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…

Inevitable

Our PCs have made contact with an illicit Skavarra smuggler called Mr Ting, and after a vicious battle made some progress towards their goal. They are hiding a Skavara with mystic powers, which someone attempted to smuggle on their spaceship, and are now trying to find out who the Skavarra was being smuggled to and why. To this end, after ambushing Mr Ting they learnt that they need to speak to a man called Thrall, who works directly for whoever ultimately purchased the Skavarra. Thrall will return to Algebar station in 11 days, so they have time to kill while they wait for his arrival. They have taken Mr Ting’s million birr – which he was supposed to pay to the Skavarra smugglers – but left him alive in a moment of mercy. They have also learned that Mr Ting has a powerful ally somewhere in the station heirarchy, but due to various deceptions it is unlikely that they can be identified easily as the people who stole Mr Ting’s money, except by Ting himself, and Ting has been cowed.

The roster for today’s adventure:

 

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

Ship modifications

Using the million birr they stole from Mr Ting, the PCs decided to go on a spending spree. The station at Algebar 3 is large and full of opportunities, so they used the money to make two quick upgrades to their ship: they purchased the Supersensors and Supercharged reactor features, both of which are relatively fast to add to the ship and do not require much engineering. They wanted to buy extra modules, but this will require months of work, so they settled for these simpler features. They also spent some time hunting the Souks of the lower, inner decks for weapons licenses, as they had become increasingly aware of the dangers of engaging in battle in metropolis stations like Algebar 3 without the limited protection even sidearms and light armour offered.

These purchases and upgrades took 7 days, and on the evening of the 7th day they received a visitor, a slick young man called Sarcuptra who had heard they were purchasing weapons licenses and was interested in selling them some advanced weaponry. He might, he intimated, even have access to rocket launchers. They interviewed him in the Beast of Burden‘s Arboretum, and after a short conversation – during which he seemed completely unfazed by their increasingly rumbunctious and menacing menagerie – they decided to do business with him. He told them he would send them a location and bade them farewell, taking with him a list of weapons they wanted.

The ambush

Adam was sure it was an ambush, but they went anyway. Sarcuptra told them to meet him two days later at a park on a lower, inner level. He assured them he had a method to get the weapons to their ship without any trouble with the law, and although they doubted the weapons were going to arrive they played along with his plan. The park was a small grassy zone with windows offering views of the space stations inner underside, a disused door in one corner, and a couple of children’s play spots in the middle. The central object was a slide in the shape of a strange grey animal that was fat with short legs, very large ears and a long nose that curled down from its dumb-looking head to the ground. This was the slide, and its fat grey body could form good cover if they needed it. Adam, Delecta and Siladan gathered here while Reiko took position at a place behind cover on the far side of the garden, and Saqr went to investigate the door, which turned out to be an emergency airlock – common installations throughout the space station. They waited, Adam nervously eying the buildings across the road from the park.

After a few minutes Adam’s tabula registered a call, which he answered. Mr Ting’s face emerged on a grainy video, and they realized that yes indeed, it was an ambush. He told them that they had a choice: exit through the emergency airlock to a waiting shuttle, which would take them to a passenger ship called the Selenium Dream, which they would ride back to Coriolis, leaving their ship and all their belongings and money here; or die. He gave them one minute to decide. The call ended.

Of course they weren’t going to do what he wanted. Saqr came running back to the weird grey animal, and they talked about what to do. After 20 seconds the doors of the buildings across the road opened and four men emerged, carrying vulcan carbines and wearing light armour. A window upstairs opened too. Siladan ran forward to a flower bed near the front of the garden to take cover, ready to charge into combat. In the upper floor window someone propped a rocket launcher on the windowsill. They opened fire.

They fought viciously in a dizzying haze of bullets and blood. Siladan and Reiko charged into melee, splitting the four men into two groups of two, but two more men emerged from the emergency airlock, opening fire on the group hidden behind the strange animal and forcing Delecta into remarkable feats of athleticism to avoid being gunned down. The man with the rocket launcher was gunned down by Adam and Delecta but managed to stagger to his feet long enough to fire a rocket at the stupid grey animal, eliminating their cover but doing no serious damage against any of them. Siladan and Reiko did a professional job of murdering all four of the armed men in close combat (except one who fled), and finally as Adam and Delecta mopped up the two men by the emergency airlock Reiko was able to run upstairs and take the man with the rocket launcher hostage. They dragged him downstairs and through the airlock onto the small shuttle that was docked there. The entrance area of the shuttle was covered in plastic and strewn with the necessary tools to disappear bodies – there had obviously never been any intention that they would be flown alive to the Selenium Dream. With all their soldiers dead and their leader captive the flight crew of the shuttle surrendered, and they tied everyone into the shuttle’s few passenger seats. They loaded everyone’s weapons in and flew back to the Beast of Burden in the shuttle.

Mr Ting’s grisly end

At the Beast of Burden their assailant proved himself to be a very reasonable captive. His name was Jazir and he had been hired by Ting to do the job. He was very angry with Mr Ting for telling him that the PCs would be an easy target, and when told he would be released if he revealed Ting’s location he offered to go one better – give him back his guns and he would kill Ting himself, then share the loot with them. They agreed with this plan and let him loose.

A day later they received a video call from Jazir in Ting’s safe house. Against a backdrop of blood and gore he assured them he had done the job, and they should come down to gather up the loot and get Ting’s secured tabula. They took the tube and walked down to the location he sent them, and found him and a few of his friends standing in a room with five bodies. It was a messy, small room, one of Ting’s safe houses, and it was sheeted with blood and damage. He assured them he would clean up the mess, and showed them Ting’s secured tabula and a slew of weapons. They split birr, guns and armour, and then Jazir set about dismembering the bodies. He flipped them a casual salute as they left, and they parted on “no hard feelings” terms.

Tracking Thrall

Back at the Beast of Burden they hacked the tabula and learned a little more about Thrall. They discovered that a few days after his visit a supply ship would arrive, to pick up cargo to take to whatever location he was based in. Rather than confront Thrall directly they decided to use this information to track him. They found the cargo that the supply ship would be loading, and placed a small image of one of the Icons inside one of the crates. Ten days after the ship left Algebar 3 station Saqr used his mystic power of tracking, and located it in a part of the system’s asteroid field. They had a location for their Skavarra trafficker. It was time to go and kill him – and find out who exactly was behind this strange plan, so they could kill them too.

 

Artifact traders on Algebar 3

Our heroes have rumbled a trafficking ring in Algebar, which is willing to pay a huge amount of money for shipment of a single Skavara with mystic powers. Seeing an opportunity to take a very large amount of money from some very undeserving people, they decided to raid the agent in Algebar who was going to purchase the Skavara, take the million birr he had intended to pay for it, and find out why this Skavara was so valuable.

The cast for today’s adventure:

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

They traveled to the main planet in the Algebar system, Tufsur, and settled into its spaceport in preparation for a raid.

The Algebar system

Algebar is a single main-sequence yellow star, similar to Sol, with 12 planets, an asteroid belt and a gas giant. Its unstable portal has isolated it from the rest of the Horizon, and most trading companies do not risk traveling past Amedo into Algebar. This means that the worlds beyond Algebar are relatively lawless, and primarily visited by free traders, and it also means that Algebar has developed relatively independently of the Horizon. Originally settled by Firstcome, Algebar is characterized by three main stellar objects: the planet Paru (Algebar 4), Tufsur (Algebar 3) and the asteroid belt, called Assager’s Ghost.

Paru is a large, earth-like planet, relatively cool compared to earth and characterized by seven moderately-sized continents separated from each other by wide seas. Its population of five million is spread over these continents and has slowly devolved to a technological level equivalent to that of the age of sail. The seven continents have slowly diverged culturally, having their own languages and cultures, due to the poor interconnections between nations using sail ships. The population grows slowly, and the planet is something of a backwater. Its people know of those on other planets, but their xenophobia and lack of education causes them not to care too much, nor to change. They trade foodstuffs for trinkets from space, giving them a science-fantasy culture something like that in Silverberg’s Majipoor books. In addition to foodstuffs, the people of Paru have two unique trade objects: Paru fabrics and their own people. Paru fabric is made from a shellfish that grows widely in the shallow seas of the planet. It fastens itself to the seabed using silk strands which, when extracted from the shell, can be spun into a fabric of extreme tensile strength and power, that can be used to make advanced armours. The people of Paru are famously beautiful, and are traded legally into courtesan work by Ahlam’s Temple, and illegally into slavery by the Syndicate. As a result of these trade goods, a bustling space port hangs over Paru, but its people itself have failed to benefit from the trade they provide.

