This Dim Spot: Campaign log

Roger Burton West
20 November 2011

Table of Contents

1. Personnel

1.1. PCs

Sergeant Brian Fitzroy, pulled out of a nice safe garrison posting now that things are hotting up a bit; seconded from the Pacific Rim Army. (Played by Sean Desmond.)

Dr Wynstanley ("Wyn") Martin, medical officer and chaplain. Officially KIA. (Played by Michael Cule.)

Eddie Kelly, "things that go boom" (also "crump"); seconded from the British Army. (Played by John Hall.)

Jorge Basadre, Chilean heavy weapons specialist and part-time artist, seconded from the UNASUR armed forces. (Image by Jayel Aheram; played by Shaun Murrant.)

Tuovi Muvolainen, pilot and hobbyist sniper, seconded from the Maavoimat. (Played by and image by Isi.)

D54-14a "Dizzy Rascal", experimental technical AP. (Image by Sony; played by Peter Edge.)

Neil Hunt, UN police consultant and operant psionic. (Image by NBC; played by David Devereux.)

Terry Barton, cheerful Cockney techie; seconded from the British Army. (Played by Michael Cule.)

1.2. NPCs

Commander Charles Marlow, RNR, captain of the Ossipon.

Norton, the Ossipon's AP caretaker and jump pilot. (Image by Franz Steiner.)

Lieutenant Roland Cincebeaux, perhaps more concerned with flair and élan than is entirely healthy; seconded from the Armée de Terre.

2. Events

2.1. Fiorina III

29 January 2011

Fiorina III is a barely-habitable world some 65 light years from Earth; it's close in to a dim star (Fiorina, or BD+19 1869, in Gemini), a cold rock ball with low gravity and an unbreathably thin atmosphere. It's not of interest in itself, but the system's asteroid belt is rich in minerals, so there's a small RosToExMoShell colony on the planet; an AI tug brings asteroids into low orbit, they're strip-mined and further processed on the surface (the gravity and atmosphere mean getting to and from the surface is cheap), and freighters haul out the refined ore every month.

Except that the latest freighter hasn't returned. Normally this would be a matter for RosToExMoShell security - but there's been some inter-colony friction in this part of space, and there's a Clockwork Minds colony some ten light years away, though it claims to have no spacecraft on station. So a UNECRO team is being sent in, under the command of Lt Cincebeaux, with Pribislav Gordiev along as company representative.

The team is revived a few hours out from the planet. Telescopes can resolve the freighter, SV Koningen Wilhelmina, in orbit, but her transponder isn't broadcasting; indeed, there's been no radio traffic received since arrival in the system other than from the asteroid tug that's bringing in a new rock; it's now about a week out.

On arrival in orbit, the stern of the freighter looks out of shape; Captain Marlow reckons that the freighter's suffered a partially-internal explosion of its antimatter drive, partly buckling the spaceframe.

Even so, Gordiev feels that the freighter, as a potentially mobile company asset, should be secured first, and Tuovi takes the lander across to dock with it. The main plan is to secure its flight recorder, which has a short-range beacon that's still broadcasting. There's no power available, but the lock can be cranked by hand; inside the ship, there's a low-pressure atmosphere that hasn't yet frozen. There are also three pressure-suited human forms in the corridor behind the airlock, in starfish postures; some investigation reveals that the suits are empty, but holding slightly more pressure than the ship is.

The trip to the bridge is marked by more suited forms, some of them carrying weapons (presumably the ship's security contingent); there's an occasional scar indicating weapons fire, but this is rare. Brian safes the weapons as the team continues. None of the escape pods has been launched, though one or two have a suit in them.

On the bridge, the scene is much the same. Tuovi tries to take a look at the ship's computer, but it's entirely unresponsive; physical examination reveals that it's been destroyed by a thermite charge, supplied in case the ship is boarded by a hostile faction. Heading on to the core of the ship, the team finds the flight recorder. By now they're thinking about some sort of atmospheric contamination, so opening it up here rather than bringing it back to the Ossipon seems like a good idea; it reveals a history of normal loading operations (cargo hatches being opened and closed), then a pause of about five minutes. After this, the ship's computer sends an abandon-ship alarm; five minutes after that, it detonates the drive. The team presses Gordiev, who admits that in certain clearly-defined circumstances the computer, although not an AI, could do this; he's not prepared to go into detail, but these mostly have to do with the ship falling into the hands of a hostile power.

Wyn examines the suits, drawing out an air sample: it's mostly dry suit air, with a small amount of monatomic carbon dust. Checking the suits' on-board computers reveals that many of them are inexplicably not working; those that are record a sudden temperature spike, around the time of the abandon-ship signal. Each of the suits also has a discoloured spot about half an inch across on some part of the pressure fabric.

The bridge has a voice recorder, but this isn't working either; the storage medium has taken on a porous texture, a bit like a sponge or lump of pumice.

Cincebeaux decides (with some prompting from the team) to head directly for the colony rather than go through multiple rounds of decontamination. The colony's power plant is still running, but there's no sign of outside activity.

The colony is mostly below ground, with individual units poking through the surface to benefit from sunlight. The mining shuttle is on the pad; Tuovi docks the lander to the external locks. There are three empty suits in the corridor immediately beyond the lock, but no others visible; they have the same carbon dust, and their computers indicate that this happend about half an hour after the incident on the freighter. The team advances down the radial corridor to the central social area and admin block; in the control room, they find a tripwire on the corridor to the reactor block, attached to a mining explosive. Eddie disables it. The storage media of the colony's admin computers are as porous as those on the freighter - and so are random personal items, like the clip of a fancy pen left on a desk. In that case, it looks as though all the gold has been stripped out, leaving other materials intact.

The team heads back to investigate the mining shuttle - nine pressure suits aboard, the tenth apparently being the one nearest to the airlock inside the base. Heading round the perimeter corridor, Jorge spots movement in the residential area; he goes ahead, but hits another tripwire on entering the block. He freezes, and it doesn't immediately detonate; Eddie disarms the bomb. Gordiev calls out for anyone there to surrender at once or risk losing Company benefits; Wyn follows up with a more friendly announcement.

The team searches the residences; a small cascade of junk falls on Gordiev when he opens a door, not damaging but enough to make a substantial noise. Inside that room are the remains of food, certainly eaten within the last day or two, and air tanks.

Jorge leaves one of the team's ration packs with a friendly note, and the team splits up to search for whoever is still alive in here. Wyn and Jorge check the fish tanks, spray-painting tripwires as they go rather than attempting to disarm them; Eddie, Cincebeaux and Gordiev check the greenhouse; Tuovi and Brian examine the algae tanks, and this seems to be where their target is hiding.

The others hurry to block off other exits (Eddie notices that the metal gridwork floor in the reactor block is somewhat soft, and the catwalks look distinctly unsafe, but the reactor itself is definitely still running, and the computers appear to be active - unlike any others he's seen). Tuovi slips into the maze of tanks while the rest of the team, less stealthy, act as beaters to drive their target into her. She trips and restrains him, and the others immobilise him.

