Mr G's Stars Without Number Campaign

Unearthing The Past
In which our heroes do a little digging.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

With breathable air and light, and clear visibility in all directions, you feel a lot more confident about this expedition than your previous one to the ice tomb. Priest gives an experimental rap on the bronze coloured wall with the butt of his shotgun and a metallic sound rings out. Munroe shushes him with a cross look and, unholstering Beth, leads the way down the passageway leading off to the left with an unrepentant Priest bringing up the rear.

The passageway is perfectly straight, walls lined with the bronze coloured metal and after 15 metres or so you come across an identical passageway leading off to the right at a perfect 90 degree angle. You ignore this and carry on, another 15 metres bringing you to a square shaped room. There is another passageway leading to the right out of the room and the two opposite walls of the room itself are divided into a number of open booths, six in total. Each of the booths features a bas-relief of the humanoid figures in a variety of reverential poses – kneeling, praying, hands raised – and the twin suns feature prominently once more. Other than this, the chamber is empty and you are left none the wiser as to its intended function or usage.

The passageway leading out of this chamber carries on straight as far as you can see, and Munroe leads you this way. A short way down the passage, he spots a door on the left hand wall, bronze and covered in alien script. He slows down and motions to the rest of you to move in close to the wall and take it carefully. He and Priest take up flanking positions while Alexei stands in front of it, holding Hiltie’s revolver (which he “forgot” to return after your expedition to the ice tomb) in one shaky hand. He presses the pressure stud located next to the door, which slides smoothly to one side.

Standing on the other side of the door with its back to him is an upright beetle-like creature, some 1.5 metres tall. It has a shiny black carapace and 6 limbs. Alexei raises the revolver and pulls the trigger but, as a consequence of his lack of experience with firearms, there is only a sharp click as the hammer falls on the empty chamber that Hiltie habitually leaves as a safety precaution. The creature spins, sees Alexei pointing the revolver at it, and its mandibles clack and ooze viscous liquid. It is clutching a stubby rod in one of its claws and in response it clubs Alexei with it. There is a crackle of discharging energy and Alexei is thrown backwards across the corridor into the far wall, before sliding down it, unconscious. This clears the way for Munroe who coolly fires a single round from his mag pistol directly into the creature’s head, which explodes in a shower of green gore and chitin, the body toppling backward. Priest spots a similar creature on the far side of the room beyond leave quickly down a passageway opposite the door, propelled at great speed on its multiple limbs.

Priest is about to set off in pursuit when Munroe stops him with an outstretched hand and a shake of his head. He nimbly steps into the room beyond the door and to one side, turning around the check all the angles. It is clear and he gestures the rest of you to enter. The room is a perfect square, 10 metres on a side, with a passageway exiting opposite the door. It is empty and here the bronze walls are blank and featureless.

Hiltie checks Alexei and finds him unconscious and with no visible wounds on his body, almost as if he were in a deep sleep. He surmises that the attacker used a weapon somewhat similar in operation to a stun baton. Christian is intrigued and takes the stubby rod, while Hiltie satisfies himself that the Alexei has been subjected to some kind of neural shock and should recover consciousness of his own accord. He retrieves his revolver, checks it carefully, and then holsters it. Priest then slings Alexei unceremoniously over his shoulder, fireman’s lift style.

Lazarus examines the body. There is no doubt at all that it is organic and it seems to him that the robots you met in the ice tomb were modelled after this creature, with a clear resemblance although no possibility of mistaking one for the other under good conditions of visibility. It seems to Lazarus that this may be one of the believed long extinct Chittik of legend that Marius Rochambeau told you about. Hiltie is concerned that your response to first meeting one of the creatures was violence and that you may have jeopardised any chance of a peaceful first contact with what is clearly a new and important species. Priest feels no remorse and is not afraid to say so as legend has it that the Chittik used sentient beings as both slave labour and a food source.

Either way, you have no desire to turn back now and decide to follow in the path of the Chittik that fled from you. Munroe leads the way once more across the room and into the passageway opposite, the only other exit from this room. It is short, less than 10 metres, and opens into another bronze chamber divided into booths, seven this time, and with a passageway exiting to the left.

Each booth contains a low bier and on top of each lies one of the beetle-men. Munroe pulls up short and watches carefully. A harsh, acidic smell assails his nostrils. There is no reaction from within the room and he carefully steps to the closest booth and delivers a sharp kick to the Chittik therein. The side caves in with a sound of snapping twigs – it is no more than a dried husk. He quickly checks the other six and finds them all to be in the same desiccated state.

A single small, white disk has been placed on top of three of the hollowed exoskeletons. Munroe kneels to examine one of them. It is about 10cm in diameter and 1cm thick and has one of the alien power cells inserted into it. He reaches out and takes it and it comes away easily but with a slight adhesion. He tosses it to Lazarus who catches it and turns it over in his hands, examining it closely. As he does so, a wedge of the circle, representing roughly one tenth of it, turns from white to black. Lazarus is somewhat startled, but he pockets it and then retrieves the other two.

Once more, Munroe leads you across the room and along the single exit passageway. It is abou 20 metres long and then turns 90 degrees to the left. At the corner is another of the bronze doors. You move cautiously down the passage and Munroe checks carefully around the corner. It terminates in a dead end about 10 metres further on. The door now in front of him bears bas-reliefs of two humanoids revelling in a rain shower.

He signals to Priest to come forward from the rear and then kneels in front of the door, mag pistol at the ready. Priest stands behind him and then leaves over his shoulder to press the pressure stud, causing the door to slide smoothly open. Both men fall backwards in shock as an ankle-depth swarm of cockroach-like creatures tumbles out and crawl voraciously over them. Tiny mandibles click in painful bites, but they are not strong enough to pierce the skin and after a moment of panic the two right themselves with brushes and stamps as the swarm pours up the passageway and past the rest of you.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Munroe nods to Priest who checks around one angle of the door while Munroe does the same for the other. The room is L-shaped and divided into booths, and the lighting is more subdued than that you have experienced so far, casting long shadows into the corners. Munroe darts across to the nearest corner booth and spins around as he reaches his destination. It is as well that he did so as bearing down on him from one of the darker corners is one of the beetle-men. There is a pulsing hum from Beth as the power pack charges up the accelerator and the discharged flechette rips right through the creature causing huge damage. It falls to the floor in a green splattered heap at Munroe’s feet.

The rest of you now enter to explore the room. Once more, the room contains seven booths. The three on the shorter arm of the ‘L’ are empty apart from a faucet in each. The first two on the longer arm of the ‘L’ each contain a long tub filled with earth. The second two each contain an upright coffin-sized opaque box, with small perforations at foot level, and a red rubber tube running from the faucet into the top of the box somewhere.

Hiltie probes the soil in the nearest tub and quickly finds something hard. He scoops some of the soil away and finds a length of what looks like thigh bone protruding. He scoops away some more and then pulls back with a look of disgust on his face. There is a decomposing body buried in the soil. Reluctantly he checks the other and finds the same, another partially decomposed body.

Lazarus approaches the first upright box and gives an experimental tap on the opaque surface. It feels like plastic. He jumps back in shock as a tap comes from inside the box. He looks around for guidance and the rest of you back off a little while encouraging him to investigate further. He quickly locate hinges at the side of the box and a pair of simple latches holding the front panel closed at foot and hear level. He opens both and carefully starts to open the panel. All of a sudden it pops open and inside he sees a naked male humanoid with leafy head growths and occasional symmetrical patches of bark-like skin. The skin colouration is a pale yellow-green and a red tube is inserted into one side of the mouth. The eyes flick open and the figure lurches forward towards Lazarus, the tube pulling free from its mouth causing water to spurt out.

To be continued…

View
The Bronze Tomb
In which our heroes set off on the trail of the Serpent's Fang.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

Marius’ news of the possible location of an unplundered sky tomb is of great interest to you all and you immediately start to plan for an expedition. Checking the co-ordinates and trajectory with the station crew reveals that there is a large asteroid in Hard Light’s shattered debris rim matching that profile so at least that part of the story is true.

Looking to economise on some of the expenses you approach Ranse Hardlee with a proposal to ferry you out there for a cut of the proceeds from any artifacts successfully retrieved and sold to Marius. Although happy with the idea of taking you out to the rim once more, he looks uncomfortable at the idea of working for “shares” and tells you he will have to discuss it with his wife, Marion, first. As you suspected might be the case, after little more than an hour has passed he gets back in touch with you and tells you she wasn’t haven’t any of it. Hard cash only and the usual fee of Cr 250 for the round trip will apply. After some persuasion, he does agree to extend the maximum stopover time from 24 hours to 48 hours for no extra cost, giving you an extra day for explorations and making it a 6 day round trip in total. He will go no further though. He is not willing to further risk the shielding on The Leadbelly and hence his life for any price.

Preparations for the trip continue apace and having no wish to repeat your first trip out where you subsisted for the best part of a week on the potato crisps and fizzy drinks provided by Ranse, you purchase some more supplies in the form of ration packs, waxed cartons of water, and some fresh items, primarily fruit, from the Heavenly Hash. Hiltie, impressed with the utility of the instapanel in the ice tomb seeks out Roland Lomax at The Locker and buys a couple more.

So it is that within 24 hours of meeting with Marius that you are once more ensconced in The Leadbelly’s drone retrieval bay for the interminably tedious and uncomfortable trip out to the far reaches of the Hard Light system. Ranse gives you plenty of warning when you are coming up to the asteroid and you check weapons and don vacc suits before crowding round the shielded quartz observation slit which floods the compartment with hard, red light when the shutter is pulled back. The asteroid itself looks unremarkable – a large, rocky mass some 500 metres in diameter pitted and scarred with innumerable impact craters, the pitch darkness of their furthest reaches in sharp contrast to the harshly illuminated portions in the full glare of The Beast.

The Leadbelly swings around to the shadowed side and right on cue an airlock door built directly into the side of the asteroid hoves into view. Unlike the ice tomb, this one is a soft bronze in colour and is split diagonally across the middle. Ranse moves in close and extends The Leadbelly’s docking umbilical which connects with a reassuring thunk.

Eager to escape from the confines of the drone retrieval bay, you snap suit visors closed and crowd into the airlock before entering the short umbilical. As with the ice tomb there is a slowly blinking light next to the doors and a simple pressure stud. There are engravings on the airlock door of two humanoid figures in profile, more outlines than detailed depictions, both with arms outstretched towards a pair of suns above them. You are somewhat reminded of carvings on the walls of Egyptian tombs.

Hiltie presses the pressure stud and after a delay or thirty seconds or so the doors slide open smoothly to top left and bottom right, with none of the juddering or labouring you witnessed in the ice tomb. Beyond lies a small cube shaped airlock chamber, roughly three metres on a side, with another pair of diagonally divided bronze doors at the far end and a series of vents at floor level. The airlock is brightly illuminated but there is no visible light source.

You all squeeze in and Hiltie presses the pressure stud on the reverse side of the entrance doors, which slide smoothly closed. You wait with some trepidation for a few seconds, remembering the deathly cold water of the ice tomb, before becoming aware of the sound of pumps as the airlock pressurises, this time with air.