In turn Tufsur, the third planet in the system, completely depends on Paru. Its population of 900,000 live on a desert planet with no water, in domed firstcome cities that have been maintained by a cult of technologists, the Emirs of Tufsur, who hold total power on the planet. The largest industry on Tufsur is spinning Paru fabrics into armour and advanced materials; they trade for food and the raw silk from Paru, and buy ice in bulk from free traders who collect it from Assager’s Ghost. There is no freedom on Tufsur, just religion and work; but the huge station hanging in orbit offers welcome relief and riotous freedom from all the religious restrictions of the planet below, its wealth built on trade in goods from Paru and ice from the asteroid belt.

This asteroid belt is a huge monstrosity, 10 AU wide and 10 AU wide, blocking sunlight to the outer planets and casting a gravitational pall over the entire system. Many theorize that this asteroid belt is the reason for the system’s unstable portal, but little can be done with it except to mine it for rare metals and ice. The rare metals are sold to free traders as they pass through, primarily from the spaceport at Paru, and the ice to Tufsur. The system maintains a bustling sub-stellar network of mining ships and ice-haulers, but interstellar vessels are rarer and their crew a foolhardy bunch at best.

Thus does Algebar’s business proceed slowly, as it has always done, largely isolated from the rest of the Horizon by its bad portal. And into this ossified network fell the PCs, carrying a miracle semi-intelligence, and a thirst for justice.

On Tufsur Space Station

Tufsur space station is a huge torus, 3km in radius on its inner face and 1km in diameter. It looks like a disc as a visitor approaches, because the entire toroidal central space is devoted to huge sheets of solar panels, which power the entire station. There are about 100,000 people living on the station, giving it a relatively low population density. The station is firstcome, old and slowly crumbling but still a millenium away from becoming unusable. It has several docking space internally that are large enough for class IV ships or smaller, and an array of external docking stations for class V ships. Ice Haulers typically dock away from the ship and their ice is hauled to special trade platforms by tug boats. Although large interstellar vessels rarely visit, a constant stream of class II and class III sub-stellar trade ships streams into and out of the station, and down to the planet below. The station has four primary residential levels, each perhaps 100m in height, with a simple structure consisting of an outer promenade and an inner promenade separated by a tube train that connects 9 stations (one for each icon) set not-quite-equidistantly around the tube. Central decks are the poorest, since their inner promenade has no windows, and there is a modest criminal population on the station consisting of a mixture of people running from other systems, people hiding from the Emirs of Tufsur, human traffickers, smugglers, and general criminals.

The PCs docked at an internal dock and found accommodation on an upper outer promenade, in a large villa with views of the system, near a pleasant park. They immediately set about finding criminal connections, and quite quickly managed to arrange a meeting in The Doldurms, a network of ancient fighter-repair bays that had been repurposed into markets. Here they bought themselves armour enhancements and armoured underweave made of Paru fabric, and also found the location of the Skavara dealer’s local contact, a certain Mr. Ting. They purchased some fake identities for themselves, and paid him a visit.

An unfortunate escalation of hostilities at Mr Ting’s warehouse

Mr Ting was based in a small warehouse with a view over the inner disc, next to a small and rundown park. They stopped outside and prepared themselves. Unfortunately the strict weapons laws on the station prevented them from being heavy weapons or armour, so they were wearing their new underweave and carrying only knives and small pistols. Siladan attempted (and failed) to access some local computer systems to see what was inside but was unsuccessful, so they pulled out their weapons, heaved up the main roller door on the warehouse, and entered…

… to be greeted by a hail of gunfire from a vulcan machine gun, that hit everyone on the front row but fortunately did not do any serious damage. The guards in the warehouse had been alerted by Siladan’s failed computer access attempt, and were on overwatch. Battle was joined!

The fight was short and sharp. Two men upstairs at the machine gun nest were quickly overpowered by Adam and Siladan, while a third man downstairs revealed himself by shooting at Oliver, and was taken down by Reiko, Oliver and Banu. Upstairs, Mr. Ting shot Adam in the head and almost killed him[1], but once his guards were down he surrendered and agreed to talk.

Unfortunately, as they were talking Siladan made an attempt to search Mr. Ting’s computers, and made another dismal failure. This alerted some guards, who came to the warehouse to investigate. After another short fight Mr. Ting gave up, and two of the three guards survived. Mr. Ting gave the PCs the million birr he was holding to pay for the Skavara. He warned them that he was just an agent for a greater power, and they would regret this intervention. They offered to let him live if he told them who he was dealing for, but he did not know. Instead he told them he had a contact, a man called Thrall, who would be returning to the station in 11 days. They could ask him.

The PCs let Mr. Ting live, took his 1 million birr and the information, and left. They would find this Thrall, track down his boss, and learn the truth about the Skavara in their hold. They had a feeling that something big was moving behind this scheme, and they intended to find out what … and get rich as they did so!


fn1: I rolled a crit of 66, but Adam’s player had just bought the new talent Tenth Life, which enables a PC to ignore a single 66. This is a one use talent, so Adam basically burnt 5xp.

On the islands of Amedo

After a short interlude to rest and recuperate at the Lithofor, the PCs have returned to their luxury yacht and traveled onward, to Amedo, experiencing no threats or challenges along the way and arriving at the Amedo system’s main planet, Amedo, without incident. Amedo is the fourth planet in the Amedo system, circling its large star. Its population is small and scattered over primarily small islands far from its main continent. Amedo is the ancestral home of the Skavara, semi-intelligences that are exploited as trainable troops and labourers, and as a result the planet has a large and active spaceport despite its small surface population, as a brisk trade in Skavara attracts traders and businesspeople. The PCs arrived with the intention of passing on directly to Algebar, but decided to stay while they looked for passengers, and to explore the wonders and famed beauty of the planet’s archipelagoes.

Visit to a White Temple

The PCs’ main aim was to visit one of the planet’s famed white temples, temples scattered across the ocean surface that had been built by the firstcome and which had an ancient history of strict devotion to the Icons. Unfortunately there was no information available about the white temples either in the ship’s database or in any physical or digital media in the planet’s spaceport, and they were forced to travel to the surface and randomly select a white temple to visit. Siladan did a little investigation and was able to determine a likely order for the distribution of temples, so that they could find the temple they sought, so they took their shuttle and headed down to the planet.

The only way to approach the white temples was by boat, so they landed at a nearby chain of islands called the Resiler Isles, and took accommodation here in an old whaling facility called the Death Factory. Here they learnt that the Resiler Isles were a haven for people escaping harsh lives in the rest of the Horizon: former gangsters, soldiers, political activists, failed prophets and washed up adventurers all found their way here, to live in peace amongst the waves and storms of Amedo’s oceans. The PCs, too, took this opportunity to rest for a few days before they took a boat from the Resiler Isles and headed into the wild ocean, looking for one of the White Temple Islands.

They reached the white temple island after an uneventful few days of primitive sailing across calm blue seas. It was a small island built on a base of white coral, ancient and bleached to sparkling beauty by sun and wind. Their boat docked at a small pier of coral, and they ascended glittering white steps through a long chain of gateways made from the huge rib bones of long-dead whales. The stairs curved around the island and led them to a building constructed entirely of whalebone, its windows made of single discs of a strange, semi-translucent plastic-like material. At the top they were met by a monk, an old woman dressed in simple robes, and led into the small compound within the whalebone walls. For the next week they prayed and did simple menial work on the island, polishing coral and scrubbing whalebone floors and spars, and flagellating themselves regularly in the presence of the Icons. During this week they learnt that the White Island Temples were the reason for the extinction of the planet’s great whales, and also their prey, the huge jellyfish-like creatures whose internal gelatinous organ was used to make the windows and semi-translucent skylights of the temples.

After this week of devotions they left, enlightened, with new skills and talents, and returned to the Beast of Burden to continue their explorations of the Horizon.

