Space Opera


So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
– The parable of the old man and the young, Wilfred Owen

Last weekend I watched Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the highly-rated sequel to an excellent original movie. I went with high expectations because I read some good reviews and because the first movie was so great, but I was let down by this one. It was still fun, but it suffered from some deep and fundamental flaws, including that most basic flaw that spoils so many American movies: Daddy Issues. I’m so over putting up with the blatant, sentimental moralizing of modern American movies, and this one really really laid it on thick. So here is my brief review of the many problems of this movie, followed by an analysis of one possible interpretation of the bad guy’s evil plot, and how it can be read. This review has spoilers.

The daddy issues are laid on pretty thick from the start of this movie. The fundamental plot entangles the same characters from the original story in a madman’s attempt to turn all the planets in the galaxy into a model of his home planet, probably eradicating all life on those planets in the process (this isn’t clear). Of course Quinn, the idiot dude from the first movie, is central to this plot because the bad guy is his dad, and we have the classic American trope of discovering that your dad is not the great guy you believed he was when you were five, but is actually just a dickhead with an oversized ego who will never ever listen to you because you’re his son and therefore nothing you say is important. If you go by American movies, this completely ordinary run-of-the-mill discovery is a deeply traumatic experience for American men, who then (I guess because, pace that classic Monty Python sketch, Americans just won’t shut up) have to go and make multiple movies about it. Perhaps if they didn’t fridge their mothers in every single action movie, they would have a countervailing voice to explain that there’s nothing unusual about finding out your dad is just a paunchy dude who has no power and has some sketchy views about black people.

So then the group of heroes have to spend an inordinately long period of time trying to kill Quinn’s dad, which is cute because this movie combines daddy issues with patricide, which is actually a really pretty seedy basic structure for a movie: Dad had a bad idea, so instead of reasoning him out of it and coming to a better plan, you murder him. Although his bad idea involved serial infanticide, so make no bones about it (there are a lot of bones), he really did deserve to die. Credit where it is due, this movie strips back all the bullshit about daddy issues and gets back to basics: You gotta kill papa before he kills you.

Outside of the toxic daddy issues the movie is fun, packed with the same slapstick and chaotic banter as the first movie. The opening 10 minutes is a joyous rampage, worth paying for even if the rest of the movie lets you down, and some of the characters really live up to the high expectations they set in the first movie – especially Rocket, Draxx and Yondoo (as in the first movie Quinn is just a boring jock). The movie also introduces a girl called Mantis, who is well placed right in the uncanny valley, as well as being gloriously stupid and honest and sweet, so she’s a great new cast member. Unfortunately these great characters are merely support to the two boring white dudes fighting their existential battle. The key bad guy – Quinn’s dad – has a plot to destroy the galaxy which has depended on him womanizing his way around it, then consuming all the by-blows of his unions with many different aliens in a desperate attempt to destroy the galaxy. Quinn’s dad is a kind of a god so killing him is tough, and the second half of the movie involves an inordinate amount of flying and fighting and dodging and trying to blow him up. This is unfortunate because both Quinn’s dad himself and all attempts to kill him are just boring. This means that every time the main bad guy is on screen you just want him to go away, he’s so boring, and you just don’t have anything invested in the team’s efforts to beat him. He’s just some philandering idiot with a big ego and you can’t bring yourself to care. This bad guy is no Magua, no Imortan Joe. It’s like if Homer and Bart Simpson were in a fight to the death over who gets to destroy the galaxy. You want to care – your life depends on it – but really? Really? Is this how it ends?!

Which brings me to Trump, and Imperialism. It strikes me as not much of a coincidence that this particular variant of daddy issues – a daddy who is so stupid and dangerous you have to kill him to save the galaxy – comes up now, when America is ruled by the ultimate useless dad. Over the past year of being subjected to daddy issues movies and seeing the way that Americans respond to their presidential candidates, I have started to think that the US president is a kind of embodiment of the same cultural daddy issues that Americans are so obviously desperately expressing through their bloated action movies. I don’t know what is going on in US culture but the entire nation is obviously on a desperate quest to find a decent daddy, and the President is the ultimate embodiment of that. This time around they got a gaslighting, domestic abusing dickhead for a daddy, or as one Facebook meme had it, “It’s like our cool dad left and mum has taken up with a jock driving a trans am” or something similar. This president beats his (metaphorical) kids and is letting the house go to ruin, and the kids are having a huge argument about whether to leave or kick him out or kill him and bury the body under the floorboards, while the neighbours look on in horror. And so it is that this movie comes out that is about a dude who finds out his dad is a murderous arsehole whose plans involve sacrificing his own son to take over the world. Right! No coincidence at all.

Furthermore we learn that this daddy – just like Trump – is a womanizing fool, who has been running around the galaxy impregnating as many women as possible, then luring the offspring back to his home and destroying them in an attempt to take over the world. This is such a transparent play on male sexual insecurities that it’s hard to believe it’s not deliberate, but then Quinn is such a silly useless character that it’s possible to believe that the writers really didn’t get where they were taking this. On another level it could be that this is actually some kind of deep, devious critique of imperialism, because a classic feminist critique of modern imperialist politics is that it consumes the flower of its own male youth to ensure that the older men get to rule over a wasteland. Under this critique the young men are also victims of Imperialism, though some lucky few of them from specific classes get to rise up and rule the roost later, if they can survive the slaughter. The first half of this critique was expressed often by the world war 1 war poets, who saw the destructive half of this sexist order up close in the trenches of the Somme and Ypres. In this movie our hero completely rejects the imperialist order, killing his cruel and destructive dad and destroying the means of domination then disappearing into the horizon with a rat[1] and a foreign woman. Revolution, man! Did the writers intend this as a super-subtle critique of Trump and the general republican politics of wars of choice and infanticidal consumption of their own children that has come to dominate US politics since world war 2? Or did their own overwrought daddy issues lead them to this allegory by accident, as a side effect of their desperate attempts to slay their own useless dad in a movie?