After a total of thirty seconds, the pumps stop and the inner doors slide open to reveal a ‘U’-shaped ante-chamber with squared off sides. The walls look to be constructed from a bronze coloured metal alloy and are covered with engravings of Ushans in the pride of life on a world with two suns, each sub-texted with script. They are engaged in a variety of pastoral activities – tending plants, building structures, beguiling lovers, and conversing in gardens. The structure itself is much more squared than in the ice tomb, and the glyphs are a straightened, simplified form of the Second Dynasty writing you have already seen. Again, the room is brightly lit but with no apparent source. There are two bronze lined passageways about two metres wide leading off to the left and right from each arm of the ‘U’.

Christian checks the readings on his vacc suit monitors and they tell him that the air is at least nominally breathable. There is some nervousness about opening up your suits so Christian simply unseals his helmet and slides up the visor, taking a deep breath to demonstrate its safety. The air has a faintly metallic taste to it.

You relax a little and all unseal your helmets. Munroe, Lazarus, and Christian strip their vacc suits off to increase their mobility and stack them neatly by the airlock door. Priest, Alexei, and Hiltie are more circumspect and opt to keep theirs on, albeit with visors raised. Lazarus takes a short video recording of the ante-chamber and the engravings for posterity, sweeping the camera around your group as you all wave and smile into the lens. Lazarus gives a thumbs up from the other side of the camera. This is going to be a much easier prospect than the dreadful ice tomb.

To be continued…

View
Return to the Ice Tomb
In which our heroes go back for more.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

As before, the trip back to the ice tomb is monotonous but eventful. Ranse docks The Leadbelly and extends the short umbilical to the airlock door, with its small winking light. Knowing what to expect this time, you all enter the airlock and patiently wait while it floods with icy cold water allowing you to enter into the tomb itself, suit lights darting around through the murky gloom.

You ready the spotlights with UV filters in place, hoping this will render them invisible to any of the robots remaining within and stand by with the UV spotlight, which you hope will blind them. Hiltie inserts a power cell into the instapanel he is carrying and it expands into a two metre square and one centimetre thick sheet of ceraplast. While it is still soft he moulds it onto the rough shape of a shield and then lets it harden. His idea is to use it to aid passage of the deadly crystal room (as you surmised, Director Dutta was certainly not about to lend you one of Brightside’s shielded suits again after the state you brought it back in) and he passes it to Christian. Even he can manage the five kilogram weight.

The ante-chamber beyond the airlock is as you left it, icy walls with elegantly curved, fragile, glass-like benches along each wall. There is the hint of the bas-reliefs buried deep within the ice and Alexei tries to use the laser cutter to dig through to them. As before it will not work and he concludes that some safety mechanism prevents it from being used underwater.

Your immediate objective is to retrieve the sarcophagus with the preserved body inside, so you consult the photograph of the map you found on your previous visit and plan the shortest route. Munroe takes point duty with Jonah bringing up the rear, and you proceed cautiously and with discipline, aware that in the silted water and with the curved passageways you will little warning of any hostiles.

As well as your cautious approach, the going is slow and clumsy but you reach the chamber with the dais without incident. The mineral encrusted pseudo-quartz sarcophagus is still there and Alexei peers through the gap you scraped on your last visit. The woman is inside, resplendent in her robes of myriad tiny glass-like threads that channel the ambient light into a luminous halo surrounding her. For all the world she looks as though she is asleep. Alexei gives an experimental lift at one end of the sarcophagus and finds that it is not fixed to the dais. In fact, the combination of air inside and the buoyancy of the water make it a fairly easy albeit clumsy task and he waves to Lazarus to take the other end.

Manhandling the sarcophagus, you return to the room with its macabre frieze of bodies embedded in the icy walls and deposit it carefully there before proceeding to the vortex room. The drain is still blocked by the body you stuffed into it and you proceed through the room without incident and down to the library wherein the slowly swirling vortex of plastipaper remains.

You grab a few sheets of the plastipaper and, emboldened, start to fan out into the room seeking to grab more for your sample bags. Visibility is restricted to little more than a metre and Munroe has no warning as a sleek black shape scythes down from above and slashes him with its steel claws before with a flick it is gone down the tall passageway above the heads of the tail enders. He staggers backwards, wounded but conscious, and Hiltie quickly applies suit patches to the tears.

Not at all put off by the ambush, Lazarus follows the swirl of the current spiralling into the centre of the room and discovers another drain, this one largely clogged by paper, before wading back out again. Nobody feels like trying to track down your assailant and so you decide to return to the The Leadbelly with what you primarily came for, the crystal sarcophagus and its mysterious occupant.

You load the sarcophagus aboard and Hiltie, suffering from a bad attack of the creeps, secures it with several lengths of safety line. Then, despite having been at your destination for little more than an hour, you signal to Ranse that you are ready to leave and he undocks The Leadbelly for the two day trip back to Brightside station.

On arrival, you meet up with Marius Rochambeau once more and tell him about your findings. He is mildly interested in the sheets of plastipaper, which confirm his previous assessment of the tomb as dating from the Second Dynasty of the Ushans, but not enough to want to buy any of them. He is academically interested in the body but financially more so in your description of the robe it was wearing. However, as none of you want to open the sarcophagus at this time he leaves the decision to you with a shrug. You know where he is should you change your minds.

Just as you are about to leave his quarters, he remembers something and calls you back. For once he has something that you may be interested in. While you were out at the ice asteroid a shuttle arrived from the Empty Graves artists’ colony on one of its semi-regular resupply trips. He got to chatting with one of the shuttle crew in the Midnight Sun over a few drinks who tried to sell him some information regarding a previously unknown sky tomb. Marius made it clear to the man that he only dealt in hard artifacts that Stoltmann & Haar would be able to resell on the antiquities market but admits that he had you in mind when he parted with a few credits (out of his own pocket, he says pointedly) and a round of drinks.

The crewman claimed that they had found a survival pod drifting in space near the colony and on opening it up they discovered a long dead corpse inside. This was remarkable enough, but notes found on the body spoke of the last voyage of the Serpent’s Fang, a pirate ship destroyed in system some 19 years ago. It seemed that the unfortunate was a member of the pirate crew and that the ship had stopped briefly at what must have been a sky tomb before
rendezvousing with its doom. The notes spoke of a cache of plunder that it left there and gave the co-ordinates and orbital trajectory of the asteroid within which the tomb was located. Obviously, were the reports to prove to be accurate, Marius would be interested in buying any relics of note that were retrieved from the tomb.

To be continued…

View
Retail Therapy
In which our heroes shop like there's no tomorrow.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

Returning to the infirmary, you find that Munroe is already up and about, and Hiltie is conscious but still confined to bed. Christian is out of surgery but still sedated. You talk to Dr Indrani and she tells you that the prognosis is good, but it was a close run thing for a while. In the meantime she presents you with a bill for her services to date.

Still fascinated by the remains of the robots you salvaged from the tomb, you ask her who aboard Brightside Station would be best placed to examine them. She suggests you try Jaffa Okoye, the technical chief, and advises your best chance of finding her when she’s not on duty is to try either the hydroponic bay or the park plaza, both of which are located on Highdeck.

You head up to Highdeck and try the hydroponic bay first. It is a large area located on the outer surface of the station and is full of long troughs of force grown genegineered vegetables and tanks of meat substitute. There are also many banks of genegineered oxygenating lichens. The setup is fairly standard and you have seen this arrangement before on other Bannerjee Twelve manufactured stations.

A man and a woman are the only people here, both deep in conversation. The man is slim and blonde and looks up as you enter, in the middle of laughing at some joke the two have just shared. He walks towards and past you with astonishing physical grace and flashes a perfect white smile as he passes. The woman is young and trim with very dark skin and almond eyes, and she watches curiously as you approach, hands on hips, before extending a slender, albeit scarred hand in greeting. Introductions follow and your guess is correct, this is Jaffa Okoye, Brightside’s technical chief.

You show her parts from one of the robots, seeking her professional assessment. Out of politeness she examines them, but confesses she is a mining engineer and does not have much expertise in either robotics or electronics. With an eventual shrug she confirms what you have gleaned already. The parts are of unusual design but do not seem to represent any technical breakthrough in manufacturing methods, miniaturisation, or materials used. The sensors in the head cavity seem to be capable of extending into the ultra-violet range of the spectrum, judging by the lensing arrangement, but that is all she can tell. Nonetheless, you thank her for her time and take leave of her.

With some time to kill before Hiltie and Christian are capable of leaving the infirmary, and with curiosity firmly piqued, you start to make plans for a return to the ice tomb before Dutta’s miners start to cut it up. Knowing what you are facing now, you vow to be better prepared this time and seek out the cargo chief, Roland Lomax, who operates a sideline in supplying kit and equipment to the occasional explorers who pass through on their way to loot the tombs.

You track Lomax down to what you discover is known locally as “The Locker” on Middeck. It is clear that this is Lomax’s domain, stacked high with crates full of imported snacks, pornography, non-alcoholic beverages, music and vid chips, and all the other staples that contribute to making life on a mining station minimally tolerable. As you have heard, he explains that aside from the luxuries, he also maintains a modest selection of gear for explorers interested in investigating the sky tombs. If he doesn’t have it, he might be able to get it by arranging a special production run with Jaffa Okoye down in the workshops, but only if the gear is the sort of thing that a mining station’s design computers might be expected to have as a manufacturing template. Even if it can be arranged, he smiles, the price will be high.

Considering it unlikely that Director Dutta will allow you to borrow any vacc suits again given the state you returned your previous loans in, you start with these and add on a plentiful supply of suit and lazarus patches, and power cells. A hard commline and a pile of ration packs completes the matter of safety and survival equipment. Fearing that more of the robots may be at large within the tomb you also purchase a laser pistol, which Lomax assures you, with a quizzical look in response to the question “will it work underwater?”, that it will. Two handheld spotlights are also bought and he agrees to arrange for the manufacture (at heinous expense) of an ultra-violet spotlight and UV filters for the other two. You are now some Cr 2,000 lighter but feel a good deal more comfortable about returning to the deadly ice asteroid.

You sound out Ranse about a return trip to the asteroid in The Leadbelly and while he is agreeable to the trip he is not prepared to offer you another freebie and you arrange a fee of Cr 250 for a 5 day charter. You have another couple of days at leisure on Brightside before you are ready to leave, primarily to allow Hiltie and especially Christian to recover from their injuries. With the clock ticking before the asteroid is destroyed forever, you persuade Christian, still weak, that he may as well spend a couple of days recuperating on The Leadbelly as anywhere else.

There is one final essential for the trip though. Munroe has spend most of his adult life in the military subsisting on ration packs. He knows full well that although they will keep you alive they are deadly monotonous, bland as hell, and give you the worst constipation imaginable. He takes it upon himself to go to the Heavenly Hash and purchase a supply of fresh fruit and a monster bottle of chilli sauce!

To be continued…

View
Echoes of the Past
In which our heroes profit from history.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

Jonah scans the chamber for signs of any more of the creatures and relaxes slightly when his quick search turns up a negative. Lazarus rushes to stabilise Munroe and slaps on one of the last remaining of your dwindling supply of vacc suit patches. Munroe is unconscious, heavily wounded, but alive. Lazarus then prises Beth from the nervous Alexei’s tight grip, still held out in front of him in both hands, and gives him a reassuring smile. At least Lazarus knows one end of a firearm from the other and Munroe is in no position to object to the casual passing around of his beloved Beth.

