably flying in some rusting hulk that is bigger than most ships on earth. I think there is a problem with Class 0 ships – we need some designs for in-system fighters but the current rules don’t support that – but otherwise the rules scale well and it works nicely. By adding dimensions to some components and changing the size of cargo, it’s possible to come up with some guidelines for how to lay out deckplans and design ships that are awesome in scale and lots of fun to fly in.

I want my spaceships big and exciting. I’m looking forward to the moment my PCs encounter a 1km long spaceship, and have to negotiate …

Edit to add:

I have house-ruled the hangar module to allow the hangar to carry more ships of lower class at a rate of 2^(class step). So a class 4 ship hangar can hold 1 class 2 ship or 2 class I ships. But the official rules say this should happen at a rate of 2^(2*class step). So a class IV ship hangar holds 1 class II ship or 4 class I ships. This leads to a really rapid rate of increase of ship sizes, even if we make generous assumptions about how small a class I ship is. For example, suppose we say the biggest a class I ship can be is 15m long and 10m wide, and a hangar should allow 5m on all sides of this ship. So a class I ship needs 25m x 20m of space in a hangar. Then a class III ship hangar would need to be 25mx20m in size, and the largest a class III ship would be would be perhaps 70m x 50m, if it had four hangars. However after this hangars scale up rapidly! A class IV ship hangar would need to hold four class I ships so needs to be 100mx20m, and a class IV ship could potentially have 8 of these, which in a realistic cylinder shape would make its hangars 200m long and 50m across – so the whole ship is about 250m long. After this things scale fast. A class V ship hangar holds 16 class I ships and needs to be 100m x 80m or 200m x 50m, so a class V carrier could be 1km long and definitely more than 600m. Then a class VI ship hangar would hold 64 class I ships and need to be 400m x 100m, and so on. By this reckoning I think the largest ships in each class would be about 1km (class V), about 2km (class VI), 4 km (class VII), 10 km (class VIII) and 20km (class IX). These are huge! And that’s assuming that class I ships are half the size of my starting assumption. In this variant there is much more diversity of size within ship classes, and the PCs will likely never encounter a ship bigger than class IV, but it does raise the possibility that the Order of the Pariah are sitting on some ginormous battleship (let’s call it the Yamato) that is going to appear in the Kua system some time in the future and be bigger than the Coriolis …


fn1: The largest ship on earth was the Knock Nevis, which was 460 m long. Panamax ships are routinely 250m long.

Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,
walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age

Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
and the hard grasp of the grave, until a hundred generations
of people have passed.

Our characters have escaped from a djinn-possessed ship, and returned triumphant to Coriolis station where they reported word of the Syndicate’s smuggling ring to the Coriolis Guard. But it was not their intention to run an aborted rescue mission on a doomed ice hauler: they had been out at the Eye of Anuba on the trail of an ancient Firstcome spaceship, which an ancient book told them was lying silent and untouched beyond the Eye. They decided then, after the distraction of the ruin of the Orun II, to try and reach that Firstcome ruin again. They spent a few days in Coriolis station recovering their good humour and resupplying the Beast of Burden, and then set off again for the Dark Between the Stars.

The crew for this mission:

  • Pilot Saqr (Pilot)
  • Gunner Oliver Greenstar (Colonist)
  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)
  • Pilot Al Hamra (Mystic)

Syndicate Salvage

The journey to the asteroid belt was uneventful, as it had been before, but as they approached the Eye of Anuba, following the same course as their last journey, the PCs were hailed by a passing ship. Captain Arrak of the Amoeba was pleasant enough in his greetings, but soon began asking pointed questions about their route, and whether they had encountered any abandoned ships on their journey. He told them that the Amoeba was a salvage ship, simply looking for wrecks to scour out here in the Dark, but their sixth sense told them there was something more involved than that. Siladan scanned the Amoeba and noticed that she was heavily armed, much more dangerous than is necessary for a salvage ship working the asteroid belt in the Kua system, and likely on the prowl for some illegal purpose. They guessed that this was the Syndicate, looking for evidence of the Gunmetal Logic, the ship they had sent out 10 days before to intercept the Orun II, and which the PCs had captured and hidden away on Rockhome 3.

They played dumb, a simple luxury yacht taking a bunch of rich tourists on a joy ride past the Eye of Anuba and out into the Dark. They had seen nothing but if they stumbled on anything they would let captain Arrak know immediately. He thanked them and the ships parted ways, although not before the Amoeba slyly dropped a drone in pursuit of their ship. Whether or not their story had worked, captain Arrak was keeping tabs on them.

Once the Amoeba was out of sensor range Saqr jumped into their fighter, the No Satisfaction, and dropped into the edge of the Eye of Anuba, flying through the storm of asteroids into a position behind the drone and out of its passive sensor range. Oliver and Adam took gunnery positions in the Beast of Burden, and Saqr opened fire on the drone. Saqr’s shot hit, but the drone had ablative armour: The drone disappeared in a storm of melted plastic and crystal dust and then emerged fully intact, its sensors going onto full broadcast mode. Before it could send a warning to its parent ship Adam fired their accelerator cannon and blew the newly-vulnerable drone to fragments.

Safe from prying eyes, they skipped over the Eye of Anuba and began their search for the shipwreck.

Firstcome Ruin

They found the ship after a day of searching, lying on the line of travel their ancient book had recommended. It was not as large as the book suggested, perhaps 600m long and a narrow 100m wide. It lay there in the vast emptiness, completely silent, powered down, motionless in the vast Dark. Under its belly there was a cloud of wreckage, and as they approached they could see that it had been in some kind of intense battle. The huge engines at the back of the ship had been torn apart by various heavy weapons, and the ship had been torn apart all along its belly.

They flew under its belly and into the shadows of Kua’s sun, looking for entry points. The belly of the ship had been blown out along a 300m long line, with pieces of the  hull lying in a rough sphere near its belly, perhaps having melted off after an intense fire. It appeared to have been a cargo ship, but the superstructure and all the contents of its cargo bays had been ruined by fire and brutal missile strikes. There it lay, nameless and ruined and unclaimed for 500 years. The PCs drifted in, looking for a way to loot this graveyard.

It was then that the Muzhadjar struck, unfurling themselves from the ancient wreck and swooping down to feast on the Beast of Burden. Fortunately Siladan detected them before they could come too close and the gunners were able to open fire on them, while Saqr threw their ship into a rapid spiral to try and avoid the beasts. They destroyed the first one as they sped towards the ship, but Oliver’s shot on the second one did not kill it, and Saqr had to throw the Beast of Burden into more complex evasive manoeuvres to stop the beast catching onto their hull. Were even one of these beasts to latch onto their ship they would be unable to kill it with their ship’s weapons, and would have to do a space walk to take it on with their personal weapons. Saqr thew their ship into a desperate loop and Adam released a torpedo, which hit the second beast as it swooped in, blowing it apart into a cloud of shadows and wrecked flesh.

They flew back towards the ship, scanning carefully for more of the Muzhadjar and finding none. So far away from the Rimward Reach and the main crowd of Firstcome shipwrecks, perhaps this remnant vessel had only been able to draw a few loners rather than the vast flocks that they had heard populated the Reach, and could tear a ship to ruins in just a couple of hours. As they drew close to the ravaged ship nothing more emerged to attack them, so they drew the Beast of Burden to a halt, suited up, and prepared for an EVA.