The new person's pressure suit reads Pascoe, and he's continuously muttering; he doesn't seem responsive to questions, and Wyn administers a light sedative. Once that kicks in, he's slightly more helpful, though clearly spending more time running over his own memories than thinking about the questions he's being asked; "why didn't it take me" is the major theme. The team takes him back to his room and feeds him; he's not looking at all well-nourished. Hardcopy records in the sickbay indicate that he'd cracked from the stress of long shifts two weeks before any of the other events happened, and he was going to be shipped out on the next freighter that had a spare freeze tube.

Pascoe's ramblings centre on "they all vanished - it took them" and "the white". Wyn gives him the antipsychotic medications that he hasn't been taking lately, and more sedatives.

While this has been going on, Gordiev has slipped away from the group. Eddie follows him at a short distance; Gordiev hurries towards the reactor block, not paying much attention to what's happening behind him. Eddie keeps up a running commentary as he runs to the nearest active console and starts to log in; Eddie calls on him to stop or be fired on, and his armoured suit collapses with a flicker of something. Eddie backs away and takes cover while the rest of the team hurries up. Gordiev's suit is very hot, and there's a discoloured patch on the sole of his left boot; looking down, there's a mass of something whitish below the grid floor, that wasn't obvious earlier. He was apparently entering an admin password for the reactor control system, though he wasn't able to complete the operation. Wyn samples the contents of the suit, and looks around; he guesses there are some 10-20 tons of this white mass clumped into the reactor block, which might well be the mass of the missing freighter crew and colonists...

The team starts to pull back. A full scientific investigation is outside their skill set, and the alternative decision to destroy the colony is above their pay grade. Brian compiles a full report to be added to Cincebeau's own, and they return to orbit. The AI asteroid tug is instructed to finish braking its payload and assume orbit, waiting for further instructions. After very extensive decontamination, the team chills down for the voyage home.

2.2. Verwaayen

19 February 2011

The next mission will be to Verwaayen, which circles the F5V star Camus. It's hot, and while the air is technically breathable, compressor-filter masks are required for long-term exposure, since there's rather too little oxygen and rather too much sulphur dioxide for comfort. Verwaayen is one of the early pharmaceutical colonies, set up by Bayer-Pfizer-Glaxo, and it's produced several highly profitable medical compounds; there are 2,750 employees living there, on two-year contracts.

However, those employees have recently been attempting to renegotiate their contracts and are threatening strike action. This has happened before with success, but not at colonies that are still profitable for their owners. BPG has dispatched a corvette with security personnel on board, and the UN is sending a UNECRO team - officially as observers, but in practice (given that UN funding is still almost entirely governmental rather than corporate) to provide some non-company oversight and try to prevent anyone getting killed.

A new member is added to the team: D54-14a "Dizzy", contributed by RosToExMoShell, an administrative AP (though it prefers the term "robot") with apparently limited social skills; it's fluent enough, but seems to have little sense of which subjects might be uncomfortable, though it's very clear that its programming forbids it to harm humans.

As the team is revived from hibernation some twelve hours away from making orbit, Captain Marlow briefs the humans on what's been learned. The BPG corvette, Vardenafil, is in orbit; Marlow has been talking with Captain Teschendorff. The security company, something over a hundred troops, has been shuttled down to the planet; but the majority of the colonists, some 2,000 of them, have walked out and apparently gone to ground in the jungle. Security Chief Brugmann is in command on the ground, and will grudgingly welcome the UNECRO team.

Tuovi flies the lander down; the landing pad is some distance from the colony, and the blast scars carved through the jungle by superheated radioactive steam make it clear why. Vardenafil's shuttle is on the pad, guarded by a small detachment. Tuovi sets up a data feed from the lander so as to be alerted if anything disturbs it.

The team drives to the colony over a pre-fab road; clearly someone cut some corners on the procurement, because the ridged plastic isn't as acid-proof as it needs to be. The APC is hosed down when it enters the colony's main vehicle airlock, but when the team cracks the hatch for the first time the smell of sulphur compounds is very distinctive even in the colony's scrubbed air. Chief Brugmann, with a couple of obvious bodyguards, greets Cincebeaux and Brian; she's clearly unhappy about the situation, but recognises that there's nothing she can do about it. She introduces Mr Blanchard, the colony's administrator; he's nominally in charge, but is clearly happy to defer to Brugmann now that normal operations have ceased.

The team sets up in empty quarters, with Dizzy checking for monitors - they're certainly installed, but it's not clear how much they've been used, and it might have been a standard fitment in company-built housing. While disabling the monitors in the rooms the team has chosen, it manages to blow the main power breaker, but restores it before there's any difficulty.

The team buckles down to finding out what's been going on. The security forces have been here for about a month and a half; the walk-out was three weeks ago, and happened all at once over about a 12-hour period. It was primarily the scientific and technical staff who left; the administrators and maintenance crew are mostly still here. Some masks and lime refills were taken, but not enough for all the colonists who've left; some food also went, enough for a month or so. (The local plant life isn't metabolically useful to humans.)

Brian notices that the security troops are showing a lot more spit-and-polish than he's used to from soldiers in the field; a bit of questioning gets the information that they're primarily guards and policemen rather than counterinsurgency forces.

Wyn goes to the medical facilities, and checks psychological screening records. There's no sign of any particular abnormality. Looking at the history of negotiation, it seems that the main sticking point was that the colonists wanted more frequent returns to Earth - having smelt what gets through the atmosphere filters, he has some sympathy with this, but the extra shipping would clearly increase operating costs quite substantially.

Looking at the records of exploration teams reveals nothing out of the ordinary. Winnowing personnel records shows that all the colonists who left had previously been outside the colony (though not all those who'd been outside have left). Medical records show a surprising number of cases of asthma, but this is a normal consequence of sulphur dioxide inhalation; it seems that people have been careless with their masks, and this isn't a long-term injury.

The lander calls Tuovi: there's been a high-energy event nearby. It's not clever enough to elaborate, but checking its cameras reveals troops piling out of Vardenafil's shuttle and firing sporadically into the jungle. The team heads back to the pad; by the time they arrive, a few minutes later, the firing has stopped. Tuovi boards the lander and keeps watch over the jungle. The company shuttle has a neat hole through its tail-fin, not crippling damage but not something you'd want to fly with if you had a choice; the lander's sensors reveal that it's faintly radioactive. The troops report that they were inside the shuttle when it rocked, and red lights came up on the board; they went outside, but didn't manage to spot anything.

Dizzy inspects the hole up close with its crawler swarm. It looks more than anything else like a sequence of explosions - as if someone had set off a small charge on the surface, then planted another one at the bottom of the dent that had been made by the first, and so on. None of the team is familiar with weapons that might cause this; experimental particle beams might account for the radioactivity, but not for the explosive damage, and in any case nobody's managed to fit them onto anything smaller than a capital ship.

Dizzy repairs the damage as a gesture of goodwill. Tuovi's scans detect some burned leaves in the jungle, roughly in the area the shot might have come from; a search on foot shows a firing point, and what might be boot tracks, but certainly no sign of a heavy-weapon tripod.