The Hidden Cargo

Once they were back on the Amedo space station the PCs were contacted by a man called Elifim who wanted them to carry some cargo for him to Algebar 3, Tufsur. This cargo was a simple job, and he was not paying a lot – 10,000 birr to transport a crate of electronic goods plus himself, his assistant and four staff through the portal to Algebar. They agreed, and set off the next day.

The journey to the portal was uneventful, although some of the crew were troubled by strange dreams, and they passed through the portal uneventfully. The next day, as they traveled towards Tufsur 3, Saqr was woken from a nightmare, rearing from his bed with a scream of anguish and torn by visions of being trapped in darkness. Realizing that these dreams were definitely not right, he decided to go and find his cat, which had recently been spending a lot of time in the cargo hold.

In the hold Saqr found his cat sitting alert on the crate they were transporting as if he were looking at something. Saqr approached, and saw that the cargo crate was open. Something moved rapidly past him, and he realized he might not be alone in the hold. His cat jumped down from the crate to go after the movement and Saqr followed, waking up the others (finally!) as he did so. Following his cat he found himself facing a Skavara, hidden in the shadows at the back of the cargo hold. It was smaller than Saqr, had dark, matted fur and looked confused and scared. Saqr guessed it must have been in the crate – either as a stowaway or as cargo. Remembering his nightmares, he began to guess that Elifim had for some reason been trafficking this thing.

That was when he was attacked by one of their passengers.

The others reached the hold at this time, but Dr. Delecta had the sense to bring her motion detector, so they knew that there were 8 figures in the hold – their passengers, Saqr and something else. With Saqr’s warning they entered the hold fully armed and began shooting. The battle that followed was short and brutal, but not easy. Elifim’s assistant was revealed to be a mystic, who used his powers to stop them from acting, and the four “staff” Elifim had brought on board were actually fighters of some kind.

During this short and vicious battle they also discovered that the Skavara had mystic powers – it used them to cause panic and terror in anyone who came to close to it. It was this mystic power that finally won the battle for them, and after a few blood-drenched seconds they had subdued the passengers and had Elifim at their mercy, panting in terror and trying to crawl out of the cargo hold even though one of his legs had been partially severed by Siladan’s halberd.

A short and harsh interrogation of Elifim told them what they suspected. The Skavara was the first of its kind with mystic powers, and Elifim had captured it and was shipping it to a man on Tufsur 3 who he expected would pay a lot of money for it. He offered to cut the PCs a deal if they let him live – he would put them in touch with the agent and give them half of the million birr he expected to make from the sale. It’s only a Skavara, what could they care?

They did care, and they showed Elifim this in no uncertain terms. Once they had the name of his contact on Tufsur 3 they spaced him and his dead crew. They would meet his contact, but only to finish what they had started with Elifim. They welcomed their new crew member on board, and resumed their journey to Tufsur 3.

This session was shortened because my travel schedule was exhausting and complex and I had no time to prepare anything fun or interesting. So here I list the few things that were done in this two hour session.

The PCs have finished solving the problem of the disease outbreak on Marfik 4, and have learnt that there is a Horizon-wide program by the Draconites to collect samples of xeno-organisms that cause disease in humans. The PCs’ guess is that this is part of a bio-weapons program, and they are very concerned about what this means. Recall that in session 2 the Draconites stole a powerful ancient artifact from the PCs. Could their efforts to obtain artifacts be related to this bio-weapons program?

As insurance the PCs decided to go to the site from which the infected ice had been dug up, and bury it. Some data djinn work enabled them to find the site, and they destroyed it effectively with only a little risk to themselves. They then returned to the settlement on Marfik 4 and produced a small stock of vaccines against the agent that had been in the ice, as well as a tool for identifying whether other diseases were derived from this agent, in case in future they ran into a bioweapon based on Draconite technology.

After this they left the planet of Marfik 4 and traveled to the Lithofor, where Adam purchased cybernetic implants and the whole team rested for a few weeks. Their next step will be to travel onward to Amedo, and at the Lithofor they started looking for work to pay their way.

New ship power: Binding Vacuum Beasts

I think it hasn’t been mentioned in my write-ups up until now, but in an earlier session one of the PCs died and his consciousness was uploaded into the ship. The PC was a mystic and so now the ship has mystic powers. When the PCs fought the vacuum beasts in the previous session they decided to use some XP to give the ship a new mystic power: the ability to bind vacuum beasts to the ship. Their idea was that this would give them a kind of companion animal to their space ship, which would be able to fight alongside it in battle. However, when they looked at the stats of the beasts, and recognized the difficulties they would have keeping them for long periods of time, docking at civilized space stations, etc. they decided not to invest in this power.

It is possible, however, that other groups they encounter in future will have this power, and will have bound vacuum beasts to their fleet. Perhaps then they should invest in a mystic power to repel these beasts, or to attack them mentally, so that they have a defense against them when they do finally meet them …

Our heroes are on the planet of Marfik 4, fighting an epidemic in an ice-mining community that has been abandoned by its medical and security staff. They have been told that some of the ice that was the likely source of the disease is en route to the Lithofor on the ice hauler Callow Boy, and need to stop it before it infects that community of 700,000 souls. They were planning to first attack the security and medical staff who abandoned the community, however, and were preparing to attack this group – who they call the Isolation Faction – when they learnt of a new complication in their mission. The Callow Boy has turned off its transponder and has disappeared in the Dark Between the Stars. They need to rush to find it before all trace is lost.

The cast for this mission:

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

First defeat

The PCs decided that they still had time to liquidate the Isolation Faction before they headed after the Callow Boy, and wanted to prioritize this because they thought they needed more information about the ice and whatever the Isolation Faction knew about it. So, they decided to approach the factory where the Faction hid, carrying breaching charges, break down the door, and kill them. Unfortunately they did not see the automated machine gun turret set up on the roof of the factory, and were gunned down by a hail of bullets as they approached. The attack was ferocious, knocking down both Adam and Reiko with potentially fatal and heavy-bleeding injuries. Banu and Siladan had to drag their colleagues back to the main settlement under a rain of gunfire, and administer emergency first aid in the shadows of the settlement.

Defeated, and needing days for Adam and Reiko to recover, the PCs returned to the Beast of Burden, and took her away from the planet of Marfik 4 to search for the Callow Boy.

Lost in the Dark

They headed first to where the ship had last been recorded, assuming that there was some chance it would be waiting near that location for a rendezvous, or had continued on a straight path to some secret purpose. They were afraid that it might have changed course and was now heading to the portals, perhaps to offload its ice at a more populous planet in Caph or even Coriolis, but since they had not thought to download the schematics for the Callow Boy they were not aware that it was incapable of portal travel, and their fears in this regard were unfounded.

After a few days’ travel they reached the point where the Callow Boy had gone silent and discovered a very simple reason for its sudden disappearance: it had been destroyed. The ship lay silent in space, broken into four parts, its ice cargo floating harmless around the wreckage of the ship. There was no emergency message, no SOS beacon, just the silent ruins of the 1km long ship hanging in four huge pieces in the darkness. They approached the ship and soon learnt the cause of its destruction, as two huge squid-like monsters detached themselves from its ravaged hull and began moving rapidly toward the Beast of Burden. The infamous vacuum beasts of Marfik 4 had taken the Callow Boy, and now sought to destroy the PCs’ ship.

The fight with the beasts was difficult. Their shadowy, biological structure was hard to lock onto with the ship’s sensors, and they moved quickly and easily through the Dark Between the Stars. Before Adam and Reiko were able to destroy one of the beasts they other had latched onto the hull, and was preparing to begin eating its way through to the crew. Adam had to disengage from the gunner’s post and run to an airlock, carrying the ship’s only machine gun, with the perilous task of going outside the ship to attack the beast himself, since the ship’s guns could no longer lock onto it. As he ran through the ship Saqr threw the ship into complex manoeuvres to try and shake off the beast, as Reiko destroyed the second beast. Fortunately Saqr was somehow able to shake off the beast, and Siladan somehow managed to get a lock onto it as it flew off the hull of the ship. Moments later their torpedo struck the newly-locked beast, and it blew apart in a cloud of ichor. They had survived.