That was a rhetorical question: I don’t care. I just wish these people would get their daddy issues out of otherwise perfectly good movies, and find a better way to humourously critique the current order. Avatar provided a critical analysis of colonialism without daddy issues; Mad Max 3 managed to offer up a perfect piece of savage ecofeminism without any daddy issues. Why do we need to resort to such cheap and boring plot devices as “ooh daddy hates me” or “oooh daddy disappointed me” (or both) in American action movies. Please, please stop it. This could have been a great movie, but it was let down by a boring bad guy in a boring, hackneyed emotional dynamic with a callow main character. It’s still worth watching, but only so you can watch the supporting cast shine. That’s poor movie making, and it’s an insult to me the viewer that I once again have to sit through the same emotional baggage every time I watch an American action movie. It’s not even original emotional baggage.

American movie makers need to grow up. But despite that, go and see this movie for the first half. You won’t miss much if you walk out once Quinn meets his dad, but it’s probably worth sticking out to the end. Unless you get even madder than me at being forced to swallow this horrible medicine just to make the sugar go down, in which case I recommend rewatching the first one.


fn1: Sorry, not a rat. A trash bear.

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Kong does a runner

Kong does a runner

Our heroes know their path now, and the first step along it is to capture Kong(s) the Younger, give him a thorough beating for failing to pay them for their first mission, and find out who he was working for. Having broken through the space defenses around his asteroid base, the PCs now wait outside the entry to his asteroid base, armed and ready to enter, their backup teams now unloaded from the spaceships and ready to go. Red Cloud had asked to join them for this attack, and since he had finally received a little training in vacc suit, and seemed more stable after months of experience on the ship, they agreed[1].

Before they entered the base Simon Simon accessed the nearby cameras, and began searching through them to find visual confirmation of the far side of the doors. He was still searching through images and trying to piece them together when a squad of soldiers came flying over the ridge of rock they crouched behind, firing down at them. They returned fire, but not before one of their soldiers was killed by the squad. Worried more might come, Simon Simon hastened his search and gave them a quick overview of what lay beyond the doors. There were three doors inset into the ridge, all opening into large service lifts which descended to the centre of the asteroid. The lifts opened into corridors that all converged on a central crossroads. The three lifts were in a row, and the outer lifts in the row each had a room next to them that could be a guard room, but only one of the two guard rooms had guards in it. Alva confirmed this by extending his life sense to encompass much of the subterranean base. Alva sent his drone down the lift they were closest to, and as soon as the door opened it was blown apart in a hail of bullets. Watching this over video link, Simon Simon confirmed that there was a machine gun nest set up at the crossroads of the three converging tunnels, capable of firing into any lift.

They moved to the lift that was not close to an occupied guard room, and Simon Simon set the three lifts moving down at the same time. They also moved a couple of chunks of asteroid rock into their lift to provide some cover when the doors opened. Everyone took position behind the rock, and the lifts descended. At the bottom the lift doors opened onto a long, straight corridor that stretched down to that machine gun nest. Surprised by all three lifts opening at once, the soldiers in place there acted last, and the PCs were able to open fire on them. Noticing that a single corridor ran from their lift past the central lift to the third lift – and thus gave the guards in the guard room by that lift an open field of fire – Ahmose moved into the guard room nearest their own lift, to get a firing position along that cross corridor. Unfortunately as the lift descended the guards had moved, and Ahmose walked straight into a group of four of them, who opened fire on her but did barely any damage to her armour. She began hacking into them with her magic sword.

The battle was short and vicious. The machine gun nest had good armour, so finally Simon Simon used his PGMP gun to blow it away, killing everyone in the nest but somehow preserving the gun. Alva and Ahmose managed to clear out the guard room, and a well-placed grenade cleared the other guard room. They had mostly taken no damage, although another of their soldiers had died. They moved down the hallway to the crossroads.

The asteroid base was a small structure, a couple of tunnels leading off from the crossroads in two directions, with occasional living rooms or military-style command or storage rooms recessed into the walls. It was dimly lit with standard fluorescent lighting, and seemed to have an intact atmosphere, though they did not take off their vacc suits to risk a sudden decompression. At the crossroads Alva extended a narrow-range life sense and identified a cluster of guards in another room some distance from them, so they branched off in that direction. They managed to surprise these guards but as they did so Alva noticed another set of guards coming from another room and trying to cut them off behind. They split the party and moved around a curving corridor to take these guards from two directions, but when they joined battle they suddenly found there was a fifth figure, who Alva’s life sense had not registered, in combat armour – Kong the Younger.

This battle was much harder, as a second squad of guards joined from the rear. They fought hard but all their soldiers were cut down in crossfires, and one of the guards had a grenade launcher that wreaked havoc on their attempts to maintain a cohesive firing unit. It took all their efforts to bring down Kong’s underlings, during which time Red Cloud, Lam and Alva were seriously injured. Once his guards fell Kong made to escape down another corridor, and when Simon Simon tried to shoot him he used a psionic mind attack to knock Simon Simon unconscious. Ahmose suffered a similar fate trying to engage Kong at melee range, and finally Lam was left, badly injured and almost dead, trying to shoot Kong down as he fled away down the hallway. Kong fled down a side hall, Lam in pursuit, and into a small dock where his personal vessel was parked. Lam managed to shoot him down here in the open space of the dock just as he was preparing his final getaway.