The team heads back to base; it's starting to get dark. As they arrive, Brugmann reports that one of her patrols is overdue; it's been conducting a foot sweep of a different area of jungle looking for the missing colonists, but should have been back well before dusk. (Wyn asks Tuovi to make sure the lander requires voice authentication before it'll open its hatches.) Since they have the only vehicle on-world, the team heads out to retrace the patrol's route; they find a clearing with burn scars nearby, with massed tracks leading in but not out, but no sign of casualties. They plant a marker for the corporate troops, then Dizzy scans with his swarm. Brian reckons this is was a fairly textbook ambush: a bait/anvil unit ahead, and a hammer unit moving in from behind.

On returning to the colony, Wyn checks out the remaining scientists: on reflection, they think they might have been sounded out about leaving by some of the people who've gone, but the conversations were subtle and deniable. They're enthusiastic about "all the things we're learning from this planet" - while they want to go home more often, they certainly don't want to see the colony shut down for lack of profitability. Sadly, Wyn has to check himself into the medical facilities: something about the trace gases is disagreeing with him.

Dizzy checks inventories and is shocked to discover that some of the computer records are inaccurate: there's quite a bit of expedition gear missing, particularly acid-proofed tents. It's still not really enough for 2,000 people, though - apart from anything else, they'd need to recharge and refill their masks, and while they did take some solar cells there's been no sign of them on orbital scans.

Eddie looks at the geosurvey data. There are several hilly areas rich in limestone, which could be heated to refill the masks; and even without geological skill he can make the connection between sulphuric acid rain and the high likelihood of limestone caves. He picks out the most likely areas.

In the morning, Brugmann switches to platoon-sized patrols rather than the 11-man squads she's been sending out previously. After some discussion, the team sets out for the landing pad, then to the nearest limestone hills - in both cases, planning to leave some of Dizzy's swarm as recording devices and pick them up later.

As the team starts to head into the hills, there's a white lightning-like flash ahead, across their path. Tuovi stops the APC and Brian (having spotted that Cincebeaux appears to have frozen) calls "UN" on the external speakers. Two more shots strike a few yards ahead of and behind the APC; Brian calls "drop your weapons", and Jorge fires a warning burst from the turreted machine gun.

Tuovi spots two human-shaped forms, side by side, apparently not carrying weapons; Brian tells her to head in with the APC. The figures split up and run in different directions, and Tuovi follows the one on the left - it's a lot better at moving through heavy jungle than the APC, and she's just about able to keep up. Eddie, misunderstanding an order, fires his grenade launcher through the firing port, but misses. There's a white beam from the other figure, who seems to have hidden and circled round, but Tuovi's able to get the APC out of its way. They break off the pursuit; Dizzy drops off some of its crawlers under cover of "sighting" through a random piece of technical gear.

As the team is returning to the colony, calls for help from a patrol come over the radio net - for about five seconds, then there's silence (which Tuovi is able to pin down as jamming of a very advanced kind). The team goes to the patrol's last location, where there's clearly been a firefight; five soldiers' dead bodies are present, but again there are no wounded. Some tracks lead away from the colony. Brugmann dispatches her remaining troops to check out the site, and when they arrive the UNECRO team starts to head back to the colony. They start to enter an area of jamming en route; pausing, they upload all their data to the Ossipon in orbit, and get back some real-time imagery of the colony. There's some damage to one of the personnel locks, but nothing else clearly wrong; as they watch, they are able to observe four human-looking figures emerge from it, half-carrying a fifth, and vanish into the jungle. The jamming stops.

Back at base, security footage and interviews reveal that four people dressed in black form-fitting suits blew in the personnel lock (apparently with beams fired from their left eyes), moved quickly through the base, collected Administrator Blanchard, and took him away. They didn't fire on anyone else (and all the armed troops were out looking at the ambush site). While they were wearing camouflage, the four are recognisable as some of the missing scientists; none of them was wearing a breather mask. All Blanchard's access codes are immediately changed - and surely the invaders would have known that this would happen.

When she returns, Brugmann is clearly starting to lose it; she's talking about using the shuttle to steam-clean the jungle until the "rebels" come out. Cincebeaux does his best to dissuade her.

Around dawn, Marlow reports having observed ten seconds of coherent light from one of the limestone regions. It didn't seem like a surface-to-orbit weapon, and it certainly wasn't aimed at either of the ships in orbit; it was fired straight up, then started to track to the east. Norton conjectures that it might have been a test of a laser launching system, though it wasn't fired for long enough actually to loft anything. Brugmann, very clearly moving beyond the fringes of rational thinking, calls on Teschendorff to commence laser and missile strikes on the site; he apologises and explains with a straight face that his lasers are unavailable because of emergency maintenance, and re-entry bodies for the missiles will take time to set up.

The team sends a broadcast radio message, along the lines of "the UN is here and we'd like to talk", then heads out to recover the crawlers. There's nothing visible from the ones near the landing pad; the ones near the limestone hills show one passing figure, again wearing a black body-suit and no mask. By the time they get back to the base, Brugmann's shuttle pilot has been confined to quarters for insubordination (refusing to try to burn off the jungle over the laser site).

The team heads towards the laser site by APC. Around half a mile away, there's another flash across their route; this time when they stop, a single human figure steps out open-handed. Dizzy, as the most expendable body (with mind backed up on the Ossipon), goes forward to talk, leading off with "My humans are really, really confused..."

The colonist is quite happy to talk about what's been going on. Dr Nayland, the leader of the scientists, has developed an "upgrade" which allows them to live natively on this planet; at this point, they really just want to be left alone to continue their research. (This sounds deeply implausible to everyone: while bioengineering humans to breathe here might well be possible, it's not likely that it could be done in three weeks! And then there's the matter of the eye beams...)

The colonist is emphatic that everyone here has chosen to join them, even the soldiers and Blanchard - though some of them are still too badly damaged to be able to talk, he'll be quite happy to get some of them to come along and make statements to this effect. (Tuovi spots sporadic radio burst transmissions from him - she assumes they're encrypted, because they look to her like white noise.) Dizzy explains that the colonists might do well to make an agreement with an independent agency, such as the UN or even RosToExMoShell, rather than allowing BPG to exploit their new discoveries. He replies that by the time more ships can get here in a few months, they won't really be terribly concerned with corporate actions anyway.

Blanchard and several soldiers arrive, also without masks. They explain, with a certain uniformity, that they've chosen to join Dr Nayland's group - and that they'd be happy to offer the upgrade to any of the UN team who'd care to join them. Dizzy talks with them, asking questions from their records to make sure they have the memories they should; it also makes certain to record one of the soldiers from the first patrol to go missing, admitting that they did fire on the colonists before the colonists started shooting at them. With an agreement that they'll return here for further discussions, the team returns to the colony.

Brian writes up a full report for transmission to the Ossipon. By the time they get back, Brugmann has been restrained, and her number two, Lieutenant Goltz, has taken command. Trying to work out why Blanchard in particular should have been taken, Dizzy checks his personnel record; the only thing that stands out is that, earlier in his career, he served a brief spell in the astrogation department on FTL ships. This seems to be the last straw for Cincebeaux: he feels (with some prompting from Brian) that it's time to bail out of the system and report in.