Lazarus now examines the bodies of the two creatures and is startled to discover that they are robots, man-sized constructs of glossy black plating and sharp edges, beetle-like in shape. They have three pairs of legs – one for locomotion, one for manipulation, and one equipped with the brutal steel claws that have wreaked such havoc among you. They are of alien design and manufacturing technique but none of the components appear to demonstrate technology in advance of what humanity is currently capable of. He checks the head cavity of the one Munroe blew apart looking for a transponder or signalling device but nothing seems to match the description.

Jonah checks through the door from which the robots emerged and finds a small oval shaped bay, with racking along both walls clearly designed to hold more of the robots. With some trepidation he estimates there is storage capacity for about 10 of the machines. On receipt of this news, Alexei and Lazarus decide that enough is enough. With only half of your original party capable of action it is time to take the last of the geophysical readings and leave the dreadful ice tomb.

You bag up the remains of the robots in your net sample bags for later examination and take the direct route back to the airlock, Alexei once more using the shielded suit to protect the rest of you from the beautiful but deadly crystal sheets, and arrive back at The Leadbelly unmolested. Three times you have returned to the The Leadbelly on this expedition, each time carrying the body of one of your comrades. Even Ranse refrains from comment over the PA this time, as shivering and exhausted you strip off your ice encrusted vacc suits and try your best to make Munroe comfortable, along with Christian and Hiltie, who are both still stable but are being kept sedated by their lazarus patches and are clearly in need of medical attention – and that is two days travel away.

“Just go,” groans Alexei, as the PA eventually crackles into life and a shaky sounding Ranse enquires as to what he should do. There are a series of popping noises as The Leadbelly’s docking clamps release. Lazarus watches through the thick quartz observation slit as shards of ice crack away as the shuttle detaches. He watches as the door with its elegant, curved engravings, single light still blinking slowly next to it, as it recedes into the distance. This may have been a beautiful and wondrous place once, but now it is a tomb of terrors. The shuttle emerges from the shadow of the asteroid and the red light of The Beast floods into the drone retrieval bay. Lazarus turns his head aside and pulls across the blind, before collapsing into one of the chairs welded to the spartan metal floor.

The trip back to Brightside Station is both tedious and anxious in equal measure. None of you feel like talking and there is little to do. Christian, Hiltie, and Munroe are all unconscious. You have stripped them out of their ruined vacc suits and with no facilities to clean them up they remain caked in their own dried and congealed blood. Lazarus patches are an incredible innovation in field medical care, but they cannot keep seriously injured people alive forever. All three urgently need professional medical attention, probably surgery, and in the wild radiation of the Hard Light system it is impossible to send a radio message. You pray that the facilities at Brightside are up to the task. Christian is the worst injured and you begin to doubt that he is going to make it.

It is with some relief when Ranse announces that you are within visual scanning range of Brightside Station and he has sent a message via comm laser for them to have a medical team standing by to receive casualties. As you disembark from the The Leadbelly, a small buxom woman in her thirties with dark almond eyes and straight black hair, her ancestors from the Indian sub-continent by the look of her, bustles forward with a medical kit and two orderlies with stretchers. “Dr Indrani,” she murmurs to the unasked question as she checks your three casualties and triages them. Christian is taken away to the infirmary immediately via the lift at the rear of the atrium and the other two are not far behind.

Slightly taken aback by this display of efficiency in the shabby surroundings of Brightside Station and with no real clue what to do next, Alexei, Lazarus, and Jonah gather up your salvage from the tomb, the survey gear, and make straight for the transients’ quarters where you have a room for a quick shower and freshen up.

Basic hygiene attended to, you decide to present yourselves to Director Dutta. He is very pleased to see you and is delighted with the invaluable data you have retrieved, authorising your payments with a flourish of his multi-card, even as he deducts the overdue air tax for the time you have already spent on the station. He asks his assistant to check with the infirmary on the condition of the wounded for you and she reports back that for Munroe and Hiltie the prognosis is good. Munroe should be in a fit enough state to be discharged after an overnight stay, although Hiltie is likely to remain hospitalised for several days. It is not looking so good for Christian and he is still in theatre.

You try to engage Director Dutta on the nature of several of the finds you have brought back with you but he makes it clear he is not in the slightest bit interested in them. He is impatient to get to work planning the mining of the ice asteroid and he quickly steers you out of his office, somewhat brusquely suggesting that you “take your crap to Marius.”

Rather than follow up on the lead immediately, you visit your colleagues in the infirmary and find Munroe already conscious although hooked up to a drip and monitoring machines. He complains of a headache so you conclude that he is fine. Hiltie is still out of it although has been cleaned up and is looking in better condition despite the extensive dressings and stitches. Christian is undergoing surgery and you are told that it is still touch and go.

The rest of the day the trio spend relaxing and trying to recuperate from the rigours of your recent expedition, taking a proper cooked meal at the Heavenly Hash. The tank grown meat substitute is a little odd and there is a conspicuous absence of eggs or dairy produce, but the food is hot and fresh and that is enough after several days of ration packs. Prior to retiring for some much needed sleep you spend an hour or two in the Midnight Sun, sharing a few drinks and watching a rowdy stage performance by two off duty miners who seem to fancy themselves as a blues duo. For the miners in the audience it seems to make a welcome break from their grumblings about the recent increase in shift lengths.

With memories of the deathly chill of the ice tomb starting to recede somewhat, the following morning (actually the mid-shift on the station) you try and track down “Marius”. A helpful security guard steers you to the quarters of Marius Rochambeau, who he explains is a buying representative for Stoltmann & Haar, a firm of antique and curio dealers.

A knock on the cabin door reveals a yawning young man in a dressing gown and pyjamas, dataslab in hand, with a shock of unruly hair. Behind him the cluttered cabin is littered with papers, books, small statuettes, rugs, wall hangings and a stack of crates. He greets you in an absent-minded way with a pronounced French accent, all the time running his free hand through his hair, but his English is good. You have brought your sample bags of alien artifacts with you along with the wrecked remains of the two robots.

Seeing these he surmises the purpose of your visit and waves you into the cramped cabin. Every spare surface is covered with books, even half of the bunk bed below which is an untidy desk, so you stand. He offers you coffee from a pot, pouring it into chipped mugs, but it is extremely bitter and cold.

Despite his somewhat vague manner, he is genuinely interested in what you have to tell him about your trip to the ice tomb and starts to open up a little about himself. He doesn’t really like his current job much and finds his work as a buyer demeaning to his ambitions to become a xenoarchaeologist, which is what he studied at university. However he hopes that if does his current assignment as an antiques buyer well and profitably (he has some tough targets to meet), then Stoltmann & Haar will reward him with an assignment more to his liking.

As you seem curious about the history of the sky tombs, he fills you in on what has been surmised about them so far. Two years ago, a wayward novium transport was arriving under the shelter of the outer rim debris when their scanners picked up an anomalous asteroid. The captain dared to go closer, and an away team discovered that the asteroid had been carved out by ancient aliens. Within the pressurised interior, strange artifacts of glass and mineral fibres were found alongside the skeleton of a humanoid alien lying in an ornate casket of transparent pseudo-quartz. A tablet within the sepulchre gave the astronomic coordinates of more of these asteroids, which were quickly dubbed “sky tombs”.

Since then, explorers and adventurers from nearby systems have occasionally made the trip to Hard Light in order to plunder these ancient tombs. Marius was sent here to buy the takings from these ancient crypts. More than one team of explorers has been lost forever in the depths of a sky tomb, and there are persistent tales of pirates and worse lairing in the pressurised safety of a looted tomb. A few of the ancient rocks are known to be inhabited by hermits or small, reclusive communities that care little for outsiders. Most notable of these is the artists’ colony at Empty Grave. They do minimal trade with Brightside Station for the necessities they require.

As the sky tombs were discovered only a scant two years ago, there has been no real archaeological or xenological study of them performed yet. The only people who have made a concentrated effort to explore them have been adventurers and freebooters with minimal interest in the society or history of their creators. Marius has not even been to one of them himself, nor does he have any desire to do so, preferring to stay in the relative safety of Brightside, shielded from The Beast behind Aegis.

He is interested in your descriptions of the flooded ice tomb, this is something new. All of the others discovered were built into large carbon-iron asteroids that float in the thick debris field that fills Hard Light’s outer rim region. The exteriors of the asteroids were largely untouched, and the only hint that something was unusual about each rock was the docking port and pressure annex jutting from the outward facing side of the asteroid. The interiors were reported as being by and large warm, slightly humid, with maintained pressure and breathable atmospheres. His guess is that the tombs are powered by solar power arrays embedded in concealed light shunts on the surface of the asteroid.

As far as the beings who built them, even less is known, but Marius has been able to piece together a few conclusions from the stories and artifacts brought back by the explorers. In style there seem to be three distinct dynasties, each with differences in architecture and script, followed by a sharp decline and eventual disappearance. He has dated the oldest artifacts, what he calls the First Dynasty, to more than 8,000 years ago, and the most recent to about 1,000 years ago, a period he calls The Decline.

Local legend in this part of the galaxy has it that the primary inhabitants were a race of long vanished aliens known as the Ushans. These part-plant, part-mammalian humanoids had an elaborate and peaceful society built around the worship of the light that nourished them. He has no evidence to substantiate the conclusion, but he believes that the Hard Light system would seem a natural place of pilgrimage for such a species. You tell him of the body you have found and retrieved and he seems pleased that his conclusion seems to have been correct.

The pacifistic Ushans had the misfortune to encounter the ravenous hordes of the Chittik. These beetle-wasp sentients ruthlessly enslaved the Ushans for use as hosts and slave labour. With no talent for war, the Ushans were soon brought low. Ushan history was brought to a close with a great rebellion. After millennia of suffering under the Chittik, the Ushans finally abandoned their pacifistic faith to fight back against their tormentors. The attempt was a disaster; the Chittik easily crushed their rebellious slaves. Having fatally compromised their principles, and lacking even success to justify it, the remaining Ushans committed mass suicide by casting themselves into the flames and passed into history and legend. What subsequently became of the Chittik is not know, but without hosts to feed off and raise their young, their local existence would have been short lived.

The description of the Chittik sounds suspiciously familiar to the robots you encountered and you bring forth the remnants of the two destroyed specimens. Marius concurs that the resemblance is close enough to be no coincidence. With this fascinating history lesson at an end, you get down to business. Marius is here to buy curios and you are here to sell. You show him what you have found and he concludes that they date from the Ushan Second Dynasty. He tells you that tombs from this era are notable for circles and curves and soft arcs. The script used during the Second Dynasty is rounded and flowing and he shows you some examples of this. The content is a mystery of course.

He has no interest in the wrecked robots or the body (although he would like to see it to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity and you agree to arrange this), as he feels there would be no demand on the collectors’ market. He agrees to buy the four glass fibre statuettes and the section of thin, tough glassy fabric and you settle on a price of Cr 2,800 for the lot. He calls the section of fabric a penitence wrap and demonstrates its peculiar properties by wrapping it around his coffee pot. The fabric bends the light around the pot rendering it almost invisible to the naked eye. For a species that gained its nutrition from light, this is an object of some significance.