The Draconite Message

They approached the ship and were able to identify three crew hiding in a safe room in the centre of the engineering section. After some complex manoeuvres they were able to dock and rescue the crew, who came on board relieved but shaken. They knew nothing about the disease in the ice, and had simply been conducting standard cargo operations on Marfik 4. They had not kept track of the ice as it was loaded, preferring to enjoy the settlement’s spartan accommodations while the ice miners loaded the ice, and so could not tell the PCs which of the ice in their cargo had come from a potentially contaminated source. They were innocent of any plot to poison the Lithofor, and were able to confirm to the PCs that they had planned no secret course changes on their mission – they had simply been attacked by vacuum beasts and their comms systems destroyed before they could send off a distress signal.

Near the wreckage of the Callow Boy the PCs found a small message drone, of the kind used to deliver physical messages between ships. This message drone had detached from the Callow Boy when it was attacked, following some algorithm intended to preserve the drone, but had been caught by one of the vacuum beasts and partially consumed. They recovered it and confirmed that this drone had been programmed to move secretly between ships, intended to latch onto a ship heading to the portals. It was an advanced Draconite design, small and highly stealthy, and obviously intended to take messages in a physically secure manner. The message it carried was intended to be delivered to a contact on Coriolis, some kind of procurer who must be working for the Draconites. The message was a short video message from Amira, the medic on Marfik 4:

We have found a possible specimen of interest to your employer. Direct experiments are not being conducted, but we are recording evidence of its progress in a human population. It is highly effective. Please inform your employer to send agents to investigate.

It was short, and clearly indicated evidence that the Isolation Faction were working for someone. The PCs returned to Marfik 4 with a clear plan.

Liquidating the Isolation Faction

The second attack on the Isolation Faction went more smoothly. They used the ion cannon on the No Satisfaction to destroy the automated gun turret and managed to approach the entryway without being attacked. A breach charge soon tore down the outer door and they burst in, all guns blazing. Through judicious use of a motion sensor they knew where all their enemies were, and could anticipate their ambushes and flanking attacks. There were 8 remaining security guards in the Isolation Faction plus their leader and the medicurg Amira, spread through three rooms in a flanking formation. While Adam and Delecta took on the main front of the guards in their position on a gantry over the factory floor, Reiko Ando and Siladan charged into the side rooms to take on flanking troops. The battle was soon over, and ended with the death of the security guards and their medicurg Amira.

The Draconite Contract

On Amira’s tabula the PCs found a short message from the same contact on Coriolis. The short video message was a year old, and it told Amira that her planet had been identified as one of a set of planets with a high probability of hosting native pathogens capable of infecting and harming humans. Were any unusual diseases to present themselves in the settlement she would receive a large payment for identifying the source. Extra money would be provided if she were able to track the natural history of the disease, study it directly in humans, or obtain samples. The sums on offer were huge, and clearly an incentive for her to react as she had done when the disease struck the settlement. When she had indicated her willingness to perform the task, the Coriolis contact had shipped her the Draconite messenger drone, to use if she identified any such samples. It was clear that when she had seen the opportunity to profit from the colony’s disease outbreak she had decided to abandon her role as doctor and become instead a mercenary, waiting for the colony to die and filming their final death throes. She had planned to burn the whole settlement down once the epidemic was complete, blame the whole thing on a huge accident, and then profit from the ice samples. Unfortunately she had not expected Md. Jenin Abad to be contacted secretly, and had not planned on the PCs interfering with her plans.

So what, the PCs wondered, were the Draconites doing? They must have sent these messages to other settlements, and had a broker in Coriolis collecting information on potential bioweapons that they would then presumably collect for research. Why were the Draconites building a bioweapons division? Why had they been hunting that statue on Kua? What was the Draconites’ secret plan?

A few days later Md Jenin Abad isolated a cure for the disease and distributed it among the colony, saving 60% of the colonists. The PCs made sure they obtained a copy of the cure, and left Marfik 4 for the Amedo system considerably richer, and considerably warier, than when they arrived.

Marfik 4 on a clear afternoon

Our party have arrived at Marfik 4 and found it in the midst of an epidemic. The population of the one settlement on the planet has split into two parts, with one small group of security and medical personnel in a separate section where they have established a quarantine and appear to be unaffected by the disease. The PCs think that the disease may have been uncovered from ice mined on the planet, or perhaps is a bioweapon being tested by the medical personnel on the planet, but they have not yet established which. Their task now – for which they are being paid handsomely – is to guard the medicurg Md Jenin Abad as he tries to save the colony, and to figure out what has gone wrong. The cast 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

Day 3 of the epidemic has now begun, and the PCs have made a little more effort to prepare for what they expect to be inevitable conflict with the security team. They have managed to access some basic schematics for the factory area where the quarantined security squad are, and have started referring to these people as the Isolation Faction. Most of the patients taken to the Grace of the Icons 7132 in the first two days have died, and in the morning of the third day Md Jenin Abad took another 10 up to the ship for further investigation and treatment. On the surface, in the small and cold rooms of the settlement, the epidemic raged on.

The emergency message

The PCs were in the briefing room discussing the best approach to take to the Isolation Faction when they were alerted to an emergency message being broadcast from the planet. Adam answered it while Siladan traced it to a small relay station perhaps two hours’ drive on a crawler from the settlement. The message was weak but urgent, and when the broadcast opened they could hear gunfire in the background. The messenger was a person called Hamza, who told them that he and two others were trapped in the relay station and under attack by security guards from the Isolation Faction.

Hamza was not asking for help, however. He and his two colleagues had fled from the Isolation Faction and run to the relay station when the Beast of Burden arrived in orbit. Because they had fled the Isolation Faction they knew that the ice from which the disease had come was now being transported on an ice hauler to the Lithofor, but no one in the settlement knew this because the shift supervisor was dead and his records had been altered. The leader of the Isolation Faction, Mehrak, had told everyone that they could not alert anyone to the ice hauler’s journey because this would invite orbital bombardment, and the rest of the Isolation Faction were doing as they were told, but Hamza and his friends refused to obey this terrible command, and fled to the relay station. They then spent days rerouting command systems to avoid the control the security guards in the Isolation Faction were exerting over the planet’s comms and to try and make contact with the Beast of Burden. They had finally managed to set up a temporary bypass and need to send a message to anyone who would listen: they had to stop the ice hauler. This ice hauler was on a course for the Lithofor. It was carrying the ice that the PCs suspected might have held the disease – and being transported now to a planet with 700,000 people living in it.

Once Hamza and his colleagues set up the relay bypass the security guards had come to physically stop them. They had barricaded the door and now they only had hours to live, but they needed the PCs to act: stop the Callow Boy in its journey to the Lithofor, and prevent a disaster.

The PCs checked their star maps and determined that the Callow Boy was traveling slowly on a long journey – it would take about 20 days to reach the Lithofor and was moving about half the speed they could do in the Beast of Burden, so they could catch it even if they left the next day. Someone pointed out that if the Callow Boy changed course and headed for a portal they would not be able to catch it in time, but they decided to risk it: if the ship changed direction for the portal they would have to send an emergency message to the whole system, which would likely mobilize one of the Queen’s old Firstcome ships to despatch it – and would end with an orbital bombardment of Marfik 4 and the death of everyone on the planet.

But first they would rescue the people at the relay station.

Travel on Marfik 4

Battle at the relay station

The PCs did not waste their time with ice crawlers. They took the No Satisfaction and screamed in to the relay station in a crash dive from orbit, arriving 10 minutes after they left the Beast of Burden. At the relay station they found two ice crawlers, with soldiers hiding in them and firing on the sealed door. Rather than end the fight quickly and gracefully using the No Satisfaction‘s ion cannon they piled out of the ship onto the ice, and Saqr took the ship up to provide air support.

As they approached the crawlers the soldiers inside them switched their focus and began firing on them. Reiko Ando ran forward to engage one squad in melee, and Siladan ran forward to attack the leader, who was crouched in cover behind a crawler. Meanwhile Banu Delecta and Adam provided covering fire from prone positions on the ice slopes. Saqr fired the ion cannon at one crawler but missed, leaving a long dagger of super heated fog expanding in waves in the frozen air above the battle zone. After that one shot Siladan and Reiko entered melee, and the No Satisfaction‘s weapons could not be used, so Saqr completed a circuit of the relay station to search for other attackers, finding none.

