These are known as darkling days
rhyming schemes gone askew,
crackling gifts of light and air,
ours to share
-Lament of the Unredeemed
Sometimes unexpected things happen in unpleasant places. The PCs have stumbled on a death cult that seems to be wandering across the galaxy digging through old tombs in search of something called “the ansible.” They were paid by a remnant holy man called Michael to kill a priest of this death cult, and having done so find themselves under the protection of the rulers of Pearl 7, in the pirate system known as the Reach. Killing this priest had been traumatic for them, since he was accompanied by a couple of demons and seemed to be able to conjure more when he needed them; our heroes are not used to the idea that demons could be real entities, or that someone would conjure them, or that when they drift into striking range the air turns cold and the victim hears faint echoes of dying children and tortured animals.
They also weren’t expecting to discover the death priest’s purpose, documented on grainy old videos of the death priest raising the souls of long-dead heroes and torturing them to force them to tell him the location of the ansible. Though at first they didn’t believe what they were seeing, their puzzlement soon turned to horror as they realized the extent of this death priest’s reach, and perhaps also his ambition.
They agreed to Michael’s request to help him hunt down the death cult. His plan was to return to his planet and trace the priest’s travels backwards from there, but before they left with him the characters decided to clear a few things up. First, Alpha the psionicist had a background in archaeology, and had realized that they might be able to find out more about the mysterious ansible and the links between the long-dead heroes the death priest had sought out. To do this he needed to set up an archaeological dig in the tombspine, which would mean seeking the support of the tombspine management committee – yes, even pirates have committees. To this end he would need to prepare an application, because even pirates have forms, and bureaucrats.
Second, the PCs realized that the death priest must have a base of operations on Pearl 2 – where he was under the protection of the local authorities – and might have some materials there that could give them more information about where he was from and why he sought the ansible. Since no one yet knew he was dead, and probably believed he was still working quietly on his vile task in the tombspine, they guessed that they could raid his lodgings relatively easily if they moved quickly. While they waited for the first stage of Alpha’s research application to be processed, they set off for Pearl 2, to find the death priest’s lair and storm it.
In the slavers’ lair
Although all the Pearls maintain slaves, Pearl 2 is the heaviest user of slavery and the largest trader in slaves. The Pearl trades, breeds and trains human slaves, bringing in captives from around the sector and breeding carefully-selected slave stock to trade with other Pearls, and to use in its heavy industry. Pearl 2 is packed full of heavy industries, and slaves are used extensively in all the worst jobs in these industries. Pearl 2 also maintains an extensive and rigidly policed caste system, with many tiers of free workers who are treated little better than slaves, though clearly above them. Densely populated, polluted and constantly riven by low-level social conflict, Pearl 2 is a model of all the problems the Spiral Confederacy aims to eliminate from human society.
The PCs entered this sprawling den of iniquity with a strong sense of foreboding and trepidation. Even the approach to the Pearl is forbidding, with the entire structure swathed in clouds of toxic dust. The Pearl is not a spherical habitat, but a series of obloid structures of differing sizes, interconnected by huge spars that carry traffic and goods between the separate sections. The upper half of the major sections stands clear of the miasma surrounding the Pearl, and the higher one lives in the habitat the wealthier one is. Slaves live, toil and die in the bottom-most sections of the Pearl, never seeing the light of the weak red dwarf that powers the Reach. Like the other Pearls, Pearl 2 has no field technology outside its superstructure, and as a result its surface is discoloured and pitted from the constant contact with the miasma.
The PCs disembarked at a small service dock in the mid-level of the main section. No one greeted them, and the machine for registering their weapons was broken so they simply walked into the Pearl itself bearing all their weapons unremarked. Pearl 7 had organized accommodation for them in the area called Silicon Valley, which was near the dock, so they proceeded there immediately. Silicon Valley is a light industrial area devoted to reclaiming silicon from imported sands, and consisted of a kind of canyon of buildings stretching perhaps a couple of kms along one edge of the habitat. At its base were the reclamation facilities, shrouded in silicon dust; higher up the valley were light industries and chip makers, and near the top the shops and traders and residencies of the better-paid workers. The PCs took small rooms in an area relatively free of silicon dust, and set about finding the death priest.