Next, Alexei shows him the two tube shaped devices retrieved and Marius recognises both at once. He asks if you are willing to sell but, sensing some level of higher interest, you play coy and ask him about them. He is straightforward and gives you a practical demonstration of both. The one is a laser cutting tool and he uses it to neatly slice the handle off one of his coffee cups. He then presses his hand to it and it cuts off instantly. The other he calls a stickbeam. He tosses the cup on the floor and points the tube at it, pressing a switch on one side. A narrow, bright green beam projects out illuminating the cup and then he presses the rocker switch on the other side towards him. To gasps of amazement the cup is smoothly levitated towards him. He rocks the switch the other way and it moves equally smoothly back to its original position.

He offers you Cr 1,000 for the pair, but Alexei politely declines, retrieving and pocketing both tools as soon as politeness allows. With the buying and selling concluded, you take your leave of Marius and decide to check up on your injured comrades in the infirmary.

To be continued…

View
Hidden Danger
In which our heroes confront their worst fears.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

You strip Hiltie out of the shielded suit and try and make him as comfortable as you can in the spartan surroundings of the drone retrieval bay. He is deeply unconscious, possibly in a coma, and pale in colour. He has lost blood but the Lazarus patch seems to have done its job. The mediscanner tells you his vitals signs are weak but stable. You discuss the situation at length. Hiltie clearly needs proper medical attention and you consider leaving now for the return to Brightside station. However, it is a two day trip and you consider it highly unlikely that Director Dutta will pay you anything if you return with only part of the data he needs in order to safely mine the asteroid.

On top of that, virtually a week will have elapsed since you arrived and without the reaction mass the asteroid can provide, Brightside station will eventually drift out from behind the protective shield of Aegis and be burnt to a crisp, yourselves with it. With the next novium transport not due for more than six weeks there is no possible escape. It is as much in your own interests as anyone else’s to make all efforts to acquire the geophysical data.

So it is that reluctantly you decide to re-enter the tomb. Alexei is also trained in the operation of exosuits so he dons the patched up shielded suit as the rest of you make ready to return, pooling your remaining power cells and suit patches before dividing them up equally. On exiting the airlock you spend a few moments re-acclimatising yourselves to the aquatic environment, before heading off in a group to the vortex room, taking more geophysical readings as you go. It is just as you left it, with the alien body wedged into the drain and the water reasonably calm.

This time you head off down the curving ice passage to the left. This is longer than most with several bends in it but like all the others leads into a large ovoid chamber. There are two exits on the far side, one to the left and one to the right, but the intervening water is filled with vast numbers of lacy, delicate, razor-sharp looking crystalline sheets and growths along the floor, walls and ceiling, almost completely barring your route. Jonah extends his stun staff and uses it to poke at the nearest sheet. It shatters into myriads of sharp crystals, that hand lazily in the air, glinting and reflecting the light from your suits.

Alexei moves to the front and gulps nervously. He is the obvious candidate to attempt the crossing as he has the protection of the shielded suit. With a gruff nod, Jonah wraps his arms around Alexei and presses himself to the rear of the suit, as the pair clumsily enter the room and begin to cross, heading for the exit on the right. There is no question of trying to weave a path through the interlocking sheets so Alexei takes it slowly, pressing against each sheet in turn until it shatters, Jonah staying tight behind him, shielded in his wake. The suit does its job and protects both men from harm, although the path they take is left with clouds of the razor-sharp crystals hanging in the water.

Lazarus tries to cross the room next. He takes a different path and concentrates on weaving in and out of the sheets, trying as much as possible to avoid making contact. Fighting against the enforced clumsiness of the vacc suit, he manages it and also crossed without harm. Munroe is next to try and he uses the same tactic as Lazarus taking another path off to the left. He too is successful in this endeavour. Christian is last to cross but your good luck so far does not hold. Just as he is within reach of the exit, he brushes into one of the sheets, which slashes his suit open even as it disintegrates, biting deeply into his flesh and inflicting a very bad wound. He stumbles and falls, shattering even more of the sheets and filling the water with clouds of deadly crystals. Alexei does not hesitate this time and re-enters the room, the shielded suit protecting him as he drags Christian to safety. Munroe applies a lazarus patch and a suit repair patch. Christian, like Hiltie before him, is badly wounded, unconscious, but stable.

Munroe hoists the limp Christian over his shoulder, fireman’s lift style, as you prepare to press on. Jonah leads the way along the curved passageway and fairly soon he can hear a muffled rhythmic sound coming from in front. The water distorts the sound greatly, but as he moves on it resolves itself into a low, melancholy music that gets clearer and louder. The passageway ends in a perfectly circular chamber and as he rounds the final curve Jonah sees one of the plant/human aliens, a female by the look of her, standing in the centre of the chamber. She is dressed in elaborate robes and is wearing a high curving head dress that rises up over her head. Her arms are spread, palms outwards, and she seems to be singing in time to the music, sonorously swaying back and forth, eyes closed.

Jonah steps backwards behind the curve and waves his arms frantically at the rest of you following behind. Pressing helmets together he relates, “we’ve got a live one!” This generates anxiety and excitement in equal measure, but it is Lazarus who eventually offers to investigate. Rounding the curve, he steps carefully into full view of the woman while remaining in the passageway, his own arms raised and outwards in a peaceful gesture. The woman distorts and bulges as he looks on, multiple others flickering into sight around the circumference of the room, and then fading away a moment later. The woman is now as before, eyes closed and singing her lonely and melancholic lament. If she is aware of Lazarus’ presence, she certainly does not acknowledge it.

Emboldened, Lazarus steps into the room a couple of paces, eyes fixed on the woman for any sign of a reaction. All of a sudden there is a blur of movement as a shape sweeps into view from somewhere above Lazarus. You get a confused impression of a sleek black shape moving effortlessly through the water above you in the passageway and just as quickly it is gone. Lazarus staggers back into the passageway, precious bubbles of oxygen and bright red blood pouring from a rent in his suit. Lazarus starts to panic ,flailing around in the passageway and lashing out around him, and it takes the combined efforts of Alexei and Munroe to forcibly hold him down and patch his suit. Once restrained, Lazarus takes a deep breath and manages to compose himself. Alexei examines the wound and concludes that it looks worse than it was. Lazarus is not in great shape, but he is alive and conscious, although icy cold water has leaked into his suit and his is shivering with a combination of nerves and the cold.

Becoming increasingly exasperated with this lackadaisical approach to exploring what is clearly a highly dangerous environment in its own right and to add to that contains active hostiles, Munroe pushes himself to the front, unholstering Beth his beloved MAG pistol. He removes and replaces the magazine, checks the slide and flicks the safety to off. Taking up a kneeling position and covering the room, he nods to Lazarus.

Lazarus steels himself and enters the chamber once more, this time checking carefully above the entrance before stepping fully inside. The woman has carried on with her lament as if nothing has happened. Suddenly suspicious, Jonah now enters the room and approaches the woman directly, prodding at her gently with his staff. It passes right through her. As he suspected, it is no more than an extremely lifelike hologram. Lazarus presses the palm of his hand against the icy walls of the circular chamber and detects a steady vibration. The entire room is one giant speaker.

Finding nothing else of interest in the room, you take your geophysical readings and leave, returning to the chamber with the sheets of crystalline and razor-sharp growths. Remembering the easy passage that Alexei and Jonah enjoyed on your first traverse, Alexei leads the way again, this time with Monroe clinging to his back. He wades through the sheets, once again shattering at his touch. He drops Munroe off at the passageway you have not yet explored, who takes up a guard position, Beth cocked and ready. Alexei returns across the room, protected from the clouds of razor sharp crystals by the shielded suit and the unconscious Christian is tied to his back, the servo motors on the suit whining slightly as they adjust to the extra load. He makes the trip awkwardly but safely, then returns for Lazarus and then Jonah last, who acts as the rearguard.

Munroe now takes point position and heads along the new passageway slowly and carefully, checking the angles and overhead constantly, waiting for his suit lights to illuminate all nooks and crannies, and letting Beth lead the way the whole time. This passageway is a shorter one with a single curve in it, with another perfectly circular chamber at the end, this one with a single exit only. It contains a larger than life-sized statue of some kind, but the form is obscured by the algal blooms that dominate the chamber. The statue is bearded in long sheets of clammy, opaque plant life and a slight current from somewhere causes the other blooms to slowly billow in the murky water.

Munroe checks above the entrance before entering and then waves the rest of you in, standing guard as you take the precious geophysical readings. Keen to ensure you stay on mission this time and do not get distracted, he then leads you straight across the chamber to the single exit and then down the icy passageway beyond, this one much longer and taller than the others. You stop mid-way to take readings again before pressing on to what your map suggests is the furthest point of the sky tomb. Surely enough, rounding a curve you see the entrance to crescent moon shaped chamber with a door in the centre of the convex wall. Jonah, aware that the creature may still be behind you somewhere, backtracks somewhat down the passageway to watch your rears, thoroughly approving of this new, more cautious approach to affairs.

Munroe motions the rest of you to wait and then, back against the wall, he leans in slightly to examine the wall above the entrance. Sure enough, there is a sleek, black domed shape clinging to the wall. It reacts fast, faster than Munroe, detaching itself and unfurling six limbs, the front two tipped in sharp steel claws, glinting in the light from Munroe’s suit. He is shocked by the speed at which the creature moves but he just manages to bring Beth into line and get a round off. It hisses through the water and past the creature – a miss – but the creature’s claws themselves flash past Munroe just centimetres from his visor, before with a flick it is gone down the passageway once more, above the heads of the others. Munroe curses under his breath, pats Beth in sympathy, but realises that he too had a lucky escape.

Inside on the left hand wall are two view screen with a small control panel underneath featuring a prominent orange knob. One viewscreen shows a murky and faded view of the asteroid’s exterior and entrance area, with the airlock of The Leadbelly prominent in one corner. The other, above the knob, shows a straight horizontal line. Into the other wall is frozen a cabinet, although the door itself is free of the ice.

Lazarus tries to open the cabinet but finds that it is locked. Having some skill in security systems he tries to open it but fails. Alexei is more successful though but as he opens it air starts to bubble out from inside. The cabinet had a water tight seal. He slams it shut quickly and knocks on the door. It sounds hollow.

Turning your attention to the door in the convex wall, Munroe motions for Lazarus to open it while he takes up position covering the door with Beth. Lazarus presses the pressure stud and door slides jerkily open. Framed in it is what for all the world looks like a giant beetle. With a shining black carapace, standing on two legs, with two arms tipped in steel claws outstretched and two more in reserve. Lazarus falls over backwards in astonishment and Alexei pushes past him frantically trying to stab at the pressure stud to close the door. Munroe remains cool, closes one eye and squeezes the trigger on Beth from his kneeling position. The flechette hisses through the water leaving a trail of bubbles behind it and smashes into the creature, knocking it backwards with a gaping hole in its side just as the door closes.

A few seconds pass and the door slides open again. An unharmed creature moves swiftly into the room with the injured one behind it. It moves incredibly fast through the water and it is on top of Munroe just as he fires again, knocking aside his arm with one of its six limbs and causing his shot to go wide. The creature slashes at Munroe with its steel claws, one slicing through the suit to cause a minor wound but Munroe evades the second with a combat roll, ending up on his feet, positioned between the creatures and Lazarus and Alexei.