Among the Ruins

Saqr flew across first, using a hand-held rocket to move from the ship to the roof of the devastated cargo bay underneath the ship. Here he tied a guideline to one of the cargo crane gantries stretching across the roof of the cargo bay, and waited for the rest of the crew to join him. They left Reiko Ando behind to manage the ship, and traveled across the guideline one by one. Oliver Greenstar lost control of his ascent and flew into a crazed spiral, hitting a piece of floating hull and hurting himself before he finally reached the cargo bay. Trapped in his wake, Al Hamra was nearly hit by a piece of flying debris but managed to pull out of its way just in time. Finally they all gathered in the cargo bay. From there they took another careful space walk to the engineering section at the stern of the bay, Siladan almost kicking himself away into the Dark before Saqr and Dr. Delecta caught him. They reached the engineering section without further incident, and settled into the relative safety of its blackened and wrecked consoles.

Now they were in amongst the wreckage they could see that this ship had been horribly damaged in some ancient battle. A huge hole had been blasted through the middle of the ship by some enormous ancient weapon, leaving a perfect tunnel some 10m in diameter that traveled from the very top of the ship to the very bottom, emerging midships in the cargo bay. At the rear of the ship, in the engineering section, the floor and walls were riddled with holes from some powerful projectile weapon, as if perhaps the ship had been repeatedly strafed at close quarters, leaving raking sweeps of holes that pierced the walls and structure of the ship and let in pale shafts of light from distant Kua. The walls and floors had been blackened by fire, and the engines had obviously been massively damaged by missile fire, cannon and super-heated energy. They could find no human remains, probably because anything that was not secured to the walls and floors had been sucked out by the massive, explosive decompression when the base of the ship was blown out by whatever rail gun had punched the hole ‘midships. Throughout the engineering area and the cargo bay there was a faint cloud of dust, the scattered remnants of ash and melted plastic floating in the space of the hold. Where beams of Kua’s pale light shone through the blast holes in the ship’s hull they were caught by this cloud, filtered into faint rays of light streaking the empty space of the hold and the engineering section as if it were an abandoned cathedral to some primal god.

The cargo bay was perhaps 300m long and 100m wide. The engineering section was 80m wide and 20m long at its widest, a huge sweeping room of control panels, strange ruined machinery, and wreckage. It had once been separated from the cargo bay by a huge sweeping wall of plexiglass, but that wall had been blown out by the force of decompression, or by the implosion of the ship’s reactors, and now only shattered fragments protruded from the floor, leaving it open to space and the desolate emptiness of the hold. There was an elevator shaft, but the elevator was jammed and wrecked inside it and riddled with holes. Next to it a narrow staircase led upward to the ship’s main deck.

Before they headed up Siladan and Oliver found a control panel that held switches for emergency power batteries, and flipping the switches managed to engage enough power to turn on emergency gravity generators. Everyone gently drifted to the floor of the engineering bay, finally able to walk in vaguely natural gravity. Oliver through a piece of broken steel out of the shattered window into the cargo bay and watched it slowly accelerate toward where the floor had once been – and then pass beyond it, outside where the hull had been, and off into the emptiness of the Dark Between the Stars.

There would be no jumping out, then.

With the reserve batteries some emergency lights flicked on, casting a grim red glow over the wrecked panels. They marched up the stairs.

The drones

The stairs took them up to another engineering section, abandoned and empty like the last but not as badly damaged. Two more huge engines loomed over the stern wall of this section, wrecked and full of holes but not as badly burned as those downstairs. Here the plexiglass was mostly intact, and looked out on another huge cargo bay, perhaps 100m wide and 30m high, stretching 200m to a distant wall. The starboard side of the hangar had been blasted open by multiple missile strikes and all its contents torn outside by decompression. Across the blasted wasteland of the cargo bay itself the walls on the far side were riddled with holes from secondary blasts and perhaps also the same cannon fire that had hit the engines. Kua’s light streamed in through the holes in the starboard walls, casting a diffuse golden glow over the slowly settling plastic dust.

As they advanced across the open space Dr. Delecta checked her motion sensor and warned everyone that there were two incoming targets. Moments later something opened fire on them from the far side of the bay. Energy weapons streaked across the open space, and they rushed to cover – finding none. Instead they dropped prone and returned fire, shooting at vague shapes in the distant gloom around the far wall of the cargo hold. Energy weapons fired at them, and two strange floating drones emerged from the shadows of the far wall. They had cylindrical bodies with wiry tentacles hanging down to the ground, a blue glowing exhaust of some kind beneath the cylinder and an energy weapon on the top. As they moved forward firing, the tentacles writhed and twitched, looking for someone to grip and drag into the air. The party fired into them as fast as they could, Oliver and Adam using full burst autofire. One of the drones struck Oliver in the leg, but they managed to shoot them down before they could reach melee combat and grab anyone with their tentacles. The drones fell broken to the floor of the hold, and the PCs advanced to investigate them.

Siladan was able to confirm that one robot could be recovered, and perhaps reengineered to serve as a drone defender on their ship. They moved on, into the bow of the ancient ship.

Loot

Dr Delecta’s motion sensor warned them of more movement above, but at this level now they were safe, so they searched the bow of the ship for loot. They found a docking bay filled with high quality firstcome exo suits, and called in the Beast of Burden to dock with the air lock. They also found some torpedos, which they moved into the Beast of Burden – though they dropped one and activated its nuclear warhead, and had to throw it out of the hole in the middle of the ship before it detonated, leaving it drifting off at gravitational speeds into space to detonate 11 minutes’ travel away. They changed into the Firstcome exo suits, dragged the dead drone defender back to their ship, and moved upstairs to the top deck of the ancient ship.

They had to climb up the elevator to do this, and as soon as they emerged they were attacked by a strange, animated suit of armour that looked like it had been cast from mercury. It fired on them with a vicious thermal weapon of some kind, knocking Oliver unconscious almost immediately and almost killing Adam before their return fire could cut it down. Even as they destroyed it a second one entered the room they had entered, and they were forced to fight it too. Siladan charged in with his mercurium sword but the beast caught his strike, tore the weapon from his hand and hurled it out of the ship’s hull and into space. As the team poured gunfire into the strange suit of armour Siladan lost his cool and headbutted it with his new Firstcome exo suit. Somehow he found the beast’s only weakness, caved in its skull and killed it with one hit. The strange mercurium armour fell dead at his feet.

They looted these ancient Kinetic Intelligences, and searched through the ruins of the upper decks diligently until they found the ship’s data cores. They removed these carefully, finding also the captain’s personal tabula, and dragged it all back to the Beast of Burden. Satisfied they had found enough to profit handsomely, they cut loose from the ship and headed back towards Coriolis. Once they were a good distance from the ship Al Hamra contacted captain Arrak of the Amoeba and told him of the find. For 25,000 birr they sold its location and agreed never to speak of it to anyone.

Behind them the grave of the Firstcome floated in the empty Dark, the story of its destruction untold, its crew forgotten. It had been a good day, and its secrets would make them rich.

We talk about it all night long
We define our moral ground
But when I crawl into your arms
Everything comes tumbling down
Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down

 

Our heroes find themselves in the engine rooms of the Orun II, an ice hauler that has been overrun by an ancient Djinn. They have rescued the engineer and a deckhand, but the master Stevedore is trapped midships, and they need to make a decision about whether to risk their lives to save the ship itself, which is plunging out of control towards the Eye of Anuba, a cluster of highly active asteroids that will almost certainly tear the ship apart when it reaches them. They have just hours to act.