They had captured Kong, but at the expense of almost all of their soldiers, and with most of the party unconscious from psionic attacks or serious battle injuries. For their pains they managed to capture another ship, Kong’s small escape ship the Thoughtcrime, and once they had recovered they were able to loot the computer systems and records of the asteroid. Kong they later handed over to the Confederate Navy for thorough questioning. As part of their subsequent investigations they discovered that Kong had traded the chip they gave him in their first mission to an AI called the Covenant of Shadows, which the Confederacy suspected of being linked to the mysterious AI called the Cognate; he had worked through an adherent called Abernecht. In trade for the chip he had received weapons shipments, the elimination of two enemies of the changelings, and promises of future aid.

As part of the raid and the subsequent interrogations the Confederate Navy unearthed a network of changeling agents both inside and outside the navy, and began a long and detailed period of purging of their changeling allies. Although it had nearly cost them their lives, the raid had revealed a rich stash of secrets. Now they were ready to begin the next stage of their intelligence gathering, and head to the Cult of the Last Barrier.


fn1: We have a new player, and he took Red Cloud as his PC. Great!

 

Someone has been reading the Star Wars RPG opening adventure

Laser from space!

Rogue One is a great movie. But more importantly, it’s a movie that brings the original Star Wars feeling back to life. It is a lively, intense romp through the Star Wars universe, replete with all the things that made the original movies so enjoyable: characters you really want to win, a plot that unfolds at the speed of light and keeps you on the edge of your seat to the end, stunning settings, space battles, and valiant heroism and sacrifice. The main characters are constructed quickly and smoothly at the beginning in broad brush strokes, which waste no time establishing who they are but get you engaged with them early on. The plot is driven by the same tense, demanding deadlines that we are used to from the original movies: an impending doom, a crucial space battle that depends on a small insurgent team to rescue it from catastrophic failure, and a taut race against all the resources of the Empire to snatch victory from them against impossible odds. The story unfolds over several planets, all presenting very different settings and ending in a beautiful archipelago that offers great views for the astounding slaughter unfolding in and above it. The fundamental driver of the plot – the need to get the plans to the Death Star – demands valiant action, heroism and sacrifice from a band of people thrown together by a mixture of desperation and idealism.

Still, we know from bitter experience that it’s possible for a Star Wars movie to appear to have all these elements, but to submerge them in plots designed by the marketing department, a sea of CGI, and limpid acting that makes you forget whole scenes. We don’t see any of that in Rogue One – the plot isn’t just tight and well worked, it makes sense within itself and does not demand that we regularly suspend our sense of disbelief or our understanding of what makes stories work in order to accept the sequences of events unfolding before us, and although there are several points in the movie where disparate forces come together to create chaos, the mechanism of their having been brought together makes sense and doesn’t stretch our credulity. There’s plenty of CGI but it’s used sparingly, giving us what we need and no more – none of those classic sci-fi disasters of filling the screen with spaceships because you can – and the CGI doesn’t ever serve to distract us from bad dialogue or bad acting. The dialogue is, apart from one bad joke, very well crafted, and just as in the original movies a droid plays an essential role in establishing the best repartee. And the acting is great.

Of course there was a time when these would have been considered baseline standards for a good movie, but in modern science fiction movies you’re lucky if you get to see all these basic conditions met, so we must remark on them as if they were unlocked achievements. Rogue One goes further than just unlocking these achievements, however. It also presents us a moody feeling of loss and threat throughout, it gives us fine cinematography and some stunning set pieces to make us marvel, and it is picture perfect to the original movies. If you watch Star Wars Episode 4 immediately after this movie (as I essentially did) you will see a seamless flow from Rogue One to A New Hope. Better still, Rogue One’s story offers an explanation for a core problem many people have with the fundamental plot of Episode 4, effectively saving that movie from itself and improving the original offering. It also is about more than just stealing the plans for the Death Star – it is the entire first two sentences of the opening text of Episode 4, fleshed out and with a rollicking ending that explains everything and leads you straight to A New Hope. As a result this movie, much more than anything that was made since Return of the Jedi, deserves to be considered canon, even if Disney are trying to present it as a sideshow. This movie is a genuine improvement on the Star Wars universe, a real core offering, and has much more to add to the story we grew up with than any of the flaccid bloatware that has been released in the past 20 years.

The movie does have its flaws, of course, but they’re not serious. At one stage near the end the heroes are presented with a series of seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieving their task, which of course they overcome, but this turns a small section of the movie into an action platformer, or some kind of sci-fi version of that Ninja Warrior game show. That lets it down a bit and I think this part could have run more smoothly without pushing our heroes to be super-human to no particular plot purpose. Also this movie suffers the same problem as Episode 7, where hyperspace travel now happens at the speed of plot rather than any coherent actual time frame – we no longer do the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, we do it in however long it takes to get our spaceship to the next scene on time and in position. Of course there’s no reason not to have hyperspace travel be near-instantaneous, since it’s hyperspace, but in the original story they at least had time for a highly fraught game of chess and some jedi training before they rocked up into a meteor shower. Now it appears we can get an entire fleet of battleships from quiescent to the other side of the galaxy, in battle formation, in the blink of an eye.

Aside from those small flaws though, this movie was brilliant from start to finish, and for me at least it restored my faith in this once-great series. If we’re lucky the producers and directors of Episode 8 will learn from this and try to get the whole carnival back on track – or we will see more spin-off movies that add more to the Star Wars mythology than the core movies ever do. Or, ideally, both. But just in case this is the last good thing ever to come out of Star Wars, I recommend seeing it as soon as you can – the ending of this movie is absolutely ruined if you hear any spoilers, so get down to the cinema and see it as early as you can, before the best thing to happen to Star Wars in 30 years is ruined by its own success!