The second creature is obviously heavily wounded and is much slower than its comrade but the first is nimble and dexterous and in these close quarters is once again on top of Munroe before he can fire. It slashes him hard and he collapses to the icy floor, bubbles pouring alarmingly from his breached suit.

Lazarus draws his monoblade and circles around the creature while in desperation, scoops up the dropped Beth. Fortunately for him the safety is off but with no experience of firearms the shot goes hopelessly wide causing Lazarus to duck and fumble his strike with the monoblade.

The unharmed creature, with the injured one right behind it, raises it claws to finish Lazarus. He closes his eyes tight and just at that moment Jonah, your rearguard, lumbers into the room with his staff out in front of him like a spear. He crosses the room and with his incredible strength drives the staff hard into the creature’s abdomen. It passes right through and into the remains of the one behind, killing both instantly. The front creature topples over slowly in the water, its claws halted seconds from Lazarus’ head!

To be continued…

View
You Spin Me Right Round
In which our heroes fail to learn the lessons of the past.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

The darting suit lights of Alexei glance off the curved carapace-like back of the creature as it scythes effortlessly through the water towards the oblivious Hiltie. Six limbs unfurl underneath, two of them tipped with gleaming steel claws that it uses to great effect to slice through the shielded suit. Hiltie is knocked off his feet and a cloud of dark blood erupts from a rent in his suit, even as the icy water starts to pour in. Alexei throws his arms up reflexively to protect himself but the creature flits overhead and is gone up the passageway.

In a state of considerable panic, Alexei ignites a thermal flare that hisses and bubbles in the water and holds it high. He can see no sign of any more of the creatures but the slowly swirling vortex of plastipaper restricts his visibility. He bends over to examine the unconscious Hiltie and even without medical training he quickly ascertains that he is seriously, possibly even mortally, wounded. The first priority is to stem the blood loss and he applies a Lazarus patch through the rent in the suit. The patch injects Hiltie with coagulant drugs, antibiotics, a system stabiliser and some blood plasma. Second priority is to patch the hole in the suit itself before any more water leaks in and adds hypothermia to the equation. He is still shaking and wastes the first suit patch from his emergency pack by applying it incorrectly. The second attempt is more successful however.

Alexei has done as much as he can and stares back up the passageway, unable to see past the first bend. He is not strong enough to lift Hiltie and he dares not go down the passage lest he meets the creature again. He has no means of contacting any of the rest of the party and he curses the decision to split up. He backs against the wall, fearfully looking up and down the passageway, thermal flare held out in front like a shield, praying that help will come soon.

Meanwhile, Lazarus and the others are working on a plan to free Jonah from the drainage hole into which he has become wedged. Pooling all of the survival lines from your vacc suits, he constructs an arrangement whereby with Monroe and himself on the one end, Jonah can apply enough leverage using his extensible staff to free himself. Pulling him out by brute force is not an option lest he tears his vacc suit. You eventually manage to free the big man and thankfully the suction now seems to have cut off and he rejoins Monroe, Lazarus, and Christian in the passageway. Now concerned as to where Hiltie and Lazarus have gotten to, Jonah offers to scout off down the other passageway to look for them. He re-enters the room and the swirling vortex starts up once more, sweeping him off his feet and spiralling him in towards the drain in the centre of the room. Lazarus, Christian, and Monroe desperately manage to cling on in the passageway as the water starts to rush past them. Jonah is swept towards the drain, but this time manages to wedge himself above the hole with his staff. If anything though, this makes matters worse because with nothing to seal the hole the water continues to rush in and he is stuck in the centre of the room, constantly bombarded by the stream of water.

The rest can do little more than watch helplessly from the corridor as the water surges past them. All of you are screaming at Jonah (although he cannot hear you) to allow himself to be sucked into the drain once more and block it with his body. Even if he could hear you, he is too proud to suffer that indignity again and continues to struggle to keep himself out of the drain.

With Jonah unwilling or unable to block the drain desperate measures are called for in order to find out what has happened to Hiltie and Alexei, and to see if you can locate any means of shutting off the water flow. Taking one of your safety lines, Lazarus wraps it around his middle while Monroe takes the other end. Moving as close as he can to the end of the passageway, Lazarus then releases his grip on the wall and allows himself to be swept into the vortex. As he spirals around the edge of the room, he is just about able to grab hold of the lip of the other passageway. He is slammed into the wall and winded, but miraculously he manages to retain his grip. Less fortunately, Monroe is jerked off his feet and is swept into the room. Lazarus just manages to release the line before he himself is pulled back in, and watches helplessly as Monroe too is dragged into the centre of the room and clatters into Jonah. Both men are now trapped.

Concentrating on the matter at hand, Lazarus makes his way down the passageway into which Alexei and Hiltie vanished. To start with it is like walking through a wind tunnel, but after rounding two of the ubiquitous curves, the tide subsides and he can make better progress. He can see a flickering light from in front, and slows his pace, rounding the next curve with great caution. He sees a terrified Alexei, sputtering thermal flare in hand, standing over Hiltie’s prone body and looking backwards and forwards. The flare dies at that moment and Alexei throws it to the floor in relief, pointing frantically at Hiltie. Lazarus gives a quick assessment, noting the hastily patched rents in the shielded suit. Hiltie is in a stable but very serious condition and clearly needs hospital treatment. The pair touch helmets and Alexei quickly brings Lazarus up to speed on events, before they decide to drag Hiltie’s body back up the passageway.

It is clumsy and difficult work, the shielded suit being very heavy. Somehow they manage it, but as soon as they round the last curve, they are back in the suction from the whirling vortex still in operation in the intervening chamber. Jonah is still steadfastly refusing to let himself be pulled into the drain again, although even his incredible strength cannot hold out forever, and now Monroe is also trapped in the centre of the room with him, both being constantly buffeted. Lazarus decides in what can only be described as a moment of impetuosity to let the suction take hold of Hiltie’s body, hoping that it will plug the drain itself. Heavy though it is, it is still snatched away by the current and then starts to spiral around the room, picking up speed as it is pulled in closer to the centre with each circuit. Jonah and Monroe can see what is coming and can do little more than try and brace themselves for the inevitable impact. The heavy suit with the unfortunate Hiltie inside smashes into them at speed, injuring both men and doing who knows what damage to its wounded occupant. However, it does knock Jonah out of the way and then is pulled into the drain, sealing it and cutting off the suction.

It is with great relief that you can all move again and probably highly fortunate that cross words are not easily exchanged in this hostile environment, although some hard and accusatory gestures are exchanged in the wake of this comedy of errors. Monroe immediately returns to the abandoned workshop and retrieves the alien body you found in the locker, returning with it to the vortex room. He carefully unplugs Hiltie from the drain, quickly rolling the body into its place to ensure the suction stays cut off.

Hiltie is the only trained medic among you, so there seems to be little option at this stage other than to retreat to The Leadbelly. A still scared Alexei fills you in on his encounter with the mysterious creature, but his story is greeted with more than a little scepticism. Nonetheless, you proceed with an air of greater caution, pausing only to take the precious geophysical readings in this chamber before retreating to the shuttle.

You are unmolested on the short but slow trip back to the airlock and, once outside, the water soaking your suits crystallises in the cold vacuum. On re-entering The Leadbelly, it crunches underfoot as you carry Hiltie’s body inside. Ranse’s familiar voice comes over the PA system from the cockpit: “well, errr, I guess that didn’t go too well…?”

To be continued…

View
The Icy Dead
In which our heroes should know better.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

Lazarus and Hiltie return to the room filled with the gently swaying vegetation and as they leave the crescent moon shaped chamber the dim illumination coming from behind the leering face on the wall flicks off. With visibility hugely restricted, the pair feel their away around the icy walls of the chamber. At roughly the 2 o’clock position, they come across another ice passage that seems to be mercifully clear, but carry on until they reach the passage they entered through at roughly 5 o’clock, where the other four anxiously wait, relieved as the pair emerge from the dense tangle.

Deciding to explore this new passage rather than head into the unknown centre of the chamber. Hiltie leads you along the wall the relatively short distance to this new passage. Once more it is a sinuous curve, allowing you to see no more than 5 metres in front or behind, but it is relatively short at about 15 metres, emerging into the largest ice chamber you have seen yet, but it is a chamber of horrors. Frozen into the walls are dozens of distended and twisted humanoid corpses, seemingly set in positions of agony. Some are wholly entombed within the icy walls, others partially protrude with an extended hand or a squashed and deformed face.

Hiltie takes a deep breath to steady himself and lumbers into the room. He moves to one side to examine the nearest bodies. Although they are most definitely humanoid, two arms, two legs, and could probably pass for human at a distance, they are clearly alien. Hiltie, a trained medic, pushes the nightmarish sight to the back of his mind and concentrates on the immediately closest corpse to give it a professional assessment. A quick check with a bioscanner confirms the obvious, there are definitely no life signs. In appearance they strongly resemble humans, albeit with leafy head growths and occasional symmetrical patches of bark-like skin. The colouration ranges from a very pale jade to a green so deep as to be almost black. They seem to be a curious cross of plant and mammalian organism. Hiltie uses a monoblade to sever a forearm and stows it for later analysis.

The rest of you enter the chamber in a somewhat nervous state, suit lights flashing all around the room in anxiety through the murky water. The chamber itself resembles a squashed and elongated crescent moon with a door at the centre of the concave wall and three other exit passages. Trying to ignore the grotesque surroundings, Lazarus approaches the door and presses the accompanying pressure stud. The door opens and he sees a small room beyond that gives the impression of having been a repair workshop. There are two workbenches scattered with the corroded and decayed remains of what were once tools. A tall locker set into the wall is partially covered over by ice.

Hiltie’s attention is caught by what seems to be a small and relatively intact case on one of the workbenches. He picks it up and turns it over clumsily. It seems to be sealed and is made of a rugged waterproof rubber-like material. He opens it and centuries trapped air bubbles out. Inside, set into a foam inlay, is a small torch-like device made from brushed metal and half a dozen power cells of unusual design. He removes the device and examines it, concluding it is a laser cutting torch of some sort, before passing it to Alexei for safe keeping.

Lazarus, meanwhile, examines the frozen locker. It is only partially frozen over by ice so he liberates a chisel from Hiltie’s toolkit and sets to work chipping away at the ice that has sealed the locker’s door. It is clumsy work in a vacc suit and underwater, but persistence pays off and he is able to release the door from the cold grasp of the ice. He opens it and his suit lights illuminate a standing humanoid figure that lurches towards him, arms outstretched. He steps backwards in panic and trips, slipping over onto the icy floor as the figure throws itself on top of him. Lazarus thrashes desperately on the floor as it grasps at him.

A moment of shock freezes you all into immobility as you watch Lazarus struggle with his assailant and then it rolls off to one side and lies still. Jonah is the first to move, kicking the figure, hard. It rolls over once, slowly, and then lies still again. Lazarus gives a nervous laugh as you help him to his feet. It is another alien corpse, waterlogged and totally without life. This one is wearing some kind of thermal suit, also waterlogged.