The Ossipon's spare freeze tubes are filled with the less healthy of the colonists, including Brugmann; it seems likely that everyone here will be brought back to Earth and debriefed anyway, but Teschendorff and the Vardenafil will remain on station for now, with Goltz in command on the ground. Some weeks out, the team is revived to watch "real-time" footage from the planet (now a couple of light-hours away): the laser activates again, thrusting a large object (around the size of the Ossipon or the Vardenafil) through the atmosphere and into low orbit. As soon as it clears atmosphere, it unfurls large sail-like objects: they're clearly not solar sails, however, since it immediately starts to accelerate towards the sun at a steady 0.1g. Teschendorff starts the Vardenafil after it (its tactical drive can out-accelerate the object at least in the short term), and fires a single missile. That strikes, but apparently without damage; the return fire is invisible, but causes explosions on the Vardenafil, knocking out some of her systems. Vardenafil sends a salvo of missiles, some of which are shot down en route; enough of them get close enough to the object to detonate, and when the static clears there's just some debris visible where it was.

2.3. Hammer IIa

27 March 2011

With Dizzy being upgraded and Jorge on a skills development course, the team is being sent on a short and simple mission.

Hammer IIa is a RosToExMoShell world - they're extracting the local algae from snowbanks, because they have some useful metabolic properties. They're also, according to "an intelligence source", doing illicit work on the white mass recovered from Fiorina III - there's legitimate research going on under UN supervision, but it seems that RosToExMoShell wants an advantage.

The mission, then, is to go to Hammer IIa, verify that the research is going on, and sabotage it in a deniable way: RosToExMoShell may well work out what's going on, but as long as they can't prove it that's acceptable. (This means that any personnel who realise that there's UN involvement will have to be killed or imprisoned, which doesn't sit well with Wyn.)

Hammer IIa is the lowest of six major moons circling a gas giant, tidally locked to it and in a six-hour orbit. It gets a lot of energy from tidal stress, leading to constant tectonic activity and a "hostile" electromagnetic environment - which does at least mean that most of the gas giant's radiation is deflected by the magnetosphere. Its atmosphere is almost breathable, except for the 3% carbon monoxide; mean surface temperature is -25C. Heavy sealed suits are definitely indicated.

A bit of research gets the public information about the snow sifters that RosToExMoShell uses, one of which seems to have been converted as the research site - they're (200-foot) fission-powered tracked vehicles, normally with a crew of four, designed to melt and filter snow. Since they were built by RosToExMoShell for use on Hammer, there's not much detail, but Eddie works out what he can (with the intention of blowing the thing up). Creating or simulating a reactor emergency seems like a promising possibility, so Eddie picks up a field guide to reactor mechanics and starts highlighting all the things it says one should never do. The plan eventually arrived at is to stop the sifter, perhaps by creating a crevasse with explosives, and send in Tuovi to scout.

The insertion is by drop pod from a suborned freighter; Tuovi steers it into re-entry and runs ECM - though there's not much need for it with all the air-to-air lightning - then brings it down some miles from the target sifter on the far side of a ridge. The overland trek will take about twelve to sixteen hours.

The team spies from the ridge; it's just possible to spot the sifter in the distance. It's stationary; there's some sign of tracks on the ice behind it, but it's not clear how long it's been standing there. The team heads out overland, making maximal use of the terrain for cover, and establishes a final lie-up a mile or so from the sifter.

Brian looks for radio traffic; he picks up burst transmissions, apparently being sent in gaps between lightning strikes. He sets his radio to warn him if this changes. As the team's moving closer, Tuovi spots some infra-red traces off to the side; the team thinks at first that this might be a patrol from the sifter, but closer observation suggests that they're hiding behind an IR-blocking shield that's facing the sifter. This may well be a third party.

The team lies up again and waits to see what will happen. At local dawn, the other group moves in stealthily; one of them stands up and starts to plant a satchel charge on the sifter's rear hatch. Before he can get very far, he's cut down by fire from a pair of automated machine guns that have been bodged onto the sifter's hull. Another of the attackers jumps up to help him, but is also shot. The remaining two stay behind their cover. The sifter powers up its motors and starts to move away; once it's out of immediate sight, the other group sets up its camo and retrieves its wounded. While they clearly have good enough equipment to survive out here, it looks patched together - the sort of thing a well-funded civilian might come up with, rather than military or corporate kit.

The team moves out in parallel to the sifter, staying behind the plume of snow and ice fragments thrown up by the its tracks, and leaving the other people to their own devices. After travelling about ten miles, with the team keeping pace, the sifter stops again, on a slight upslope with no good cover nearby.

The team sets up to one side, which seems most likely to be a blind spot. Brian and Cincebeaux keep watch (and aim) on the machine guns, while Tuovi slips in, getting to the machine's flank without apparently being spotted. She bypasses the crude security on the hatch and gets inside, then cycles through the airlock and starts to explore the inside of the sifter, keeping an ear out and staying away from any sounds of people. There are heavy power cables leading from the reactor, placed centrally, to the aft of the vessel, where a large bulkhead has been added, with an armoured door labelled "laboratory". Looking through the thick window shows a fairly open space with several heavy containers, a variety of scientific equipment, and an operating or examination table. Three people are inside, working on various technical things. None of this is at all standard equipment for a sifter.

Tuovi captures pictures, then heads back to the reactor, looking for other extra power feeds; she doesn't find any. Heading forward, she hears an indistinct noise of two or three people shouting, followed by an electrical arc. She heads back to the airlock, gets out and reports to the others. (Meanwhile, outside, one of the machine guns has fired a burst into the snow - nowhere near the team, and apparently without reason.)

Some discussion ensues. Eventually, Tuovi heads back in with Eddie, with three objectives in mind: to cause a minor release of coolant and with luck make the crew abandon the sifter, to shunt main power into the lab area in the hope of destroying the Fiorina substance, and to make the reactor melt down. This takes more than an hour, with Eddie working on the reactor and Tuovi keeping watch; fortunately, the crew don't seem to have any need to go to the reactor room.

As this work is approaching completion, Wyn and Brian spot some camouflaged moving shapes in the distance, coming in at an angle from the far side of the sifter. They're hard to spot, but approach rapidly, eventually becoming resolvable as two small and low-slung vehicles on big balloon tyres. A missile streaks out from the leader, hitting one of the sifter's rear tracks. The machine guns return fire, without much success.

Tuovi and Eddie hear the missile impact and start to get out as quickly as they can. The buggies come up on the far side of the sifter; the team can't see what's going on, but they guess that some of the buggies' crew might have boarded it. Brian and Cincebeaux fire on the machine guns on their side, knocking them out before they can fire on Tuovi and Eddie, who make it back to the foxhole where the rest of the team waits.

The buggies fire on the other machine guns, then circle, apparently waiting for something. The coolant-loop charges go off; after a couple of minutes, two figures drop from the sifter to the snow, carrying bulky backpacks, and set off uphill, where they deploy an inflatable shelter. The effects of the power surge aren't visible, but as the team backs away the reactor starts to melt down, with one newcomer bailing out back to a buggy before containment is breached and a new, rather radioactive, hole is dug in the ice.

