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!

 

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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.

Some technology endures ...

Some technology endures …

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

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

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

Silicon life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreams and nightmares on Reek

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

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

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

WHO ARE YOU?

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

GIVE ME THE ANSIBLE OR I WILL DESTROY YOU

It was soon followed by a third message:

I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE

They panicked and pulled out the crystal.

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

and then

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

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

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

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

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

Fire in the hold!

Fire in the hold!

An unexpected reunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had the ship.

Discovered

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was then that they received the incoming call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noulgrim nodded, still beaming with pleasure at the situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Save

Save

Did I build a ship to wreck?

Did I build a ship to wreck?

After they left the Reach, the characters sold one of their two mysterious human cargo to an adherent in exchange for a spaceship called The Left Hand of Darkness. Fresh from the Confederacy shipyards, ‘Darkness is a sleek and beautiful thing, designed for luxury travel at high speeds but carefully built to be reconfigured as a combat vessel for those slightly more adventurous lordlings who feel like slumming it in the Frontier.

A room of one's own ...

A room of one’s own …

The Left Hand of Darkness has the following basic structure:

  • Bridge with room for pilot, navigator, captain, engineer, two gunners. The bridge is spacious and high tech, with a large window-like area at the front which is actually a screen (not a window)
  • Captain’s ready room (off the bridge) with desk, couch, pot plant, and display screens for planning
  • Conference room (off the bridge) with room for 8 people around a good quality table
  • Armoury (off the bridge) with weapons racks sufficient for 8 people
  • The entire bridge section can be detached in emergencies and has a separate small power supply that can keep the bridge functioning for about a week
  • Ship’s boat, reached either directly from the bridge or from the main deck, with space for 24 people (basic seating) or 8 people (comfortable accommodation including sleeping arrangements)
  • The ships’s boat has two turret locations
  • The main ship has four turret locations, giving all-round fire arcs, but it has no weapons on them and no fire control system installed
  • A single level 2 computer with advanced AI defences
  • A luxury cabin suite for the captain, with office and separate bathroom
  • Standard cabins for 8 crew, with their own toilets and a shared bathroom area
  • Bunk cabins for sub-crew, with room for 8 more in two bunk rooms of 4 each, typically used for soldiers or passengers, having shared bathroom and toilets
  • Two recreation rooms, one between the crew accommodation and the bridge, with a kitchen and open space; one behind the bunk rooms, smaller, with a kitchen and eating area
  • A small gym/training area near the cargo hold
  • A large cargo hold capable of holding perhaps 8 containers of cargo
  • A separate utility hold with two small flyers, each with space for two people. These flyers can be armed but again are currently not. This hold also has spare space that can be converted to cargo or used for e.g. other flyers, mining equipment, etc.
  • A separate armoury with space for heavy weaponry up to tripod machine gun or mortar size (obviously in the Confederacy a weapon of this size may be capable of nuclear-scale destruction); armour is also stored here
  • Two air locks, with separate spaces for vac suits and additional small armouries
  • A medical bay with room for two injured, two morgue slots, and some laboratory space. There is space for a server for backed up memories but this is absent (such a thing would be RP4 and illegal for the PCs to own)
  • A welcome room near one air lock for entertaining business people and guests coming in from space stations; this room also opens into the main physical entry that opens below the ship to allow external entrance planet-side
  • A series of emergency escape pods scattered around the ship, sufficient for a crew of 24 to be able to eject from the ship.
  • An observation deck near the rear of the ship that allows a bit of star gazing and has a small garden (very small) with a bench, sadly not big enough for a picnic
  • Basic field effector shields that will protect the vessel from sub-light collisions with small objects, and a couple of blasts from a heavy ship-borne laser, but no more
  • ‘Darkness is lightly armoured, sufficient to survive one or two heavy laser blasts but no more
  • A small general purpose space in the centre of the ship, currently empty
  • Some of the walls linking things like recreation rooms and the general purpose space can be reconfigured to make more space available in certain situations

The Left Hand of Darkness of course has the standard set of sub-space and hyper-space drives, power plants, etc. Her Slug is sufficient for three months’ life for 24 people. ‘Darkness is capable of Jump 3 and M-drive 3. All fittings and equipment are TL14.

Ship Layout design is by Eddie, one of our players. His portfolio can be viewed here.

Save

Save

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

(Song of the Path of Tears)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treachery!

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

Interdiction at Dune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Simon Simon …?”

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

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

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

They jumped, leaving a mad AI behind them…

Where are we...?

Where are we…?

Misjump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, Alva? What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last of the lost ones ...

The last of the lost ones …

While they sojourned in The Reach the characters killed a death priest who was committing foul acts in the old tombs of many planets. They have been offered a job traveling back to the priest’s origin planet and avenging the damage he has done in other planets, as well as finding out why, but while they were in The Reach they had no idea who he was or where he was from. They recovered some documents of his but they could not read them, and they expected that they would need to retrace the priest’s journey from planet to planet to find out where he came from, a long and exhausting task. However, when they visited the Oracle at Niscorp 1743 they showed her the books, and she was able to immediately identify their origin. They were, she told them, books written in the language of the Cult of the Last Barrier. She told them all she knew on this Cult and its mysterious origins.