They started by visiting a local public web access facility, from which Simon Simon tried a little low-level hacking. He could not find the death priest’s address directly, but he was able to identify the dock from which the priest’s ship had set out for the Gardens. There was a dockmaster with a full manifest of addresses which Simon Simon could not access, but he was able to make a fake identity for himself as a representative of a shell company that dealt directly with the Confederacy for illegal technology, the kind of company that one did not ask too many questions about. He sent an email to the dockmaster from this shell company, informing him of the PCs’ imminent visit.
Their visit was a success; after a 40 minute wait and with a small amount of payment to the dock master they were able to obtain the death priest’s address. Unsurprisingly for a pirate haven, no one was particularly cautious about information privacy – at least, not other people’s. It was relatively easy to establish that he lived in a particular location in an area of a subsidiary habitat, called The Bones.
As they left, the dock master’s agent warned them they might not want to visit the Bones.
Among The Bones
Deciding it might be wise to listen to the dock master, they returned to the web access shop so that Simon Simon could investigate the Bones. They soon found out why they had been warned against the Bones: this area was where old, sick, surplus or dead slaves were sent for “reprocessing”. It was essentially a giant human abattoir. The only people who lived in the Bones were the few free workers in the processing plants, and criminals and radicals on the run from the law, bounty hunters, or enemies in the main parts of the Pearl. Gangs that had been cast out of the rest of the Pearl would flee here, living alongside dissidents and hermits and homeless people with nowhere better to hide. It was a dangerous place.
While he was searching, Simon Simon stumbled on a layer of Pearl 2’s web that he had not expected. The information network here was heavily stratified, with different layers available to different classes of people and careful restriction of who could put information onto any of them. Simon Simon was alternating between a common information layer used by the local municipal authorities and a general knowledge and news layer – as close as the Pearl had to a real internet – to gain information on the Bones. But in switching layers he discovered a common information exchange protocol between the security forces and the municipal layer. He could not hack the security forces’ secure network, but he could hack messages coming out of it to the municipal services. These would be messages requesting rerouting of traffic for an ambulance, or the closure of an electricity supply during a raid. Simon Simon noticed that the municipal authorities had been asked not to meddle with the area around the death priest’s lair by none other than the Pearl 2 leadership’s personal security force; and that this same force had been raiding the safe houses of two particular cults, and making requests for municipal support during these raids. These requests had begun a couple of weeks ago, at about the same time as the request for the priest’s lair to be freed of interference. One of the cults was of no concern to Simon Simon, some kind of cult with an ancient messiah who had been killed by his own father, and whose flesh promised eternal life when eaten; but the other was a mysterious cult called the Unredeemed, with a heritage at least a thousand years old, that claimed to be a cult of Adherents with no AI. Simon Simon was intrigued by this cult of Adherents without an AI, and also wondered why a cult that had been left unmolested for a thousand years would suddenly start being attacked just as the death priest arrived. Coincidence – or was there a link?
Once Simon had determined a safe and quick route to the death priest’s lair, they bought a cheap wheeled (!) van and set off. Driving from the spar into the Bones proper they noticed that the section was deserted, with few people on the streets and very little activity except large, ominous factories. Interspersed amongst the factories were grimy accommodation for the area’s few free workers, and occasional workshops. Abandoned factories and crumbling ruins scattered the level they drove through, rusting gates and tumbling walls a testament to the Bones’ ancient, thankless task.
The death priest’s lair appeared to be one such abandoned factory, set back from a narrow road, surrounded by shuttered warehouses, and seemingly completely unguarded. The ground floor was a large warehouse with closed roller doors, and above that were three levels of tiered office space. On one side of the building was a scattering of containers, but they were stacked against the wall of the building and could not be accessed. The whole building was dark and silent, and gave off an air of menacing isolation.