The team isn't equipped with heavy-duty radiation armour, so doesn't stick around to investigate the wreck of the sifter; instead, they head back to the drop pod, though Brian, Tuovi and Eddie pause to look at the first attack site. Two bodies are buried; they dig up one, to find that while he has no personally identifying items he is wearing a dogtag with a strange symbol on it; Wyn later identifies this as signifying Peace Code, a pressure group that resists militarisation of new technologies. It's shown no sign of this sort of violent action before.

Everyone gets back to the drop pod, then waits for several weeks until the UN humanitarian aid ship can arrive and pick them up. The hazmat teams find definite signs of experimentation on humans in the wreckage of the sifter.

2.4. Waksman

6 May 2011

Waksman has been independent for about six months: it was a Bayer-Pfizer-Glaxo colony, but the algal byproducts have now been synthesised more cheaply in labs back on Earth. A minor revolt by the scientific staff there made the colony too expensive to keep on, and BPF has abandoned it. It has a basic ecosphere (nothing more sophisticated than blue-green algae, but they produce enough oxygen to breathe without masks).

They have very little by way of foreign exchange credit - they're doing a certain amount of research for hire - so few ships visit (particularly since any that do are barred from taking BPG cargoes). This mission is to check up on them from a UN perspective, since as an independent off-world state they can get round the Outer Space Treaty and give the UN some relevance away from Earth. (Neil is added to the team to talk to the local law enforcement structure - whatever it may be - and get it on a vaguely professional footing; this is very much what his previous jobs with the UN Police have involved.)

Initial contact is somewhat irregular; there's a lot of tapping and "is this thing on", as well as a mention that the spaceport's right-side runway is getting a bit overgrown so it would be a good idea to use the one on the left. Tuovi makes a very smooth landing, and the team is met by the "mayor", Dr Nikolai Stanford. He's very much aware that he's leading the planet because nobody else wants the job.

Quote: (Stanford) You'd think that a society of academics could manage to organise itself rationally... if you'd never met any academics. More likely to collapse into anarchy and cannibalism as soon as the printer runs out of toner.

Stanford says that things are going reasonably well overall, though they've been having some computer problems, and are wondering whether it's a slow virus left behind by BPG. Cincebeaux chats with him on the walk into town - it's a single settlement of around 6,000 people - and the others are able to look around. It's clear that BPG stripped the place of anything that could more or less justify its shipping cost elsewhere, and wasn't essential for life; most of the buildings are made from shipping containers, and nothing is more than two containers tall.

Neil makes contact with Karl Osmer, who's the "security chief" (or "justice minister", or something else; they haven't really settled on titles yet) and starts to bring him up to speed on modern police practice; Osmer is entirely inexperienced, but willing to learn.

For the next few days, the team disperses around the colony. Tuovi spends most of her time catching up on maintenance (there aren't many people with practical skills here, and the maintenance bots are always overloaded); Cincebeaux is closeted with Stanford and Neil with Osmer; the others help where they're useful. Jorge looks into the local recreational scene; fermented algae make for very nasty beer, but laboratory equipment can convert it into pretty decent vodka.

Tuovi is the first to spot a problem: a pervasive silvery mould that seems to be growing preferentially on high-frequency data cables. She sends some to the biolabs to be looked at. It doesn't have much structure; it seems to be a slightly foamed metal.

On the third day after landing, Cincebeaux gets sick; it starts with a bad cough, but rapidly progresses to confusion and bleeding. He's taken to the colony's fairly minimal sickbay, and Eddie and Neil get the labs to analyse his blood samples. It looks a lot like (though not identical to) Ebola. The sickbay is quarantined.

Brian and Neil report to Captain Marlow, and suggest that he check the ship for contamination. Neil attempts to read Cincebeaux, to see whether he's done anything unusual lately, but isn't able to make contact; in Cincebeaux' occasional bouts of delerium he seems to be shouting at his superiors.

Dr Jane Riddell, the closest thing the colony has to a medical doctor, looks at the blood samples in more detail, and checks Stanford as the person who's had most contact with Cincebeaus recently - he's infected too. Tuovi looks for records on germ warfare, but only comes up with conspiracy theories. Brian checks the colony's records (including what the colonists salvaged when the main computer was taken by BPG), and finds very little illness; everyone's checked for potential problems before an interstellar flight.

Captain Marlow reports no sign of contamination aboard the ship, but tests on the team reveal that they're all infected, as is Riddell - though Osmer seems to be all right so far. Some random testing shows that about half the colony shows some sign of infection.

The next day, about twenty people are sick, and Cincebeaux is much worse, unconscious and bleeding from all membranes. Riddell pushes fluids to keep him going. The number of patients is overwhelming the sickbay, so they're dispersed into other buildings.

As the team's updating reports to the Ossipon, the power goes out in the container they're using as headquarters. Tuovi investigates, and finds the breaker box overgrown with metallic mould. She cuts the power upstream of it, and torches it off; it seems to have incorporated the box's materials into its own structure.

The lander and APC, which have remained sealed since just after landing, don't report any sign of problems. Tuovi and Eddie check all the power cables they can find, to get some idea of the mould's growth rate. Neil sets up a situation board to show Osmer how it's done. Riddell reports that some of the colonists are distinctly unhappy about these outsiders coming and bringing their plagues with them.

The next day, Brian is sick, coughing heavily and feeling somewhat confused. The team finds that there's no silver mould growth on sealed equipment, or even on their own hardware (they've been stripping and cleaning their weapons and other kit according to normal protocols), so perhaps the infection isn't airborne. The maintenance robots have been getting increasingly unreliable; a check shows that they've been doing other tasks as well as the ones they've been assigned, though their logs show no signs of tampering (just "unavailable" or "undergoing repair" for the relevant periods). They seem to have been spending a lot of time near the central fabricator, an automated machine shop that makes all the spare parts for the colony.

Eddie, Neil and Brian power off the fabricator, then clear its task list, reapply power and wait to see what it does. It works on some robots that look quite similar in design to the maintenance bots, though somewhat smaller; it's built ten of them so far, and they're stored in crannies of the fabricator structure. Tuovi takes one of them to experiment on; its battery pack is much smaller in proportion than the standard model, and its tools are rather more complex, but the overall design is quite close. She removes its batteries, plugs it into the mains and turns it on; it rolls towards the door and unplugs itself. She puts the batteries back in, and she, Jorge and Brian follow it out towards the fusion reactor that supplies the colony's power. It heads towards the control station (not often used, as the automation keeps the plant running), stops close by, and starts to disgorge small silvery beetle-like objects that approach the controls. Jorge destroys the bot with a single pistol shot; Tuovi and Brian dive for the beetles, and catch them before they can get into the controls. Tuovi crushes one - they're quite lightly built, saucer-shaped with four equally-spaced legs

Meanwhile, Eddie, Neil and Brian have powered off the fabricator again and searched it thoroughly. It doesn't quite match its original specification; some of the tools are substantially more complex. They head for the fusion plant at the sound of gunfire. Tuovi and Jorge check out the reactor via its internal cameras, and Neil suits up to look inside; there's no sign of silver-mould penetration. Tuovi removes the batteries from all the "new" maintenance bots.