Although the battle did not go too well for Siladan, Reiko was a vicious whirling dervish of violence, managing to knock two attackers unconscious and drive the others away into the snow without taking any injuries. She chased after them but they ran straight into the No Satisfaction‘s firing zone and, caught in her spotlights and receiving threatening warnings from Saqr, dropped to their knees and surrendered. Meanwhile Siladan and Adam finished off the other four attackers, Adam firing into the ice crawler until Siladan could charge in with his halberd and begin cutting them. Finally all but two were dead, and the relay station was liberated. Hamza and his colleagues emerged, saved just in time by the PCs’ bravery and overpowering firepower.

Their gaze turned back to the settlement, and the two Isolation Faction soldiers they had taken captive.

The Isolation Faction’s story

They learnt little truth from their two prisoners, or from Hamza. The Isolation Faction doctor, Amira, told them that the disease likely came from the ice, and ordered the security guards and their families into the factory for safety in the first day of the epidemic, before it could spread. They shut down communications with people off planet, and waited. Amira and the leader of the security guards, Mehrak, told them there was nothing they could do about it – it was likely a fatal xenoorganism and no treatment would stop it in time; all they could do was wait and pray to the Icons. Similarly, they could only hope and pray that the ice in the Ice Hauler was safe. Hamza stumbled on the shift supervisor’s body, however, and his abandoned tabula, and learnt that the records had been altered; realizing he had been betrayed, he convinced two of his friends to flee with him to the relay station and risk their lives to send the message to the Beast of Burden. In his cowardice, he had not simply gone to the settlement because he did not want to catch the disease; and he did not expect the relay station would have been shutdown by central authority. So he had done what he could, and thankfully with the Icons’ grace it would be enough.

Hearing this story the PCs again began to suspect that this was not simply a story of an accidental epidemic released from ancient ice. There was too much going on, and too many strange plots. That medicurg was up to something, and they intended to find out what. They returned to the No Satisfaction, and headed back to orbit to plan their next move.

My players are a little disappointed with the mystic powers in Coriolis, and to be honest so am I. I like games with magic, and I always want to be able to have some mystery and arcane secrets in my games. I also like those with mystic powers to ultimately be powerful and terrifying: Shadowrun has a rule, gank the mage, which I think should apply in any game with mystical or magical elements, but there’s no point in having this rule if your mages aren’t worth ganking, and in general mystics aren’t very powerful in Coriolis. Given their need to hide and the risk of persecution, this seems a little disappointing. So my players and I came up with some ideas for improving mystic powers.

First of all we thought that they should have expanded powers over djinn and other spirits, and also that they should be able to physically heal and mentally attack. We also thought most powers should have additional benefits if you focus on them. So I have developed a system with three tiers of powers. Each power introduced in the book has an additional two levels of power, which expand on or intensify the basic power introduced in the core rules. I also introduced a new power for healing. To buy a second level power one needs to have first purchased the power described in the core rules; for 5 xp one can then buy the next power in the list. Furthermore, no PC can have more level 3 powers than level 2 powers, and no PC can have more level 2 powers than level 1 (introductory) powers, and no PC can have more level 1 powers than their wits attribute. So for example a PC with a wits of 4 can have 4 level 1 powers, 3 level 2, and 2 level 3 powers; in total buying all these powers will require 45 xp, which in my campaign would probably take about 20-25 sessions to get to. Some of the powers at level 2 or level 3 can be expanded by spending additional xp to increase damage or range, or reduce crit value. So to be a fully rounded, genuinely scary mystic would probably require 60xp or more.

The table of mystic powers, from level 1 to level 3, is shown below. All level 1 powers except heal are introduced in the core rules.

Power class Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
Artificer Artificer: go into a trance to understand an artifact Rigger: Activate and control ordinary objects at long range or less using your skill in that item/equipment Technomage: Use an object or technology using mystic powers as if you had the skill
Clairvoyant Clairvoyant: find a person or object Scry: See remote locations, objects or people Act: Cast any mystic power through a video, scry or other remote vision device
Exorcist Exorcist: Drive a spirit out of a person Abjurer: Force a spirit to manifest in a physical form, making it vulnerable to physical attacks Astral champion: launch a physical attack on a spirit in non-physical form. Attack is dmg 1, crit 3, range touch; use xp to increase dmg/range, reduce crit
Intuition Intuition: Ask the GM a question about anything in the world Speak with dead: speak with a recently dead person to find out what they experienced Prediction: Use mystic powers to increase initiative by 1 / success
Mind reader Mind reader: read surface thoughts Detect truth: learn when someone is lying or telling the truth as they speak Mental attack: Does MP dmg 1, crit 3 (stun), range touch. Use xp to increase dmg, reduce crit, increase range
Mind walker Mind walker: see through someone else’s eyes Animal walker: see through an animal’s eyes/senses Machine walker: see through the sensory equipment of any machine, object or system
Prediction Prediction: Use a séance to see the future Regression: Learn the past about a place, thing or person Instantiation: Learn what is happening now to an absent place, thing or person
Premonition Premonition: test mystic powers to sense an impending attack Defense: use a reaction to give a friendly PC or NPC a free defense against an incoming attack, using your mystic powers Nine lives: as a reaction, allow one of your allies to reverse the dice on a critical
Stop Stop: use mystic powers to force someone to stop a single action Control: openly control a person for a single action, such as an attack or an important, obvious decision. Everyone knows you did it Dominate: take complete control of someone for 1 round per success. They get to use force to resist this.
Telekinesis Telekinesis: Applies to small objects Telekinesis 2: Applies to larger objects, up to the size of a person (who can use force to resist your power) Flight: The PC can use their telekinesis to move at a slow flight, including in zero-g. Use dexterity skill to control it
Body control Heal: heal 1 pt of damage per success, even if not broken Armour: Use a reaction to add mystic powers skill to your armour total Heal crit: completely heals a critical of severity less than or equal to the number of successes

 

I thought it might be good to introduce another power which grants someone an additional action point, attribute bonuses, etc., but decided this might be too powerful. Also there is no physical attack capability in any of these powers, so mystics can do mental attacks (which ignore armour!) but cannot do physical attacks. Also to get to a very weak mental attack that is no better than a stun weapon, a mystic needs to burn 15xps, though with 30xps this could be a vicious attack guaranteed to do significant stun damage.

Note also that these powers rely on good mystic powers skill, so most PCs will have to find a balance between new powers and improving their skill. To become a super powerful mystic is a path of privation and extreme limitations on other skills, and it is likely that in any campaign of less than about 40 sessions most PCs will not be able to get to a very high power level. NPCs, on the other hand …

As a final bonus, I think if anyone gets to two or more powers at level 3 they should be able to gain some additional combination power they can activate. So for example telekinesis + mind walker at level 3 might grant the PC the ability to teleport. This would be super useful if the PCs have a nemesis who has 3 level 3 powers … There might also be additional, forbidden powers that are not available to the PCs and require a cadaver clock to activate: permanent attribute boosts, resurrection, etc. Getting that clock and the associated powers could be a campaign goal for the PCs – and battling a mystic who has those powers could be a major campaign in itself. For example, they could discover a mystic who uses body control, stop and mind walker in a cadaver clock to turn people into completely obedient slaves, who fight and die on her behalf without release; the PCs’ job could be to discover the nature of this clock, and somehow destroy this super powerful mystic. That’s a fun and dark campaign! And it might put the PCs in two minds about the true nature of mystics, which could lead to complications when they embark on the Emissary Lost campaign ark …

I know some players of Coriolis will prefer to keep mystic powers subtle and low key, but I don’t like low-key magic and I like magic in my sci fi campaigns, so I will be running with these expanded powers – and making sure my group run into adversaries who have stocked up on them!