They entered the ground floor through a small side door, which Simon Simon opened with the help of his AI. Stepping through a narrow entry way, they opened the inner door, and Ahmose ducked inside to crouch behind a crate of some kind that was just inside the door. This was the main warehouse space, but it was shrouded in deep darkness, so Lam flicked on the lights near the entrance. Moments later, as the warehouse was flooded with cold halogen light, Ahmose found herself staring into the blank eye sockets of a human skull. The “crate” she had hidden behind was actually a bale of bones, stacked tightly together and bound up with packing wire and plastic, a line of skulls staring out at Ahmose’s crouching eye level. The rest of the warehouse was scattered with similar bales of bones, and in one corner lay a huge pile of human bones, attended by a small tracked excavator. There was nothing else in the room.
They searched it carefully, but aside from an empty gantry with some control equipment on it, there was nothing in the room. A freight lift at the rear of the warehouse led up to the next level, and with only empty skulls at their backs, they were in no mood to delay. They took the lift to the next level.
The doors opened into a pitch black hallway. Ahmose, Simon Simon and Alpha could see down this hallway dimly with their nightvision, so they knew someone was moving at the far end, but they could see little more than that. Lam, blind without combat armour or genetic enhancements, flicked on the lights just as she had downstairs. The hallway lit up, revealing a strange and horrible tableau in the moments before the lift doors closed again. The hallway stretched the length of the building, to a stairwell at its far end. On the left hand wall a single large window stretched the length of the hall, enabling the PCs to look into a large, empty medical room. Bodies were strapped to gurneys inside that room. The other side of the hall had three doorways; two were closed, with narrow glass windows next to them opening into empty rooms. The third doorway was open, and from it had emerged two corpses. These corpses were staggering down the hallway towards the lift doors, arms outstretched, in a kind of shambling lurch. One wore a pair of coveralls and was covered in hideous radiation burns; the other appeared to have been operated on, and wore only a surgical gown with blotches of dried blood all over it. Both stared sightlessly down the hall as they stumbled forward, growling hideously.
Lam and Alpha reflexively opened fire, Alpha with his auto-rifle on full automatic, spattering chunks of radioactive zombie all over the infirmary window; then the lift doors closed. Simon Simon hit the button to jam them open, and moments later they slid open to reveal those same two zombies, closer now, and two more emerging behind them. With a yell Ahmose leapt forward, blade in hand, ordering the others to shoot down the zombies at the end of the hall while she held off those that came too close. Her tactic worked, and after a frenzied few minutes’ work they had cleared the hallway, killing 16 of the shambling dead with no injury. They stood in the hallway, panting and staring at each other in shock.
First they had met demons, and now the walking dead. What next?
They searched the infirmary, noting that all the dead bodies on gurneys had had organs carefully removed, and that the organs were nowhere in the infirmary’s freezers. A grim foreboding grew as to what they could expect to find next …
They took the stairs to the next level, finding a hallway with the same structure as the hall below: a single door on one side, and three doors on the other. Inside these three doors they found two offices and a kitchen. The first office seemed to be a simple secretaries’ room, with signs it had been suddenly vacated but no evidence of a struggle. The second, a kitchen with rotting food inside its primitive refrigerator, also spoke of the building having been suddenly vacated. The third was another office, perhaps for a more senior staff member, which had a locked drawer. They set about smashing the drawer.
Although Simon Simon stood on guard outside the door as they set about the drawer, he did not see their assailants until the grenade was inside the room and the door shut. A moment later he heard the muffled thump! of the explosion, and felt a blade penetrating his ribs. Thankfully spared the worst of the damage by his combat armour, he turned to see his assailant. Before him stood a small, wiry man, wearing some kind of leather armour but surrounded by a strange miasma of shadow. What little Simon Simon could see of his face through the shadows wreathed about it suggested an aging man with his skin shrivelled tight against the bones of his skull, like ancient paper. He carried a semi-transclucent sword in one hand, which glowed and shimmered in that flickering miasma of shadow, and sizzled where Simon Simon’s blood ran along it. Beyond this man, near the door, a second, similar figure stood, shimmering sword in one hand and a scroll unrolling in the other. A moment later that figure disappeared.