Since the mould seemed to be attracted first to high-frequency cabling, Tuovi builds a signal generator, which she hopes will cause the mobile parts of the problem to gather in one place. Eddie constructs a pyre of thermite under and around it. Tuovi scans to find the most attractive signal pattern, then fires up the generator; all the original maintenance bots and one of the two walking loaders head towards the generator, as well as several large streams of the silvery beetles. Eddit packs more thermite into convenient blocks, and Neil telekinetically lofts it into place; then it's all set off together, while Neil crushes the metallic mass into a single lump.

The next day, Cincebeaux and Brian are much the same; Eddie and Jorge, and a hundred or so colonists, fall ill in spite of the local antivirals everyone's been given - though nobody's in immediate danger of death. Tuovi and Neil work on repairing the colony's electrical infrastructure. Brian is drifting in and out of consciousness when he feels someone injecting him in the arm that doesn't have a drip in it; he can't make out who it is, but when he tries to talk to the figure, it pulls away. Jorge, who's nearby but not quite as badly affected, draws his gun and challenges the intruder, Karl Osmer, who starts to level a weapon; Jorge shoots him, aiming for centre of mass since he doesn't want to hit any of the patients or medical equipment if he misses, and kills him. Brian immediately ties a tourniquet around his arm above the injection site. When the others arrive, they see a pocket computer lying by Osmer's hand.

Neil immediately moves into investigative mode; the computer is bagged, as are Jorge's pistol and the sprayhypo Osmer was using. Neil reads Jorge's memories, with consent: it's clear that he saw a gun in Osmer's hand. Brian doesn't remember as much, but subconsciously picked up the shape of a gun too. The hypo contains a dose of the same ebola variant that has infected the colony; Brian is given extra anti-virals.

Tuovi's and Neil's examination of the computer eventually reveals that it's a camouflaged pistol; pressing the right points causes the memory plastics to change shape. Neil talks to Stanford, who doesn't have anything bad to say about Osmer - he was generally quiet and kept to himself. The team theorises that he was a stay-behind agent for BPG. Examining his room reveals more disguised equipment, mostly surveillance devices, and a variety of other plagues and poisons. Curiously, his electronics have been infected with the silver mould; it looks as though that may not have been his doing.

The colony seems to be recovering, and a follow-up UN mission will bring some replacement hardware (donated third- and fourth-grade equipment, but better than nothing).

2.5. Strangfeld

4 June 2011

Strangfeld is another world with a relatively developed ecosystem - its largest land fauna are small shrew-like creatures, and the climate is human-habitable, if a little cold. It has a 5,000-person colony from Better Living, primarily a medical equipment supplier; the colony's used for a variety of things, mostly looking for interesting organic and inorganic materials but with some bulk resource extraction too.

The latest cargo ship from there hasn't reported in, so the team's being sent to find out what's up and whether any help is required. The corporate lisiason is Ms Reckhalter, "call me Cindy", who's primarily a lawyer rather than anything technical. Commander Marlow wakes the team shortly after entry to the system: there's no radio signal audible from the planet, and ship's sensors have located the cargo ship, showing no sign of power or life and in an unusual orbital position. Tuovi works out that its current course is consistent with its having set off for the jump point, but failed to jump, and instead travelled further out-system. Captain Marlow can chase it down, but it'll take extra reaction mass to catch it, and the Ossipon will arrive at the planet with tanks close to dry.

Refuelling off Stangfeld's oceans is a possibility, if a time-consuming one, so Cincebeaux gives the go-ahead for the intercept and the team chills down again. On next awakening the cargo ship is nearby, and the team heads across in heavy armour, using a guide line. There's some confusion on arrival, since not everyone has freefall experience, and as people are untangling themselves Tuovi notices that the ship's external antennae look damaged - specifically, partly melted. This sort of specific damage isn't usual from ship-to-ship energy weapons (which tend to produce long laser scars).

The airlock is cranked open, and the team heads inside - Cincebeaux first, backed up by Jorge. The ship's atmosphere has mostly frozen out, and there are several bodies in suits - also frozen. Tuovi checks the ship's electronics, which show similar damage to the antennae. On the bridge are more suited bodies, and more dead electronics - but someone has left some handwritten notes on plastic sheets, which describe a sudden and unprecedented solar flare shortly after the ship had pulled out of orbit. With only a few minutes' warning of the particle storm, the crew headed for the best-protected part of the ship, but even this wasn't enough to keep them from terminal radiation sickness. Some died straight away; others hung on long enough to freeze to death when the ship cooled. It's not clear from these notes how long the flare event lasted, or which side of the planet would have been facing the star. The team plants a beacon on the ship for later salvage, skims hydrogen out of its reaction mass tanks and removes the flight recorder, and then heads for the planet.

As Ossipon pulls into orbit - some six months after the flare - there's some sign of life on the surface - some of the mining machinery is active, and there are people walking around on the surface. There's no sign of generalised power use, though. Commander Marlow uses the ship's laser to send a blinker message; after some hours, various packing cases are rearranged to spell out HELP.

The team takes a shuttle down, making a smooth landing in spite of the lack of navigational aids, and heads in via APC with a cargo of food packages. The structures of the colony seem pretty much intact, and there's little or no residual radiation, but the team's still in heavy armour with faceplates closed and filters running. Cincebeaux dismounts and starts to address the two hundres or so colonists nearby, explaining why the team's here; Jorge unloads food supplies, and is faintly surprised at how well the locals are behaving - when on relief missions on Earth he's often seen a bit of a scrum for the first food packets, but here they're forming orderly lines. Neil telepathically scans one of the colonists, and gets a slightly surprising result: his surface thoughts are along the lines of "something smells really good, but I can't tell what it is". He warns the others; Tuovi and Brian dismount, to back up the oblivious Cincebeaux if he should need it.

Brian notices that the colonists seem, in a fairly casual way, to be surrounding Cincebeaux; he moves in closer. Without any apparent signal, there's a sudden cascade of attacks, with everyone outside the APC being attacked hand-to-hand - there's no sign of weapons, a small blessing. Brian punches his first assailant, while Wyn fires a burst from the APC's gun over the heads of the crowd. Jorge, possibly making a questionable judgement call under pressure, fires a burst from his chaingun, downing several colonists. Eddie leans out of the APC's hatch and throws a flashbang grenade, which disorientates the attackers slightly. Cincebeaux starts to pull back, then freezes. Neil, falling back on his police training, scans the edges of the crowd for people who might be egging it on, but can't spot any. Brian and Jorge are struck by grasping hands, but their armour prevents any harm.

Tuovi grabs Cincebeaux and starts dragging him back towards the APC, while Brian keeps the colonists off them. Wyn continues to fire the APC's gun, Jorge unloads a burst of tangler grenades into the colonists pressing him, and Eddie hits the APC's gas dispenser, releasing tear gas around the vehicle. As the colonists seem to be normally vulnerable to this, the team gains a bit of breathing space: one of the tangled colonists is hauled into the APC, the rest of the team remounts, and the vehicle is sealed up and driven back towards the shuttle.