Coriolis is set in the Third Horizon, a complex of star systems linked by portals that enable instantaneous transport between connected systems (with severe potential complications). Each system is linked through the portals to perhaps 2-4 other systems, so traveling to distant systems requires passing through multiple portals. Portals are all located in the same place, about 0.5 AU from one of the system’s stars, so when you emerge from one portal you are 0.5 AU from the star and at exactly the position you need to be to go straight back through and on to your next destination. Navigating through a portal is dangerous, and requires piloting skill checks to pass through successfully; failure can be very bad, and as a result most travelers pass through in convoys, sharing the portal data provided by bulk haulers which pay extra to access good quality navigational data. No human can travel through a portal without being in stasis, so any ship that travels between systems needs to have enough stasis pods for its crew; failure to go into cryosleep during transit is always fatal.

This creates obvious complications for communications in the Third Horizon, particularly given that many systems have very low populations, are wracked by war or chaos, and have little industry and even less reason to visit them. As a guide, in the System Generator the largest population you can roll up for a whole planet is millions of residents. The systems have low populations that may be scattered across very large planets on very low density population centres. Given this, it seems likely that most systems will not receive much in the way of communications. However, the rulebook gives little information about this issue. All I can find on communications is this tiny inset:

Communication waves travel at the speed of light, which is roughly one AU per eight minutes – thus, getting a reply to a question takes at least 16 minutes per AU between you and the other party. No communication waves can pass through portals. Instead, a ship or a probe must make the jump and then transmit the message on the other side. This leads to great communication delays between systems. The Bulletin keeps multiple probes ready on every portal station, and anyone can pay to use them to send information. This is both expensive and not without risk however, as you never know who might be listening on the other end

This does not give much information about how communication works in the Third Horizon, and I don’t like it for two simple reasons:

  • If you have to pay to send information by a probe, then almost all information from low population centres will never get sent. I don’t like this.
  • It suggests that spaceships with no human crew can pass through portals. I really don’t like this idea: it opens the way for AI fleets, or for automated cargo systems. Not cool.

So, I have decided to revise the communications systems in the Third Horizon by introducing two small house rules that make life a little more complicated:

  • It is very dangerous to freeze and thaw people repeatedly from cryosleep – typically ship’s crews need a few days’ recovery before they can go back into stasis, and repeatedly violating this guideline can lead to insanity and loss of mental function (particularly bad when the security team wakes up in a rage, or the pilot has to navigate a portal in a post-stasis haze)
  • Any path through a portal requires a human to calculate it in order to work. In the entire history of the Third Horizon, no computer has ever plotted a path through a portal successfully. Most scientists suspect this is because the Portal Builders were capable of designing AI ships, and built this failsafe into the portals to ensure no one could obliterate another system using AI fleets

This has important consequences for communications in the Third Horizon. In particular, it means that it is not possible to have a system of automated relays, where probes go through the portals every hour and broadcast information, essentially rendering communication nearly instantaneous throughout the Third Horizon. If probes were possible, then it would be possible to have probes that transport through a portal every hour, collect the latest information broadcasts, and then transfer back through. This would mean that if you were 15 systems away from Kua you would likely get your news from Kua within about 24 hours, since when the probe comes through the portal it can broadcast its information directly to the portal station, and then when the probe to the next system is ready it will be right at the portal so will receive the information as soon as it arrives in-system, and an hour later travel to the next system. If probes were possible the Legion could send a message from Kua to the end of the Third Horizon in a matter of hours, simply by dispatching a probe through a series of portals.

If, on the other hand, only humans can pass through portals and humans require some days to recover from stasis, then sending information becomes trickier. At a busy system like Kua you could still have daily or hourly information exchange, simply by having a large enough number of small ships. For example with seven class I ships capable of stasis, you could send information through to Altai on a daily basis, using a roster to ensure that once a ship has passed through the portal its crew can rest and do other tasks for a few days before passing back through. But in a less busy system such a proposition might not be worth it – news would only be generated slowly, and no one would care what it was anyway, so why would you have seven crews on standby to transfer it? Instead you might broadcast it to a passing bulk hauler once a week, as the hauler passes through, and pay a nominal fee for it to transfer the information to the portal station at the far side. Then that station would pay a nominal fee to the next passing bulk hauler or starship to take information to the next system, and so on. In most cases this would mean that news would travel from one system to another approximately once a day, except in the busiest systems, so that if you lived in the outer fringes your news would take a week or two to get to Kua, and a month or two to travel to the far side of the Horizon. Given the distances involved that’s pretty cool.

This system of broadcasts will only apply to general news, of course. If you want a message sent to your family saying you made it safely to Yastopol then this is your plan: you go to your local Consortium office and select a simple, low cost plan to send your data to your family in Aiwaz, and you have fair confidence that it will arrive in a matter of about 10 days, give or take, uncorrupted and probably unread (let’s face it, you’re pretty boring). But what if you want to sext your lover in Kua? Or send news of a successful kick murder in Dabaran? Then you need more secure and more reliable delivery (you want to be sure he receives that dickpic!)

In this case you may need to provide your own encryption services, and people may be waiting at the other end to capture your data. When a bulk hauler arrives in a system it doesn’t ask questions about who should receive what data: it broadcasts it in bulk to a local receiver and carries on its way, and then that local receiver broadcasts that data on subject to the conditions of the transit. A cheap data transit plan will mean that stuff is just broadcast at every planet in system without fear or favour, and anyone listening in can pick it up. Local data providers will pick it up for sure, and if they recognize the address you gave your dickpic will end up at the correct tabula. But anyone who wants to listen in can also pick up your message, and if the encryption protocols of your backwater farmer’s Grindr app are not suitably good, then now everyone knows precisely how second rate your junk is. Probably not an issue, since the dude you were sending it to has already moved on (sorry to tell you that, but you know what these Kua boys are like – sluts the lot of them). If your news is a successful kick murder, though – well then your data is valuable, and whoever was sifting through your messages is going to be making sure to sell that on.

To get around this you have a couple of choices:

  • Pay for a packet drone, which detaches from the hauler once it arrives in the destination system and travels to a pre-determined local high security data center, from which its message can be broadcast with high security
  • Pay specifically for a tight beam communication to a specific target, which avoids the risk of interception but also leaves a trail of comms from ship to planet that an investigator could find
  • Apply your own high level encryption so even a widebeam broadcast can’t be hacked
  • Pay a secure provider – a dedicated information broker – which passes through some systems regularly and ensures your message gets to its destination, and usually also deletes its records after it passes through

Not all of these options are available in every system, or you may have to wait a long time to get the one you want. That dickpic won’t be fresh if you wait forever! Sometimes no matter how much money you have – or how many people you kill – the thing you need just won’t arrive in the system, and you’ll have to settle for less secure and less reliable communications. That is the nature of life out on the edge of the Horizon. Now let us consider two specific examples.

Banu Delecta’s Red Packet

The Cyclade is coming and as always at this time Dr. Banu Delecta’s thoughts turn to Qamar, a courtesan whose company she often enjoyed while she was a student in Coriolis. Dark-skinned, muscular, graceful, shy and ohh-so talented, Qamar was a boon to her during the stress of exams and a relief during those times when her male peers were exhausting and her rich boyfriends disappointing, and if his plebeian upbringing occasionally showed what did she care? He never judged her for her rich background, but loved her for who she was (really! She was special! Not like those old matrons from the Spire that he so often had to entertain!) Qamar retired after she graduated, but it is tradition in the Third Horizon for rich patrons to send retired courtesans a red packet – a small donation of money – on their birthday, as a kind of reminder of their goodwill and also to ensure that the courtesan’s retirement is not too harsh on them. Ever a stickler for tradition – and misty-eyed at the thought of those lazy afternoons in his apartments near the Ozone market – Dr. Delecta remembered that Qamar’s birthday was just after the Cyclade and now, back in her home system of Sivas, she had best organize the delivery.

A red packet delivery is no big deal, and so she takes a lifter down to her local post office and organizes an interstellar plan (oh how inconvenient! Back on Coriolis you could do all this on your tabula). She pays a little extra to ensure it is delivered on the date she chooses – Sivas is only two portals from Kua so she is confident it will arrive in time – and also pays a little more to add some encryption to the packet, since it is money she is sending. She does not fuss herself about choosing an extra-secure delivery method that would, for example, guarantee no one knew the recipient, since as far as she knows there is no evidence Qamar used to be a courtesan, and no reason to connect her to anything untoward, so it is unlikely that anyone will notice a birthday present as an unusual event. She presses the button and her red packet is broadcast to a passing bulk hauler, which will leave in three days for Altai. From Altai there is likely to be a bulk hauler convoy every day, and so her message will arrive in Kua within five days. From the portal station at Kua it will be broadcast to Coriolis, where – provided Qamar has not changed his number – the communications system will ensure it reaches her delicious former entertainment.