The Cult of the Last Barrier

My halo a crown, a crown of bones I’ll hate

I wear a robe, the robe of souls I’ll burn

Under the shroud

Where seeds of chaos will grow

Waking the dead, entering the ethereal

The Cult of the Last Barrier is the name commonly given to an entire society of nomadic remnants, who live in three giant sub-light spacecraft and travel from planet to planet like celestial nomads. The name is taken from the cultural history of these people themselves, but they do not refer to themselves as a society; they simply call themselves The Last Barrier. They are one of only a few remnant societies that are genuinely space-faring, but one of  multitude of nomadic space-faring societies scattered across the Confederacy. Unlike most of these societies, they do not consider themselves to be part of the Confederacy, and although they benefit from its post-scarcity society wherever they travel, they have little regard for its rules or norms, and they jealously protect themselves from interference. Although they welcome trade and allow some small anthropological research, they are a closed society who give away little to the outside world, and do the barest minimum required to be tolerated in Confederate space. They are rumoured to be older than the Confederacy itself, but little is known about their history. This secrecy is not uncommon in remnant societies, although it is rare in those with existing space travel, and there is some debate as to whether they can be considered uplifted. This scholarly – and occasionally legal – debate is intensified by their two genuinely unique properties: the common practice of necromancy, and their use of living spaceships.

From the Ashes of Angels

A new day is dawning

My world is prepared, barriers dissolving

They no longer hold

I know

Dreaming in symmetry

No gravity, the enemy

This resonance will be in exordium

The Last Barrier live in three spaceships that have been constructed from the husks of ancient interstellar Behemoths. Although these Behemoths appear not to be sentient, they are still in some sense alive, and appear to be in some form of symbiotic relationship with their inhabitants, though understanding this relationship is complicated by the Barrier’s insistence that one of the three ships is actually undead. The three ships reflect three aspects of the life that Barrier members live, and are divided between three separate religious cults:

  • The Shared Creation is the ship on which all members of the Barrier are born, and is maintained by a cult of life and healing that claim to practice a kind of priestly magic based on worshiping life, the sun and the feminine forces of creation. The shell of an ancient Behemoth somewhere in form between a squid and a ray, this ship is also used to grow food and supplies for the other two ships. When the ships travel between planets in full sub-light travel mode, this ship radiates light and appears to act as the guide for the other two ships.
  • The Lost Eden is the ship where members of the Barrier live the majority of their lives, primarily in quiet contemplation and study, or working in basic manufacturing and repair work to maintain their lifestyle. It is similar in shape to a giant mollusc or nautilus-like creature, though longer and thinner, and its many cavities and hollows offer many places for people to live and work. The Lost Eden is run by a cult of warrior monks, who worship order and knowledge. They provide the technical skills to maintain the ships, and organize the laws and rules of the whole society. Most outside observers liken them to a theocratic dictatorship.
  • The Necromanteion is the ship that the Barrier claims is undead. Shaped like a huge dead spider or a kind of starfish, it radiates almost no light and its cramped hallways and tunnels are dimly lit and silent. This ship is run by a cult devoted to death, eternity, destruction and silence, and it is on this ship that the death priest must have originated. All members of the Barrier come here to die, or are brought here after their death, and it is at the centre of this ship that the Barrier is rumoured to maintain a kind of spiritual force that contains the memories of all the souls of all the generations of the cult of the Barrier – a kind of after-death backup, that never gets used for resleeving but is visited by elders of the death cult to seek advice and knowledge.

These ships are huge – perhaps twice the size of an Ocean class confederate ship – but sparsely populated, almost empty in the case of the Necromanteion. There are no recorded instances of interstellar behemoths of this kind ever being witnessed in the Confederacy, which gives many scholars reason to think that the Last Barrier come from beyond the Confederacy. The Barrier themselves deny this. They say that the ships are the bodies of their dead gods, and that they originated within the Confederacy. If challenged on this, their representatives argue that the ancestor memory at the heart of the Necromanteion would confirm it, if outsiders were allowed to ask.

This Priesthood

Time for initiation, the origin of all

To be revealed

Buried down

Deep in hallowed ground

The flame of life

Will burn out

The Last Barrier are controversial, of course, for their practice of necromancy. Because the Confederacy cannot accept fully the existence of such a thing, it is not possible for the Confederacy to oppose it or to demand it cease, but it is clear that the Last Barrier’s priests are incredibly powerful and up to no good. They are capable of sustaining their population through years of sub-light travel between stars, and are also able to somehow compel most of their society into a kind of quiescent semi torpor to reduce their activity during this stage of travel. They also claim to maintain a backup of the souls of all their dead stretching back to the beginning of time, which would require a degree of storage and energy that is unheard of even for the Confederacy.

Many scholars believe that the priesthood’s vast powers are drawn at least in part from the spaceships they occupy. These spaceships draw upon subspace power to move, to maintain body temperature and also to construct fields and atmospheres around their bodies which protect their hosts, and many scholars believe that the priesthood are able to draw on these powers when they work their strange rituals. If the Necromanteion is dead then this might explain also its ability to travel through space with the other two ships; they seem to exert some kind of subspace field over it, although there is also evidence of power generation of some kind happening within the ship. Unfortunately the organic structure of the ships and their strange functions prevents deep scans of their internal functions, in the case of the Necromanteion preventing even a proper understanding of the internal layout of the beast’s empty halls. Occasionally scholars have pushed for a military takeover of the vessels so that their full function can be explored, especially given the apparently unique ability of the Last Barrier’s priests to manipulate subspace and hyperspace, in contravention of most theories of how priest magic works. The Confederacy has resisted these demands, and for now allows the Last Barrier to move freely within its borders so long as it obeys basic laws.

Such a position of non-interference and the moral relativism underlying it would likely disappear if the Confederacy were made aware that the Last Barrier had been employing necromancy outside of its borders, and interfering with other remnant societies’ burial practices. Unless, of course, the Confederacy is keeping the Last Barrier free of interference for darker reasons of its own. Perhaps the authorities of the Confederacy see some value in courting the favour of those who can manipulate death itself. Or perhaps they know more about this mysterious society of wandering priests and necrophiles than they have been willing to reveal to their own scholars …

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