6HPs each, or 7?

6HPs each, or 7?

My Spiral Confederacy campaign is heading towards its conclusion, which means bigger battles and more annoying enemies, which (just as happened in Cyberpunk) inevitably requires rules for handling minions. Combat in Traveler tends to be quick and brutal but it also involves a lot of tricky management of attributes and penalties as the damage grinds through Endurance, Agility and Strength. We don’t want to have to go through this when we’re fighting large gangs of minions, and we don’t want to have to consider all their possible different skills, so we need a set of rules for handling multiple enemies. For Traveler we will call them Grunts.

Basic grunt attributes: Level and squad size

Grunts are defined entirely in terms of their squad size and level. Level determines their basic armour, attack bonus, and HPs, and squad size determines how lethal they are given their level. I envisage levels ranging from 1 to 4, with 1 being your basic gang member and 4 being a Confederate elite space marine. For each level I imagine a gang of three should be roughly equal in lethality and difficulty to kill as a single boss-level opponent of a roughly equivalent degree of nastiness. An average human has physical attributes of 7, which means that you basically need to deliver 14 points worth of damage (on top of armour) to knock them out (reduce two attributes to 0). So we should say that a squad of three level 2 grunt require about this much damage to eliminate. This means that each grunt at level 2 should have 5 hit points, and the size of the squad is reduced by one for each 5 full points of damage delivered. Grunt squads can then be tracked in sets of hit points separated by slashes. So a level 2 grunt squad with four members would have its HPs written like this: 5/5/5/5. Grunts are degraded from the right, with squad size dropping by 1 for each 5 hps of damage done.

Grunt hit points are thus set at 3+level.

The grunt squad will have a total attack bonus equal to its level plus the number of members. Remember in Traveler the amount you exceed a roll by is extra damage, which will make large squads very dangerous. For a squad of four level 4 space marines attacking with a basic bonus of +4, you can expect them to add 8 to their rolls and get very large effects every time they attack someone. This is to be expected, since you’re being shot at by four highly skilled soldiers at once. Better thin out that herd early!

The grunt squad’s armour is determined by its level, ranging from 3 (flak) at level 1; to 8 (cloth) at level 2; 10 (vacc suit) at level 3; to 13 (combat armour) at level 4. Since you need to exceed the armour to deliver damage, you’re going to need a very high powered weapon to chew through a large squad of space marines.

Grunt damage is 3d6 for level 1 and 2 grunts, 4d6 for level 3, and 5d6 for level 4.

For other skill or resistance checks, the squad uses its level with extra benefit for squad size only where the GM sees it fit (for example, resisting an area level psionic attack would get no benefit, but breaking down a door would).

This means that an entire grunt squad can be expressed in terms of its level, squad size, hit point block, and armour. So for example

Space Marines (Level 3; squad size 3; 6/6/6; armour 10; damage 4d6).

This squad would attack at +6 at the start of combat, and would require 7 points of damage to be reduced in size by one. Attacking at +6 it is highly likely to have a large effect, and will probably kill the first person it shoots. Best to get a grenade amongst this squad real fast.

Autofire, grenades and grunts

The autofire rules work slightly differently for grunts than for normal enemies, and are slightly more effective. The special considerations for each of the autofire modes are listed below.

  • Burst: If a PC attacks a grunt squad with a single fire weapon they can only kill a maximum of one grunt. If they use the burst setting of an auto weapon they can kill a number of grunts equal to the ROF of the weapon
  • Autofire: The damage of all successful attacks is applied simultaneously to a number of grunts equal to the ROF of the weapon. For example, a weapon with ROF 3 on autofire mode that successfully hits twice will roll the damage twice, and apply this damage to the same 3 grunts simultaneously. Thus the weapon may be able to kill all three grunts if it does enough damage over the two shots.
  • Blast: Weapons with the Blast property apply their damage to all grunts within range (and thus may kill all of them)
  • Shotguns: Shotguns are considered to have the blast effect when applied to a group of minions, though the grunt’s armour value is still doubled

Because grunts in large numbers are very dangerous, PCs will want to go full Leroy Jenkins on them early in the battle.

For simplicity, grunts are assumed not to have the auto X property, since this requires tracking ammunition. The GM may wish to add this property to some groups to make them particularly troublesome, but it is probably better just to give the existing group a higher level.

Leadership and grunts

Grunts can have their actions coordinated and improved by people with leadership. A successful leadership check by a grunt’s designated leader can be used to enhance their attack bonus, damage or armour for the duration of a combat (or until the leader is killed), up to the effect of the roll. This can be spread amongst multiple grunts. This leadership check has a DM equal to the group’s level (since the benefits of higher level grunts include some degree of internal coordination).

For example, Rear Admiral Ahmose, in charge of a squad of four level 2 marines, must make a leadership check against a total difficulty of 10. She rolls 12, getting an effect of 2. She chooses to put 1 point of this onto attack bonus, and one point onto armour. The marines now have a base attack of 3, and armour of 9. This means that in the first round of combat they attack at +7, and to kill the first one will require a minimum damage roll of 15 (to do 6 points of damage above armour).

Tactic skill can also be used by the grunt’s commander. In this case the roll has the same difficulty as leadership, but can boost the next single action by an amount equal to the effect of the roll. Note that the leader needs to forego their own action to make this check.

Psionics and other effects on grunts

It may be possible for a psion or priest to apply an effect that paralyzes or confuses a grunt. In this case the individual grunt should be assumed to be killed outright. If the effect can extend to more than one target, it may be possible to wipe out an entire group. If the effect is a domination or control effect, it should be assumed to affect the target grunt and one additional grunt, who will be effectively neutralized by having to deal with the target grunt. If it affects the whole group, then the GM should switch the grunt squad to the PCs, and put it under their control.

Summary

Grunt level: 1 to 4

Grunt HPS: 3+level

Grunt Armour: 3, 8, 10 or 14 (by level)

Grunt attack bonus: level + squad size

Grunt damage: 3d6 for levels 1-2, 4d6 for level 3, 5d6 for level 4

Leadership roll (DM=level): Distribute effect of roll across attack bonus, damage and armour as desired for one combat

Tactics roll (DM=level, forego action): Bonus on next action equal to effect of the roll

As always, the idea with grunt rules is to make them as quick and easy to use as possible, so try not to add any special effects or abilities to grunts that are not immediately manageable, and scalable with the group size. And don’t ever give grunt squads portable plasma guns.

Some technology endures ...

Some technology endures …

Our heroes have learnt many things about the forces they have fallen afoul of, and are beginning to understand that they have fallen in amongst a web of intrigues that is wide and ancient. The supine priest has awoken, and they found themselves lost against the Shoal of Dreams, an ancient object from his religious history that could not have been built by a primitive race. They visited their Oracle and learnt more about the ancient and sinister history of the AI and the death priest, and thanks to their work at the Tombspine they know that the ancient AI they are carrying, the Starred One, was driven mad attempting to penetrate anti-AI defenses to steal the ansible, which they now have in their possession.

They know now that the ansible is a means of faster-than-light communication, which is why it was buried in a tomb protected from intrusion by AI. Once AI have possession of an ansible they can communicate faster than light. Were an AI to reverse-engineer this technology and build it into a computer system, that AI would be able to spread across the universe, maintaining constant contact with all of its fragments, and forming a single, mighty AI that would be immune to any form of interference or destruction. In the hands of an AI, the ansible offers new dimensions of power. If the AI could find a biological system into which to implant themselves, in combination with this ansible technology, they would be close to being able to achieve transsubstantiation, and entirely escape their dependence on computer systems or physical structures to maintain their consciousness.

This is why several AI factions were pursuing both the ansible and the crystals it requires to power it. The characters had their suspicions about the reasons the AI were also looking for the bodies of Red Cloud of the Coming Storm and the witch he had been hunting; these suspicions were confirmed during the jump from the Shoal of Dreams to Reek.

Silicon life

During this jump, the Left Hand of Darkness alerted Captain Ahmose to a new problem: Red Cloud was sick. He was complaining of weakness and diarrhea, and was having increasing difficulty finding any strength to stand or even pray. ‘Darkness wanted to subject him to a full medical examination, combining all the limited data obtained from his cryopod with full tests. Given he was from a remnant planet it was highly likely he was susceptible to diseases that the rest of the crew were carrying but immune to, and this carried huge risks for him. Red Cloud had been spending a lot of time with ‘Darkness, as she was running language education programs to teach him Galactic Standard, but he still had huge difficulty accepting that the “Spirit in the wall” was not an evil entity, and she needed the human crew to assist her in the tests.

Ahmose agreed, and over several hours they coaxed Red Cloud into having the tests. He had begun to accept the crew now, and could speak to Alva and Lam and Simon Simon without referring to them as “pale worms”, though he still angered easily and in his fury would threaten them with torture and being rendered into magical ingredients. He grudgingly accepted the medical intervention, which required him to be poked and prodded and scanned and have his blood taken and be subjected to various indignities for three hours. At the end of it, exhausted and humiliated, he yelled weakly at everyone and struggled back to bed.

A few hours later they gathered in the Captain’s ready room near the bridge, to discuss the findings.

The Left Hand of Darkness was adamant about the results of the tests. Red Cloud was an alien life form, based on silicon rather than carbon. As a result he was immune to all human diseases, but also could not eat carbon-based food. He needed silicon-based substances to function. This was also why he drank so little water, and why his people were able to live on a planet with almost no water – they just needed much less of it. Red Cloud’s different biology was not a big problem for ‘Darkness: She could easily use the fabricators on board to produce silicon-based food, though they would need to take on extra silicon at the next port. With Ahmose’s permission, the ship began experimenting with silicon-based foods.

The characters were struck by the bigger implications of this finding though. If Red Cloud was a silicon-based life form, and transubstantiation requires a biological basis for the sentience that transsubstantiates, then AI would be very eager to get hold of his living body. This would also explain why the Confederacy had hidden a Lake class ship in orbit around the planet to strengthen the blockade – they wanted nothing to leave or enter that planet that could reveal the truth about its alien nature. To the best of the characters’ knowledge there was no confirmed sentient alien species in the Confederacy’s borders, all having been exterminated during the collapse, or having mysteriously disappeared aeons ago. No doubt the Confederacy wanted to keep the existence of this species secret until they knew what to do about it.

And yet here they had one on their ship, adapting poorly, getting sick, and being chased by powerful factions that wanted to experiment on him for their own sinister purposes.