The message arrives in time, but Delecta has set it to arrive only on the occasion of Qamar’s birthday. Five days after the Cyclade and 10 days after she sent it, Delecta’s red packet arrives on Qamar’s tabula. By now Qamar has married, a nice dockworker, and the two of them live in a charming apartment near the Spring Market, Qamar’s husband unaware of his past as a courtesan to the rich and lazy students of the Academy. Of course Qamar lied to Delecta about his birthday (and his name, and how much he enjoyed her company …) but still he has had to set up a separate, private list of former clients, and remember to disable notifications on his tabula on this day, lest his new husband see a sudden cascade of red packets all arriving on the same morning. This year, just as last year, once his husband has departed for the docks, Qamar checks his messages and looks at the long list of red packets in his inbox. He opens Delecta’s, considering once again the possibility of blocking all of the former clients on his secret list. But then he sees the amount Delecta has sent him (he does not bother to read her sweet message), and decides that no, perhaps he will think about blocking them next year …

Dr Wana finds an artifact

Dr Wana, famous architect whose reputation is known across the Third Horizon (at least among people who matter) has been working a dig in Ghodar for 3 months, and on a harsh and stormy morning in the Merchant she and her team of students uncover a haul of Portal Builder remains. It is unfortunate that Al Hama does not survive the discovery, but archaeology is an exacting science which occasionally demands its sacrifices, and let us be frank – better it were Al Hama, untrained and undisciplined, than Wana herself. After the initial excitement and tears (not Wana’s) have passed, she prepares to send a message to her funders on Zamusa. This is a slightly complex situation, because her funders would prefer their identity were not known to passersby – indeed Wana herself is uncertain as to who they really are – and she needs to find a way to get this information to them that does not link them in any way to her.

Unfortunately information brokers are not common on Ghodar, out here near the edge of the Third Horizon. Indeed out here even bulk haulers are infrequent. She speaks to her data djinn and organizes a message with wicked encryption, to be sent wrapped in a triggering condition. Three days later a bulk hauler passes through and receives the packet, taking it on to Dzibann, where it waits for four days before being broadcast to a fast merchant heading inward. Unfortunately the portal at Dzibann is unstable and the ship is cast out again after two days; it then rests for three days before trying again, so the message reaches Errai after 12 days. At Errai the message is broadcast across the system, where it is picked up by a data broker and the triggering condition is read. Here the broker discovers that she will be paid 1500 birr to ensure that the message contained within is sent to a specific person in Aiwaz. This is easy profit, since Errai has regular bulk haulers and she knows in particular one she trusts; she sends it on two days later for a small fee and pockets the huge profits, sitting back on her cushions in her small apartment to applaud the stupidity of scientists (if only she knew what Wana had found!) The message is transmitted to Kua, where it is broadcast directly to the contact person Wana had nominated. This person, a shady data broker by the name of Oleagi, reads further instructions, repackages the message in a data probe, and sends it on; he takes his payment directly from Wana’s prodigious array of grants at the Academy. The data probe speeds to the bulk hauler Aurora 3, which picks it up and carries it as far as Awadhi through two portals over three weeks. At Awadhi the data probe is released, broadcasting its message to the portal station. From here the message is broadcast again to passing bulk haulers, and arrives at Zamusa 5 days later. It took a total of 40 days to cross the Horizon from Ghodar to Zamusa, and delivers very pleasing news to Wana’s funders. In the process it has been through multiple changes of sender, including a physical transfer of information, and it is highly unlikely that anyone will learn who sent the message unless they either hack the message, or intercept the data probe – which would require attacking the bulk hauler that carried it. Wana is certain the secret of her Portal Builder artifact is safe for now.

Conclusion

My preference is to have interstellar campaigns be a little like colonial era exploration, with information passing at the same speed that people do. This is a crucial component to keeping the PCs ahead of the law, and it is also a really useful tool for making the frontiers lawless and dangerous. If information takes weeks to travel the PCs can get up to mischief and move on, and by the time they return to somewhere that knows of their crimes their crimes are already old news; the same applies to their enemies. It also lends rumour, stories and gossip a stronger value, and forces the PCs to sleuth around. In such a setting information gets fragmented, and important facts go missing. In a system where probes pass hourly through portals and broadcast information automatically, information spreads at the speed of a fax machine, which is too fast to allow the PCs to stay ahead of the law and ahead of their enemies – and too fast to allow the rims of the system to fragment and break away from the center. This is why I have decided to change the rules for communication in the Third Horizon, and to make it more wild west. In this communication system the PCs will think they’re so far ahead of their enemies – and won’t know when they’re being chased. And that’s exactly how I like it.

 

 

As good a place as any to die

Our PCs have fought off an attack by the Order of the Pariah on an archaeological dig at Caph B1, and after a cursory interrogation of the sole survivor learnt that the remaining detachment of the Order of the Pariah on the planet lacked sufficient troops to conduct a follow-up attack. Confident that this would mean they did not need to confront the Order’s local Abbott at the settlement, and not wanting more trouble than they needed, they decided to wait out the week at the dig, maintaining a careful watch on the area but not making any extra trouble. After a tense but uneventful week the dig leader, Sorabad Min, was able to register his bid for the site successfully and told them they were free to go.

The roster for today’s adventure:

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

Md Jenin Abad makes contact

From Caph B1 they decided to travel to the system’s main planet, Orchid, where they would rest for a few days on the space station and see if there was any work available for the next leg of their journey, on to Marfik. Orchid is a religious dictatorship, a ruthless extremist cult of the Church of the Icons ruling over a small and increasingly fractious population on a hot and exhausting planet, and nothing in their library database commended the planet to them. The spaceport was an ordinary and shabby old tube design, 500m long and about 100m wide with docking stations on the outer side and a sweep of service rooms, accommodation and businesses clustered on the planet-facing side, all with a slowly changing view of the clouded surface of Orchid. Most life on Orchid is reptilian and while they passed their time on its space station they became intimately acquainted with a range of lizard, snake and turtle dishes. They looked around for work among the few denizens of the station, and Reiko Ando was able to buy two hand grenades from a dubious trader in one of the markets, but no work presented itself. On their second day of fruitless searching, however, Dr Delecta received a message from an old colleague, Md Jenin Abad:

Hi Banu, it’s Jenin. I know you remember me from class and I connected you to Adam. It’s good to see you’re still working together and seem to be doing well. I really need your help, on a sensitive job. It’s a medical job in Marfik that carries high risk and requires a great deal of discretion. I wouldn’t ask you – in fact I couldn’t ask anyone – but you have two ships, at least one of which I guess has a medbay, and for this job I need two ships. I saw you still have Adam with you, which means you have muscle, I need that too. I’m willing to pay 100,000 upfront and if we’re successful another 50,000 on exit. It’ll take about a week, you’ll need to transport me and my interns to Marfik 4 and stay in orbit while I do some medical work. We may die on the job which is why I need a ship – the decontamination protocols will ensure that nobody else goes down with me, which is something I can’t guarantee planetside. If you agree to help me then please let’s meet and discuss it quickly – it’s urgent. But it also needs a lot of discretion so if you don’t want to take the risks then please don’t ask me more information, I can only tell you what you need to know after you agree. I know you and Adam trust me to be honest, and I promise you I’m not trying to do you wrong, it’s just a delicate situation and I can’t share anything unless you’re in. Anyway whatever you decide give my regards to Adam, tell him to keep his head up his chin down and his armour on. Of course you ended up on an armoured Yacht, you can’t even adventure without a gold-plated toilet can you? Let me know your decision soon please.