Anger, Misery, You'll suffer unto me

Anger, Misery, You’ll suffer unto me

Our PCs have decided to join forces with the Confederate Navy, and to work with them to unravel the sinister plots of the AI forces that are arrayed against the Spiral Confederacy. There are at least three factions of AI working to try and obtain the necessary ingredients to achieve transubstantiation, which would enable the AI to become like gods within human space, and the Confederate Navy wants to stop them. One faction appears to have been using a group of Changeling bandits, led by a trio of Changelings called Kong the Younger, to obtain some pieces of the transubstantiation puzzle. These Changelings have been lured to help the AI faction by the promise of freedom for their planet, Valentine, and a terrible reckoning for human space, though it is unclear to the Navy and the PCs what that reckoning might be. Whatever their goals, the PCs had decided to put a stop to them, and to capture their leader – so, they agreed to participate in an attack on one of the Kongs’ pirate bases.

In exchange for their support, the Confederate Navy had offered the PCs a great reward: assignment of several small attack ships to command by Ahmose, an upgrade of the armour and weapons on their own ship, honorary naval ranks, and a small squad of marines to support their work. They had essentially been made freebooters for the Confederate Navy. This new squadron, the Ahmose Battle Group, would comprise the following ships:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness, flagship of the squadron, newly armoured and armed and piloted by Lam
  • The Harvester of Sorrow, a ground assault ship armed with a special hyperspace neutron scythe that killed ground troops
  • The Hooked on a Feeling, an attack ship designed to resist electronic countermeasures and computer attacks
  • The Romeo’s Distress, a psionic support ship with a crew of psionic assault troops

Rear Admiral Ahmose led the battle group from the bridge of the Darkness, and the rest of the PCs crewed the Darkness, but took responsibility for marine squads from other ships in ground combat[1].

Preparation of this squadron would take several weeks, as the ships were renovated and the Darkness armed in the factories of the Reckless. In the meantime the PCs were assigned comfortable quarters on the Reckless and left to their own devices.

Strange allies in strange places

Strange allies in strange places

Captain Noulgrim’s parting gift

A few nights before their ship was ready the PCs received an invitation from Captain Noulgrim – the slimy man who had threatened them into working for the navy at the beginning of their troubles – to join him for a farewell drink at his favourite bar, the Snakepit. Since they had come to the Reckless they had requested Colonel Stiglam to dismiss the Captain from managing them, and had not had to deal with him since. Given their deep dislike of the Captain, they deliberated over whether to attend, but finally the temptation to find out what he had to say got the better of them, and they decided to go and see what his last words would be.

The Snakepit is a favourite bar of the Reckless‘s gunnery crews, the sweaty men and women who manage the heavy weapons that defend it from space assault – or would, if anyone were ever rash enough to contemplate such an attack. The Reckless’s gunnery crews were a famously low brow and rough bunch, with their own long standing culture of military pride and grungey service, and the Snakepit was emblematic of the culture of their corps. It had been converted from the old galleries where gunners used to sit to operate the ship’s dorsal guns, before those functions were shifted to remote stations deep in the core of the ship, and its position meant that it ran along a large portion of the central axis of the ship, winding its way along the uneven extrusions of the gun turrets its occupants once operated, with a long glass window looking out into empty space. Barely wider than the original seats gunners would have occupied, its gunnery stations had been converted into tables ranging in size from two person counter seats for the smallest guns to six-person banquet settings for the largest guns. Above each table loomed the guns that it had once corresponded to – slender multi-pronged point defense clusters for the smallest tables, ranging up to huge triple emplacements, tens of metres long, for capital ship bombardment. These guns protruded into empty space, the larger guns casting long slanting shadows through the gallery of the Snakepit as the Reckless orbited into the path of the sun’s rays. The bar was clean but rough, smelled of a complex mixture of recreational inhalants and stale alcohol and gunner’s sweat, and was almost empty when the PCs arrived. By tradition the bar is staffed by off-duty gunners, and at the entryway they were met by a huge black man, covered in luminescent tattoos, who grunted at Noulgrim’s name, sneered and told them “Table 7, for 6, just under the triple proton cannons,” before returning to polishing a cabinet carved out of an old shell casing.

They found Noulgrim waiting at the table, nursing a glass of the Snakepit’s classic Reckless Strike drink and looking out over a vista of gun shadows stretching out through the haze of the Reckless‘s external atmosphere. Three brave souls were surfing through the haze, soaring between the lines of the bigger guns’ shadows as if they were sliding through a golden hallway lined with pillars of shadow. Noulgrim raised his glass to them and gave them that annoying smug grin, then gestured for them to sit. As they ordered drinks – Nebula Grog for Ahmose, Snakepit ale for Alva, coconut smoothy for Simon Simon, Reckless Strike for Lam – Noulgrim gestured behind him and a strange woman stepped out of the shadows to stare at them.

She was over 2 metres tall, slender and wiry and made entirely of coiled muscle. Her golden-brown skin was covered in strange painted designs, thick and smeared as if they had been slathered on her by an immature finger painter. She wore no shoes and her only clothing was a modest bikini of what appeared to be gold leaf of some kind, overlaid with a low-slung belt that carried a ludicrously oversized pistol. She carried a spear – an honest-to-god spear – in one hand, and stared down at them all through an expressionless, heavily-painted golden-brown face crowned with a rich head of jewel-encrusted dreadlocks. She nodded once at them and stood impassively, completely impervious to their confused expressions.