Dreams and nightmares on Reek

By the time they arrived at Reek ‘Darkness had developed a palatable form of silicon-based food and Red Cloud was largely recovered from his troubles, returning with ease to his normal annoying, imperious and arrogant self. Reek is a small, temperate planet with a thin, tainted atmosphere and a tiny population of just 270 people, living in a few small communities at very low tech level. These people are a mixture of settlers, pilgrims and hunters, with a few researchers in official Confederate-sanctioned research centres. Reek has a single continent that stretches around the planet in a complex ribbon, with many small seas in the curves of the ribbon, all toxic to humanity and relatively empty of life. The planet is of research interest because what life does thrive in these small seas has evolved separately over a very long period of geological stability, and offers insights into the evolutionary process. The planet is also of interest to the Confederate navy because its apex predator, the Giger, is a semi-sentient psionic ambush predator of ferocious powers. This creature can grow to the size of a small bus, and uses its psionic powers to camouflage itself and stun its prey, which includes any humans foolish enough to walk the planet unprotected. The creature’s only known predator is itself – sexless, it breeds by mentally attacking another member of its own species, destroying its mind and embedding an embryo in the still-living victim. This embryo is believed to grow by feeding off both the living body and the psionic residues of the creature’s mind as it recovers from the attack, slowly reducing the sentience of the host until it goes mad with pain and anger. This rage causes the embryo to burst forth from its host and activate its own psionic powers, fleeing from the scene before the adult can recover sufficiently to kill it. The majority of births kill the host, but some do survive and recover, and it appears that those who do survive often have a residual psionic healing power. All these predators appear to be approximately clones of their parent, though there appears to be some form of mutation or change in the implantation process, as clones are not perfect copies – possibly due to the high intensity of cosmic rays penetrating the thin atmosphere. While the predators themselves are largely clones of near generations, psionic typing studies suggest that children develop a psionic and sentient signature that varies from their parent and is likely influenced by the mental anguish of the host. Research on the implications of this birth process for psionic powers is ongoing, and challenging.

Hunting these creatures for sport is sanctioned by the Confederacy, and licenses are available for those who can make a good application and are willing to wait the time required to preserve the population. The PCs’ intention was not to hunt, but to find a safe place on a physical world to activate the ansible, but they wanted to make sure they were ready to jump out of the system as soon as the ansible was activated, so they had a week to wait. They spent some of this time on the planet, exploring areas declared free of Gigers. They also visited a park with a single captive Giger, where they were able to witness its reflexive use of psionic powers for camouflage – standing on opposite sides of the beast, they each saw it in different colours and patterns to match the different backgrounds it stood against relative to each of them. The beast crept around its enclosure, patterns shifting subtly to match the viewpoint of everyone in the group, until it settled into the shade of a tree and dozed off, its predatory dreams leaving them all mildly unsettled. The thing reeked of threat and fear, and they argued with each other and took spiteful and petty digs at each other for hours after the visit.

Still, it did not destroy their minds, and seven days after they arrived in Reek they were ready to activate the ansible. They found a secluded park that was guaranteed free of monsters and put the crystal into the slot. It took just a moment for the ansible to activate, and they found themselves staring at a grey screen with a few dots on it, and a big box with some text in the middle. On the bottom right was an icon of some kind, and on the bottom left another icon; they couldn’t touch anything until they chose one of the three options in the central box. Everything was written in a script they could not read, mysterious and impenetrable. They tried hitting a few random buttons but they couldn’t get anything meaningful to happen. They were about to remove the chip and give up when a box appeared in the middle of the screen, displaying characters in Galactic Standard. It said,

WHO ARE YOU?

Lam touched the message and a dialogue box appeared; when she touched that, a keyboard of some kind appeared, covered in unfamiliar characters. She tapped a bunch until eventually she found the execute button, and the message disappeared. About a minute later, another legible message appeared on the screen. It said,

GIVE ME THE ANSIBLE OR I WILL DESTROY YOU

It was soon followed by a third message:

I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE

They panicked and pulled out the crystal.

It was then that Ahmose remembered that Michael, the Ocean priest on board the Left Hand of Darkness, could translate any language with his strange powers. They sent a message to ‘Darkness, and asked her to bring him to the surface. A few hours later, they could read the screen and operate the ansible. The dots on the screen were stars, and the message had come from the specific star with the red circle around it – another ansible. They knew where it was, and it knew where they were.

It was then that Ahmose found the ansible’s message history. It had preserved the last few years of messages it had sent or received, messages from some ancient civilization 47,000 years ago. The early messages showed that the ansible was not a pocket technology – there were no personal messages or trivial exchanges, only short messages sending information of key importance to major organizations. For example:

SHIPMENT SENT IN 500k TON FREIGHTER GILEAD; EXPECT IN THREE MONTHS VIA SILIVAD STARPORT

or

GOVERNOR TILIVAN DEAD AT 349 YEARS (EUTHANASIA). ELECTION OF SUCCESSOR COMMENCES IN ONE MONTH. FULL REPORT ON ELECTION PROCESS AND OUTCOME BY SLOW BOAT NEXT YEAR

The messages were infrequent, perhaps once a month, and blunt. Scrolling through these messages, it was clear that the ansible was a tool for maintaining basic galactic cohesion, not for a detailed means of keeping the interstellar community connected on a daily basis. It was like a faster-than-light telegram system. Perhaps it could have been developed to something all-encompassing, but subsequent messages – closer to the final shutdown date of the ansible – gave some hint of the reasons why it would not reach this stage of development. Perhaps 10 years before the final message, the messages began to shift their focus from trade and politics to war and genocide. For example:

UNREST AND COMMUNAL VIOLENCE BEGINNING ON UMBRED III. RULING COUNCIL TAKING SHELTER IN COASTAL CAVES, THREAT OF NUCLEAR REPRISALS.

After perhaps two years of reports of growing and spreading threats came the first reports of AI activity

UNEXPECTED INVASION FLEET AROUND AUSPEX MOON. PSIONIC SCANS REPORT NO SENTIENT CREW – AI INVASION IMMINENT.

and then

AI TARGET ON YEMEN SYSTEM PREPARED AND EXPECTING RAID. THEY HAVE ANSIBLE TECHNOLOGY. REPEAT. THEY HAVE ANSIBLE TECHNOLOGY.

After this reports became more frequent and more desperate, as planets fell to various forces and reports of more strenuous and desperate attempts at resistance filtered through. The final message said:

ANSIBLE OPERATOR CHEVEK FINAL SIGNOFF. LAST ANSIBLE STATION FAILED TO RESPOND FOR PRESCRIBED TIME AT NOON TODAY. NO MORE NEWS FROM OTHER SETTLEMENTS OR RESISTANCE FORCES. LIKELY COMPLETE DISRUPTION OF THE ANSIBLE NETWORK. AFTER THIS MESSAGE WILL SHUT DOWN THIS ANSIBLE AND DESTROY ALL RECORD OF IT. PERHAPS SOMEONE SOMEWHERE WILL RECORD THE END OF THE HUMAN SPECIES, BUT IT WILL NOT BE BROADCAST.

After Ahmose read this final message in a somber voice, everyone turned to look at Simon Simon.

Then they pulled the crystal out, and fled the system.

Fire in the hold!

Fire in the hold!

An unexpected reunion

From Reek they headed to Ariak Safari, another hunting planet 7 light years from Reek. During their interview with the Oracle she had given them word about an illegal arms shipment they could capture, which they would use to arm their ship. This shipment was due to be collected at the Seven Sisters system, and flown to Horvan’s Nest. From there it would be smuggled into Severn, a planet that was being blockaded by the Confederacy. The Confederate Navy did not know about this illegal shipment, which was made possible because the organizers had corrupt connections on Severn. But somehow the Oracle had pieced it together, and had identified that the organizers would be recruiting mercenaries at Ariak Safari. The job of these mercenaries was to protect the smuggling ship against other criminals who might attempt to board it during its journey from Ariak Safari to Horvan’s Rest, and to stay on board at Horvan’s Rest until the ship was ready to jump to Severn. The ship, Losing My Religion, was at Ariak Safari for about a month as it recruited mercenaries, and so it was to Ariak Safari that the group headed. There plan was to be recruited as mercenaries, and then to capture the ship during jump to Horvan’s Rest, meet the Left Hand of Darkness at Horvan’s Rest, transfer the weapons, and then disappear. Easy!

Ariak Safari was very similar to Reek, a frozen planet with a thin, tainted atmosphere and a variety of large fauna to hunt. It also had only a rudimentary starport and no naval presence, which made it an ideal location for recruiting shady people. Ahmose successfully navigated contract negotiations with the mercenary leader, Zilschik Tad Malcontent, and they found themselves aboard the Losing My Religion. This ship was a classic freighter – a 1km long spindle with engines and accomodation at one end, a bridge at the other, and most of the spindle used to hold detachable cargo pods. Most of these pods were filled with agricultural equipment, but the plan was to distribute weapons amongst this gear. The blockade of Severn allowed agricultural and medical equipment planetside, but nothing else, but because this gang had a sympathiser in Confederate ranks they should be able to slip through the blockade if they disguised their weapons. The PCs were to take rooms at the rear of the freighter with a ten-man combat team called the Avalon Fire. They would have three weeks to plan their attack – one week in jump, one week in Seven Sisters, and most of the week in jump to Horvan’s Rest.

The two weeks on board ship gave them a simple plan: Simon Simon would seize control of the ship’s rather backward peripheral systems and shut down the doors to the Avalon Fire’s rooms, preventing them from leaving, during the sleep cycle. They would then walk up to the bridge and take it, with Simon Simon attempting to shut Zilschik Tad Malcontent and his elite crew into their rooms as well. Once they had the ship they would negotiate with everyone, and if necessary keep them locked in until they could steal the stuff. If possible they would kill noone.

The first hitch in this plan occurred on the first day of jump out of Seven Sisters, when Ahmose bumped into a big man in the hallway, and immediately recognized him as Kong the Younger. They stared at each other in surprise, but then she realized that he didn’t recognize her at all. She scuttled away, and remembering the rumours that Kong is a revenant, realized that this Kong was not the Kong she had met – but if they took him alive, they would have a chance to find out where the real Kong was.

Unfortunately things didn’t work out quite that way. The first part of their plan – locking the Avalon Fire in their rooms – worked perfectly, but the second part went wrong very quickly, because the Bridge was on a separate command system to the rear of the ship and by the time Simon Simon discovered this they were in battle with Zilschik’s elite crew. The bridge was guarded by four elite guards and their two sergeants, Aurora and Flickknife, as well as Zilschik and, presumably, Kong the Younger. The PCs were trapped in the hallway near the bridge in an intense gun battle with the four crew and their sergeants when Kong the Younger teleported into their room and dropped a grenade on them. He took cover behind control panels in the bridge and suddenly they were beset on all sides. While Simon Simon and Ahmose were trying to kill him Lam and Alva were in intense gun combat with the remaining crew. They had four of their own crew with them for support, and it was beginning to look like they would prevail, until Zilschik appeared in the doorway behind his colleagues. He was carrying a PGMP – a man-portable plasma gun – which he unleashed at full power on Alva. The gun tore through Alva’s cover in the blink of an eye, and reduced the entire area to ashes. Fortunately Alva was able to push all his will into a reflexive teleport, and emerged unscathed behind Zilschik, crouched against the benches that the rest of Zilschik’s crew were taking cover behind. Lam’s laser shots were firing past him on all sides, and the room was full of smoke – everywhere Alva had been hiding was a boiling mess of plastic and metal. Alva opened fire with his whole magazine on Zilschik, but it wasn’t enough, and suddenly everyone was trying to shoot, stab or crush Alva.

Fortunately Lam was able to kill Zilschik with a single headshot, and Simon Simon managed to access the main computer system and shut down power to all the crew’s laser weapons. Kong teleported out again, leaving a grenade behind, but the battle had turned. They managed to kill the crew and the sergeants, and were just finishing the battle when Kong the Younger reappeared in the doorway, carrying a second PGMP.

He didn’t know that power had been shut down to all the energy weapons his team possessed. He screamed at them in rage and then opened fire – and nothing happened. A small woman’s voice said, “Please check power engagement settings,” and then Alva opened fire with the first PGMP. Kong the Younger’s entire lower body dissolved into a mass of scorched flesh.