A chill ran up Simon Simon’s spine and he collapsed, paralyzed, to the ground. Moments later the PCs ripped the door open and opened fire on the assassin. Bullets and laser beams could penetrate the miasma of shadow around him, but they seemed to slow or dissipate when they hit it, so that he did not seem to feel their full force. They had him pinned down but Simon Simon could not tell them about the second assassin, who stabbed Ahmose with the same devastating effect moments later. Alpha managed to subdue the first assailant, but not before the second assassin had beaten Lam into unconsciousness. The assassin was about to finish Alpha when Ahmose’s paralysis faded, and she was able to push herself out of the door, firing her Gauss pistol on full auto as she did. Thankfully this shot cut down the second assassin.
Once again they survived a battle by the skin of Ahmose’s combat armour. One assassin was still alive, so they bound him and gagged him. Ahmose insisted on gagging him in case he could “do magic,” at which the other PCs shrugged in disgust, but now they were beginning to suspect that Ahmose’s constant warnings about necromancy and ancient lore might have more truth to them than old wives’ tales should.
Alpha administered first aid, and once they had recovered and rested a little they finished searching the room where they had been breaking into the drawer before the grenade had surprised them. Inside the drawer was a disc of pornography, and a note saying “When the boss is away: 681983.” They took it.
Injured and with a nagging, primal fear creeping up on them, they opened the last door to a scene of horror.
The door opened into what had once been the office meeting room, a large room with a few tables and chairs, and a large set of glass doors opening to a balcony with a view over the rest of the section. Through the grimy windows they could see the industrial skyline, smoke belching from sinister chimneys, the squat hulks of the reclamation factories and their evil exhaust smeared against the off-white walls of the dome of the habitat. The view was obscured, however, by a naked body hanging upside down from the ceiling of the meeting room, its flayed skin in a neat pile on the floor next to it and the whole rotting thing hanging over a large ceremonial bucket.
“Oh, that’s where they put the organs,” Ahmose said matter-of-factly as Alpha retched behind her; arrayed around the ceremonial bucket were a series of open jars containing the various organs harvested from downstairs. In front of the bowl was a knee cushion, exactly the same kind as they had found with the death priest in the tombspine, and a silver sword that glowed with its own light. All the furniture in the room had been shifted outside onto the balcony, and the floor carefully painted with a symbol of some kind using what looked like many layers of dried blood.
They had found the death priest’s lair. Ahmose warned them not to step inside the symbol and Alpha, not believing her, fired a bullet at the rope holding the body; the bullet stopped at the symbol’s edge with a loud bang, and sank to the ground with a clatter. Careful not to touch the pattern on the floor, they cut down the body and, once it had hit the ground, Ahmose carefully scrubbed away a part of the symbol. Something in the tense atmosphere of the room relaxed, and suddenly a wave of stench rolled over them as the barrier dissipated. They grabbed the silver sword, wrapping it in a towel and stuffing it in a sack, and retreated to the hallway. With nowhere else to put him, they bound the assassin to a table in the kitchen and set off up the last flight of stairs to the top floor of the building.
By now Alpha and Simon Simon were beginning to unravel. Good citizens of the Core of the Confederacy, they had been raised on science and logic, and they could not understand anything they were seeing. Nothing that had happened to them since they entered the Reach made any sense, and nothing they had been taught prepared them for it. That creeping horror of the unknown, with which Ahmose and Lam were still vaguely familiar, had begun to sink through the barriers of their education, and now they were beginning to panic. They were on the verge of cutting and running, and twitching to get this job done as quickly and dirtily as possible. Cautious only out of terror, they jumped at shadows and twitched to shoot anything that moved.