Neil cuffs the captured colonist, and Cincebeaux un-freezes - and starts to scream. Just as Brian punches him on the arm to try to get him back to normal, Wyn knocks him out with a strong sedative.

Neil probes the colonist, who's panicking - he has no idea why he did what he did, but he's really hungry for something about these strangers. Neil goes deeper, and gets the feeling that there's something else providing input to this man's thought processes. With the combination of panic and mind-probe stress, the colonist falls unconscious. Neil reaches for, and drains, Brian's hip-flask.

Quote: (Neil) There's something else in there.
(Brian) No, it's just potatoes, fermented and distilled.

Some of the other colonists pursued the vehicle at first, but once it gets more than a few yards ahead of them they seem to lose interest, look confused, and then start to gather up their dead.

Some discussion ensues about the nature of whatever it might be that's controlling the colonists...

Quote: (Neil) My suggestion is he has some sort of sentient parasite in him.
(Wyn) How's that different from possession by the Devil?
(Neil) Well, it's real...

Back on the shuttle, the team scrubs down thoroughly. Reckhalter is pretty shaken, and showing a tendency to hide behind large heavy objects. Neil looks through the merchant ship's logs, recovered from its flight recorder; there's no sign of any unusual behaviour before the flare. The rest of the team checks its recordings of the attack; the first sign of odd behaviour seems to have been about thirty seconds after the APC was unsealed. Wyn notes a lack of symptoms of radiation poisoning: even with atmospheric shielding, they wouldn't have survived unprotected on the surface, and they must have found some sort of shelter.

Some three hours after he was sedated, Cincebeaux wakes up. Wyn breathes at him, and notes that he doesn't seem to have any undue hungers. The team looks through colony records; there's an old lava-tube system not too far from the colony site. It hasn't been heavily surveyed, since it didn't contain any interesting minerals, but it might have provided enough shelter to keep some colonists alive.

The team gears up for another survey, this time carrying twelve-hour air tanks and working with their suits fully sealed. The APC won't fit into most of the cave system, so Neil remains behind with Reckhalter (after some persuasion) and the prisoner.

Cincebeaux leads, as is his habit; behind him are Tuovi, Brian, Jorge and Eddie, with Wyn bringing up the rear. The first sign of anything amiss is a warm patch on the ceiling, with quite sharply-defined edges, though in normal vision it's the same colour as the cave itself. Wyn comes forward and prods it with his knife; it drops off the ceiling and enfolds him. He cuts at it with the knife, and Tuovi burns it with a fuel-air round from her vortex launcher. Once she and Jorge use knives to try to pry it loose from Wyn, it curls up and drops away. While Eddie keeps watch, Wyn gets some samples (and washes the mildly-acidic slime off his suit); he doesn't make much of it, but Brian reckons that some of the muscles and nerve fibres look pretty much like human ones. (Back in the APC, Neil explains the implications to Reckhalter, who faints.) Wyn moves up to leave Eddie on rear-guard.

The next obstacle is a pocket of chlorine gas, not enough to be very dangerous even if the team weren't in sealed suits. In this area is most of a body, with a hole in its abdomen and most of the contents missing - and the wound edge looks very odd, not cut or torn but cleanly peeled or split.

The team continues into a much larger cave, which looks as though it might well have been used as a flare shelter - it's far enough underground, and there are scraps of rubbish that might have been left behind when the colonists moved back out. There's quite a lot of fungus on the walls; while sampling it, Tuovi notices that parts of it have already been scraped and are growing back. Brian searches for a journal, eventually finding a child's diary among the detritus; as the team had started to suspect, the colony ran for the caves when the soft X-rays hit the upper atmosphere, but with only a few minutes' warning many of them didn't make it and even those that did had very little time to gather equipment or supplies. They ran short of food well before the flare activity died down, and in the absence of anything else tried the fungus, which seems to have kept them alive.

Brian explores further; he and Tuovi spot more fungus, and get a sample from the thickest spot, though it looks much the same as it does everywhere else. The team heads out; Neil attempts to scan their samples telepathically, getting nowhere, though the fungus has spread itself out over the inside of the sample jars.

The prisoner, now conscious again, confirms the story from the diary. He can confirm that a couple of people went missing in the caves, but for some reason he didn't feel worried about them. He recognises the man with the burst abdomen as one of the missing.

Since the colony's lab equipment, whatever state it may have been in, will clearly have been damaged by the flares - not to mention that the team may not be terribly popular in the settlement just now - the team heads back to the shuttle, and into orbit. They keep the shuttle bay evacuated for now, and have some of the equipment from sickbay brought out. The prisoner is certainly suffering from a fungal infection, localised in the base of his brain and in his liver. It's the same stuff as in the samples... and it looks remarkably like the Fiorina fungus, too.

The team drops more emergency supplies to the colonists - these things are designed to survive rough handling, including a drop from orbit - and includes an explanation of what they think is going on. They'll definitely be calling for a follow-up mission...

2.6. (redacted) Station

13 August 2011

En route back to Earth, Brian is detached for a training rotation. However, when the rest of the team wakes up, Earth isn't on the screens. Cincebeaux explains: during the jump sequence, Captain Marlowe picked up a distress beacon from an FTL-capable lifepod. The sole occupant, a Miss Coulthard, was in some distress: the deep-space research outpost on which she'd been working suffered a sudden structural collapse. She's asked that the Ossipon's complement proceed as quickly as possible to the station, to recover any survivors of the other three crew members and to sanitise the site (a nuclear warhead will do the job nicely).

Coulthard is blatantly not being forthcoming about details: she won't say what sort of research was going on, or even which company owns the facility. (Cincebeaux has looked at what few records are available, and reckons that the needlessly-complicated ownership structure is typical of UGA, but there's no proof.)

At this point it's only around twelve hours after the incident, and Ossipon should be able to get to the station in only another few hours - and may well be the only ship available for some time. Coulthard has been packed off in-system, and the team chills down again for jump.

The station is a small ring structure spinning for gravity, with two axial arms leading to the despun hub. There's no obvious sign of structural damage, the transponder's running, and cursory infra-red scans show that there's still power available. There are two lifepod bays on the rim, and one of them has been launched. Ossipon holds about a mile away as the team takes a lander across, securing it in the open docking bay.

Also in the bay are a standard workpod and two less-conventional spacecraft: open-framework stubby cylinders about twenty feet long and ten across. Tuovi works out that they have no main drive or reactor on board, and no space for crew: they have cold-gas thrusters for low-speed manoeuvres, a reasonably capable computer, and massive battery packs. On each vehicle is a bay around four feet long and a foot wide, presumably for some other component that isn't present here.

The lander is set to alert the team if anything odd happens, and they head in through the personnel lock: it opens sluggishly, perhaps on emergency battery power (confirmed by the red lights inside). The central hub area is also red-lit; the reactor module is straight ahead, and the two axial shafts open to either side (constantly rotating).

Eddie checks out the reactor: it's in good shape, but the main breakers have tripped, presumably after either a sudden demand for power or a flare-up in the reactor itself. Meanwhile, Wyn's checking his environmental monitors: nothing's vastly amiss, but there are some organic decay products in the air.