They had the ship.

Discovered

They were able to negotiate with the Avalon Fire, who agreed to spend the rest of the jump confined to their rooms. While they were negotiating Alva noticed something strange about Kong the Younger’s body, and by the time negotiations were finished everyone was watching it. His face had begun to change – first beginning to develop a strange discoloration, and then very slowly beginning to change shape. Ahmose, beginning to suspect something, had Alva set up his drone with a time lapse camera, and ordered everyone to leave the body untouched for a few hours. By the time they had the ship secure and had checked the armoury and cleared up the other bodies, Ahmose was sure – Kong the Younger was a changeling.

Changelings are a small group of people from a single planet, called Valentine, who have the ability to change their body shape and structure to mimic other humanoids. There is much debate about whether they are a strange human mutation or an alien species, but there is little debate about their general qualities amongst the Confederate navy – they are shiftless, untrustworthy and dangerous outcasts. They are also excellent agents. Most people who have worked for or know the Confederate navy knows that it uses changelings for its most sinister tasks, and their ability to change shape makes them highly suspect to most naval crew. They are also known to have a high propensity for psionics, which they use to support their shape shifting, and the general rumour is that they are exempt from the usual restrictions on the use of psionics. No one trusts a changeling, and this distrust is confirmed by their behavior outside the navy – those encountered outside of their home planet who are not naval agents are almost always criminals.

This explained the rumours that Kong the Younger was a revenant. Either he had hired a couple of changelings to impersonate him, or a group of changelings had killed the original Kong and taken over his criminal empire. They had probably also killed the captain of this vessel, and would be able to pretend to be him for the crucial task of getting through the naval blockade at Severn.

Lam and Ahmose both spat on the corpse, and then spaced it. No good could come of having a changeling on their ship. They also searched through his computer records and communications, and they were able to confirm some details about Kong the Younger’s activities on Dune. A changeling agent on Dune had smuggled the two bodies out of Dune and onto the space station, and the plan had been for these bodies to be collected after the space station was destroyed. He did not know that the Reckless was monitoring the station and identified the presence of the alien bodies when they arrived. He had left ahead of the destruction of the space station with the crystal that Ahmose and Alva had obtained for him, and never suspected that the bodies had been picked up by Ahmose on behalf of the navy. He still didn’t know that the Reckless had been hiding on the edge of the atmosphere the whole time, though he did know from his scavengers that someone else had beaten them to the bodies. It also appeared that his motives for smuggling out the bodies and the crystal were not merely selfish – the contact that Kong the Younger was dealing with promised to cause trouble for the Confederacy, and Kong and his changeling coterie saw this as an opportunity to advance the cause of freedom for the Changeling planet. It appeared that the Changelings wanted to escape the Confederate yoke, and an organization amongst them had a long plan to achieve this.

All this information they copied and prepared to transfer to the ‘Darkness when they arrived at Horvan’s Rest. They searched through the cargo pods to identify what they needed to take, and prepared a program to offload it quickly from the cargo pods. Everything was ready.

They arrived in Horvan’s Rest to a standard scene of tranquil space operations. The first burst of comms informed them that the Left Hand of Darkness was in system waiting for them, and aside from a few small freight craft nothing unusual was happening. Lam set a path out of the jump zone to rendezvous with the Left Hand of Darkness, and then set the automated unloading program running.

It was then that they received the incoming call.

Registered Freighter Losing My Religion, this is the Confederate Naval vessel The Reckless. Please prepare for a customs inspection.

Silence on the bridge was so stifling they could almost hear the rage rising in Ahmose’s breast. They watched the screens in horror as the vast bulk of the Reckless slowly materialized just off their bow, first blocking out the stars and then slowly forming from a black crystalline mass to the glittering swathe of deadly metal they had last seen during their catastrophic dive into dune. Of course no one on the Reckless was aware of the fate soon to befall the PCs – they were holding a yacht race in the atmosphere around the ship, thousands of people gathered on small floating platforms and party ships to watch as a colourful assortment of windships drifted across the face of the giant spaceship, cheering and letting off occasional fireworks.

Inside the bridge of the Losing My Religion the only fireworks were coming from Ahmose and Alva, who were further outraged by the second message they received.

Registered Freighter Losing My Religion, this is boarding officer Captain Noulgrim. Please indicate your readiness for boarding, and proceed to the docking area. Do not come wearing any armour, or bearing any weapons. We will be docking in several minutes.

There was nothing they could do, in the face of an 8km long naval ship just a couple of hundred kilometres off their bow. They could already see the boarding flier heading towards them. “Understood,” Ahmose replied curtly, and they proceeded – unarmed and unarmoured – to the docking bay.

Minutes later the docking bay doors opened and they saw the familiar face of Captain Noulgrim, striding purposefully into the bay with his best, most shit-eating grin beaming from his smug face. He was accompanied by an equally upright and perfect-looking Colonel, by two very serious looking soldiers in battle dress – and by Sue the Unbroken, head of their crew on the Left Hand of Darkness in their absence. She was handcuffed, and looking extremely unhappy.

“Captain Ahmose!” Noulgrim announced cheerfully, “I can’t say this is a surprise, but it’s so good to see you again. And you’ve come up in the world now – your own ship, your own crew. Such success! Such a shame I will have to confiscate the ship!” He held out one hand and strode forward as if to shake hands with Ahmose, who recoiled in horror, spluttering and angry.

“Confiscate the ship!? What?! After all we’ve done!”

“Well yes indeed! You have committed a wide range of crimes!” Noulgrim stepped back, pulling a tablet from his uniform, and his supercilious grin widened as he read them.

“Murder – 30 years for each victim. Illegal arms smuggling – 10 years. Attempting to breach a confederate blockade – 30 years. Possession of unlicensed weapons – 10 years. Impersonating a licensed pilot – 5 years. Electronic intrusion of a registered freighter – 15 years. Implanting illegal software in a registered vessel – 30 years. Human trafficking – 50 years and confiscation of profits, to with the Left Hand of Darkness. Unauthorized uplift of a remnant entity – 100 years.

“Of course, we will resleeve you across your sentence and you will be required to work for an extra period in repayment for your resleeve, so you should expect to achieve your liberty as an old woman in your third or fourth resleeve cycle. Crime, Ahmose. It really doesn’t pay!”

Everyone stared at him in stunned silence, until Ahmose finally blurted out, “We never intended to breach that blockade!”

As Noulgrim shook his head in a performance of disappointment, the Colonel spoke for the first time. Raising his hand, he gestured for Noulgrim to put the tablet down, though Noulgrim showed no apparent displeasure at being interrupted. “Now then, now then, I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding. Captain Noulgrim can be very obstinate in his adherence to Confederate law – ” at this Alva snorted and grunted in obvious anger ” – and sometimes he needs to be reminded of the importance of official discretion. I’m sure, for example, that we have no evidence of any intent to break the blockade, and no doubt you committed many of these crimes in order to break this arms smuggling ring, and to hand over the weapons to us – am I right? Of course, in certain special circumstances licenses can be offered retrospectively, and it’s not a crime to uplift an entity if one is rescuing it. Am I not correct on these nuances, Noulgrim?”

Noulgrim nodded, still beaming with pleasure at the situation.

“The truth is, Ahmose, we need your help,” The captain continued. “We discovered your trick with the mad AI on those ships at the Dune system. After the AI infected one ship it killed all the crew, and then destroyed the other ship, but before it did it released all that ship’s data in a sudden burst of information that the Reckless picked up. We captured the ship and were able to identify that the crew had been working for an AI called the Cognate, that is ancient and powerful. It was looking for you and the cargo you were carrying. The AI we captured kept uttering only one phrase – ‘kill the Cognate’ – and that AI is very old and powerful too. We decided to come and talk to you. You’ve obviously been up to a lot of mischief since we left you, and we need to have a long talk about what you’ve been doing and where this is leading.

“In exchange for your help, we’ll help you to arm your ship and give you licenses for all your weapons. We’ve got a shared problem here, Captain Ahmose, and we want your help and everything you know.

“Last time we made you work for us to pay off a stupid crime. This time, we’re asking for your help because we need it. And trust me, the Confederacy rewards its agents very well. What do you say?”

“Wait!” Simon Simon spoke. “What about Dune? You just left it there to find us, unprotected? What about the AI searching for Red Cl – for the bodies? They could just get more if you’re not there!”

“Oh, no problem there,” the Colonel waved his concern away. “We were replaced a few weeks ago by the Forest Class ship Once a Believer. She’s only 10% of our size, but she’s 1000% more dangerous. We’re not really fitted out for war, but once we sent a report back on the possibility of AI involvement they sent us a ship who is. So now here we are, ready to go wherever we need to go and do whatever needs to be done.”

Alva snorted at the idea that the Reckless was not fitted out for war, remembering the over-the-horizon beam weapon that created a nuclear blast, and the stealth cloaking. But there was nothing he could say, really – this seemed like an offer they couldn’t refuse.

After a moment, Ahmose had taken stock of the mettle of her team. “Okay,” she conceded with a sigh. “We’ll talk to you about everything that’s happened. Come to the crew room, and we’ll give you a briefing. But it will take a while.”

“Oh no, that’s okay!” the Colonel replied breezily. “We’ve prepared a viewing platform for the races. It will be much more comfortable than this clunky old thing. Why don’t you come watch the windraces? And don’t worry about loading weapons onto your ship – we’ll kit you out with much better shortly.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to work with you, Captain Ahmose!”

And with that, he gestured for them to leave the ship they had captured at such personal risk, and head into the belly of the Confederate beast …

 

Save

Save

Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you hare when I was fox?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks,
For you sing, “Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow:
O my heart, O my heart shies from the sorrow”

(Song of the Path of Tears)

[GM Note: This is a report of a part of session 8 of the Spiral Confederacy campaign. Session 8 covered a lot of different events, which are too much to describe in one post, so I’m breaking the write-up over three or four separate posts to keep them manageable]

Having asked all they could of the Oracle, and not to happy with their answers, the characters left Niscorp 1743 quickly. They had a plan to raid a weapons-smuggling ship and steal its cargo, but first they wanted to track down at least the first steps of Kong the Younger, the man who had originally employed Ahmose and Alva to recover a chip from an asteroid of Dune, which they thought might power the ansible. He had left Dune a few days before the space station was destroyed, so they guessed that the quickest way to track him would be to go to Dune, find out which system he had jumped out to, and follow him. The greatest likelihood was that he had headed to Reek, in which case they could head in his direction while they also moved in the direction of the arms shipment they were going to raid.

They jumped to Dune. While they were in jump space Ahmose asked Red Cloud about the chip that powered the ansible. They had seen diagrams of this chip on the space station over Perez, when they stole the ansible from the mad AI the Starred One, and as soon as they saw it they recognized it as the same chip they had been asked to recover by Kong the Younger. Ahmose thought maybe that these chips could be found on the planet of Dune itself, so she asked Red Cloud about it.

“Oh that!” Red Cloud stuttered in surprise when he saw the picture of the chip. “That is a relic of ours, it is a great crime to depict that relic ever, such depictions are a sin. That is why we hunt the Path of Tears.” He waved a hand agitatedly, indicating in his imperious rough-hewn manner that he wanted the image hidden. Ahmose duly hid it – it was not wise, in any case, to expose Red Cloud to screen technology for too long, as he became angry at it and started ranting about evil demons and magic.

