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.

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