The roster for this session:

  • Pilot Saqr (pilot)
  • Gunner Oliver Greenstar (Colonist)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)

The gunner Adam, their main soldier, had been badly injured in a battle with one of the Djinn’s ancient bodyguards, so he retreated to the Beast of Burden along with Al Hamra, the captain, who had been traumatized in the battle and was on the edge of breaking. The rest of the group retreated with their leader to their ship, where they upgraded their armour and weapons now that they knew the kind of enemy they faced. The engineer turned off the ship’s graviton projectors, so that the ship would no longer be accelerating towards the Eye of Anuba, buying them perhaps an hour of time, and retreated with them to their ship.

They decided to travel to the workshop in the centre of the ship, rescue the stevedore, then abandon the ship and leave it and its crazed Djinn pilot to die in the Dark Between the Stars. Armed and ready, they set out for the centre of the ship. This could only be reached by an old service elevator that ran down the centre of the ship, so they climbed in and set it running. The elevator was huge, large enough for service vehicles to fit in, but old and rickety, and it almost did not start when they first stepped in. After a moment though it sprung to life with a shudder and began to track through the centre of the ship. The Orgun II is really just three control centres connected by a huge spine of external cargo attachments, so as they traveled along this spine they could look out of the elevator windows and see the huge chunks of ice hanging from the outside of the spine. The distant light of Kua’s sun shone through them, refracting into pale rainbow patterns on the wall so that as the elevator passed along the ship’s cargo it filled alternatively with the faint honeyed glow of the sun itself, and then a rich pattern of dancing rainbows as the sun’s rays were blocked by the ship’s icy cargo. Occasionally the elevator juddered and rocked, and at one point an asteroid struck one of the icebergs as they passed, spraying chunks of ice all over the outside of the elevator. Finally the elevator docked with the central control section of the ship and they were able to enter the workshop area.

They passed through an outer chamber and through a large door into the workshop itself, a huge domed space full of gear, disassembled service vehicles, spare parts and random pieces of shipware. As they entered the room a shot rang out, nearly hitting Reiko Ando and forcing them all into cover. They called out and after a moment were able to convince the shooter that they meant no harm. After a few tense minutes spent confirming they were not possessed or here to kill him, the master stevedore Kolb Zir emerged from his hiding place behind a workbench and agreed to talk to them.

The Syndicate

They were just beginning to talk to Kolb Zir when Siladan received a message from Al Hamra, telling him there were strange signals on the ship’s scanners. Could he patch into the ship’s sensor system and check them? Siladan opened his tabula and patched into the ship’s sensors to check the scans – and saw to his horror the remains of a space battle glittering in the dark a short distance behind their ship. Whatever ship had won that battle was heading towards them, inbound at high speed and running without a transponder. Someone else had been coming to their ship, and someone else had intercepted them, destroyed them, and was now approaching as fast as they could.

The time for negotiation with Kolb Zir was over. They handed him back his gun, jumped into the service elevator, and began the slow, rickety ride back to the engineering section. By the time the elevator had reached its destination the crew of the other vessel had docked, and as the PCs emerged from the engineering section they met the interlopers in the docking area. This new crew were immediately identifiable from the symbols on their combat armour – Syndicate mercenaries, hired killers for the crime gangs on Coriolis. What had they done to deserve this?!

Battle was joined, but it was quick and brutal and in the first moments of the fight they were able to take down the gang’s leader. After a short firefight the team were cut down, and only one man was left alive after he surrendered. He called down the pilot of their small ship, and told them that they had been sent to the Orun II to recover some drugs that were onboard. The Syndicate had been running a smuggling operation using ice haulers and scrap ships from the asteroid belt: they would ship in drugs and other contraband from across the Horizon, hide it in shipments from the asteroid belt and then smuggle it into Coriolis in the freight, with the help of corrupt stevedores on Coriolis. They had been told that on this occasion the Orun II was carrying a quantity of a highly dangerous drug called Black Lotus, that had been strapped to some stasis pods and buried in the ice. When the Orun II went dark and disappeared they had been sent out on a mission to find the drugs. As they approached the Orun II they had seen another ship, a small vessel sent by the Melem Gesurra shipping company that owns the Orun II. Assuming it had been sent to take back control of the ship they had destroyed it and docked to take control of the vessel. They had come ready to deal with raiders or pirates, and had not realized they would meet such stiff opposition.

The party laughed at that, and came up on an idea. They handed the pilot the armour of one of his dead colleagues and told both of them to head forward, get the drugs, and come back with them, and they would let them live. If they did not come back, or did not bring the drugs, they would be abandoned on the ship to die. The Syndicate thugs, having little choice and knowing nothing of the djinn, agreed to this ugly bargain, and set off on the elevator.

As this interrogation happened Saqr had taken the Syndicate ship and docked it within the Beast of Burden’s second hangar. They prepared themselves for the return of the Syndicate thugs: Oliver Greenstar took up a position in the upper gun turret of the Beast of Burden, autocannon aimed at the central elevator shaft; Reiko Ando and Siladan placed themselves at the airlock connecting the Beast of Burden to the Orun II, ready to meet the thugs if they returned; and Bana Delecta waited in the airlock of the Beast of Burden in case anyone needed medical care. They waited.

A Grand Bargain

They had set up both thugs to have an open comms link to the Beast of Burden, but they did not plan for Oliver Greenstar’s personal problem. Oliver had told no-one, but he had been possessed for many years by a creature from the Dark Between the Stars. As he sat at his gunnery station it took control of him and made contact with the Djinn where it sat in the darkened bridge of the Orun II. Alerted to the character’s plans, the Djinn sent its warriors to the entry of the elevator shaft. They killed one of the Syndicate thugs while the Djinn took control of the other, as Oliver Greenstar ran a monologue over the comms system to distract from any small noises the others might have heard[1]. They waited, not realizing what was coming, as the elevator moved smoothly down the shaft, Oliver Greenstar’s possessing spirit ensuring he did not shoot it. After a long, tense wait the thug emerged in the engineering section, but instead of going straight to their ship, he accessed the engineering panels and restored power to the bridge of the Orun II, restarted the engines and gave the Djinn full control of the ice hauler.

The PCs knew none of this was happening, of course, and only realized something was amiss when the lights on the bridge came on and the engines fired up. Moments later one of the Djinn’s palace guards came charging around a corner and attacked Reiko and Siladan with its mercurium sword. They had been betrayed! Confused, they fought back, but as the battle entered full swing a massive asteroid from the outer edge of the Eye of Anuba smashed into the engineering section, breaking it open and causing massive decompression in the whole section[2]. Somehow Reiko Ando was able to struggle against the explosive decompression and haul herself into the docking tunnel, but Siladan was torn away from the door and dragged towards the tear in the hull, the Djinn’s palace guard stalking after him. Meanwhile the Beast of Burden, connected to the decompression zone by the docking tunnel, began to decompress as well, and Reiko was forced to seal the airlock shut, trapping Siladan on the Orun II.