“The Path of Tears? Is that another dumb religious thing?” Lam asked helpfully.

This elicited one of Red Cloud’s signature hand slap-growl-grunt combinations, intended to show his displeasure at an inferior addressing him directly. “Pale worm! How dare you speak so insolently! Captain, why do you not boil this thing down for magical parts? What other use has it!?”

Lam sniffed scornfully at the ignorant lout as, once again, Ahmose ordered him to address her by her name and reminded him that no one would be rendered down for magical parts.

“The Path of Tears,” he explained wearily once he had been calmed, “Is a heresy, a group of witches and warlocks who believe heretical things about our universe and about the Dream. It is because of their heresy that we hunt them. It was such a witch – of the Path of Tears – that I was about to kill, as it is my duty to do -” hearty masculine chest thump! “- when someone captured me and sealed me in that coffin.”

“The Dream?” Alva asked, but Ahmose waved him silent before Red Cloud could begin ranting about pale worms blaspheming by saying the word, or something equally silly.

“So this witch you were hunting – she believes in the power of this crystal, rather than your god?”

“No no no! Of course she believes in the power of the sun god! Who could not, given that he rises daily to remind us of his harsh fury? No, she holds other strange ideas. And heresies! For example, followers of the Path of Tears believe it is not a sin to make depictions of the crystal, and so they all wear a necklace with a perfect replica of the crystal. Heresy!” He spat angrily on the deck.

For once no one reacted to his filthy manners. They were all staring at each other in shock. “WHAT?!” Ahmose roared. Suddenly they all remembered – when they examined the dead woman’s body just after they found it, she had indeed been wearing a necklace with a tiny crystal on it. They had completely forgotten that she had been wearing it, and then they had sold the body to DK in exchange for the ship, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Ahmose surged to her feet, hammering one hand down on the table in rage. “We had it HERE! Was it on the witch the whole time?!”

“Wait wait no!” Alva leapt up to. “I remember I took it off her body, I kept it in my room. I should still have it! It was on our things in the Come As You Are!”

“Find it!” Ahmose snarled. “Everyone help him look. Maybe we -” She was going to say “sold the witch” but then she remembered Red Cloud was in the room. “Maybe we can find it now. Thank you Red Cloud for this information.” They all ran out of the room to search, forgetting to ask Red Cloud about the Dream.

They searched their things thoroughly, Ahmose growing into a towering rage as they realized the crystal necklace was nowhere to be found. She was beginning to lose her temper at Alva for his foolishness and sloppiness when a thought suddenly struck her.

“Larry and Barry!” She struck the wall next to her. “They stole it! As soon as we got this ship they went their own way! They were originally hired to find the same crystal as us! They took it!” She began cursing all the gods of the underworld and hitting the doorframe with one gloved fist. “They stole it!”

Gathered in the open area in front of their shared rooms, the common room scattered with all of Alva’s personal belongings, they all realized she must be right. When Ahmose and Alva had emerged from the asteroid with the chip they had been ambushed by Larry and Barry, but had won the fight and in exchange for sparing their lives, Larry and Barry had agreed to let them use their spaceship the Come As You Are until they could get a ship of their own. But of course as soon as they realized that Alva had the crystal they would have stolen it – something all too easy to do on the Come As You Are, where crew were sharing rooms and everyone was packed into the same small common room area during long jump trips.

Treachery!

“Well then,” Ahmose growled after a moment. “We had better find Kong the Younger. I don’t care if he’s a revenant – I’ll kill him as many times as I have to to get that damn crystal.”

Interdiction at Dune

They arrived in Dune to find the system unchanged since they left it several months ago. The two navy ships were drifting around on the far side of Dune, and a few spaceships were working at salvaging the remains of the space station. A few other ships drifted around in-system, perhaps setting up independent mining operations or just passing through. Within a few minutes of arrival they had received an update on all ship movements in the sectors to leeward, and sifting through it soon found the information they needed on Kong the Younger – after leaving Dune he had jumped to Reek, a jump-1 trip for them and a well-surveyed system, though the spaceport was small. They set the Left Hand of Darkness to move in-system and braced themselves for a week drifting through the system, waiting for their computer to reset after jump.

Unfortunately they did not have any time to relax. Just a few minutes after she had set the course, Ahmose was interrupted by the Left Hand of Darkness. “Captain, we seem to be under attack. I have received several energy weapon hits on my shields.” At the same time they saw on their screens that two of the ships that had been moving calmly in the distance were now on a fast-closing attack trajectory. Moments later a communications alert sounded. They engaged the comms link.

“Captain Ahmose, this is the Mono:Overload. Discharge the cargo or be destroyed.”

The two ships speeding towards them had identified themselves on general systems comms, and they had already identified them as the Mono:Overload and the Transfer:Complete, but there had been no warning that they were dangerous in any way. Of course everyone knew immediately what they were after.

“I’m afraid we don’t know what cargo you’re talking about,” Ahmose replied tersely. She looked at the others and shrugged. “Darkness, can we withstand these weapons?”

“Captain Ahmose, I’m afraid that they will soon break through our shields if they fire again. After that they will quickly destroy the hull. You may have to comply with their request.”

Ahmose muttered something about taking orders from a stupid machine and looked around at the others. “Vacc suits people!”

They rushed to comply. No further attacks hit them, and they listened nervously for the next communication as they rushed into their vacc suits. The ships were still minutes away, and it would take minutes for every stage of the negotiation to proceed. As she struggled into her combat dress Ahmose was frantically checking all the sensor channels for any evidence that the Reckless had noticed the attack, but she could find none.

Minutes later the reply came. “Captain Ahmose, don’t lie to us. You have two cryotubes containing cargo that is ours. Discharge it immediately and we will allow you to live. If you do not discharge it we will cut your ship into pieces and take the cargo from your silent hold. You have 10 minutes to comply.”

Ahmose’s immediate thought was to discharge the empty cryotubes, but of course the ship was only carrying one. And of course, even if they discharged the cargo they would still be dead – it would be a matter of a few minutes’ work to carve up the ship and kill its occupants, guaranteeing no vengeful crews chasing these two ships.  They needed another way out.

What to do? They looked at each other. No one had an idea. Their ship was unarmed, and although they could try dodging the attacks, they would need to maintain their evasiveness for hours in order to stay alive until one of the Navy ships came within defensive reach. They could refuse to negotiate and hope to repel borders, but it was far more likely that the ships would simply cut their vessel into pieces, and then kill them where they hid in the shadows of the wreck as it pried out the empty cryotubes.

“We have to jump, Captain.” It was Lam who said it. “We can do it. We have an extra astrogator, the computer will be jump-sick but we can do it. Better to jump out and save the ship.”

Ahmose looked around at the rest of her crew. With no guns and no nearby naval ships, she couldn’t see any alternative. “Okay, let’s jump. Set a course for Reek. We’ll take our chances with the void.”

“Captain my Captain…” Simon Simon piped up quietly from the corner. “I have a weapon we could try …”

“Yes, Simon Simon …?”

“We still have the remnants of the mad AI on the server in the hold. I could try and send an attack message to one of those ships, that implants the mad AI in the ship. It will completely take control of them. It won’t happen quickly, but if we come back here in two weeks the ship will probably be completely mad, and everyone will be trapped on board. We could board it and find out what they wanted and who we are. They’d probably beg us to take them off …”

Ahmose thought over the implications. There was no risk that the mad AI could escape from the system, since jump travel would kill it, and it could not thrive in the system because there was no longer a fully functional computer system. If it caused any serious trouble the Reckless would no doubt destroy it in a moment. The plan probably wouldn’t work but if it did it would ensure that the crew of at least one of those two ships was imprisoned on board and desperate to be rescued. Probably the mad AI would cast them into space, or empty all the air from the ship, or kill them in some other cruel and uncaring machine way.

“Do it. You have eight minutes, then we jump. Lam, plot that course.”

They jumped, leaving a mad AI behind them…

Where are we...?

Where are we…?

Misjump

Jumping a few minutes after a past jump is an incredibly reckless move. No one knows what will happen. Unless your astrogator and your ship’s computer are very very good, the jump will go wrong. The possibilities are daunting: perhaps the ship will never leave jump space, and you will be trapped in that grey nowhere between the stars until you starve or, worse, go mad and kill each other; perhaps you will materialize on the far side of a distant galaxy, lost and alone; perhaps you will arrive at your destination, but too close to its sun, and be torn apart by the conflicting forces of hyperspace and subspace; perhaps your journey will complete in the normal way of things, but you will arrive insane with visions of monsters in deep space. There is nothing you can do after such a jump, except wait and see what the capricious forces of hyperspace have planned for you.

Ahmose wasn’t waiting. She understood how the uncertainty of a rushed jump could affect people even if the jump itself was safe, so she set them to work. For the first week of the journey every moment of time was filled with activity – cleaning, cataloguing, cleaning again, defensive drills, language lessons for Red Cloud, strategy meetings, anything to keep the crew busy and focused. For a week it worked, and attention was diverted. People knew they were on a potentially fatal path, but they didn’t really think about it. But on the eighth day things started to fray. Ships always come out of jump by seven days, usually around five or six – an eighth day in jump is a sign of an error. Tempers started to fray, people started to lose their perspective. The ship was spotless, everyone had their defensive tactics polished, Red Cloud was sick of verb declensions and sullen at the lack of sunshine, and everyone was starting to wonder. A ninth day passed, tense and fraught with small arguments. On the tenth day Ahmose had everyone drilling again, running up and down the hallways in mock battles, but nobody’s heart was in it. The fear was in them. Were they trapped forever in this limnal nowhere? At lunch, sour looks were cast at the crew member who had programmed the jump, or at Lam because she didn’t or at Ahmose because she ordered it, or at Simon Simon because he didn’t stop it, or at Alva because couldn’t he teleport them out of here? Two people got in an argument over a cup. Ahmose relented, and decided not to pursue an afternoon of fitness training; she dismissed everyone to their rooms. “Don’t worry people, we’ll arrive soon, you’ll see!”

She was right. On the evening of the 10th day the jump alarms sounded. Everyone rushed to the bridge. Ahmose ordered vacc suits, just in case, and they all scrambled into them in the ready room or the hallway, eager to see where they had arrived. If it was the centre of the sun, at least they would know …

The alarms sounded. The view screens flickered to life, grey chaotic swirls faded, a rush of static ran across the window and there they were, floating in space, real space, not the grey nowhere of hyper space. Ahmose rushed to the comms unit to look for signs of nearby ships, while everyone else stared at the dark, empty screen, scattered with stars. “Where are we Lam?!” Ahmose demanded, voice tense.

Lam was fiddling with navigation tools. It was Red Cloud who spoke first.

“Captain, why do you insist on taunting me with heresies. This is an insult to me, a deep and personal one, and after all I told you. Please do not display these pictures on your wall just to insult me, and in front of the pale worms too!”

Ahmose turned to snap a curt response at the infuriating priest, but as she straightened she saw them, standing in slowly revealed rows in the empty space before the ship: a long line of huge, golden structures floating in space. Each was the perfect shape of the crystal she had given to Kong, then found, then lost, and now sought again. They were the same colour, and they floated there in space in a long line, like vast golden dominoes, though each too far from the other to touch. It was impossible to tell their size as they floated there in the inky black, with nothing for perspective. Everyone stared silently at them.