You stay here for a few minutes to take some more geophysical readings and then choose the nearest exit passage to the workshop. This passage is very short, with just a single curve, and it emerges into a mid-sized ovoid chamber, this one more elongated than the ones you have come across so far. The silt in here is especially deep, almost halfway to your knees, and the going is even more clumsy and ponderous than usual. Around the periphery of the chamber are twelve life sized statues of more of the humanoid aliens, these ones dressed in ornate and splendid looking robes, with high curved collars that rise well above their heads. Their blank eyes seem to watch you with infinite sadness as you enter the room, stirring up the muck from the floor.

Hiltie scans the deep silt in here with the bioscanner and reports that it is inorganic in content. There is an exit passage to the right and Lazarus walks across the centre of the room. He is brought up short as his shins bump into something solid concealed underneath the silt. Bending over, he reaches into the silt with his gloved hand and traces a smooth, solid curve just below the level of the silt. He scoops some of it away and the surface of what looks like a low, squat table is revealed, much like a coffee table. The rest of you help him to clear the silt away as best you can, although it pours back in a continuous stream.

The table is circular in shape, made of stone, and about a metre across. It has a design of ovoids connected by sinuous lines etched into its surface. Two of the ovoids have text etched next to them in a smoothly flowing and elegant alien script. It looks oddly familiar to Lazarus, but he can’t quite place why. He wades around to the other side of the table and cocks his head at an angle, then realisation dawns. It is a map of the complex you are now in.

Hiltie takes a photograph of the map for future reference and then leads the way across the room to the single exit. This leads to a longer passage, with several curves and twists, and you have to pause a couple of times as you advance along it to take the required geophysical readings. At the end is a perfectly circular chamber with a dais at the far side. The silt here is knee deep, dark and clinging, and steps up to the dais lead out of it. On top of the dais, roughly at head height, is a large coffin sized box. It is crusted over in mineral salts.

Hiltie is reluctant to enter, he has a bad feeling about the box, so Alexei takes the lead and approaches carefully, wading through the silt and up the steps of the dais. Taking out his knife he scrapes away some of the encrusted deposits to reveal a glass surface beneath. He shines his suit light through the gap and peers in. The box has retained its seal and there is air within. Lying in peaceful repose in the box is the perfectly preserved body of one of the aliens, eyes peacefully closed. He could almost be alive and iss dressed in resplendent robes similar to those you saw on the statues in the previous chamber and with an identical high curved collar. The robe itself is a flowing garment fashioned of myriad glass-like threads, all in perfect orientation and they seem to be channelling the light from Alexei’s suit into a glowing halo surrounding the body.

Alexei is greatly unnerved by the sight and backs off down the steps of the dais into the silt. Turning he ushers the rest of you out with sweeping gestures of his arms and a determined negative shaking of his head. You return to the chamber with the stone table for a helmets pressed together conference, deciding to backtrack to the chamber with the bodies grotesquely frozen into the walls and continue your explorations in another direction.

Hiltie consults the photograph he took of the map engraved into the table and leads you right out of the opposite passageway. This one is short with just a single curve, and opens into a perfectly circular ice chamber with two other exits, left and right. Jonah moves to the fronr of the group and steps into the room. The moment he does so, the water within starts to whirl in an incredibly powerful vortex and with nothing to grab hold of he is swept clean off his feet. He spirals around the room two or three times, unable to do anything to resist as the rest of you look on in horror. The suction is strong even in the corridor as the water starts to rush past you and you are all forced to cling on to each other to keep your footing. Jonah is pulled closer to the centre of the room with each successive circuit until he is pulled ass first into a vent set into the centre of the floor. His body plugs the hole and the suction is cut off, but with nothing to lever himself against and the difference in pressure he is stuck fast.

Some frantic waving from the passageway ascertains from Jonah that he is unharmed. Through hand gestures his signals that he is reluctant to struggle too hard lest he tears his vacc suit. Extensive discussions as to the best plan of action take place in the passageway, but after a few minutes of argument, the wanderlust hits Hiltie and Alexei and they head off across the vortex room, sticking close to the wall and circling round to the other side where the right hand passageway is. Although the situation is serious, they both struggle with inadvertent smiles at the sight of the big man, normally so strong and confident, totally helpless and stuck ass-first in a drain

Hiltie leads the way down the ice passage, this one taller than most at over five metres high, but sinuously curving like all the others. It terminates in another ovoid chamber, just as per your map. There is also a vortex of water here, but it is much slower and gentler. Oddly, it is sweeping clouds of plastipaper book pages and ring pierced binding gently around and around. In fact, the cloud of paper is so dense that the pair cannot see more than a metre or so into the chamber. Hiltie steps out of the passageway into the chamber proper, arms extended in front of him to try and brush aside the swirl of paper.

As he enters the chamber, Alexei sees a curved, black, shining shape detach itself from the wall above and to one side. It moves through the water with the greatest of ease, flicking sinuously and with the reflected from your suits glancing off its body, straight towards the oblivious Hiltie. Alexei’s mouth forms a silent shout of warning and he points, but in the cumbersome shielded suit Hiltie can neither hear nor see him.

To be continued…

View
The Ice Tomb
In which our heroes experience a frosty welcome.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

Eager to escape from the confines of The Leadbelly, especially now that your surveying task is a much larger one than you had anticipated, you decide that Alexei and Hiltie should form the first scouting party of the icy asteroid. Alexei suits up in one of the vacc suits provided by Yash Dutta and Hiltie climbs into the ponderous shielded exosuit as he is qualified to operate the clumsy piece of equipment.

Hefting the seismic survey gear between them, the pair enter The Leadbelly’s airlock and wait patiently while it cycles. As soon as the outer door opens they float out over the small illuminated platform in front of the elegantly decorated door set directly into the asteroid itself. The platform is encrusted with ice crystals, and streaked with dust and debris. Radio communications are essentially useless in the Hard Light system, flooded as it is with intense radioactivity, so the pair plug in a comm hardline between their two helmets so that they can talk to each other.

There is a pressure stud next to the door and Alexei cautiously presses his gloved palm against it. There is a short delay and then the door slides open to one side, albeit rather jerkily. Beyond lies a small cube shaped room with a plain door at the other end and another pressure stud. There are a series of small vents at floor level and you conclude it to be an airlock. The pair float into the airlock and turn, Alexei giving the rest of you peering through the narrow observation slit on The Leadbelly a thumbs up sign. He then holds up his gloved hand four times with fingers and thumb extended, points to his wrist with a circling motion, and mouths the words “twenty minutes”.

There is another pressure stud on the reverse side of the outer door and Alexei presses it. The door jerkily closes, cutting them off from the The Leadbelly altogether. Alexei and Hiltie are on their own. Several seconds pass and then they slowly sink to the floor as an artificial gravity system gradually engages. Water then starts to pour into the airlock from the vents at floor level. The pair’s first reaction is one of panic but then reason takes over. Your suits are rated for underwater usage just as much as they are for use in a vacuum. The airlock fills with water quickly and as the level rises you feel an intense chill even through your suits. The water is a much more effective leach of heat than the vacuum of space and the hum from your suit power packs steps up several notches as they struggle to compensate. Alexei checks the power readings and performs a quick mental calculation. The power cells will be drained after about 30 minutes. You are both carrying a spare but nonetheless you are not willing to take chances and your time within will be strictly limited.

It takes some effort of will to remain calm as the cold, murky water rises up over your helmets but shortly after the airlock is full, and the inner door jerkily slides open. You flick on your suit lights and the beams illuminate maybe some 10 metres in front of you, cutting through the heavily silted water with some difficulty. Hiltie also switches on the video camera attached to his suit’s helmet, to allow you to review your findings later.

Beyond the airlock lies an ovoid chamber, maybe 10 metres by 12 metres. The walls seem to be made of solid ice and there are two exit passages, one opposite to you and one off to the left. Clumsily, you exit the airlock, your suit lights flashing crazily all around you as you lumber through the water. The floor is covered in a layer of silt and elegantly curved benches made of some thin glass-like substance line the walls. The walls themselves have dark rectangular shapes inset at regular intervals. Hiltie peers in close trying to illuminate through the ice and he gets an impression of vague humanoid shapes, but they are buried deep under layers of ice left by hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years of freezing and thawing. Possibly some kind of frescoes or bas-reliefs?

Alexei plants a glowbug in the centre of the floor and under the illumination of its reassuring white light turns his attention to the benches. He presses one gently and it disintegrates under his touch in a mass of crystal shards that slowly sink to the floor. He decides to leave the others well alone.

After a quick helmet-to-helmet conversation, the pair decide to explore down the left hand passage. Before they set off, they set up the seismic survey gear, which is the size of a large box and has a handle at each end to allow two people to carry it easily. Once placed on the floor, it is a simple matter of pressing a “start” control, and it cycles through several geophysical modes while it takes its readings. The whole process takes about two minutes and a visual readout indicates when it is complete. Fortunately the device is ruggedised, is rated for underwater usage, and performs exactly as you were told.

This task completed, the pair hoist the box of tricks between them and head off down the leftwards passage. The passage is tunnelled straight through the ice and describes a sinuous and smooth curve. Silt clogged water aside, the curves of the passage prevent you from seeing more than five metres or so in front or behind.

Hiltie and Alexei have already stopped to take geophysical readings in the passage and have moved on, coming to another chamber. It seems to be another ovoid shaped chamber, but it is impossible to assess its size as the preserved fronds of dead vines and the withered blossoms of plants wave slowly in the torpid current filling the chamber. It is impossible to see more than a metre through the growths, even with the aid of your suit lights. After discussion, the pair decide not to try and force a passage through and, hefting the survey gear, start to make their way back in the direction of the airlock.

Unexpectedly, they see lights flashing from around the nearest bend in the curving corridor and both reflexively flatten themselves to the walls, futile gesture though that probably is, dropping the survey gear and reaching for their knives with their clumsy gauntleted hands. A vacc suited figure lumbers into view around the bend, beams of light flashing erratically through the water and bouncing off the ice walls of the passage. Their breathing sounds harsh in their ears and beads of sweat start to pool despite the icy cold sucking the warmth from their suits.

Not a moment too soon the mysterious figure waves and the pair breathe a sigh of relief – it is Christian. There is much agitated hand gesturing and the three of you press helmets together. “You bloody idiot,” snaps Hiltie, “we said 20 minutes.” It transpires that Christian had got bored of waiting on The Leadbelly and after about 10 minutes or so had passed got increasingly restless. He started to put his vacc suit on and make ready to leave the shuttle. The others urged him to stop and wait for the agreed time, but he was having none of it. He snapped his suit helmet into place and headed into the airlock, leaving Lazarus, Munroe, and Jonah behind. He went through the same experience as Hiltie and Alexei before him and soon enough found himself in the ice-formed and water-flooded ante chamber. With no sign of his predecessors and no clue as to which direction they went, he picked one at random and ended up going down the left hand passage.

The trio to decide to head back to The Leadbelly to report what they have found so far. Once back in the airlock, the water is pumped back out and replaced with the cold vacuum of space. The water soaking your vacc suits instantly crystallises and you scrape back the thick layer of frost that forms on your helmet visors. It is only now that Hiltie and Alexei realise how chilled they have become in the intense cold of the ice tomb. Freed from the burden of the warmth sapping water, their suits start to warm a little and the whine from the power packs subsides.

