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.
“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…
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.