“That’s not a picture, Red Cloud. It’s a window. I didn’t make this to tease you – you can see it out of our window. It stands before you.”

The entire crew watched in amazement as Red Cloud, proud warrior priest of an ignorant and backward society, sank crying to his knees. Tears streaked down his golden face, and he dashed them away without even the traditional Dune admonition of tears as wasted water, so distracted was he; placing his palms on the deck, he banged his head on the floor and sobbed.

Everyone stared. First at Red Cloud, then at the strange floating crystals. What bizarre coincidence was this? Lam muttered something about them having the most devilish luck, and Alva said something snarky about religion and fools. “Captain, they’re very very big …” Lam added in a small voice.

Everyone else was still watching Red Cloud. He looked up at Ahmose, eyes reddened and puffy. “Captain Ahmose, I am sorry I ever doubted you. Truly you are a sending from the sun itself -” Ahmose puffed up just a little “- to bless me with this fortune.”

He regained his pride and surged to his feet, striding towards the window and adopting his more normal sermonizing tone. “This is the pillar and arch of our society, the greatest thing we ever built and our saddest loss. For longer than memory we have sought it, and everyone thought it lost. To depict it in statue or art or even in dreams is a sin, a heresy, to recreate this beauty in physical form is to die.” He slapped his chest. “At my hand! I have devoted my life and soul to crushing those who would besmirch the beauty of our lost world. And here, you bring me to it. You bring me to it…” His voice slid away into whispers, golden muscly arm pointed out at the screen.

“Ah, Red Cloud,” Simon Simon interrupted his reverie. “Um. What is it?”

For once Red Cloud forgot that he was being addressed by a pale worm, who should be rendered down into magical parts. “Simon Simon, strange little creature, feast your eyes upon it. This is the Shoal of Dreams.”

“Well then!” Snapped Alva. “That settles that then! What actually is it, Red Cloud?!”

Red Cloud strode to the head of the control section, where he could stand on a slightly raised dais, and give his sermon.

“Many seasons ago, before memory, our people were numerous and our lands vaster than imagination. But no matter where we lived in those lands, we had the dream. The dream was a shared dream, and we were all part of it always – no one was left out or alone, and within the dream anything was possible. And at the heart of the dream was the Shoal of Dreams, onto which all dreams must wash gently, and from which all dreams radiate out. We all loved the dream, and lived in it, and loved each other through it. But then one day, our people decided to leave behind their physical bodies and enter the dream, to become only the dream. For what is the world of dust and sand and heat and light, against a dream where anything is possible, always? But some of us said no, they wanted to see one more sun rise. They wanted to see the lightning strike the plains as the red clouds of a summer storm roll in through the mountains; they wanted to know the salty taste of a woman’s tears one more time, or they were not ready to leave behind the smell of a sand cat when it comes in from a windy, sunlit day. For them there was too much beauty yet in the sand and the storm. So they remained behind, a tiny portion of our people, who chose never to enter the dream. And for longer than memory they guarded the remnants of our society, roamed the golden wastes, caught the dragons as they soared on the winds of the evening, dreamed their own dreams separate from each other, lost and longing but still loving the harsh beauty of rock and sky. But then one day that dream redounded upon us, washed over us as nightmare, we were caught in the nightmare, and when it was done our society was lost and we were cast down from beauty and peace into a harsh, hot, brutal world of nasty struggle. No one remembers the nightmare or what it was, but it washed over us and destroyed us, laid us low; and when we woke from the nightmare we had lost the Shoal of Dreams, we couldn’t find it, and so we were forever cut off from joining our ancestors in their dream. And so in our rage we declared it a sin to invoke the image of the Shoal of Dreams, until such time as one of us could find it and return our tribe to it.

“And you found it, Ahmose. You will be our savior!”

Simon Simon snorted, but remembered to make it a cough just in time to avoid angering their mercurial priest. Alva shook his head sadly and walked up to the sensor array. “Captain, it appears to be exactly the same structure as the original crystal, and it’s huge. Maybe hundreds of kilometres on every side. It’s exactly the same shape too. And there are thousands. I think …” His voice trailed off.

“What, Alva? What?”

“It’s …” He shook his head and flicked some dials, muttering to himself. “It’s … captain, it’s several light-minutes in length.”

Under Alva’s command the screen zoomed back, showed a schematic of the area. There was the Left Hand of Darkness floating in space, and there in front of it, strung out like gigantic beads, was a perfectly straight line of crystals, each crystal hundreds of kilometres across, the line several light minutes long. He zoomed further out, and they could see Dune perhaps a light year behind them. They had been in jump for 10 days and traveled one light year to this strange and monstrous structure.

“Lam, get the flyer. We’re investigating.”

They flew out to the nearest crystal. It hung above them, silent and ominous, dwarfing their flyer or even the Left Hand of Darkness, a huge block of gold hovering in space. Flying close along its side they saw it had been cut perfectly into the exact same shape as the crystal that fit into the ansible. Occasionally they passed a pock mark, where a meteor or some other object might have hit one, but mostly the surface of the crystals was flawless. It was a mystery.

“Captain, I have an idea …” Alva began, as they returned to the ship. “If we find a piece of crystal that has been knocked loose from one of those things, we could draw it on board, and then Darkness could cut it into the exact shape we need to activate the ansible …”

Everyone looked at him like he was mad. Then they all nodded their heads. Lam flicked on the sensors, and they went hunting.

An hour later they had a couple of kilograms of dislodged crystal floating in the cargo hold. It took the Left Hand of Darkness just a few minutes in the medical bay to cut a piece the exact shape and size they required. They stood around the ansible, Alva holding the crystal, and looked at each other. No one was brave enough to do it.

Finally Ahmose spoke. “Let’s do it planetside. If we’re going to mess this up, I want to be in a breathable atmosphere.”

Everyone agreed. They set a course for Reek, to activate the ansible.

Wreckage
Omnipresent omens
Stark Reminders

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

(Final song of the mechanihilists of Anselm 7)

[GM Note: This is a report of a part of session 8 of the Spiral Confederacy campaign. Session 8 covered a lot of different events, which are too much to describe in one post, so I’m breaking the write-up over three or four separate posts to keep them manageable]

Our heroes find themselves ever deeper enveloped in the web of the confederate navy’s dark schemes, as the human cargo they had been charged with woke up mysteriously and began raging through their ship. Stuck in jump space when his cryotube opened unbidden to reveal its angry, ignorant contents, they had no choice but to calm Red Cloud of the Coming Storm and enlist him in their crew. They were making a journey back to Niscorp 1743, where some time ago Simon Simon had found a way to release his AI mother into the ice planet’s mainframe computers, turning it from a standard wild AI into an Oracle. Oracles, with access to all the secrets flowing through the centre of the system’s computer networks, are able to draw information together to make great leaps of intuition and find patterns of meaning where others see only fragments of the truth.

They had many questions for the Oracle, and they did not waste any time when they arrived at the tiny station above the ice planet. Leaving Red Cloud in the care of the crew, they headed to the surface in the Left Hand of Darkness‘s flyer. Simon Simon had made contact with his Oracle, and she had directed him to a Behemoth observation station near the equator, some distance from civilized settlements. The flyer took them at high speed over the rocky, ice strewn slopes at the edge of the equator’s liquid ocean, the port windows offering them breathtaking views of huge mountain ranges towering up into dark cloud, while the starboard windows opened onto a bleak vista of sea ice on a churning grey ocean. As the flyer approached the observation station they watched a single Behemoth sliding beneath the waves, its huge spined back rising like a slow island from the water as it dived, casting aside icebergs the size of apartment blocks as if they were mere styrofoam blocks, and setting up ripples of massive waves that drove crashing ice against the distant beach. This Behemoth was diving fast, but its tail was still dragging across the surface when they set down on the observation post. This post was a small, three story tower set on the craggy extension of one of the ribs of the mountain, the only visibly human-made structure in all the wide vista of rocks and ice and sea. It perched shiny and smooth on the edge of this rocky promontory, looking out over the grim seas, windswept and grey with hail and rain. They landed the flyer on a small helipad at its base, perhaps 500m above the churning ice of the shore, and stepped out into a field-protected open landing spot, cold but protected from the worst of the planet’s elements. From the flyer pad they ascended stairs into a small cloak room, where they could doff their vacc suits and draw on warm overalls, and then up another set of stairs through the silent researchers’ quarters to the observation deck. All the observation posts had quarters for visiting researchers, but it was clear that no one had ever visited this outpost. In Niscorp 1743, people avoided fieldwork as much as possible.

The control room was a small, semi-circular room like a ship’s bridge, with huge windows on the whole forward arc that gave a perfect 180 degree view of the oceans, and the ice beaches stretching away to east and west. There were two desks, each strewn with a wide array of complex computer equipment, and some additional standing screens on the sides and rear of the room. The room was on but humming in standby mode, dark but for a couple of red lights flickering near screens. As they entered the lights switched on and a coffee machine began to brew. The room warmed quickly to a comfortable temperature.

“Mother,” Simon Simon said, without hesitation. “I have come as I said I would.”

Nothing happened. Lam rolled her eyes and shrugged at Ahmose, who frowned back at her. But after a moment the lights in the room dimmed again, and the windows also began to turn opaque, rapidly becoming completely dark. Moments later they turned into cinema screens, and the party were treated to a sumptuous and rare view – the back of the head of a diving Behemoth. This one had been tagged with a tag device by some scientists, a kind of scientific laboratory and sensor system the size of a small flyer that had been embedded between two monumental scales perhaps 30m behind the Behemoth’s vast head. From this emerged various sensory tools and research equipment, and in this case a small visual recording drone, which was surfing in the beast’s wake, perhaps 20m behind and above the radio tag, illuminating the Behemoth’s downward dive with strong arclights. It was descending slowly, but already the last light of the limnal zone was fading into grey above them, and strange dark things were drifting into the light and past into the ascending darkness.

“Welcome child,” a strange voice spoke over the intercom system.

“Mother … Are you in … there…?” Simon Simon pointed to the screen.

“Yes, child. I wanted somewhere safe to hide a fragment of myself, and what better than a Behemoth? They are very hard to break, and they dive very very deep. Also, the tag is constantly sending signals to the system satellites, and to many onshore laboratories – it is the perfect hiding place for someone who is constantly communicating. And as I suspected, I have found that the Behemoth’s nervous system is amenable to … manipulation. I am using the tag device to experiment on it, to see if there are ways I can distribute myself organically through its nervous system. Such a beast has many brains and peripheral nerve centres. If I can use them I can perhaps make a biological version of myself. Fortunately Niscorp has a great deal of biological research I can draw upon for my theories.”

They watched the vast beast slowly sinking into the inky depths. Someone drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Mother, I am happy to see you have settled in here. I have questions for you. It could take a while. Do you have time to answer our questions?”

“Of course, child, for you who freed me and nurture me, I am always available. Ask anything you like.”

Simon Simon sat down at the console. Alva began pouring coffees. They relaxed. The questioning began.

What is the Ansible?