“This is Ravager 763,” Noulgrim told them. “I invited her here to meet you. Don’t worry, she won’t sit. Or speak either, most likely,” He added when Lam made to move for her to take a seat. Ravager 763 spared him a swift, contemptuous flick of her eyes but said nothing. They all stared at her – Lam and Simon Simon in obvious confusion, and Ahmose with undisguised lust. Only Alva ignored her, because he was staring at Noulgrim.

“What on earth is this?” He asked.

“Well…” He sighed and looked into his drink. “I think we all got off to a terrible start with that unpleasantness on the Come As You Are, I grant you it wasn’t my finest hour. Things were done – terrible things happened that shouldn’t have, and I’d like to find some way to make amends.” He paused while Ahmose coughed pointedly at his careful use of the passive voice, then continued. “I’ve seen from your work these last months that you’re exceptional people, and you’ve made a lot of sacrifices and taken a lot of risks in service to the Confederacy, and I feel terrible for making such bad assumptions about you when we first met. I mean you were breaking the law, and you were being incredibly stupid, but – ah – ” Alva was about to raise his voice accusatorily but paused when he caught sight of Ravager 763’s cold, hard stare. ” – ah – yes, anyway so the things that happened, what was done, it was probably unfair. Though you did get a ship out of it! Eventually …” He trailed off in confusion, took a sip of his drink, and waved his hand at Ravager 763.

“Anyway, so this is Ravager 763. She’s a member of a small community of interstellar nomads called the Ravagers, no one knows anything about them and they don’t really ever speak so we don’t know their history or their background. They have a different technology for interstellar travel, and they have their own ancient spaceships that maybe work on religious fervour rather than tech – we don’t really know. They have priests and technomages and psionics in their community, which makes them kind of unique, but they have resisted Confederate attempts to investigate them in any depth. They have a polite agreement with the Confederacy but the truth is that their nomadic range extends beyond the boundaries of the Confederacy, we don’t really know how far.

“The Ravagers owe me a debt. I rescued Ravager 763 and her crew from trouble a few years back, before I joined the Reckless, and because I saved their lives she offered the services of the Ravagers to me, a kind of one-off life boon. But now I’m on the Reckless I can’t think of any way they can help me – they’re very good at killing, but I’m stationed on a ship that kills planets, so I don’t really think they’ll ever be able to offer me a service I’ll need. However …”

He pulled a small white rectangular card from his uniform pocket and slid it across the table. It was a plain, unadorned card, with a single splatter of blood embedded in its plastic seal, and the word “Ravager” written in small, neat red characters on one corner. It was a standard contact card, the kind you put in a comms system that gives you a range of contact options.

“The other thing they’re very good for,” he said, “Is getting people out of the Confederacy. So I thought I would transfer my debt to you. I thought if something goes wrong and you suddenly decide you can’t work for the Confederacy anymore – if they’re not what you thought, for example, or what they want you to do is too horrible, or you make a mistake you think they might punish you for – well if you call on the Ravagers they can probably take you far, far away.”

He watched as Simon Simon picked up the card. Then Ravager 763 shifted on her bare feet and spoke for the first time. “The Captain,” she began in a husky, soft voice, “Is owed a debt of life. I am Ravager 763, and on behalf of all my kind I offer you the repayment of that debt, one action to balance his, five lives to be saved or forfeited when you ask it. Any five lives.” Her emphasis was soft and unmistakable. “We will come to you anywhere, but your confederacy is limited in its reach. The card will tell you from which systems you can call us, and how to call us. Noulgrim tells me you will use the debt honourably. We would prefer to discharge our debt with honour, but it is a debt. Invoke it, and any action within our power that balances the debt will be yours to call.”

After she stopped speaking Noulgrim shifted uncomfortably, acutely aware of the hard look Ahmose and Alva were giving him, and the possibility they were weighing up calling in the debt right there and then. But finally Ahmose nodded, took the card gently from Noulgrim, and pocketed it.

“Thank you Captain, I appreciate the gesture. I hope we never have to call on the debt, but Ravager 763, if we do, I look forward to meeting you again.” Ahmose stood up, drink half finished. “I think that’s enough for me. Let’s go.”

The team stood up, bowed to Ravager 763, and left without a second glance at Noulgrim.

They were all wondering – why had he been so sure that they might be asked to do things so bad they might consider escaping the Confederacy to avoid them? Did he know something about the Confederacy that they did not?

Attack on Korgan 3

A few days later the Ahmose Battle Group set off from the Reckless for Korgan 3, a nearly empty star system on the border of the next sub-sector, three weeks’ jump travel removed from the Reckless. Korgan 3 was a small red dwarf orbited by two gas giants, one close to the star and one exceptionally large gas giant very far removed from the star. The size of this star and its orbital position rendered orbital patterns of small objects in the system unstable, and nothing larger than large asteroids existed in the system. Kong’s base was built into one such asteroid, which tumbled through the system in an unstable orbital pattern. It had once been a research base, but the unstable orbit rendered it useless for long term research, so it had been abandoned some hundreds of years earlier. A second research base in the orbit of the larger gas giant had also been abandoned and converted into a remote broadcasting system, which picked up information about ships entering and leaving the system and broadcast basic safety information to arriving ships. The system was treated as a waypoint at best by most passing ships, and avoided wherever possible, since it was too boring to pass time between jumps, and not on any important trading routes. It was an ideal location for a pirate base on the edge of the Rim.

As soon as they arrived in system they were greeted with an automated broadcast advising them to avoid the asteroid with its unstable orbit, and not to interfere with any abandoned research bases. They ignored the message and set a course for the distant research base. Within a few hours, as they drew within the last 100,000 kilometres from the base, they received a message from the base itself – an official Confederacy message advising against approach, probably 100 years old. They ignored it and sped closer, forming into a loose attack configuration with the Hooked on a Feeling to the rear of the echelon.