Yours,

Class of ‘77

Md. Jenin Abad

She relayed the message to the rest of the group and they decided they should meet him. He invited them to a public observatory, where they found him sitting at a small ring of seats around a picnic table, the window opening on a great sweep of green from the planet below. He had prepared a small spread of fruits and grilled lizard meat, with cups of sweet tea, and to Delecta he had not changed a bit – even the faint incense smell on his clothes was the same as it had been two years earlier when they were in the academy together. His hair was in dreadlocks, as it had been when he first started studying medicine before the stricter rules of the later years had forced him to shave it off, and he had the same warm, infectious smile as he stood to greet her, the impeccable warmth of genuine humanity that had made it impossible for his richer and more arrogant peers to hate him no matter how out of place he was in their elite school. He took her hands and then clasped Adam by the shoulder, giving him a small, slow nod of recognition, before introducing himself to the rest of the group. They sat down to share out the fruit, dates and baklava, and fussed pouring tea for each other as over their shoulders the green arc of the planet inched slowly across the viewing window, slowly consuming the view and drenching the room in pale green light.

First they asked him about how he – a poor itinerant medic – had access to such a large amount of disposable money. He had a foundation, he told them, which received funds from various organizations and donors, but in this instance he was being paid directly by a separate organization, and the money was not his. He also told them that the job would take 1 to 2 weeks depending on how complex it was, and it could be very dangerous. They agreed to help him, and he revealed the situation.

The planet of Marfik 4 had been struck down by some kind of epidemic. Marfik 4 is an ice-mining world, which exists solely to dig up ice and trade it to Marfik 3, a desert world with a single settlement fashioned out of a fallen Firstcome space station called the Lithofor. Only about 700 people lived on Marfik 4, eking out a tough life in the ice mining trade, and once the epidemic struck they had split into two groups. The facility’s doctor, a few leaders and the security team had evacuated the living quarters to an industrial section with separate life support systems, and had left the remainder of the colonists to die of the epidemic. They could not call openly for help because if they did so and the Marfik system’s ruler, Queen Quara, heard of it she would activate her standard anti-epidemic precautions – orbital bombardment. However, by coincidence Jenin had been in the system, passing through on his way back to Coriolis, and someone from the Nomad Federation on the stricken planet had contacted him directly through activist circles. He thought he could do nothing but then seeing the Beast of Burden and Grace of the Icons 7132 in-system, and realizing they were under Adam’s captainship, he decided to put in a call for help.

Jenin’s plan was to take the two ships and his four interns to Marfik 4 and enter orbit above the mining site. They would use the shuttle from the Beast of Burden to ferry sick people up to the Grace of the Icons 7132, where he would establish a medical facility in the cargo hold. He wanted to use the ship for a medical centre because he could control the number of patients he dealt with, he would be away from the risk of any kind of intervention by the team who had separated from the diseased population, and if he was unable to cure the disease and himself became infected, he could be spaced, the ship opened to vaccuum, and standard decontamination procedures enacted that would ensure no biological matter remained on the ship. He wanted the PCs to stay on the Beast of Burden ready to move in and cleanse the ship if anything went wrong; he might also need them to go planetside and sort out trouble, which they could do in exo-suits without (much) risk of infection. Jenin’s team included a generalist who could fly shuttles, though she could not pilot spaceships, so he was confident that his team could handle the task of moving patients from the surface.

The PCs agreed to his plan, and the following day they set off for Marfik 4, 100,000 birr richer and considerably more apprehensive than when they arrived at Orchid.

Marfik 4

Pox planet

The trip to Marfik 4 took only a few days, both ships passing without incident through the portals and arriving over the ice mining colony without incident. The Marfik system is famous for vacuum beasts that are a hazard to shipping, but they did not encounter any on the journey, and arrived undamaged over the colony. Marfik’s sun is a red sub-giant, which has already expanded to consume the closest planet in the system and is slowly, over millions of years, going to consume the rest, so the system was suffused with its deep red light. Because Marfik 4 was an ice planet it did not reflect much of this light at all, and instead hung in space like a hellish ball of deepest crimson, almost black, with wisps of paler red floating across its surface where large cloud systems reflected a little more of the distant sun’s light. It looked like an evil bloodshot eye glaring balefully at them from the shadows of the Dark between the stars, a highly forbidding sight. As their ship drew into close geosynchronous orbit over the planet the could see the glitter of occasional satellites drifting across its surface, distant lights winking in the baleful charcoal blur of the planet.

They took their shuttle to the surface to meet the doomed colonists. At the landing strip they disembarked, wearing their Firstcome exo suits, and marched through drifting snow and over crunching ice to the grim, heavy concrete porticos of the welcome area. Here they passed through glassteel doors into a large atrium, where they were met by Jenin’s contact, Aramis. In a connected room, visible through glass, they could see 10 patients waiting in transport beds, no one tending to them. Jenin’s three interns – two doctors and a nurse – set to work moving them. Meanwhile the PCs explored a bit and asked some questions, and it became very apparent to them that there was something going on here. Why had the doctor separated himself so suddenly from the sick patients.

They took a connecting walkway to the industrial sector that the security team, doctor and leader had removed themselves to. As they walked they discussed a name to describe this breakaway group, and settled on The Cowards. They marched up to the door to the Cowards’ sealed industrial hideaway and, seeing it would not open, hailed them on intercom. The response was brief and rude: they were not going to come out or let anyone in, their number included the security team, and they were not going to welcome intruders with tea.

They returned with the shuttle to the Grace of the Icons 7132, but rather than returning to the Beast of Burden they accompanied the interns with the patients, looking for someone to interview. They settled on a woman called Selina, who had been in the canteen the first night with two of the index patients, Angelique and Scaggs, and had cleaned up Angelique’s vomit – which had been full of blood – and likely become infected immediately.

Interviewing her was difficult because the disease affected the brain of its victims, rendering them vague and confused and damaging their attention span. However, from the interview they learnt that Angelique and Scaggs had been on their day off together at the canteen when Angelique had vomited blood on the tables. This, Selina told them, was because Angelique and Scaggs were on the same ice-cutting shift that week, working the same site, and so had the day off together. She also told them that she had seen a doctor but he had been wearing heavy protective equipment, and had given her very little care.

The PCs discussed it as they disinfected before taking the fighter back to the Beast of Burden. They guessed that this disease had been buried in the ice, and somehow Angelique and Scaggs had been infected. When they asked around they discovered that ice cutters did not wear full exo suits: the air on Marfik 4 is breathable and the work is heavy, so they simply wear eye protection and scarfs, and it is possible they could breath in ice dust and definitely water vapour. The infection route seemed obvious, and when they consulted with Jenin he agreed; but the doctor’s use of heavy protective gear, and his sudden withdrawal from the community, was suspicious. Adam let Jenin know that they did not trust the Cowards and wanted to investigate the situation further: they would serve as an armed guard on any shuttle heading to the surface, and in the morning they wanted to do more investigation.

The missing manager

Overnight six of the ten patients, including Selina, died. The next morning they returned to the surface, and Siladan attempted to hack the computer system to find the shift roster so that they could find out where Angelique and Scaggs had worked. Unfortunately he failed, so instead they decided to use more old-fashioned methods. They located the shift manager’s room and visited him to interview him, but found his room empty and disturbed with obvious signs of a fight. They found blood on a cracked window, where perhaps his head had been banged on a window, and all of his electronic gear had been taken. Delecta took a sample of the blood, Saqr took a picture of the manager, and they left the room behind. Speaking with Artemis, they learned that the ice-cutting rosters were public knowledge, easily accessible, but when she attempted to access them she found that the last few days – including Angelique and Scaggs’s shift allocation – had been deleted.

As they expected! They found a quiet spot so that Saqr could use his mystic powers to seek out the shift manager, and were not surprised when Saqr, emerging from his trance, told them that the shift manager was buried in a snowdrift beyond the industrial sector, just outside the colony perimeter. Obviously he had been killed after revealing the location of Angelique and Scaggs’s ice-digging mission to the Cowards. That must be ground zero for the infection, and for some reason the Cowards were interested in hiding its location.

They returned to the Grace of the Icons 7132 with 10 more patients, and an investigation of the blood on the window from the shift manager’s room revealed he did not have the infection. They told Jenin what they had found and decided that the next day they would break into the Cowards’ refuge and demand answers. Something sinister was going on in this colony, and they were going to get to the heart of it.

They decontaminated, returned to the Beast of Burden on the ship’s fighter, and prepared for bloodshed on the blood red snows of Marfik 4.


Art note: The first picture is a satellite image of Antarctica. The second image is from the deviant artist called DesertDraggon.