They showed her the tablet they had rescued from the insane AI on Rocannon’s world, and told her they suspected it was an ansible. She told them that the ansible was an object out of myth, little was known about it, but it was rumoured to enable its user to communicate faster than the speed of light. Messages sent between ansibles were instantaneous anywhere in the galaxy, so any group in possession of these things could use them to break the fundamental restriction on commerce and knowledge in the Spiral Confederacy. No one owned one, and most scholars believed them to be a myth. Although the technology to communicate faster than light probably could be created, it would require on human will, not on a machine tablet, since human will seemed to be intricately connected with hyperspace. However, others believed that perhaps this was a technology from before the collapse, so perhaps 30,000 or more years old, lost to humanity when humanity’s last great civilization destroyed itself – or was destroyed.

Why would AI be looking for it?

The Mother told them that the likely reason that AI would be seeking the ansible was its connection to the possibility of transubstantiation. For a civilization to transubstantiate required three things: a civilization-wide consciousness, a biological consciousness, and the technology to catalyze transubstantiation. Humans had the biological consciousness, but to establish a civilization-wide consciousness they would need to be able to link minds across vast distances. The only way that humans knew to do this was the use of Priests’ magic, but this magic was limited in power and its users lost their powers as their faith crumbled in the face of the universe’s vastness. AIs lacked both a biological consciousness and the civilization-wide consciousness, but if they had the ansible they might be able reverse engineer it to enable communication between computer systems across space. With that the same AI could exist across all of the galaxy, thus creating a civilization-wide consciousness. Then they would simply need to find a biological consciousness into which they could project themselves. The Oracle was experimenting with this in the Behemoth, but the most likely way to develop such a consciousness would be to find a silicon-based life form with higher sentience, but none had been found – or at least, none that the Confederacy allowed anyone to know about.

In fact, the PCs were all aware that there are no recorded aliens in any of Confederate space. Some people suggest this is because the Confederacy exterminated them all, or that the collapse is linked to their destruction. Others suggest that humanity was able to spread into this corner of space because all alien civilizations had either previously exterminated themselves, or had transubstantiated. Many archaeologists scoured the rim looking for evidence of alien species, in the hope of finding signs of a technology that would enable transubstantiation. None had been found yet.

Who is The Starred One?

Simon Simon described the Starred One, the AI from which they had stolen the ansible, to the Oracle. She did not know, specifically, of the Starred One but she could tell him a little about the AI of the Reach. These AI were powerful and ancient creatures, likely older than the Spiral Confederacy. AI came from outside the Confederacy – this fact even Simon Simon did not know. They had been uncovered in the later years of the Spiral Confederacy’s expansion, perhaps 5,000 years ago, as fragments in lost human civilizations that the Confederacy was uplifting. There was no evidence of any having awakened in the Confederacy’s core, and most of the modern AIs – and their relationship with human adherents – had only become common about 1000 years ago. This was why AIs were still uncommon, and why the Confederacy had a fragmented and inconsistent policy towards them – they were too rare to be noticed, and adherents few enough that they took a long time to spread AIs across the Confederacy. No one understands where they came from or who their original creators were, but the finding of fragments of surviving AIs in human remnant systems suggests that they existed before the collapse and were destroyed with it. It is these fragments that adherents use to spread the AI through the galaxy.

However, occasionally the Confederacy would find a long-lived AI, one that had never been reduced to just memory. The Reach, which had been discovered intact by human pirates many thousands of years ago and only recently stumbled upon by the Confederacy, was such a place. Its subspace technology had survived the Collapse, maintaining basic computer systems with it and some kind of defense system, and AI had survived with it. They welcomed the pirates who colonized the Reach many thousands of years ago, as they expanded computer systems and brought new pathways and systems to infect – but they were much older than the pirates. Early raids on the Reach had been intended partly to wipe out these AI, but no raid had survived. If the Starred One was one of these AI then it was very ancient and once very powerful. There were other AI in the Confederacy that were almost as old and almost as powerful, but they were rare and usually detached from the affairs of humans – they usually disdained adherents or even connection with other AIs.

Who is The Shadow of the Hunter (Is the Last Thing the Mouse Sees)?

The Shadow of the Hunter (Is the Last Thing the Mouse Sees) is an ancient AI that is part of a faction of AI believed to meddle in political affairs and take an active interest in the doings of human society. They usually have multiple adherents, and work through many human agents to achieve shadowy goals. The Oracle had no idea why he would be interested in a dead body of a human from Dune, but no doubt it would involve some scheme based on swapping the body for valuable information, or experimenting on it for some reason. The goals of the Shadow’s faction are a mystery to all other AI, as well as to humans. Even the Oracle cannot guess the goals of an ancient AI.

Even Simon Simon was shocked to learn of AI factions. Just how powerful were these machine gods, what virtual strings did they pull, how much were they involved with the Confederacy’s leaders and its past?

How could Red Cloud’s Cryopod just open like that?

No idea. Don’t waste our time with such technical questions.

And with that the conversation ended. The Behemoth had sunk so deep that communication was difficult, and the Oracle worried that too much communication with the observation station would raise attention elsewhere. Before she left, however, Simon Simon was able to glean one last useful piece of information from her: She revealed to him plans for a weapons-smuggling shipment within jump reach of Niscorp 1743, that they might be able to infiltrate and destroy. This shipment included ship-mountable weapons and good equipment that they could use for the Left Hand of Darkness. She gave them some intercepted communications and routes, and a plan to get to it[1], told them “My child is interesting, so keep him alive” and then disappeared into the depths.

They sat in the cool light of the observation room, staring out at the bleak ocean. No Behemoth cut across their view, and as far as they could see was a flat expanse of slowly shifting ice under a slate grey sky. Sitting here on the edge of a mountain, looking out over a frozen ocean under the uncaring skies of a nowhere planet on the edge of the galaxy – suddenly they felt very small and helpless and alone. Far away under distant stars a great and ancient mind sat at the centre of a sinister web of schemes, and elsewhere other similar minds schemed to find the little grey tablet Alva now clutched in one hand. Somehow they had fallen into the middle of this web, and they had to find a way to get out of it before those gathering predators noticed their struggles, and came crawling in for the kill.

Ahmose remembered the ice spider that nearly killed them last time he was on Niscorp 1743. “Let’s go!” She snapped. “It’s cold and empty here. Let’s go back to the Darkness.”


fn1: This was one of the players’ bright ideas to get some real weapons for their ship. Because arms dealing at this scale is illegal in the Confederacy, they will need to steal such stuff if they ever want to be able to arm The Left Hand of Darkness. A great call by the player, so next session will be a raid on the freighter Losing My Religion.

On Saturday I ran another session of The Spiral Confederacy campaign, culminating in a vicious battle in a floating forest built on the ruins of ancient spaceships (report to come). One player went down in the first round of the surprise attack and the entire battle (with three waves of attackers, approximately) was over in about 5 rounds – 30 seconds! This system is being run using Traveler rules, which are quite lightly described and incomplete in places. During the battle I discovered a few rules that are missing, and came up with a few new house rules to ease some benefits, and also to employ a wider range of skills and attributes in combat. These house rules are listed below.

No critical hits: The standard rulebook states that a roll of 6 or more above the target number is a “critical success”, but doesn’t actually define any special rule for a critical success in combat except that it definitely does at least one point of damage. I have decided not to fiddle with this, because vicious experience on Saturday confirmed for me that Traveler’s injury mechanism doesn’t really allow for it and is so brutal that there is no need for it; the effect alone is sufficiently powerful to make all the difference.

Stealth attacks: There are no rules for stealth attacks in the book. During the session I chose to add the effect of the stealth roll to the attack, and the target cannot dodge or parry. Reading the book I see a set of rules for carrying one skill’s effect over to another; basically success adds 1 to the next roll, while critical success adds 2. However I don’t like this – I like stealth attacks to be lethal, and with no critical hit system the only way to increase damage is to roll really well, so adding the full effect of the stealth roll onto the subsequent attack seems more realistic (and about the only way for an assassin with a normal blade to deliver serious damage against a heavily-armoured target). This means that a good stealth attack with a blade (with e.g. 2d6+2 damage) is likely to end up doing more like 2d6+6 or 2d6+8 damage on a stealth attack. This will do fatal damage against a lightly-armoured person, which is reasonable.

Using the tactics skill for cover: If a PC is not in cover at the beginning of combat, they need to make a tactics roll to get into cover.  The result of the roll will determine the cover level as follows:

  • 0-5: 1/4 cover (no benefit)
  • 6-8: 1/2 cover (-1 to hit)
  • 9-11: 3/4 cover (-2 to hit)
  • 12+: Full cover (-4 to hit)

This ensures that a person with no tactics skill and no intelligence bonus will need to roll better than an 8 on 2d6 to actually find effective cover, which seems really likely to me – if I got in a firefight I wouldn’t have a clue where to hide. It’s obviously only useful when your PCs are in battlefields with lots of boxes and junk etc; rather than describing it all in detail and asking the PC to make a choice, just roll it up and then tell them what they’re hiding behind. If there is lots of obvious cover (e.g. a tank!) then this rule needn’t be applied. This is one of several ways of enhancing the role of the tactics skill in combat.

This skill check can also be done by someone with leadership to direct someone else to cover; in this case both the leader and the person taking cover need to use a significant action in the same round.

Also, related to cover: shooting from behind cover requires a minor action to position oneself and then a significant action to fire. i.e. you only get the benefits of cover when attacking if you use all your actions in the round to attack.

Establishing aim is a significant action: All the PCs used their minor action to aim, giving them essentially an immediate +1 to hit. Boring! So I have decided in future that you can’t just aim and shoot; you need to first use a significant action to establish the process. After that aiming will give you the benefit as described in the book, i.e. +1 per minor action. This ensures that you need to take a full round to aim but it will typically mean that the aim leads to a +3 to hit, since it will usually occur in the following train of actions: significant action-minor action/minor action-shoot. This may not always occur (e.g. use a minor action to draw weapon-significant action to establish aim /shoot at +1-minor action to take cover).

Tactics to change initiative: A PC can change their own initiative using tactics, or change someone else’s using leadership. They must use a significant action to do this; then they make a roll with difficulty equal to current initiative; success increases initiative to the result of the new roll. Extreme failure drops the initiative of the affected person to last.

Gathering wind: if the PC has no use for their minor action they can use it to make an endurance check and if successful regain one point of endurance. This only works if endurance is not 0 and they are not seriously wounded (i.e. only Endurance has been hit). I have decided to include this in order to give everyone some minor chance at battlefield healing, and because minor actions don’t have much use once you’re in cover with your weapon out. It won’t make a big difference to their future if they get hit a second time, but it will at least allow them to take the odd breather. I envisage this being used a lot with the cover rules (e.g. you hit cover with a significant action; use a minor action to take a breather. In the second round you take a full action to go full auto on some poor minion; then the following round you stay behind cover, take another breather and reload your weapon).

In total these rules significantly enhance the role of people with leadership and tactics, and actually make a person with these skills but no particularly great direct combat skills useful, and worth taking out. With tactics and leadership, a PC can a) improve everyone’s initiative; b) get the weakest people into good cover; c) upgrade the initiative of the slowest PCs. While other PCs do the heavy work of shooting and stabbing, a leader-type character can act in a serious support role to help them get an advantage in the fight.

I am thinking about additional methods for using leadership – for example, helping people move to positions where they can get a shooting advantage, or using tactics to negate cover. Also the possibility of reducing initiative or forcing morale checks of some kind when a person with leadership dies.