Soon the warning was repeated, and as they drew closer still it was replaced by a newer, more threatening message: “Unidentified ship, do not approach. This is a restricted zone.” Closer still, and they received a direct contact from the asteroid: “Captain Ahmose, leave now or be destroyed. There are no more warnings.”

Ahmose replied with a simple message: “Time to pay up, Kong!” They sped closer.

Unfortunately the battle group’s sensor operator (Alva) was not a very good one, and the asteroid’s ships got the jump on them. They were suddenly hit by a flight of missiles, all streaking out of the dusty darkness around the distant asteroid towards the Left Hand of Darkness. One missed, point defense destroyed another, and the last one exploded harmlessly on the Darkness‘s shields. Battle was joined.

The enemy battle fleet was composed of five ships: four grim, spiky little 200-ton attack ships clustered around a larger 400 ton flagship, the Cat in the Rain. The ships were all old and retro-fitted with stolen gear, so working at a lower tech level than the Ahmose Battle Group, but they were faster and heavily armed. Despite their extra speed the Ahmose Battle Group had better discipline and reactions, and were able to rain fire down on one of the attack ships, the Blood Brother, so heavily that it was crippled and forced to disengage from the fight immediately. Because most of the damage on this ship was done by the Romeo’s Distress, their enemies focused their fire on this ship, doing significant hull damage and disabling its jump drive but failing to destroy it.

Having knocked the first ship out, the Battle Group focused fire on a second ship, the Dance on Glass. As the Romeo’s Distress fired on this one, it drifted closer to a third ship, the Wasteland. The entire asteroid fleet was now focusing fire on the Left Hand of Darkness, and didn’t act to avoid the Romeo’s Distress as she drifted in. So they weren’t ready when the ship drifted so close that her squad of psionic assault troops was able to teleport into the ship and capture the bridge without a shot fired[2]. The Wasteland was seized in moments with no damage.

By now the ships had drifted within a few hundred kms of the asteroid, which opened fire on the Battle Group with particle beam turrets. But the tide of the space battle had turned, and they were able to destroy the Dance on Glass, the Hooked on a Feeling launched a boarding action on the last attack ship, and the Left Hand of Darkness blasted away at the flagship, the Cat in the Rain, as the Harvester of Sorrow began its ground assault. All the asteroid’s particle beams were now focused on the Left Hand of Darkness, which Lam was steering through complex dog-fighting maneouvres to avoid the attacks while the flagship and the Romeo’s Distress fired on the Cat in the Rain.

The landing area on the asteroid was large enough for two ships, so once the Harvester of Sorrow had unleashed its neutron scythe twice it disgorged its marines to clear the landing site. Unfortunately they were hit by concentrated fire from two plasma gun emplacements as soon as they hit the ground, and completely eviscerated within moments. Her job done (and mostly failed) the Harvester of Sorrow moved off the landing port; but now that she was not using her neutron scythe she was able to release the full fury of her rear gun turret, and the subsequent flight of missiles completely destroyed the asteroid fleet’s flagship, the Cat in the Rain, tearing it apart into thousands of pieces. The boarding action on the last attack ship completed successfully with the complete capitulation of its crew, and the Hooked on a Feeling and the Left Hand of Darkness descended to the asteroid, while the Romeo’s Distress continued to distract the asteroid’s particle beams, in case they could be redirected at ground targets.

The first person to emerge from the landed ships was Simon Simon, carrying his own plasma gun (PGMP). He opened fire on one of the gun nests, while Lam and the Darkness’s marines opened fire on the other. They completely destroyed the nest’s and moved away from the ships, allowing them to vacate the landing zone and making space for the Romeo’s Distress to land – and not a moment too soon either, since the particle beam turrets were slowly shredding her armour. She landed, and the various marine squads quickly neutralized a squad of defenders on the far side of the landing zone.

They were down on the surface. They had captured two ships – the Wasteland and the Negligent Waltz – and forced the surrender of another, the Blood Brother, which was so badly damaged that it could do nothing but drift in space and wait for the ground battle to finish and the victors to come and claim its crew. They had destroyed two other ships, including the asteroid’s flagship, and in exchange suffered only light damage to their own flagship, though the Romeo’s Distress was so badly damaged as to be close to destruction, its jump drives wrecked and hull compromised. Now they had two marine crews on the surface along with the leadership team, while their other marine crews took control of the two captured ships and would land shortly.

Their first space battle had been a resounding success, and now they were ready for a brutal battle to capture the asteroid. Soon, Kong would repay them in full for his earlier treacheries …


fn1: I designed the fleet so that in space battle each player would take control of one ship, and the marines and properties of the ship were designed to match the PC in question. So Lam’s player took over the Harvester of Sorrow; Simon Simon (the adherent) was responsible for the Hooked on a Feeling; and Alva (the psionic) was responsible for the Romeo’s Distress. So now each player effectively controls a PC, a ship, and a squad of grunts. I also assigned them all ranks based on the Japanese Maritime Self Defense forces: Rear Admiral for Ahmose, Lieutenant for Lam (who was previously in the Navy until she stole a ship); and Warrant Officer for the other two PCs. These ranks are honorary, and don’t give them control over any members of the navy except those directly assigned to be their subordinates (they can’t just run around commanding anyone on any ship). Also, Simon Simon’s marines were given strict instructions to put him down like a dog if he showed signs of switching sides (on account of his being an adherent).

fn2: Most of the asteroid ships had a squad of marines on board but just by luck, the Wasteland didn’t. Traveler’s ship combat rules have a simple procedure for determining the success of a boarding attack, in which attacker and defender roll 2d6 with modifiers. I figured “teleporting straight onto the bridge” counts as “superior tactics and training” (+2), and a Confederate psionic assault squad will have superior weapons and armour, giving a total +5 to the roll; the Wasteland got a -2 for no marines onboard. The result was an immediate capture of the ship, which would usually take 2d6 turns but I figured teleporting on the bridge is instant, so the Romeo’s Distress was still free to fight in the space battle.