Those who remained in the shuttle listen intently as Hiltie and Alexei recount what they have found. As well as the complication of the tomb complex embedded within the asteroid, the operating conditions inside are extremely challenging as well. However, you are not deterred and respond in the negative to Ranse’s “all finished?” query over the intercom. Now briefed on the chilling effects of the icy water within, you pool your available power cells and reckon you have six each. You have facilities to recharge them but no desire to take unnecessary risks so propose to limit trips within to no more than 60 minutes each time.

Accordingly, all six of you suit up and prepare to enter. Alexei and Hiltie lead the way, pointing out what they found on their first foray into the asteroid. In the chamber immediately beyond the airlock, Lazarus takes a sample from the shattered bench for later analysis and tries to chisel away some of the ice covering the frescoes. It is almost rock hard and he finds it very hard going, eventually concluding no more than Hiltie – an impression of vaguely humanoid shapes buried under the ice and probably artworks of some kind.

Hiltie, still in the shielded exosuit, takes the lead on taking you down the left hand passage to the chamber filled with floating foliage. With more of you to act as backup, the confidence level is improved and Hiltie starts to feel his way leftwards along the wall, with Lazarus backing him up. Within seconds they are lost from view from the remainder of you waiting in the passage.

After several metres, the wall turns right sharply, more than 90 degrees and the first evidence you have seen herein of anything other than a gentle curve. After changing direction though, the wall itself curves outwards, convex style, and a few metres later the pair come across another door. It has a pressure stud next to it and Lazarus presses it. The door jerkily slides open.

Hiltie steps into the open doorway and a soft but flickering illumination activates. The crescent moon shaped chamber beyond is dominated by a misshapen, half-melted shape crusted with bulging growths and pockmarks set into the far icy wall. Distortions and wild shadows flit through the room, as what looks like a leprous face illuminates behind the glowing ice. Even in the shielded suit he involuntarily takes a step back at the sight.

Lazarus, curious as ever, peers around the bulk of the exosuit and satisfies himself that this is no more than an alien work of art of some kind. The illumination coming from behind though, is yet more proof that power remains within this complex. He spots four shelves of the wafer thin glass-like material, equally placed around the room, and each holding a small statuette or icon of some kind, roughly resembling a human forearm,

Lazarus examines the statuettes. Each is composed of a very tough, luminous glass cut and shaped to form intricate patterns of refracted light. Mindful of the xenoarchaeologist you have been told about back at Brightside, he retrieves each of the four items and places them in a string sample bag attached to his vacc suit.

To be continued…

View
Ice and Fire
In which our heroes set off in search of what is owed to them.

Our Cast of Players:

  • Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
  • Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
  • Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
  • Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
  • Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.

What Happened:

Munroe checked the slide on Beth, his trusty MAG pistol. Despite the almost frictionless action, he could feel the heat from the snub-nosed muzzle. Casting a glance at Jonah, he puffed out his cheeks in mock relief even as the incredibly muscular man reloaded his shotgun and pointed it at the ruined chest of the bandit leader, Lu Hao. The siege was over.

Despite the icy surroundings, the interior of the monastery on Chifeng was surprisingly warm. Outside the chill wind howled and the glacier from which the incredible monastery had been carved hummed quietly along on its aquajet engines, floating across the endless frigid waters to stay away from the ravenous Yellowbeaks, source of both life and death on Chifeng.

Turning to address the shaking Abbot Hong in Mandarin, Alexei calms the nervous man and reassures him that the threat is now over, permanently. No more shall the depredations of the bandits disturb the quiet solitude of the monks. Christian and Hiltie busy themselves with the surviving monks, tending to the dead and the dying while the weasel-like Lazarus prompts Alexei, “don’t forget our payment, Alexei”, before turning a beaming smile on the uncomprehending Abbot and nodding politely.

Alexei and the Abbot retreat to the inner sanctum of the monastery, recently the scene of so much carnage. When Alexei emerges, alone, he waves a small furled sheet of plastipaper, “I have in my hand a piece of paper, wealth in our time,” he quips. He explains that the monastery has little in the way of wealth with which to award your recently formed security consultancy, the monks being of simple taste and having been preyed upon by bandits for many years. However, 50 years ago a wealthy benefactor bequeathed the monastery a share in a mining company, Geostellar Mining Industries. The monks had no immediate use for the generous gift and so it has remained in the monastery ever since.

Before Alexei has even finished speaking, Lazarus has grabbed the share certificate and is checking the local net for any details he can find on Geostellar. It seems that their sole venture was a mining outpost called Brightside Station in the nearby Hard Light system. The system itself is incredibly hostile and at its centre burns the red giant Perdurabo. It casts its lethal radiance out from the molten slag-droplets of the inner system to the charred debris that circles at the outer rim. The radioactivity emitted by the star is enough to burn through ship shielding in a matter of hours and the only safety lies in hiding behind the scorched bulk of some blasted asteroid. However, Perdurabo offers wealth as well as death. The star emits tiny particles of novium among its blasting radiation. This rare substance is vital for the maintenance and upkeep of many pretech manufacturing devices and so GMI was able to persuade a consortium of banks to finance Brightside Station some fifty years ago, the materials for its construction brought up from the half-melted planetoid of iron and rock that serves as its shield against Perdurabo.

All seemed well for a couple of years until a routine audit revealed that the Chairman’s son, Gui Tang, had gutted GMI’s accounts in a clumsy attempt at fraud. The banks immediately called in their loans and GMI was left bankrupt. As they knew nothing of mining and were in desperate need of a pay-off to support the loans they’d made, the banks left the existing
station director, Yash Dutta, in place with an exclusive contract to mine the novium.

The share certificate is nigh on fifty years old and is for a share of ownership in Brightside
Station itself. Some quick financial research by Lazarus shows that even though the banks foreclosed on the station, the stock can still be redeemed for a portion of the station’s assessed value, which nowadays amounts to almost 8,000 adjusted credits. The catch is that you would need to personally submit the share to the director of the station.

And so it is that two weeks later you find yourselves strapped into the acceleration couches of a small trading ship, one of the rare few to occasionally venture in the Hard Light system, spike drive thrumming in the background, as it prepares to emerge from the twisted higher dimensions into the blasted outskirts of the Hard Light system. Christian re-reads the system registry for the Hard Light system for the umpteenth time. He is especially intrigued by the following entry:

Visitors may be interested in exploring the recently discovered “sky tombs” embedded in several large asteroids along the outer rim of the system. These alien excavations appear to have served as burial sites for important members of their species, and some contain valuable works of art or ancient xenotech. Buyers are present aboard Brightside Station for quick and profitable disposal of interesting artifacts.

“Strap in tight,” sounds a cheery voice over the PA system, “this is normally a rough one. They don’t call the star here The Beast for nothing.” Jonah’s knuckles whiten, a remarkable feat given his ethnicity, as his fingers dig into the armrests. He is a born ground pounder.

There is the familiar feeling of nausea as the spike drive drills down through the dimensions back into normal space, and then a lurch as the passenger compartment is flooded with intense red light. You are instantly pushed back into your seats as the drives throttle up and there is a dull clang as something hits the hull. The artificial gravity system struggles to compensate as the ship is put through a series of violent manoeuvres and then relative calm returns and the red light is cut off. Peering out of the viewport, Hiltie, a trained pilot himself, nods with approval on seeing that you are now tucked in tight behind an asteroid, shielding you from the intense radiation of this system’s primary.

The pilot comes over the PA again. “Relax, folks, it’ll be a few hours until we reach Brightside. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

On arrival at Brightside Station, a featureless metal ovoid orbiting close to the blasted planetoid, Aegis, your ship is admitted into the pressurised docking bay. Scant minutes later, you leave your home for the last week and more with your scant gear and equipment in tow. A variety of automated cargo handling and refuelling systems are already at work on the small ship. Clearly the pilot does not intend to be here for a second longer than necessary.

Proceeding through the airlock into the station itself, you find yourselves in a large central area with doors leading off in all directions and a set of lifts and a staircase at the rear, on what seems to be the lowest deck. Everything is grubby, grimy, and well used. On the far wall is a prominent digital display with the legend “Time To Next Novium Transport”, and markings for days, hours, minutes, and seconds. It seems to be counting down and has just passed the 50 day mark.

A large desk has been set up in the centre of the lobby, behind which sits a fat man with a wide grin, pasty complexion, and steel-grey eyes. Behind him stands a stocky man with close curly greying hair and a salt and pepper beard, arms crossed behind his back. He is wearing black coveralls and a badge prominently displayed on his chest bears the word “Security”. He has a stun baton and handcuffs hanging from his belt, and a holstered semi-automatic pistol on one thigh.

The man rises from behind the desk and proffers a sweaty hand. In a vaguely Scottish burr he says, “welcome to Brightside Station. My name is Roland Lomax and I’m the Cargo Chief here. What is the nature of your visit?”

Christian explains about the share certificate and the man, although remaining professional, seems highly amused. “You’ll need to take that up with Director Dutta,” he shrugs, a half smirk on his face. “I’m sure he’ll be delighted to see you.”

A few immigration formalities follow. You had been previously warned that possession of weapons and armour is strictly forbidden on the station itself and had considered trying to smuggle some aboard, but the place seems to be non-threatening and efficient, even if grimy, so you decide to avoid trouble by declaring what you have. Munroe hands over his beloved Beth and Kate, charging the guard to “look after them well”. It is carefully sealed in individual lock boxes and you are each given a numbered tag and an itemised chit. Finally there is a frisk by the guard and a search of your cases, before your declared possessions are taken away.

Munroe asks when you will be able to reclaim your weapons and Chief Lomax replies simply, “when you leave”. On being asked what restrictions apply outside the station, he shrugs once again. “What you do outside of the immediate surroundings of Brightside is up to you.”

Chief Lomax gives you a very quick run down of the station layout, bureaucracy, procedures, and facilities. For such a remote and isolated outpost, with little over a hundred permanent residents, the facilities are fairly decent. There is a cafeteria, the Heavenly Hash, where regular meals are served to the mining shifts, a bar, The Midnight Sun, the only establishment on the station permitted to sell alcoholic beverages, a small cinema-cum-theatre, a chapel, and a brothel, The Clouds and Rain. There is even a small park area, an overshoot of the hydroponic gardens that supply much of the station’s oxygen. Obviously a premium is placed on keeping bored miners busy and out of trouble.

He then makes his excuses, pointing you towards the station directory by the lift and staircase. He is keen to supervise the unloading and stowage of the cargo just arrived. The real kicker is the discovery of a 5 credit per person per day air tax. Accommodation, consisting of a bunk in the transients’ quarters, a foot locker, and three meals a day, will run to another 5 credits per person per day. You will struggle with this given the current parlous state of your finances. The rest more or less boils down to staying out of trouble and following instructions given by station officers or security staff.

You decide the best and first course of action is to locate Director Dutta and present your share certificate, although there is strong lobbying from Lazarus to make your first port of call The Clouds and Rain. Checking the station directory, you locate the admin offices on Middeck and take the lift up one deck, bringing your cases and backpacks with you. The atrium is almost identical to that on Lowdeck, including the large digital readout counting down the time until the next transport arrives. There is nobody around to ask for directions but one of the several doors leading off the atrium is clearly marked “Station Offices”, so you make your way over there.