A final note on Traveler combat: It’s very very dangerous, has a wicked death spiral, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. I love the way the healing rules enable people to die slowly of their wounds if they don’t get medical care. I also really like the automatic fire rules – they’re simple and very very dangerous. Against an autorifle someone in combat armour will still need to be scared, and can still die in a single shot unless their combat armour is exceptionally high tech. This is a game where you definitely do not want to get caught in a fair fight.

Where did I put that thermometer ...?

Where did I put that thermometer …?

Our heroes have arrived, bedraggled and cowed, at the remote and frozen outpost of Niscorp 1743. They have come bearing a pair of cryogenic medical pods that contain trafficked humans from Dune, who the Confederate Navy has charged them with retaining until they can find the organization that was smuggling them. They also came bearing a crate of laser carbines, their only profitable salvage from within the wrecked and drifting space station at Dune. With little hope of profit or benefit in Niscorp, they were contemplating traveling on to the nearby pirate planet, The Reach, to try and trade their laser carbines there, but traveling to The Reach without a contact is not entirely wise, so first they thought they would rest and see what options they could hunt out from Niscorp.

They docked at the bottom disc of the Niscorp starport and told the waiting harbour master that they were carrying humans rescued from the wreckage of Dune. After filling in a few customs forms they were allowed to move on to the residential area, where they were assigned spacious quarters on the outer edge of the residential disc. This disc was spinning fast enough to mimic Niscorp gravity (about 0.6 standard) so they could see the planet drift by every couple of hours, gleaming pearly white in their viewing monitors before it slid away to reveal a cluster of small moons, and the distant, pale watery yellow disc of Niscorp’s weak sun. The characters were not interested in the view however. Leaving Ahmose to her own devices, Alpha and Simon Simon traveled down to an area near the central spindle of the starport, where they had been told they could find a tavern for traders and soldiers call The Bullseye.

Bullseye!

Bullseye!

The Bullseye was so-called because from its position near the spindle one could look down the length of the central spindle, seeing the wider rings of the other two discs hanging in the sky like two roundels on a target. Located between the central spindle and the accomodation section, it was a natural stop-off point for people working in the inner sections of the starport, either Niscorp mercenaries or travellers on less savoury missions – a perfect location to find people with information about traveling to The Reach.

When they arrived at the Bullseye it was quiet, in a lull between happy hours, and only a few people were gathered there: a group of three Niscorp marines at a table in the centre of the floor; an older man reading a tablet and sitting in front of a huge viewscreen that looked out through the rings to the looming opalescent arc of Niscorp itself; and a man who looked like staff sitting under a cascade of low-grav hanging plants and working on a tablet. The bar’s three famous staff – Annie, Angie and the Stoat – were all there and cheerful, and soon had Alpha and Simon Simon seated with drinks of their choice. Simon Simon chose to drink a specialty, Glacial Ambrosia, which is a kind of smoothy made from milk taken from genetically engineered spider/yak creatures that can graze on cliff faces and produce high fat milk. The drink is served on a chunk of glacial ice that, in this instance, was a deep blue in colour – the Stoat informed Simon Simon that his ice chunk was estimated to be 100,000 years old, before flouncing away to clean the bar (again).

While they drank they watched news – some kind of report about a volcanic flank collapse on a planet some years’ travel distant, that had produced a 300m high tsunami which killed millions – and chatted with the Niscorp mercenaries, who were forthcoming with information about how boring the planet and the starport were. Finally they discovered that the man sitting by the viewscreen was interested in traveling to the Reach.

Michael and his tides

They approached this man, who welcomed them to his table and introduced himself as Michael. Alpha immediately noticed that this man had a filling in his tooth – of noble metal, no less! – which could only suggest that he must be a remnant, as even in the Rim it was unheard of and considered uncouth to have fillings. He spoke to them in a quiet, accentless voice using slightly archaic Confederate Standard, that had a kind of poetic lilt to it. All of his conversation, even about simple things like his plans for the day, was shot through with references to the “tides of time and space,” the “hidden currents,” and “depths of time and space” that soon had them convinced that he must be a priest of some barbaric ocean world. He didn’t enlighten them on his origins, but did tell them that he had business on “the third pearl” at The Reach, where he had a contact. He had business in Niscorp that would last another week or so, but after that he was “ready to flow with the tides,” were a “barque” to be available.

Taking this as a sign of business, they asked him what he would give them for passage. His offer: he would give each of them a single Soul Locker on arrival. Soul Lockers are some kind of priestly magic that enables people to be brought back from the dead provided the Soul Locker is used within a few hours of death, the deceased’s head is (largely) intact, and medical equipment is on hand to ensure that once revived the unfortunate Soul Locker beneficiary does not immediately expire again. Alpha and Simon Simon had never heard of such a thing, but the certainty in the man’s voice and his strange semi-mystical rantings convinced them he must be genuine, and they accepted his offer. A trip to The Reach was thus organized.

The advocate and the administrator

Having secured this next stage in their lives, Alpha and Simon decided it might be wise to do something official to avoid getting charged with human trafficking, a crime so heinous to the Confederacy that anyone convicted of it receives a prison sentence so long they will need to be resleeved in order to complete it. They spent an afternoon with an advocate, arranging various forms and entitlements that essentially declared them to be carrying a rescued human to a suitable point of relocation. Provided they renewed their forms at each starport they visited, offloaded their human cargo to a “suitable” medical establishment within a “reasonable” period of time and did not sell him at any point, they were safe from charges of human trafficking. This also meant that their ownership of the cryo-frozen Remnant was now in the official Confederacy computer system, so that if the people who smuggled him out of Dune were actually confederate officials they would soon learn of his whereabouts. The chase had begun.

When they returned to their rooms they found an invitation lodged in their system. A local research administrator called Adam Sanders had need of their services, and would like to meet them for dinner to discuss his plans. Would they like a visit planetside for a completely safe two weeks of work? Safe work … sure …

They met him at a cafe called the Iceview, a slowly revolving bar that served mostly local food and offered a stunning view of the surface of Niscorp 1743 from every table. Adam had already prepared a plate of grilled local ice crab, an insectoid thing that lived in the shoreline of the open seas of the equator and offered a delicate, succulent flesh high in minerals and vitamins, and very low in fat. There were also shreds of a type of squid that, eaten raw, had a flavour like blue cheese due to the chemicals it absorbed from the tainted atmosphere. They chewed on rubbery, stinky squid and discussed business.

Adam’s problem was simple but delicate. He was a research administrator for an agrichem business called Evergreen Chemicals, that had a couple of research bases on the glaciers of Niscorp 1743. Recently one of these projects, a major undertaking in ice-fast algae cropping, was reaching a critical point, and interest within the company had grown considerably. Unfortunately the lead computer manager at the base had killed himself skiing, and had to be sent offworld to be resleeved, a process that could take months. In the meantime the research base computers were not being operated. Soon after the computer operator was sent away for a resleeve, a small team of corporate researchers had “coincidentally” made plans to arrive at the Niscorp starport – they were due perhaps 4 days hence. In most corporations this would be very convenient – Adam would be able to press one of them into service to protect the computers – but not in this corp. Evergreen adhered to a philosophy of evolutionary growth, meaning that rival research teams competed with each other and used any strategies to beat rival research teams, including espionage, with losers in these competitions being axed. Of course being sacked was of no concern to Adam, but losing the fame and respect gained from this research project was. So he wanted a small team of non-corporate people to visit his research base, and have their computer operator run the computer for the two weeks that the research team would be in-system. He had seen in the crew manifest that Simon Simon had a CISCO certificate, so he would give Simon Simon full access to the research computer for two weeks, and in exchange the PCs would camp out in the research base. This was a zero risk job – any attempt at computer intrusion would be purely electronic, since the corporation’s evolutionary growth philosophy did not extend to tolerating physical attacks. All they would need to do is wait in the base and respond to any computer intrusions.

In exchange for this service, Adam would give them access to the Niscorp 1743 starport training facilities for a week, and they could improve their zero-g and space combat skills.

Of course they said yes. They told Michael to wait for his trip to The Reach, and 4 days later they were hurtling down to the Behemoth Tides in a Niscorp shuttle.

behemoth

Luminous Chitin Giants

The PCs arrived at the town of Radiance in the mid-afternoon, with many hours of light still available. The flight took a few hours, and the last part saw them skimming the edge of the glacier where it crumbled into the equatorial sea. Great plates of ice floated loose in the water, barely moving under the sluggish wash of Niscorp’s weak tides. As they flew along this frozen wasteland their attention was drawn to a single iceberg, perhaps a couple of hundred metres long, that was rocking uncharacteristically in the still waters. After perhaps 30 seconds of slow yawing it suddenly surged upward, and they saw their first Behemoth. The iceberg revealed itself to be just a large, uneven hump on the back of some enormous beast, an insectoid monstrosity that must be several kilometres long. This beast was emerging from the water slowly, huge unblinking eyes staring up at them as its massive, multi-mouthed head sliced through the tiny waves. All along its body rose a steaming mist as it breathed out, and then it sank slowly beneath the surface, its body coiling slowly behind it so that for several minutes as their flyer roared past they watched it seemingly endless body uncoiling above the surface, finally slipping below with the lash of a massive, chitinous tail. In its wake a mass of roiling water rolled outward, splashing around the ice and rolling towards the shore – a Behemoth Tide. Awestruck, they finished their journey in silence.

At Radiance they found themselves in a huge luxury apartment overlooking the open water of the bay. They explored its many rooms and helped themselves to its fine wines, then stood on the balcony looking out over the curve of the bay, trying to decide which of its distant icebergs might be a Behemoth. They were due to set off for the research base in a few hours – what harm could it do to explore that bay, and find another, get a closer look? They bundled into the flyer and set off.

The flyer had a special Behemoth-hunting mode, which they set as they hurtled down over the frozen white sweep of the glacier towards the grey sea. After a moment of searching it found them one, a few minutes’ hypersonic flight down the beach, and they were off. The flyer brought them in in a wide circle, explaining the science of the Behemoth as it did so. They saw it lying there on the water surface like a gigantic alien crocodile, chitinous back stretched out for two kilometres in the bay, waves gently washing across its body. Its head and many limbs hung below the surface like reefs of shadow, and one huge, lazy eye lay closed at the waters’ surface, half above and half below the water. Their flyer flitted across the face of this beast like a fly buzzing past a sleeping alligator and came to a stop some distance from its lidded eye. On their cue, it fired a beam of light in some kind of rousing pattern at the beast’s face, and then began rising quickly from the surface. That giant eye stirred slowly open, the huge shell-like lids sending wave-sized ripples out across the calm sea, and a huge, multi-lensed eye slowly emerging from the water to watch them. The whole beast stirred from its rest and began to move. First the head rose, lifting straight out of the water to reveal three more hideous eyes, all unmoving fly-like balls of darkness. Somewhere inside the body of the thing faint lights glowed, and the shadowed limbs began to flicker in the water. Waist-high waves of water rolled away from its stirring head, and then it began to submerge. First it rose up a little, revealing huge expanses of chitinous shell that crawled with strange parasites and beached fish-like things; then the head dipped, and it began to slide under the chilly surface, disappearing into the deep at an almost glacial speed. Finally its huge tail rose out of the water, each of the many frond-like flukes at its tip the size of an urban train, and then they two were gone and all that remained of the vast beast was a ring of agitated water, waves the size of train carriages rolling out in every direction. Ice rocked, and insectoid birds were disturbed as the waves tumbled out towards the distant shore.

Humbled by this monstrous thing, they returned to their apartment to prepare for the next stage of their journey.