At the top of the stairs was a door, closed and painted with the same symbol from the room below. Ahmose dragged it open, revealing a small office antechamber to a larger room. Alpha sent his surveillance drone into the room, using infrared and motion sensors only, and finding nothing threatening. The drone drifted through the door of the office into the larger room beyond, and twitched right immediately as its motion sensors triggered. Something was hovering in the air in the room, moving rapidly towards the drone. It was a blob of frozen air, much colder than the rest of the room and floating at about the height of a human head. Moments later it passed through the drone and into the antechamber, heading towards the PCs, who were ready …
… But not for a ghost. The thing that entered the room had a glowing skull floating atop a disembodied, ghost-like body, all shrouded in tattered robes. It drifted straight at them, ignoring the laser blast from Simon Simon’s gun and then straight past Ahmose, clawing at her as it passed. Then it fled down the stairs, a frozen, stinking wind blowing briefly in its wake. Ahmose sank against the wall, reduced to imbecility by one touch from its clammy, icy touch. Simon Simon and Alpha, too scared to follow without the group, dragged Ahmose into the room and leaned against the wall, gasping for breath. Lam stepped into the inner room, but now Lam was beginning to feel their mood, and had lost her temper. She saw the death priests notes and religious items on a table at the far side of the room, strode over, and hurled them all into a sack. Then, turning back, she started storming around the room, kicking things. Simon Simon came in to calm her, but she pushed past him into the antechamber, staring around with wild eyes and ranting.
“First a pile of bones and them I’m attacked by a radioactive space zombie and then there are space ninjas and then a fucking ghost! I am so sick of this!” She stared around at Ahmose and Alpha, leaning wretched against the wall, and then her gaze alighted on the kitten. “SPACE ZOMBIES!” She yelled, and tore down the kitten post with a single sweep of her right hand. Then, shaking the sack at the others, she yelled, “I’ve got the loot, let’s get out of here and back to civilization before we see any more of this hoodoo guru’s madness!” And with that, she marched off to the stairs.
Alpha followed, trying to calm her down but mostly sympathizing with her, but not before he noticed the safe hidden behind the ripped poster. On a whim he dragged out the note from downstairs, and punched the code into the safe. It slid open, revealing a line of test tubes containing what looked suspiciously like human embryos … hastily grabbing them and stuffing them in a container of dry ice from inside the safe, he dashed downstairs after Lam.
Meanwhile, in the inner room, Simon Simon cast about desperately for signs of anything else that needed to be taken. He didn’t want to be left here alone but he also didn’t want to waste the trip, and he was sure that Lam’s search had been just perfunctory. Sure enough, in the corner he saw a primitive leather backpack and a staff. The backpack appeared to contain travel documents, and had a tag from a spaceline on it, and probably carried the information they were actually after. Grunting, and not thinking very clearly about what can happen when you touch a death priest’s staff, Simon Simon gathered them up and hustled after the others. He grabbed Ahmose on the way, leading the suddenly imbecilic woman down the stairs and into the hallway below, to be confronted by Lam and Alpha at the end of the hall, jabbering. They had found the corpse of the assassin, drained by the ghost, which was now lost somewhere in the Pearl.
None of them thought about the possibility that they were carrying the only three weapons in the entire Pearl that could kill that ghost.
They hurried out and piled back into the van, Lam driving erratically. On their way back, Simon Simon convinced them to let him visit the safe house of the Unredeemed, which was nearby. They agreed, but told him there would be no more adventures. They parked outside and he approached the building, an old worker’s residence in a street of abandoned worker’s residences. Someone threatened him with a gun, but he mollified them by telling them his AI’s call sign in a technical code that only other Adherents would understand. They agreed to give him an hour of his time, and while the rest of the party waited outside, he stepped inside … into the lair of the Cult of the Unredeemed…