It was then that the Djinn made contact with Oliver Greenstar and offered him a deal: let the ship go free and his palace guard would not kill Siladan. Oliver, still ridden by his own possessive spirit, agreed, and the palace guard retreated, leaving Siladan to the dubious mercy of the Dark Between the Stars. Moments later Siladan was sucked out of the hull and tossed into space, in a suit of armour that had no exo suit functions. The Beast of Burden detached hurriedly and rushed to collect him, somehow managing to line him up with an airlock and drag him inside before the cold of space took his last breath[3].

As Oliver Greenstar’s possessive spirit faded away the Djinn contacted the entire party. It introduced itself to them as Kh’Oudour, told them that it was indebted to them for saving it from 300 years of sleep, and promised them they would meet again. As the Beast of Burden tumbled off into space and the Orun II accelerated away from its previously fatal flight path, Kh’Oudour also gave its thanks to the Green Knight, the beast in possession of Oliver Greenstar. The ships separated, and the Orun II was lost to human reckoning.

For now.


fn1: I made a big GM-ing mistake here, to be fair. I should have run a conversation rich with tension, where the two thugs were attacked and one seemed to survive and flee, and the PCs had to guess whether he was possessed or acting, while Greenstar tried to confuse them, but I completely forgot the thugs were wired up and the players didn’t remind me, so when things went south I didn’t give them any chance to figure out what was going on or to enjoy the rich tension of their two press-ganged servants getting whacked. This was a big GM-ing mistake!

fn2: I had 4 darkness points left and I figured I should use them! Since the campaign started the PCs have become leery about praying to the icons, because they have seen the horrible ways darkness points can be used, and now they would rather fail skill checks than give me free rein top lay with all the environmental hazards that darkness points give me.

fn3: The group has a group talent called “Survivor” which enables them to somehow survive situations exactly like this, and they called on it now. During character creation there had been discussion of which group talent to take, but as soon as they discovered the survivor talent every player who has previously been in my campaigns insisted that the group take that talent. They promised the new members of the group that they would not regret it. Siladan’s player is one of the new members, and he does not regret that choice!

My appetite’s unchanged
Sink into dream; these enchanted depths
The realm of muted wisdom
Slowly descend; trust ignites the darkness
And bliss is this drowning moment
Believe me I am sorry
To charm with bitter eyes; mesmerizing
Careless magic turns upon itself, washed down in ritual

Our heroes return, their souls blackened, from explorations of ancient ruins on the surface of Kua. Dissent has riven their group, as Siladan knows that Adam and Al Hamra found something important but will not share their information with the rest of the group. They sell the sugar globes they found, but money is becoming pressing; in three weeks their next payment on the Beast of Burden comes due, and although they have the funds to cover it they know that a single bad experience in space will force them into debt. They need to rest, and they need to make money.

Siladan wanted to return to Kua and examine the cadaver clock. He confronted Al Hamra about it, but Al Hamra made the reasonable point that the clock had lain undisturbed for 200 years and probably was not going to be discovered again any time soon; before they examined it in more detail they needed to know more about how these things work, and find out what risks they might be taking. In any case, they needed money; so Siladan returned to the libraries on Coriolis to research a book they had found, Philonimus Guide to the Reach, which puported to hold the secret to treasures in the Rimward Reach.

The Rimward Reach is a thin and widely dispersed asteroid belt in the outer reaches of the Kua system, which is distinguished as a graveyard for Firstcome ships. No one knows how they were destroyed or how they ended up there, but it is well understood that these ships are haunted by creatures from the Dark Between the Stars. Brave explorers occasionally attempt to loot these ships, but the effort is dangerous: many evil creatures hide in the wrecks of the ships, and the salvage work is grim and deadly. Philonimus’ Guide supposedly contained clues to the location of wrecks that could be looted, and to this end Siladan bent his research skills to attempting to find a safe site for exploration.

He soon discovered that Philonimus had compiled his guide by visiting asylums for the insane in various systems, and interviewing old pilots who had been committed after the pressures of the dark became too much. Mostly his stories were fever dreams, hallucinations or out-and-out lies by people who had never been pilots, and Siladan slowly lost patience with the book until he was on the verge of quitting, sure that it was just a collection of mad dreams. But in a chapter entitled the Tower he found reference to a dead ship, floating in space between the asteroid belt and the Reach, unhaunted, that could be found by careful explorers who were willing to “thread” an asteroid cluster whose particular description made it identifiable. The chapter referenced the Eye of Anuba, a collection of asteroids in a strange orbit just beyond the asteroid belt, which were constantly clashing and highly mobile, in some kind of weird gravitational distortion. This dead ship apparently lay somewhere beyond the Eye of Anuba, and if one flew a direct course from Kua to the Eye, threaded it carefully and returned to a direct line from Kua, with good sensor work one could find the ship.

The Eye of Anuba would take a week to reach on the Beast of Burden. They decided to try it.

Running Dark

They left as soon as Siladan had confirmed the details, heading on a straight line from Kua to the asteroid belt. They passed the asteroid belt uneventfully after 6 days and headed into the open space towards the Eye of Anuba, intending to cut as close as was safe to the small and deadly cluster, loop over it, and then return strictly to the line of their travel. Everyone knows that entering the Eye of Anuba is fatal, but it is relatively safe with modern ship’s computers to pass nearby, though no sane captain would ever have reason to – it was possible that a ship could float in the dark just beyond the Eye and be undetected for a thousand years. Thinking of the loot, they cut their course near the Eye, diverging slowly from a straight line through its meteoric heart and intending to bounce near it and over the other side.

It was then that Siladan detected the ship: a large vessel running dark, transponder off, heading straight towards the Eye of Anuba.

He alerted the captain. A full sensor scan revealed all the details of the ship: it was the Orun II, an ice-hauler out of Coriolis, owned by a legitimate company called Melem Gessura. The ship has a well-documented log of missions to and from the asteroid belt stretching back many years, no serious legal disputes, and all the evidence suggests it is a serious and well-respected old ice-hauler with no secrets. Yet here it was, running dark in the space beyond the asteroid belt, heading straight for the Eye of Anuba and certain destruction.

The captain hailed it, but received no response. He hailed it twice more and received no response. Strictly speaking – legally speaking – they had received no distress call and could proceed on their mission without being in the wrong. Who were they to judge if a ship’s crew had decided to ignore outsiders and head to certain death? But something about this was wrong. They decided to investigate. They changed course and headed for the ship.

As they neared the rear of the ship Al Hamra again attempted to hail it, and again received no response. However, for the briefest of moments they all saw a flash of light from the stern, a brief sequence of brilliant flashes that was obviously intended to be a distress signal. Someone without comms was trying to get their attention. They decided to dock.

Saqr took the Beast of Burden in to the stern, and they extended their docking bay to one of the stern airlocks. While they docked Reiko Ando took the fighter out of their aft hangar and ran a single circuit around the ship. She confirmed by visual inspection that the ship was undamaged, but the airlocks near the bow had been disabled and the bridge appeared to be powered down. Obviously something was going on inside, and they needed to investigate. They docked, and some of the team moved into the ship:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)

Saqr and Oliver Greenstar stayed on board to monitor the situation and protect the ship, and the rest of the team entered the ship.

