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.
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.
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. 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.