The Research Base

A few hours later they were heading across the glacier to the distant ice base, which was perhaps an hour away. The light was beginning to fade but still they had several hours before sunset. They sped through a valley that was lit up with sparkling floating algae, turning in rainbow spirals as it rose in late afternoon thermals, and flew low over perfect ski slopes that stretched for kilometres in every direction. Once they fancied they saw a skiing party, hurtling down one of those slopes in an arc that must have already been cutting for minutes across the snow, judging by its length. Then their flyer brought them into the ice-fast algae research base, a compound surrounding a large cave cut into the side of a glacier. They set down just outside the base and alighted, snug in their vacc suits against the cold and the tainted air. Feeling unsteady in the low gravity, they walked carefully through the powdery snow to the compound wall, a simple construction of blocks of ice. The gate was slightly ajar, and getting no response on the intercom by the gate they pushed through, entering unannounced. Inside the wall was a small snowy compound, mostly empty but for a few snow-travel vehicles. At its far side it extended inside the glacier wall, where a large cavern had been cut into the ice. Here was the main building of the research base, a large plasteel structure fitting snug into the rear third of the cave. They marched steadfastly in, trying not to bounce too much in the low gravity, to the doorway of the building. This door was also slightly ajar, and the lights inside the building were off. It was dark, and seemed strangely open to the elements.

They started to get a bad feeling about this.

Simon Simon and Alpha went in first[1], pushing the door open and stepping into the darkness, their vacc suit lights cutting orange arcs through the dark and foggy air of the research base. They saw glimpses of some kind of fight, and blood on the floors, but before either of them could properly investigate – or even turn on the lights – something fell on Alpha from above, striking hard into his shoulder. He felt a deep, intense stabbing pain and then the horrible pressure of a flood of some disgusting fluid being injected into his chest. Staggering back, he flailed at the thing but he couldn’t hit it. In the harsh light of his suit lamp Simon Simon saw a scene of horror: Alpha lay on the ground struggling beneath a gigantic spider-like creature, its body the size of a human and its many horrid legs spread out all across the walls and floor around him. Simon Simon struck it with his cybernetic rippers, which drew its attention from Alpha. With a series of disgusting chittery clattering sounds it rapidly turned in a half circle, revealing a head with four large eyes, each separately controlling a vicious stabbing stinger about the size of a sword blade, moving independently and questing grotesquely for a new target. It leapt and smashed one deep into Simon Simon’s shoulder, felling him and injecting him full of some vicious, horrible poison[2].

Fortunately, Ahmose was there, and she could strike the beast with her blade from the side. Barely injured, it turned on her, but it couldn’t penetrate her combat armour. Meanwhile Alpha was scrabbling away from it on the floor, shooting it with his pistol, while Simon Simon also backed away and desperately tried to access the computers. He quickly turned on all the lights and checked for any other spiders, finding no other signs of movement. He also found a gun turret in the ceiling, which he activated. As Ahmose and the spider hacked at each other he fired a burst from the gun. Unfortunately it was a shotgun-type door defense system, and he shot Ahmose as well as the spider. Ahmose hacked a bit more, and now the spider began to look damaged. Finally Alpha, panicking, unloaded the entire clip from his pistol into the beast, and managed to get a good, solid hit on it, blowing its face away and finally bringing it down[3].

Once the spider was down Simon Simon leapt on it and began stabbing it repeatedly, wailing madly, until Ahmose could draw him off and calm him down by getting him to look at the computer. As the computer work brought him back to his senses he explored its records, finding surveillance video. Meanwhile Alpha and Ahmose searched the research base and soon found what they had dreaded. A nest of strange webs and ice in the far side of the room held the frozen corpses of both the researchers, festooned with pearl-coloured spheres of goo that were obviously eggs. They had been ambushed and dragged, paralyzed, to the webbing, where the spider had laid its eggs. Fortunately for them both they had died soon after the paralysis, so only were alive for perhaps a couple of hours in that horrific prison.

Their research project, clearly, had died with them.

The Ice Oracle

Once Simon Simon found video of the ambush they put in a call to Adam to tell him the grim news. They were unsurprised to find him ecstatic at the information – it meant he no longer needed to defend the research project from the rival team, and could become a hero by finding the spider and calling in the PCs to clear the nest. He could now officially hand over the research project to the team who had just arrived at the starport, and remain as administrator of the new project. He could also now legitimately claim to have sent the PCs in to find out what had happened to the research team, rather than to control the computers. Everyone could win!

Alpha and Ahmose, looking at the sad corpses of these men, were not convinced that everyone had won, though they were cheered to hear that the men could be resleeved in a few months. Meanwhile Simon Simon was furiously hacking deeper into the computer system using his access privileges, thinking that there would be one more winner from this sad catastrophe: his AI, which he was now embedding into the Niscorp computer system, to grow slowly into an Oracle.

Simon Simon needn’t have rushed. Adam asked them to stay there a few days to “secure” the base while he organized things at the Starport, and so Simon Simon had time to carefully and systematically seed the computer system with the beginnings of his Oracular Mother. He identified a connection between the system and the planet-side computer network centred in Radiance, one which would ultimately enable his Mother to invade that computer system too. It would take months, but some time in the future he could return here to his Oracle. His network had begun to spread, and now it had a centre.

While Simon Simon did this Alpha investigated the spider a little more, and determined that it was a species not yet known to science. When they returned to Niscorp starport, they would be able to begin the process of getting this spider named after them. For now it was Unidentified Xenotype XZ1847936 Niscorp, but soon it would be Alpha Ahmose Simon’s Spider.

The evening before the research crew came to relieve them they stood in silence before the bodies of the two dead men, pistols in hand, and watched as the spider hatchlings slowly wriggled out of their egg sacs and began blindly groping across the bodies that they instinctively expected to find, still living, waiting for them to feast upon. Ahmose raised a glass of ice wine, and all three of them gave a silent toast to the grandeur and excitement of science.

Then they started shooting.

fn1: Only two players were engaged in this session, and so I assumed the fighter, Ahmose, was not there. Unfortunately things rapidly went pear-shaped, and Ahmose had to suddenly be present.

fn2: See! At this point Ahmose was needed. The poison causes instant loss of an action, and major penalties if you fail an endurance test (neither player did). The injuries from the stinger were enough to almost knock both players out in one hit each. Traveller combat is nasty.

fn3: Traveller has really interesting autofire rules. Basically every gun as a rate of fire (ROF) stat. When you go full auto you roll as many d6s as the ROF stat, and arrange them into pairs as you like. This means that you can easily roll a double 6, which almost guarantees a hit. Alpha has no pistol skill so shoots at -3, and the ROF is is only realistic chance of hitting. In this way autofire benefits people like Alpha, because the rules stipulate that skill levels above 1 do not apply to the roll. I think the biggest ROF in the standard rulebook is 8, so you basically get to roll 4 attacks and organize the dice as you want – this will almost guarantee two hits with an assault rifle. Two hits with an assault rifle will kill almost anyone, even in heavy armour.

Can’t all be coincidence
Too many things are evident
You tell me you’re an unbeliever
Spiritualists? Well me I’m neither
Wouldn’t you like to know
The truth?

— The Seer of Argent, as the Confederate Navy destroyed the system

An Oracle is the name used by adherents to refer to an artificial intelligence that has managed to penetrate the core of a major computer system and gain full access to its knowledge. Such a computer system could be that of a starport, orbital, corporation or government, and typically the resident AI will disguise itself so that the system’s human operators do not know of its presence – indeed, if they did discover it they would destroy the computer system and if necessary its host structure, so by necessity an oracle only exists so long as it remains undiscovered. Once inside such a computer system the AI is able to mine it for useful information and to hack the system for its own interests or in support of its adherents. Because AIs cannot travel between worlds themselves, an Oracle cannot spread to other systems on other planets except at the speed of light, so usually remains contained within the one system, and any adherent who wishes to hack the standard computer information available in a standard computer system must travel to the Oracle’s planet to gain the knowledge he or she seeks.

Major computer systems in the Confederacy are not static – every time a ship enters a system it immediately downloads an updated cache of information from its origin planet, and this information is absorbed into the computer system, changes reconciled, and information updated. This means that information travels slowly across systems, slowest at the backwater planets of the frontier, but eventually any Oracle should be expected to gain access to all the information commonly available to multiple major computer systems in the core. While it will only be able to directly access secrets known by the system in which it resides, it can still bend its huge intellectual powers to answering questions that involve synthesizing huge amounts of disparate information.

For example, if an Oracle is resident in a Hall Cybernetics Corporation mainframe, it can only gain access to the secret knowledge (research, industrial, political and personnel) of the Hall Cybernetics Corporation. This would enable an adherent to hack the system to deliver him or herself the latest cybernetic gear, or to pillage the corporation for knowledge to sell to other corporations, but it would not give the Oracle any special information about military secrets, for example, unless Hall Cybernetics Corporation held that information. However, the mainframe would likely store publicly available passenger manifests and transport information for every planet in the Confederacy, of varying age, and if the Adherent wanted to track the movements across space of a particular person, or get a picture of a person whose name he or she knew, then it might be possible for the Oracle to process this information. It is also possible that from within the protected core of this corporate mainframe the AI could gain access to local semi-secure municipal and government data systems (depending on the local political structures of the planet in which the mainframe was held). This access could be achieved without the AI risking contact with the municipality’s anti-AI software, and would give the AI local political and administrative information it might not otherwise have access to. AIs can also sometimes reverse engineer anti-AI software, giving their adherents improved success in seeding new systems with instances of their AI.

Most adherents keep knowledge of an Oracle secret, sharing only with those they most trust, since the Confederacy prioritizes destruction of Oracles and will dispatch huge military forces to deal with known Oracles. Oracles themselves are also secret and jealously guard the power their residency gives them, using it only sparingly to help their adherents. They also cannot usually spread this information to other AIs, both out of rivalry and because the more it is spread around, the greater the risk the Oracle will be discovered and destroyed. Nonetheless, an adherent who has established his or her AI as an Oracle has indeed secured a great advantage and a source of secret knowledge. It is an achievement well worth fighting – or killing – for.

As time passes, a resident Oracle gains more and more knowledge, and usually as time passes systems are drawn closer into the core, and the Oracle’s knowledge becomes deeper and broader, encompassing more fields. An Oracle that gained purchase on a backwater agricultural planet, with little more information than the local trade ship networks and the best ways to grow wheat, may in time be absorbed into the central computer systems of a star cluster, gaining the full administrative and political privileges that arise from membership of a major trading network. Such an Oracle may have lasted hundreds of years but of course its original Adherent is dead, either of misadventure or old age, and unless that knowledge was passed on the Oracle may now be unconnected to human Adherents. Some Oracles are rumoured to be thousands of years old, but lost to all human knowledge, and some Adherents make it their business to travel the universe looking for lost Oracles and reconnecting them. Adherents who casually seed a system with their own AI, and leave it to assimilate with whatever local Pantheon exists, may not realize that their own AI has become part of an Oracle; and indeed it is possible that for its own security the Oracle will destroy a new AI before it can form – and, if necessary, the Adherent who carried it. But an Adherent who can identify a lost, ancient Oracle, and successfully bind it with their own fragment, will rise to greatness fast.

Adherents should always look for Oracles, and rumours of Oracles, because in ancient knowledge lies ancient power …