Ancient Warriors

They emerged into a large chamber, clearly an access hall, with large doors sealing it off from the engineering section. Adam set up an overwatch point at the airlock while Dr. Delecta tried to get her motion sensor working. It worked briefly, points of light indicating that there was movement in the room beyond the door and somewhere above them and to their right; and also movement to their left, heading rapidly towards them. Before she could give a proper warning a beast emerged from the shadows and attacked them, striking at Adam with a mercurium sword. It was fast, large and very very dangerous, and before they could act properly it had torn deep cuts in Adam’s chest and struck Al Hamra with its claws, a strange and otherworldly cold sinking through his chest and draining his will to live. Stunned, he fell back in terror and it was left to the rest of the group to bludgeon and shoot it to death. Finally the strange creature was dead, but not before it had nearly killed both Adam and Al Hamra. It was some kind of semi-human guardian, armed with a mercurium sword and wearing strange ritual body armour that Siladan dated to at least 300 years old. Its face had been expressionless all through the battle, like they were fighting an animated doll. But it was flesh and blood – so much blood! – and its armour obviously significant. What was it?

Adam stripped its armour as Reiko Ando struggled with the motion detector and got it working, revealing again that someone was moving around in bulkheads above them. Adam sprang up into the bulkhead and managed to grab a girl hiding in the shadows, dragging her down into the light to talk.

She was happy to talk, and begged them for help. Her name was Ayda Leon and she was the deckhand on this ship. They had been on a standard mission transporting ice from the asteroid belt to Kua, but one of their crew had noticed on routine inspection that one of the ice blocks held four stasis chambers inside it. They dug out the stasis chambers and put them in the forward observatory, but their captain had opened one, and been possessed by a djinn. After the possession it freed the creatures in the other chambers, possessed them, and started killing the crew. She had fled into the maintenance ducts, and the engineer Atallah Ard had fled to the engineering rooms. Before he fled, though, he took control of the ship, turned it to the Eye of Anubar, and set it to full power. Now he had locked himself in the machine halls, shut off power to the bridge, and was waiting to die. Another member of their crew, Kolb Zir, had locked himself in the workshop ‘midships, and had jammed the elevator to the bow. She could not convince Atallah to turn off the engines and without access to the bridge they could not turn the ship around or change its course, so they were doomed unless they could kill the djinn.

She rolled up her sleeves, revealing arms covered in tattoos made to look like henna patterns, and asked the characters, “Are you gonna help me? Or am I gonna die out here in the Dark?”

They had no choice but to help. They banged on the door of the machine hall and eventually convinced the engineer Atallah to let them in. As Aydah had said, there was no way for him to turn the ship around, and even if he turned off the engines they would still fly into the Eye of Anuba eventually. Atallah did not care: he was willing to die to take the djinn to hell with him. But they were not, and they were not willing to let Kolb Zir die either.

Adam stood up, blood smeared on his stolen ancient armour, and Al Hamra, shivering and cold and terrified by his near death, stepped forward, steadying himself on a piece of warm machinery as he faced his crew. They would rescue Kolb, and find a way to turn this ship around. Here they could do good deeds, and get good rewards. It was a good day.

All they had to do was kill a djinn and its ancient bodyguards.

Our heroes have dug deep into an ancient cave and recovered some artifacts, but the Teranganu Valley still holds secrets, in particular the mysterious towers that stood beyond the plateau where they found the Sentinel. Local rumour suggested that the tower was haunted with some hideous beasts from the Dark Between the Stars, but the party had two mystics, and a set of Spirit Lenses that enabled them to see the incorporeal and evil spirits they most feared. One of their number, Al Hamra, had the power to render darkmorphs solid, making them vulnerable to physical attack[1]. With such powers they believed they could hope to dig further into the secrets of the valley before their rival Dr. Wana used her unorthodox methods to uncover them; and so they decided to explore the towers.

The roster for today’s mission:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)

They flew by grav bike to the towers and first circled them looking for signs of danger, but found none. There were three towers rising from a shared base, perhaps 40m high and 60m across, so not very large and barely tall enough to rise above the thick jungle. The towers were built of pale stone, covered in moss and creepers, mostly intact but with occasional breeches where parts of the walls had crumbled under the pressure of time. The tower rose just above the jungle crown, but near its base the trees appeared strangely stunted and twisted, as if some poison or foul influence corrupted the forest in the immediate vicinity of the towers. The PCs set their grav bikes down in the shadows of the towers and searched the base for an entrance.

There was none. There was no way into the towers at their base, nor was there any visible way in higher up. The towers appeared to have been designed with no entrance of any kind. They returned to the grav bikes and scouted higher up, until right at the top they found two small arches that would allow them admission to the tower. They parked their grav bikes on the roof and entered the main tower.

darkbound

They descended stairs to an empty room, lit by streaks of sunlight falling through breaks in the wall, finding nothing of any note. A set of stairs in one corner led them down into a larger room, in the centre of which they could see a body. They moved into the room to investigate the body, but before they could something pale and vicious came running out of the shadows and attacked Adam. It was a strange, shriveled wretch of a man but it moved incredibly fast and struck him with lightning speed, stabbing at him with vicious claws that were not human in any way. It grabbed him by the arm and tried to bite him with a sunken mouth lined with broken teeth, surrounding him with the stench of death and decay. The entire group felt a strange heavy feeling of dread fall over them, very much like the feeling they had experienced when they activated the cube of terror – but now there was no sunlight, and this strange non-human man trying to kill them. They attacked it, but before they could kill it it suddenly disappeared.

The room fell silent, and after a moment to collect their thoughts they returned to exploring the body. Adam, too callous to be shaken, retired to the stairs and took an overwatch position over the room as his colleagues approached the body. So it was that he was ready when three of the strange human creatures appeared from nowhere and attacked the group. They had almost complete surprise, but he was able to shoot one in the head, knocking it away from Al Hamra and sparing him from the first strike. The other two appeared behind Saqr and Dr. Delecta, tearing huge wounds in their limbs and striking them down to the ground. They lay on the ground dying as the rest of the group battled the three beasts, driving them away and then killing them after a few seconds of brutal battle. As the last one died Al Hamra used his mystic powers to dive into the strange beast’s mind, and after moments of horrific encounter with the Dark Between the Stars he was able to learn that these creatures were Darkbound: once humans, bound for two long to a djinn or some other Darkmorph, they had lost their souls and become a kind of ghoul devoted to destroying the living. He also learned that there were only three in the whole building – they had cleared the tower.

Adam rushed to Dr. Delecta and bound her wounds, and then helped Saqr to recover. The two of them lay in the slick of their own blood, stunned by the savagery of the attack. While they recovered the rest of the group searched the body, finding an ancient and beautiful thermal pistol, light armour, and a book called “Arvan’s Exomorphs”. It was a man, probably an explorer of some kind, and judging by the age of his weapons and armour he had died at least 200 years ago. He carried nothing that could tell them about the nature of the tower.

They found nothing else in the room, so proceeded down to the base of the tower, confident now that it had been cleared. The base was empty, and from inside they confirmed that there really were no entrances – it was not just that they had been blocked up from within, but there really were none. The only entrance was on the very top – why had this tower even been built?

In a small annex to the main tower they found a domed room in which the dead explorer had set up his camp. They found a tent, a computer with a library database, various weapons and tools, and some ruined food. It seemed obvious that he had camped here and explored the rest of the building from this base – but how had he entered the tower? And how had he known about it?