This slide is a little busy, but ...

This slide is a little busy, but …

[GM Note: This is not a session report but an update on what the PCs have learnt over the past 9 sessions, and the final plans for how they will end the campaign and what part they will play in bringing together the threads of what appears to be a galaxy-spanning plot by AIs to become gods].

The crew of the Left Hand of Darkness have finally made progress in their investigations, and find themselves back in the tender care of the Confederate Navy. This time, however, the order of things is very much reversed, with the Navy seeking the PCs’ help to tie together all the strings of their investigation and begin to act on the knowledge they have gained. Having reacquainted themselves with Captain Noulgrim, the man who originally set them on this investigative spiral through known space, the spaceship the Reckless, they were invited by the Captain’s superior, Colonel Virr Stiglam, to join him in a planning conference. Having already been offered assurances that their ship was safe and that they would soon be rewarded for their work, the PCs agreed, and left the Land Hand of Darkness to visit the Reckless for the first time.

They were taken straight to the yacht races by Colonel Stiglam and his two grim guards, Captain Noulgrim sliding gracefully and smugly out of sight once his work had been done. Noulgrim’s shuttle took them directly to a kind of cupola floating about 300m from the port side of the Reckless, and they disembarked into a warm summer day – floating in space 300m from the ship. The Reckless is surrounded by an atmosphere to a radius of about 500m from the ship, held in by powerful shields, and maintains a gravitational field in this atmosphere so that wherever one is placed within it one will driftly slowly back towards the hull. Whenever the Reckless is in physical space anti-gravity cupolas, yachts and hang gliders drift around in this atmosphere, usually on the sunward side of the ship but sometimes in the strange shadowed dark side, or over the top and bottom of the ship. Events and pageants are often held there, organized by various organizations from within the large population living permanently in the ship’s hull. On this occasion, several groups from the ship’s military organization had organized a zero-g yacht race, and the Reckless had obligingly rustled up a strong and unpredictable wind in its atmosphere. As Colonel Noulgrim prepared them all drinks they sat on the forward balcony of their little cupola, the overhead awnings flapping in the wings, and saw the first of the yachts beginning to approach their viewing point, colourful penants and sails fluttering in the wind, veering and wheeling in the three dimensional race course. To their left and right a scattering of small ships, cupolas, viewing platforms and larger yachts scattered the edge of the raceway, people cheering and clinking drinks and unfurling banners for their favourite teams: “Go the 7th Fusiliers,” and “Victory to the 8th Gunnery Squad” and so on. Discreetly placed drones played marching music, occasionally interrupted by announcements from a popular DJ who was commentating on the race. As Stiglam brought them a tray of wines and spirits the announcer informed them that the lead was currently being contested between the black yacht of the 3rd Planetary Assault Squad and the red and blue yacht crewed by “Shmiel’s Piercers,” an irregular military formation of psions and empathy-linked marines.

Ahmose’s eyes narrowed at that, but sadly her rifle was still on the Left Hand of Darkness, so Shmiel would get to pass them in peace – this time. Stiglam didn’t appear to notice her and Lam’s sudden grimness, and sat down unconcerned in a comfortable swinging seat, handing over a set of binoculars to her. “Here, you can see the races clearly with these.” He waved his hand at the drinks. “Help yourselves, sit, enjoy the races! We have much to discuss!”

Ahmose focused the binoculars on the Piercers, and there he was, standing in the prow, the seedy bearded psion who had raided her mind all those months ago on the bridge of the Come As You Are. He appeared happy, at peace, and enjoying the race. For a few moments she followed his movements with the binoculars, then put them away with a disgusted curl of her lip. Behind them, Alva noticed that Stiglam’s guards remained in the shadows at the rear of the cupola, not relaxing to enjoy the race. They weren’t fully trusted yet.

As the yachts drifted by, their conversation turned to what they had learned, and what needed to be done.

Through their investigations the PCs have learned of a plot by AIs to achieve a transcendental civilization. This transubstantiation would enable AIs to leave behind the physical constraints of their computer systems, and become a galaxy-spanning consciousness. To achieve this they need:

  • A biological form of sentience
  • A means of communicating faster than light (the ansible)
  • The chip to activate the ansible
  • The technology to achieve transubstantiation

The PCs are carrying the first three of this list, and they have a strong feeling that the Cognate, the mysterious AI on the other end of the ansible with whom they communicated once, might have the technology for transubstantiation. This was a technology that the Confederate Navy also wanted, Stiglam told them, though they had doubts about their ability to pry it from the Cognate. They were also sure that the biological form of sentience that the AIs would need was in the PCs control, in the form of Red Cloud of the Coming Storm, ignorant priest of the planet Dune, who was not a human but a silicon-based life form. It seemed possible that if AIs could investigate the corpse (or better still, the living form) of one of those aliens, then they would be able to develop a means to implant their sentience in a biological life form.

The PCs were also aware that there were at least three different forces seeking these things. In addition to the Cognate, they knew that the AI called The Shadow of the Hunter (Is the Last thing the Mouse Sees) was also looking for the same technology, since he had traded the characters their ship for the dead witch from Dune. In addition, Kong the Younger had cheated them out of the chip for the ansible just before they became entangled with the Reckless, and it seemed likely he had done that as an agent for another AI. So at least three AIs were seeking this transubstantiation technology, and they were likely from different factions with different intentions towards human civilization.