The door opens automatically as you approach and beyond lies a small reception area with a couple of comfy chairs, a potted plant, a water cooler, and a painting of the station under construction on one wall. To one side is a functional desk with a young woman sat behind it tapping away on a computer keyboard. She smiles pleasantly as you enter, happy to see newcomers to the enclosed world of Brightside Station. “Well, that didn’t take too long,” she says. “Are you here looking for work?”

Christian explains the situation and she seems a little unsure but agrees to check if Director Dutta can see you. She picks up a small telephone handset, presses a key, and speaks quietly into it, looking at you and nodding the whole time. She carefully replaces the handset, looking serious, and then the smile returns. “The Director has kindly agreed to see you now. Please follow me.”

She leads you down a short corridor, past two doors on opposite sides, one marked “Livingston Roy – Security Chief” and the other “Mary Tomlinson – Mining Chief”, to a third door at the far end marked “Yash Dutta – Station Director”. She knocks once, opens the door and steps in and to one side beckoning you to enter. As you file in she says, “the new arrivals to see you, Director,” and then asks if you would like some tea or coffee. You gratefully accept and she takes your orders before leaving, closing the door behind her.

The office is about the same size as the reception area, although the desk is a good deal larger than the one there. There are several filing cabinets along one wall and the rear wall is covered with a large calendar chart with timelines drawn on it in various coloured pens and several post-it notes attached. A round table sits to one side with several office type chairs around it. Behind the desk, which is covered in papers, is a tall, dark, flinty-eyed man with close cropped black hair and an unblinking gaze. You would guess that he is of Indian origin and put his age as somewhere past seventy, but he looks strong and vigorous. Above the desk is another of the digital countdowns, counting down the time until the next transport arrives.

He stands in greeting and gestures you to take chairs around the table, before joining you himself. “I’m Yash Dutta, Station Director. I understand you believe you have a claim on the previous owners of this station?”

You produce the share certificate and explain how you came by it. Dutta listens with polite interest, although he is clearly none too pleased at this unexpected turn of events. “It must be fifty years since I’ve seen one of these,” he eventually says, turning the plastipaper sheet over in his hands and examining it closely. “You understand that the banks foreclosed on Geostellar, well, about the time this certificate was issued? I shall have to check the authenticity of this claim, of course, and really this is a matter for the bank auditor to adjudicate.” You can sense the distaste in his words as he utters them. “Either way, that individual will not be here until the next novium transport arrives,” and he gestures over his shoulder with a thumb at the digital readout that is counting down in seconds towards 49 days to go. “On top of that,” and he spreads his palms, “I don’t have that sort of money lying around in ready cash.”

Not wanting to give up on the claim, but realising that the tough and canny Director isn’t going to budge, you enquire about the unexpected costs of staying at Brightside you have just been made aware of. The Director smiles a thin smile. “Well, of course, I’d be happy to use your claim as credit for those costs, but they are essential for the safe and smooth running of the station.” He glances backwards at the readout again. “And it seems to me you don’t really have much choice. Transports are, shall we say, a somewhat rare commodity in these parts.”

A quick whispered discussion breaks out as you mull over racing back to the small freighter you arrived on before it leaves but quickly conclude that the potential prize is worth the inconvenience.

Deciding to make the most of a bad situation, you enquire of the Director if there is any paid work to be had on the station while you wait for the bank auditor to arrive. In the absence of the hard technical skills needed for station operations, he offers you unskilled labouring work in the refinery at a rate of 12 credits a day. It’s hard but routine work, barring the occasional risk of a radiation accident.

None of you are much taken by that option and the Director considers carefully before replying, “well, there is something that may suit people with your skills better. The Beast has been unusually active this past month, and Brightside Station has had to expend a lot of water as reaction mass for its manoeuvre jets just to maintain our position. We need to survey a new ice asteroid ahead of schedule, and get it mined. We’ve identified the best candidate but we need to get a team out there with some seismic survey gear before we start cutting it up. If the asteroid has hollows inside it or other areas of weakness it could blow apart under the pressure change if we start the cutting in the wrong place. Operating the equipment is pretty straightforward but, to be honest, I’d rather you took the risk than any of the crew here.”

Some tough negotiations follow and the Director eventually agrees to pay you 500 credits apiece if your mission is successful and to provide one of the transient’s bunkrooms for your exclusive use until the next novium transport arrives, free of charge. He will also lend you a vacc suit apiece and one of the station’s specially shielded exosuits, “just in case.” He is adamant that the air tax of 5 credits per person per day remains in place though. “It’s only fair to the rest of the station staff,” he says. “I can’t be seen to be showing favouritism.”

Christian, still fascinated by the idea of the Sky Tombs he read about on the way here asks the Director what he knows about them. “Not much,” he answers honestly, “and to be honest I’m not much interested in anything that doesn’t interfere with mining operations.” He tells you what he knows though. Two years ago, a wayward novium transport was arriving under the shelter of the outer rim debris when their scanners picked up an anomalous asteroid. The captain dared to go closer, and an away team discovered that the asteroid had been carved out by ancient aliens. Within the pressurised interior, strange artifacts of glass and mineral fibres. A tablet within the sepulchre gave the astronomic coordinates of a couple more of the well hidden complexes that have since been dubbed “sky tombs”.

Since then, a few explorers and adventurers from nearby systems have occasionally made pilgrimages to Hard Light in order to plunder these ancient tombs. A representative from a major research combine, Stoltmann and Haar, has set up permanent shop on Brightside to buy the takings from these ancient crypts. He is aware that at least one team of explorers has been lost forever in the depths of a sky tomb, and there are persistent tales of pirates and worse lairing in the pressurised safety of looted tombs. A few of the ancient rocks are known to be inhabited by hermits or small, reclusive communities that care little for outsiders, the most prominent of these being an artists’ colony living in a rock that have named “Empty Graves”. They do minimal trade with Brightside Station for the necessities they require and the Director is happy to indulge them as they bring in some much needed cash.

With this, you conclude the dealings and he takes a copy of your share certificate. He tells you that you should arrange transport to the asteroid yourselves, but this should be an easy matter as there is only one shielded shuttle rated for system operations outside the protective shadow of Aegis, and it is owned by Ranse Hardlee. The Director tells you that you should be able to find him through The Midnight Sun cantina and makes clear that the interview is at an end.

You drain your cups and leave with thanks, keen to locate the pilot. The Midnight Sun is located close to the station offices on Middeck and is easily found. You enter from the bright lights of the Middeck atrium and as the sound-proofed door slides open you are assailed by a wall of pounding music and it takes a moment or two for your eyesight to adjust to the relative dimness beyond. The central space in the cantina is is taken up by a circular bar bathed in a pool of blue light. It is surrounded on all sides by plastic tables and chairs, several booths line the walls, each with its own table, and one side features a raised area with several microphones set up. It is littered with empty plastic bottles. On the side furthest from the entrance is a small hatch in the wall where snacks are being served. About two dozen people, men and women, are scattered throughout, some in small groups, others sitting alone with their drinks. Without exception they look grimy and tired, or maybe weary would be a better word. If there is much in the way of conversation going on, it is drowned out by the music.

At the centre of the bar, leaning over and in conversation with one of the patrons, is a lean woman with leathery skin and sharp angular features, somewhere past middle aged and with her grey high tied back into a tight bun. She seems as good as place to start as any and you make your way over, shouting to be heard as you introduce yourselves. You elicit a name from the humourless and cynical proprietor (doubly humourless and cynical when she finds out you are not interested in buying any drinks) of The Midnight Sun, Marion Hardlee. It seems that she is the wife of the person you are looking for, or that “good for nothing” as she puts it, and points you crossly towards a booth from where you can see a pair of safety boots resting on the table protruding. Instantly she loses interest in you and returns to her shouted conversation with the customer at the bar.

Approaching the pair of well-worn boots, you see they are attached to a dozing man, half empty glass in front of him. He starts as you enter the booth and sits up. He is a grizzled old man with a squinty gaze and patches of melanoma all over his face. Putting aside his disconcerting appearance, you quickly establish that he is the owner and pilot of The Leadbelly, the shuttle to which Director Dutta referred.

He is happy to help you and even offers to take you on your first trip for free. “Anything to get me away from that harridan,” he grumbles, “as there are no drone retrieval jobs right now. Mind you,” he adds, “I’m no charity case. For any future trips my rates are 250 credits for a charter of up to seven days. When do you want to leave?”

A quick discussion ensues but you see no reason to delay and he agrees to meet you at the docking bay in two hours. Telling him of Director Dutta’s offer to loan equipment and your own stored belongings, he agrees to make sure they are loaded aboard. “I’ll even throw in a few supplies for the trip,” he smiles.

You meet Ranse at the docking bay the agreed two hours later and find him waiting for you in a battered old flight jacket, oil stained coveralls, and radiation shielded goggles. The impression you get is one of an old time pilot. “Okay, ready to go?” he asks. “You’ll be travelling in the drone retrieval bay. The cockpit is sealed off from the rest of the ship so the next time you see me will be when we get back here. It’ll take us two days to get there and two back. The shielding on The Leadbelly is rated for seven day’s exposure to The Beast but I’m not staying out that long for a freebie. 24 hours is what you’ve got. If you’re not back on board by then I’ll be leaving without you. Clear?”

Having little choice, you agree to the old man’s terms and he opens the airlock doors into the pressure bay and you get your first sight of The Leadbelly. It resembles a large brick more than a shuttle due to the immense quantity of lead shielding attached to the hull. Pretty much the only exterior feature are the jets of the manoeuvre drive. He opens the rear bay doors and you file in with some dismay. The drone retrieval bay is simply a large featureless box with a tiny slit of an observation window, made from several inch thick shielded quartz. Half a dozen uncomfortable looking office chairs have been jury welded to the floor plates. The supplies Ranse promised consist of no more than a couple of bags of snack food, sandwiches, potato crisps, and the like, plus a few waxed paper cartons of water. The whole is rounded off with a small stack of well-thumbed pornographic magazines and a couple of buckets obviously meant for toilet duty.

At least your personal equipment, the six vacc suits Director Dutta promised plus the reassuring bulk of the shielded suit and the seismic survey gear are present. With some resignation you try and make yourselves comfortable as best you can. Within minutes The Leadbelly has undocked and you are on your way, soon leaving the protective bulk of Aegis and flooding the bay with the red light from The Beast.

The biggest challenge is keeping the mind numbing boredom at bay for the two day trip. Munroe obsessively strips, cleans and reassembles Beth and Kate in an attempt to pass the time. Even Lazarus manages to exhaust the re-read value of the magazines provided. Most of time you sit in silence with your thoughts, hoping the trip is going to be worth it.

Not a moment too soon, Ranse, who you have not heard from at all during the two day flight, comes over the speakers. “Ice ball in sight… shit… probably not good news for you guys. Check out the observation panel.”

You crowd round the narrow slit trying to get a glimpse. The bulk of the asteroid looms nearby, dirty ice covered in streaks of dust and coated in debris, pitted and scarred. As it rotates into view while Ranse tries to align with it, you see the unmistakeable sight of an airlock door embedded into the side of the asteroid. Ranse manoeuvres closer, “I think I can attach,” you hear and you can now see that there is a small platform build below the airlock and protruding slightly into space.

The shuttle moves closer and there is a loud clank as it makes contact. The airlock door is covered in a graceful curved design of abstract form and a small light on either side illuminates – there is power within!

To be continued…

View

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.