On the far side of the main tower they found another small secondary tower, that rose thin and empty to the same height as the main tower. They climbed it wearily, not expecting to find anything, but at the top level they found a narrow set of stairs leading into a large domed room. Adam and Al Hamra entered first, the others waiting downstairs to see if it was safe. In the room they found a horrendous structure of chains and cogs made of bone, with dessicated human bodies hanging in strange arrangements amongst the chains. There were perhaps 20 bodies, some pinned to the walls and others hanging in horrific corpse carousels in the middle of the room. Using the spirit lenses Al Hamra was able to see that there were flows of strange dark energy running through the chains of the structure, pooling in the bodies as if they were capacitors and flooding onward towards the centre. Something somehow had broken the structure, however, and the flow of energy built up near the centre and then dissipated, leaking out of the building instead of accumulating in the centre where it could form a source of evil power for some dark machine. They had discovered a Cadaver Clock, a strange source of dark energy that could fuel mystic powers. This Cadaver was long since broken, interfered with by some mortal power. Had the dead explorer broken it? And what had it powered? Perhaps its dark power had sustained the Darkbound creatures that had attacked them, starving and shriveled ancient servants of some greater power? Or perhaps whatever power had enslaved those beasts had fed on the energy from this machine, and had long since faded away after the Cadaver Clock broke?

They did not stay to investigate. Horrified by the strange silent machinery of death, they withdrew slowly down the stairs. Swallowing his disgust, Al Hamra told the rest of the party that the room was empty, and they slowly made their way back down the tower and up the main tower towards the grav bikes. No one else realized that there was a horror in the top chamber of the building, and no one noticed his pale, shaking terror. They retreated to the bikes, and if Al Hamra was a little too eager to put the planet behind them – perhaps a little too full of disgust at the shadows in the jungle – no one paid it any mind. They returned to the shuttle, none the richer for their incursion into the towers, and left Teranganu Valley behind them.

As the shuttle streaked away from the surface into orbit, Al Hamra pressed his face against the glass panes of the passenger bay, and wondered: had he left behind some great and secret route to power? Had he swung those bodies just so, could he have absorbed all that dark energy? What great secrets, what dark powers had he left behind?

What dark god could a Mystic become?


fn1: We have started to come up with new and interesting mystic powers to supplement those in the book.

One war took, led to his death.
One a bird lifted over the high sea.
One the hoary wolf broke with death.
One, bloody-cheeked, a warrior hid in a hole in the ground.
Likewise God destroyed this earthly dwelling
Until the strongholds of the giants stood empty,
Without the sounds of joy of the city-dwellers.

Our heroes have made camp on the beach of the Teranganu Lake, and fought off an insidious attack by Djanna from the marshes. The following morning they left Al Hamra, Dr. Delecta and Oliver Greenstar to recover from their wounds and protect the camp, and prepared for their first full day of exploring the Teranganu area.

The cast for this session:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)

Their initial plan had been to help the Sogoi people to repel the dig site near the river that was upsetting the ancient spirits of the valley, and to this end they had given the Sogoi leaders two vulcan pistols and suggested they would return the next day with a plan. But as the day dawned bright and suffocatingly hot they decided against this course. Although they very much wanted to disrupt their nemesis Dr. Wana’s work, they did not know how powerful she was or what the consequences of a direct attack on her work might be – if she learned it was they who did it, would she unleash violent reprisals on them in Coriolis or across systems? Their main goal in coming to the surface of Kua had been to investigate the dig site where the Statuette of Zhar Bagha had been found, and they knew where that site was, so they decided that they would avoid involving themselves in local disagreements, and avoid entanglements with their nemesis. They would go straight to the abandoned dig that their contact Lavin Tamm had led them to after they rescued him on Coriolis, and look for further artifacts.

The hollow rock

They had camped on the beach on the east side of the lake. Dr. Wana’s dig site was north of them, on the far side of the river, obscured by a thick bank of jungle, and the rock lay in more dense woodland on the opposite shore of the lake. From their camp they could see its moss-covered top looming above the trees, and just beyond it the tips of two crumbling stone towers that were rumoured to be infested with spirits from the Dark Between the Stars. From their camp to the rock was just a short trip on their grav bikes, and they set off early in the day to try and make the base of the rock before the sun was too high and the entire area became impossibly hot. They packed some archaeological equipment, weapons and armour, and flew across the lake on their grav bikes, landing at the southwestern tip of the rock within a few minutes. Here they found three cave mouths, perfectly cut and obviously not natural, which had been obscured by large trees that had now been burnt away. A short distance from the cave mouths was a large camp, obviously abandoned. They had found their site.

Investigation of the camp confirmed their suspicions. They found Lavin Tamm’s locker, and the lockers of another eight people who showed no signs of having returned to the camp after their ill-fated expedition. Foodstuffs were packed and eating utensils cleaned and stacked, a computer terminal in standby mode and beds made. They had clearly left their camp for a day’s work and simply never returned. There were no tabulae in the camp and no notes, so no way to find out what progress the archaeologists had made on the dig, or if they had any forewarning of whatever had overcome them. Siladan attempted to access their communications terminal to identify whether or not they had sent an emergency signal offsite, but unfortunately all he was able to do was trigger an emergency security warning that triggered an extra-orbital response squad. Checking the manual he identified that they had four hours until that orbital response arrived. He apologized profusely to his team but it was too late: now they had four hours to find out what had happened here and recover any artifacts left behind by the dead team.

They entered the rock. Here they found a network of perfectly smooth, perfectly formed tunnels that curved and wandered through the rock with no apparent purpose, intersecting and overlapping each other in spirals and whorls until finally one tunnel entered a large cavern, perhaps 50 m long and 20 m wide, that formed the single terminus of the entire strange system. Since there was no light in here and they had no night vision systems, the PCs did not bother sneaking in. They turned on their torches, and entered the cavern.

Found footage

They found the first body just near the entrance, collapsed against the cave wall with an accelerator pistol and a tabula lying on the ground nearby. The body was dessicated and pale, wearing the same uniform that they had seen Lavim Tamm trying to hide in his hotel room on Coriolis. The uniform was crusted with dried blood around its chest, from which a third arm had erupted, tearing the cloth of the overalls and rending flesh and bone apart in its eruption. They recoiled in horror at the sight of this strange monstrosity, everyone stepping back in disgust. After a moment to try and understand what they were seeing, Adam approached and carefully inspected the arm. It was not fully human, grey-skinned and vaguely scaly, with a contorted spine of some kind sticking out of its elbow and only three clawed fingers on the end of the limb. Although it had torn the victim’s chest apart when it emerged from the body, it was also clearly connected to and part of the body.

They looked at each other with growing unease. Something very bad had happened here, and it was something they could not understand. They turned their gaze – and their weapons – to face into the cavern, and continued their exploration.

The cavern had the same smooth, perfectly-made style as the hallways, but for six columns set in two parallel rows near each side of the cave. There were no other physical features. As they advanced they saw more bodies scattered around the room, and a collapsed tent of the kind used to cover archaeological digs set at the far end of the cavern. Although the far end of the chamber was dim in the light of their exo-suits it was clear that nothing else moved or lived in here. They inched forward.