Colonel Stiglam then told the PCs about how he had known they were coming to this system. A couple of weeks ago the Reckless had noticed a minor space conflict happening in the Dune system, and when she went to investigate found a ship devoid of human crew busily destroying another ship. This ship, the Mono:Overload, was piloted by an insane AI that had taken over the ship’s systems, killed its own crew, and then turned on its sister ship the Transfer:Complete. The Reckless captured the Mono:Overload and quarantined the AI, which turned out to be the insane remnant of the AI called The Starred One, which the PCs had implanted in the Mono:Overload after it attacked them at Dune. By investigating the events leading up to the starship battle the PCs identified the Left Hand of Darkness as the source of the AI, and sent a series of ships searching for it in neighbouring systems. They caught up to the Left Hand of Darkness after the PCs left her to begin their attack on the Losing My Religion, and after interrogating her crew were able to send the Reckless itself to cut them off when they arrived at Morvan’s Rest – so the pattern of their travels had been revealed, along with their plans to loot the weapons on the Losing My Religion, and their path had crossed again with the Reckless.

The mad AI known as the Starred One had been sent off to a special orbital that the Confederacy reserved for situations like this. It would be imprisoned in a special section of the orbital that was isolated electronically from the rest of the orbital and the rest of the galaxy, and questioned carefully by experts in special systems that were designed to prevent AIs escaping. The surface of the orbital was inhabited by an indigenous race whose technology had not passed beyond nomadic wandering – they lacked even electricity – and supplies were delivered to the staff of the research institute by baggage trains of these indigenous people, so that there was no way that any information could be passed in or out electronically. Reports were written with pen and paper, and all communications offworld handled on a distant section of the orbital that was completely electronically isolated from the prison. Within this setting the mad AI’s consciousness would be carefully unraveled and its secrets discovered.

This suggestion horrified Simon Simon, who views AIs as people deserving of care and respect, but he understood that the remnant of the consciousness that he had infected the ship with was unlikely to ever be cured. He was as interested as everyone else to learn what secrets it held – the Confederacy’s first and best chance to learn the true history of the Reach, the pirate system from which the AI came – but he was disappointed to learn this investigation could take many months.

In the meantime, Stiglam told them as the yachts sailed by and supporters cheered, the Confederacy was investigating the belongings of the dead Kong the Younger, and expected to find the location of his criminal base. They had a couple of plans as to what they would do next, and they wanted the PCs’ help. Would they entertain him on their ship three days’ hence, to discuss further plans? He promised them that they would benefit greatly from helping him – “likely a fleet of ships, that sort of thing” he said airly, waving one arm in the direction of space. Their ears perked up. Finally, a reward for all their efforts?! Of course, they would love to meet him again.

The yacht race finished with Shmiel’s Piercers a minute ahead of their rivals, and minor controversy about whether they had used psionics to achieve their victory. The PCs returned to the Left Hand of Darkness, and waited to hear from the Colonel.

How to catch an AI

Three days later, as he promised, Stiglam visited them on their ship, this time alone and in casual clothes. They took him to the lounge, introduced him to Red Cloud, and laid out lunch and drinks for their discussion. Stiglam told them first that they had penetrated Kong the Younger’s data, and identified the location of his home base. They had also determined to whom he sold the ansible chip that he had cheated the PCs out of – to an agent who worked for an organization that he promised “would bring great distress to the humans.” Kong the Younger, it appeared, was part of a network of Changelings operating within the Confederacy to undermine the navy, and they had managed to land a few Changelings in the research team investigating Dune. Messages had been despatched, and the network’s agent on the Reckless had been apprehended, though he had not yet talked. He had two more days to offer his knowledge freely before the psionics began to work on him, and Stiglam was confident they would learn all they could from him soon.

In the meantime they had a series of tasks to be completed, and they wanted the PCs’ help in some of them. These included:

  1. Attacking the remaining bases held by Kong the Younger’s changeling buddies, and capturing one of them alive
  2. Tracking down Barry and Larry, the two mercenaries who had likely stolen the ansible chip the PCs owned, and had probably sold it on to their original employer when they parted ways from the PCs – this was likely another AI, and the PCs wanted to find who
  3. Visiting the orbital where the Starred One was held, to release Simon Simon’s AI into the orbital and have her help speed up inquiries into the nature of the Starred One’s past
  4. Finding and destroying the Cognate, or capturing it to put into the same prison on the orbital – for which Simon Simon’s AI might be needed
  5. Visiting the Cult of the Last Barrier, and penetrating its innermost sanctum to try and learn the history of the Cult and find out why it was tracking the ansible – for this they would need the help of Michael, the priest who had asked them to take him to the Reach in pursuit of this Cult

Stiglam wanted the PCs to help him with tasks 1 and 5, but they were welcome to assist in any of the others. Task 1 – the raid on Kong’s base – would start soon, and if they agreed to help with that he would see that they were equipped with a fleet of small attack ships, their own ship was upgraded and armed, and they were supplied with marines to support them. Ahmose would become Rear Admiral Ahmose, in charge of the Ahmose Battle Group, and they would be given official license as Freebooters to do the work of the Confederate Navy. This license would last at least until the present threat was past, with the possibility of becoming permanent. He proposed a fleet of three small attack ships to accompany them, with a small number of marines on each.

Did they agree to help?

Did they need to be asked? They tried to appear cagey, but their agreement was obvious and immediate. The Ahmose Battle Group was formed, and plans began for the attack on Kong the Younger’s base.

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 …

 

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