The second body was lying against the first pillar they came to. It had dropped a vulcan carbine on the floor next to its right leg – or what was once its right leg. The overalls of this leg were torn and shredded, and the leg changed near the hip into a tight bundle of tentacles, now dead and dessicated. The dead worker had obviously been shooting his own leg, because they could see bullet wounds in the tentacles and his left, human leg. The tentacles had rough suckers lined with hooks, and it looked as if he had been strangled by at least one of them at some point, because his neck was marked with contusions and tears of the same shape. It was unclear if he had died from the self-inflicted gunshot wounds or the strangling. Again, it looked as if the tentacles had extruded from his leg as if naturally part of it, but had at the same time done massive damage to him. Adam checked the carbine, finding the magazine empty, Siladan labeled the man’s tabula, and they moved further into the room towards the tent.

The rest of the dig team had died around the tent. Two more appeared to have died of strange transformations: one, lying a little distance from the tent, had had her neck elongated like a rubber band so that her head flopped on the floor, and all the fingers on her hands stretched like they were made of rubber; the other had a hugely distended belly and neck, and appeared to have died of choking. One of the dead had been shot several times in the chest, and the remaining three had been slaughtered by some horrific beast. One near the tent appeared to have been stabbed from behind by a huge impaling weapon of some kind, leaving a huge hole in his chest and causing him to drop an accelerator pistol, a mysterious cube-shaped object, and a tabula. The other two lay a little distance from the tent towards the cavern entrance, where they had been torn into pieces by some huge force. Even a cursory check assured them that there were no survivors – the only person who had escaped the carnage was Lavim Tamm, and now they understood exactly why he had been so traumatized when they found him on Coriolis.

They searched the collapsed tent. It had covered the dig site, which was a Firstcome-era frieze on one part of the rear wall of the cavern. The dig team had obviously been picking this frieze away, destroying it as they did so, and although only partially complete they had found an alcove that looked like it might have held some object. On the floor near the alcove was an artifact case, a kind of suitcase that fills with a special gel-like material that protects fragile objects from damage regardless of their shape. Just outside the tent a camera drone lay on the ground, a small red light indicating it was in power save mode. They had filmed their dig.

They decided that discretion was the better part of valour. They collected the camera drone, all the tabulae, the artifact case and the strange cube, and headed out as quickly as they could. Once outside they rushed back to their camp, plugged in the drone, and watched the last few minutes of the archaeology team’s life.

The team had been digging as normal when suddenly the two men inside the tent had started arguing, and one of them had rushed out of the tent, yelling back at his colleague in the tent and then vomiting just outside the tent. His colleague came out and also began vomiting, while the men outside the tent began to look around uneasily and warn each other that they felt strange. One of them asked if something was coming, and they began to act terrified and confused. After perhaps a minute of this growing uneasiness one of the men drew a pistol, pointing it at another team member and yelling “You can’t stop me! I will not fail!” before he shot him three times. The other members of the team began to panic, one yelling “Sarcofagoi!” before they all began to run away from the camera. As they began to move a dark, unidentifiable shape emerged from nowhere and stabbed a massive spike through the chest of the shooter, making him jerk up into the air and throw his gun and tabula to the ground, along with a cube that fell out of his coat. Moments later a nearby woman, backing away in horror, suddenly shivered and twitched and then died as her neck stretched impossibly long and her fingers twisted and stretched. People screamed more and ran, the dark shape dropping its victim and chasing two of them. In the distance they could hear gunshots, and the dark shape disappeared from view as it pursued its victims. Moments later the team fell silent, and the scene became still, the only sound the slow gurgling chokes of someone just out of view of the camera, dying as his own neck swelled up and cut off his breathing. The dark shape did not return.

They replayed the video, but this time focusing on the man who had fired the gun. It appeared that before the horror began he was fiddling with something in his coat, probably the cube, and about 10 minutes before that he was sending and receiving messages on his tabula. He had obviously done something, summoned something or unleashed some monster from within the cube. They needed to know. With a heavy heart, they set about examining his blood-stained belongings.

Things of stone and wood

Siladan investigated the cube. It was not large, perhaps 5cm on each side, and was made of wood inlaid with strange symbols and sigils that were obviously of Portal Builder origin. Some parts of some of the faces could be depressed like switches, and it did not take Siladan long to decipher the order in which the switches needed to be touched in order to activate the device, though he could not say what it did. It was clear that the dead man had also known how to activate it, and this was what he had been doing moments before the attack began. Had he summoned the monster? And had he done so on someone’s behalf. They activated his tabula, and looked at his last messages…

Conversation: 3rd of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

ZK: Has work begun?

IM: Yes, the dig is under way

ZK: How’s the timing?

IM: The frieze should be uncovered within a day. It is fragile in the dry air and crumbles easily

ZK: So you should have confirmation of the find by tomorrow night?

IM: Yes, the Icons willing. Work will be fast with this team.

ZK: You understand the pressures here?

IM: Yes, I will contact you as soon as I have confirmation.

 

Conversation: 4th of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

IM: Sir, the frieze has been removed and the chamber uncovered as you expected.

ZK: Good! Is there a find?

IM: Yes sir, the dig leader is very excited!

ZK: Describe it!

IM: That I cannot, I am not allowed near the tent.

ZK: Typical! No matter. You know what to do?

IM: Activate the box. Wait for them to panic and leave.

ZK: Yes, that is right. Do it now!

IM: Sir, I am concerned. The guard at least is tough. I fear he will not leave just from the effect you promise.

ZK: No matter! I am paying you well. You know what to do if he does not leave?

IM: Yes sir, but there are many of them. I may not prevail.

ZK: Do not fear. If you fire on even one in the climate of the box they will fear Sarcofagoi. They will flee. Then you take the find and leave once the way is clear.

IM: You are sure this will work? I fear for my safety.

ZK: I am paying you to risk your safety. Do not cross me know or your uncertain economic future will be the least of your concerns.

IM: Understood.

ZK: Have you the talisman?

IM: By my heart! I place my trust in the Icons. I will message you when the job is done!

ZK: Good. May the Icons be with you!

 

So, it appeared that about a month ago – two weeks or so before they found Lavim Tamm – this man Islim had been at this dig, and had activated the box on the orders of someone called “ZK”. The box was supposed to create fear in everyone present, and if they did not leave then Islim was to attack one of them, giving the impression he had been possessed by a Sarcofagoi, and then loot the dig site before leaving himself. Unfortunately, when he activated the box he had also conjured, or drawn the attention of, something else, something horrible and very violent. The only person who had escaped the ensuing carnage was Lavim Tamm. It was also possible that Lavim had been stealing the statuette at the same time that the box was activated, and that this had triggered some kind of beast.

Siladan, reviewing the footage and doing some research, concluded that the beast that had been triggered was likely a Sentinel. Sentinels are strange pillar-like creatures from the Portal Builder era, which are triggered by unknown conditions and have the power to twist and warp human flesh, as well as being vicious and merciless combatants. Siladan’s guess was that one of the columns in that chamber had been a Sentinel, and the box had triggered it to activate, with catastrophic consequences for the whole team.

Saqr used his weak mystic powers to probe the box, and confirmed that it did exactly what Islim had been promised – it created fear and dread in everyone within a small radius. Saqr even tested it on himself, terrifying himself without summoning any beasts from the Dark Between the Stars. A useful device to be deployed in difficult situations!

They kept the box and the contents of the artifact case: a pair of Spirit Glasses and two Causality Stones. They had also looted some Sugar Globes from the chamber on their way out. Stowing these treasures away in their shuttle they sat on the beach to watch the camp, wondering what the emergency beacon would summon.

Nothing came. The desiccated corpses had been forgotten, or abandoned, betrayed and lost in the hollow hill.


Picture note: The top picture is by Matt Gaser (I think), whose work can be bought here. The other pictures are from Coriolis itself.

In starlit nights I saw you
So cruelly you kissed me
Your lips a magic world
Your sky all hung with jewels
The killing moon
Will come too soon

 

Our heroes have returned to Coriolis station after breaking Samina’s Corsairs at the Rockhome 3 mining colony. Now they have a mystery to explore – in a previous adventure they learnt of an archaeological dig on Kua that was attacked by some kind of force from the Dark Between the Stars, and they wished to go and explore the dig site, to see if they could recover the artifacts that the fleeing archaeologists had abandoned.

The cast for this session:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Oliver Greenstar (Colonist)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Ship’s Doctor Banu Delecta (Medicurg)

They knew the coordinates of the dig but they were not sure of who else might be there or what the situation was on the surface of Kua so they first decided to do some research on the location, on other archaeologists active in the area, and on the statuette that they had lost to the Draconites. Doctor Banu Delecta knew an old friend from medical school who had married a rich benefactor of the Infoteca, so she pulled some strings to get them into the library. Once there they separated, and spent a few days investigating the background of the dig and its contents.

The statuette and their Nemesis

Saqr and Banu investigated the statuette itself, digging through old books and video memories until somewhere in the back of the library Saqr found a strange headset that could be used to upload mystical impressions, which would then be searched through an extensive and mysterious library of recorded impressions. This strange technology from the Portal Builders matched his impressions from when he held the statuette to a series of obscure poems from a long lost nomad prophet. This prophet had been studied by an archaeologist called Shahr Bhaga, who had recorded details in the marginalia of one of his early notebooks that described a statue very similar in form to that which Saqr had held. This statuette, so old it had no name, was said to be able to store any memory that the holder projected into it – and could recall that memory at any time in the future, perfectly vividly. Shahr Bhaga speculated that this statuette must use a technology similar to that of the fabled Spirit Ray, a legendary artifact of the portal builders that was rumoured to steal souls and store them in its dimensionless memory banks. This piqued everyone’s interest – could that mysterious and storied gun be hidden in the dig? And what would be protecting such a monstrous device …?

While Saqr and Banu chased ghosts through the dusty depths of the poetry section Reiko and Al Hamra dug up information on the dig site itself. They confirmed that there was no official record of a dig being conducted at the coordinates they had been given, which seemed to correspond to a network of tunnels under a large rock that rose out of the Kuan jungle like a plateau. However, they did discover that their nemesis, Dr. Wana, was running a dig nearby, at an old collection of ruins by a river that flowed east of the plateau. They could find no evidence that she had interfered in the dig under the plateau, but she was renowned for her unorthodox and sometimes unethical methods – had she done something to disrupt the dig, or laid a trap of sometime? Could she control darkmorphs, or summon them!? Surely not …

The rest of the area appeared to be a slightly fraught environment. There was a small encampment of Sogoi, the Firstcome people who lived in relatively primitive conditions in the jungles of Kua, and nearby also was a small logging settlement. Reiko Ando intercepted a fragment of a colonial agency report that suggested there was growing tension in the area between the Sogoi and the Zenithian intruders, who they accused of stirring up the spirits of the dead. Everyone guessed it would surely be typical of Dr. Wana to dig up some ancient evil, but somehow misdirect it to kill the innocent labourers on a nearby dig site. They would have to proceed carefully…

The Kuan Swamps

They decided to take a quiet approach to the site, so they did not take the Beast of Burden to the surface. Instead they took its small shuttle, loaded with two grav bikes, a grav crawler and camping supplies, and flew load and as stealthily as their shuttle would allow, passing over the forest and landing on the eastern bank of the river, on the far side of the river from the plateau where the abandoned dig lay. They set the shuttle down on a wide stretch of sandy beach on the edge of a clear lake. A river flowed into the lake from the north, and on the southern side the lake tumbled over a narrow waterfall into a lower valley, where the loggers’ camp was built. To the east of the sandy beach was a narrow line of trees and then broken land that formed into a wide, long swamp. They set up an awning on the edge of the shuttle, laid out their supplies, and rested until evening. It was incredibly hot during the afternoon and intensely humid, so that just setting up camp and exploring the perimeter of the beach left them completely exhausted. They rested for an hour and then, when the sun was low on the horizon, set off on their grav vehicles for the Sogoi village, which lay on the eastern side of the swamp.

The Sogoi village was a small collection of mud huts, surrounded by a low stockade. The Sogoi were poor, with no sign that they had benefited from any of the business being conducted on their land. When the PCs landed their grav bikes they were approached by a small group of young men and women, carrying spears and bows, and led by an older, solid-looking warrior man and a very old, grey-haired woman. These two were obviously the leaders of the group: He was called Kubu-Ghan and she was the shaman, Ixra. The conversation went poorly until they handed over two vulcan pistols and a small amount of ammunition to Kubu-Ghan, at which point he became much more voluble. He told them that yes the archaeologists and loggers were definitely riling up the spirits of ancestors, and defiling their territory, and though they had asked repeatedly for them to stop, and tried to negotiate with them, their wishes were ignored. They indicated that they would be very happy to receive help in driving the archaeologists off the land. The PCs suggested they would help, but first wanted to explore the area, and left the Sogoi as night approached.

Djanna

Uncertain of how safe they would be in this tense wilderness, they decided to set a watch on the camp, and as night fell it was Al Hamra and Oliver Greenstar who took the first watch. They noticed some strange lights hanging over the swamp just out of sight, lights which Oliver dismissed as perhaps the lamps of Sogoi swamp harvesters, or some strange gas phenomenon over the swamp; Al Hamra, however, heard a strange and alluring music, and enchanted by the lights headed out to find them. Oliver barely noticed him until it was almost too late, when two crocodiles emerged from the still waters of the swamp to ambush Al Hamra as he stumbled heedlessly past them. Calling the others, Oliver raced forward, noticing as he did so that the lights drew together around Al Hamra and began to intensify. Saqr zipped past him on a grav bike, while Adam and Delecta and Reiko charged along behind. Al Hamra woke from his strange dream when the crocodiles attacked him, confused and bruised and looking up into strange, flickering blue lights that hung all around him, forming into pale, luminous faces in the dark that stretched incorporeal greedy mouths towards him, and smacked their lips in soundless joy as the crocodiles bashed into him.

Djanna! He had been lured into the swamp by those strange corpse lights, which would wait for him to die and then manifest to drain sustenance from his dying fears. He could not strike such formless beasts, but he could fight the crocodiles, which he tried to do as Saqr raced towards him on the grav bike. Vulcan bullets zipped past him in the dark as the rest of the group tried to drive the crocodiles away, and a moment later he was able to haul himself, badly mauled, onto Saqr’s bike, firing down at one of the crocodiles with his accelerator pistol as he did. Saqr wheeled around and away while the others fired at the crocodiles. Their meal lost, the serpents slid back into the forest and with a final ripple of disappointed fire the djanna winked out of existence.

They returned to the camp, where Delecta treated Al Hamra’s wounds. They had survived their first evening in the jungles of Kua – but would every night be like this? They settled down to dream unsettled dreams and wait for the suffocating heat of morning.