The team climbs down one of the shafts. Around half-way down, Jorge (in the lead) spots a sprawled body at the bottom. They continue, landing at the rim in about a third of a gravity. Wyn checks the body, which is severely damaged, having apparently experienced a very long fall - rather more than simply falling off the shaft's ladder could account for, in fact, and there's no sign of Coriolis-force-driven impact on the sides of the shaft. The left hand is also missing, having apparently been cut off and cauterised - probably with a laser or plasma torch - shortly before death. There's no sign of tourniquet or puncture marks that might indicate anaesthesia before the amputation, though. The coveralls' name tag reads "Piper".

While Wyn's checking the body, the others look around. This immediate area seems to be used for miscellaneous storage; there's no corporate logo on the walls or anything useful like that, but Jorge and Tuovi reckon the brand names are consistent with small companies owned by UGA.

The team heads round the ring into the environmental systems area: this takes the usual form of plants in tubes. They're not thriving, largely because of the lack of normal light. Eddie spots something moving in a corner - about the size of a small spider - but it's disappeared by the time he can look more closely, though there's no obvious crack for it to have got down. He and Tuovi search, but can't find anything else moving.

At this point, Captain Marlowe calls from the Ossipon: the hyperdrive's just dropped off-line, and is no longer responding to control impulses. Given some of the other small scuttling things the team's met recently, the safest bet seems to be to cut all communications with the ship in case there are hostile data being transmitted - but the team first warns Marlowe to get everyone into suits, and to keep a look out for small self-mobile objects.

The team heads on round into a common area, where a man is tapping at a computer keyboard - the computer is without power, but he doesn't seem to notice or care. His left hand is also missing. The team tries to get his attention, but even loud shouts just cause him to look up briefly and then go back to what he's doing. Neil scans his surface thoughts, which are about writing up his experimental logs, and very carefully not thinking about anything else. Finally, Jorge grabs the man's hand (his coveralls say "Clarke"), and he looks up and starts to scream. Wyn sedates him, but not before Neil's had a chance to dig a bit deeper: Clarke's mostly concerned that his career's in ruins, and "core B" was the cause of all the problems - and he really doesn't want to think about those at all.

The team carries Clarke back up the shaft and gets him into a pressure suit, leaving him unconscious at the hub. On the way down, they hear an irregular tapping sound through the shaft walls, but can't pin down an origin. Searching the common area, Jorge finds bloody (left) hand prints, mostly under desks and in other non-obvious places.

The next section, after the empty lifepod bay, is a pair of individual office cubicles: Clarke's looks fairly normal, except for more bloody handprints, but the other - Coulthard's - looks as though the partition walls have been peeled away from the bulkheads and crumpled into the centre of the room. Jorge can't find any toolmarks, and suggests that this might have been done by telekinesis.

The team continues into the accommodation area. There's noise audible from two of the cabins: a quiet rustling from "Napier", and sobbing from "Clarke". Tuovi pulls open Napier's door while Eddie and Jorge hold their weapons ready. Inside, sitting on the bunk surrounded by piles of emergency rations, is a man in his late twenties, who looks up and says "that's interesting". It rapidly becomes clear that he thinks of them as illusions, and "I was wondering what I was going to see next". A bit of prodding by Neil reveals that he thinks they're further manifestations of "core B" and "core H", which have got loose during the hyperdrive experiments and have been sending a variety of illusions and compulsions (including the sudden urge to cut off his left hand). When Neil presses harder, he starts to look worried and clam up: "if you know, you know why I can't tell you". Neil probes his memories, and learns that these are entirely standard hyperdrive cores, albeit being tested in unusual ways. Everyone who learns hyperspace physics knows where the drive cores come from: people who go in for psionic testing and have the right aptitude, who "die" during their upgrade operations so that the relevant parts of their brains can be harvested.

He doesn't explain any of this straight away, but does turn pale: "Let's run".

The team opens Clarke's cabin in the same way, but it's empty: the sobbing seems to be coming from thin air. Neil continues to push Napier: he's mentioned training the cores to be able to make longer safe jumps by "basic stimulus-response methods". Tuovi pulls the storage from the station's main computer on the way back to the shaft. Napier's shocked when he sees Piper's body: "Nothing like this has ever happened before."

As the team's climbing the shaft, hauling Piper's body with them, the emergency lights go out, and there's a sudden whistling sound and a strong breeze. The team hurries upward through the darkness, but Wyn loses his grip and falls, being caught by Eddie. Once he's recovered and got back onto the ladder, he puts an emergency oxygen mask onto Napier, in case the pressure drops further - though Tuovi reckons that noise from a hull breach should be getting either louder or quieter, not staying at the same volume and pitch as this one is.

Once the team gets to the hub, Napier's got into a suit, and they start to head for the lander. Tuovi spots a raging fire immediately outside the airlock... but the lander's not reporting anything odd, and Jorge reckons it looks much more like a normal gravity-bound fire than the odd shapes one gets in zero G. The team steps out into the inferno, which fades away after a few paces, and gets to the lander. Neil, however, feels that a trip to the lab area on the far side of the station has become essential; Cincebeaux stays with the two survivors, while the rest of the team heads back down the shaft (after Eddie's thrown the main breakers to restore power).

The first chamber is a workshop area, with blood spatter across the walls. From there the passageway opens out into the laboratory area, which looks rather more like a biologist's or neurosurgeon's setup than what a hyperspace physicist's rig should look like... whatever that might be. There's a heavy isolation chamber in the middle of the lab, and Neil plans to approach this - though first he gets Eddie to set an explosive charge on the back of his helmet, with a remote detonator.

The heavy airlock doors open as Neil approaches. In the central chamber are two short cylindrical pillars, of a size to fit in the bays on the skeletal probes in the docking bay. Stepping out from behind one of them, though there's no way he could have been hiding there, is a young man dressed in casual clothes; he introduces himself as "Benny". "Helen can't talk right now. I tried to wake her up but she's not really ready yet."

Neil points out that both he and Benny are the results of psionic experimentation; Benny feels that it's arguable which of them is the success, but is quite surprised he's retained as much personality as he has given how much of the brain mass was thrown away. Neil's first suggestion is that he can get the UN to set up a quarantine area round the station, and more immediately will restore main power, in exchange for Benny staying where he is (and, as Benny points out, letting Ossipon's hyperdrive core regain normal function). However, it's clear that many important people must already know the secret of how hyperdrives are built: Wyn isn't prepared to keep quiet about it, and insists that the truth must be disseminated. The rest of the team isn't at all happy about this, on the basis that it's likely to get them all killed, so after lengthy discussion a second compromise is eventually reached: Wyn will remain aboard the station, and Benny will jump him into a settled system. To make the official report more convincing, a missile should indeed be fired at the station - Benny will jump it away just before the explosion.

The team returns to the lander, and Tuovi copies the data from the station's computer - Benny wants that storage back, for the star maps, psychology texts, and other useful data. Cincebeaux queries this, but Tuovi persuades him that it's a better way of keeping evidence out of the hands of the corporates; it's pretty clear that Cincebeaux has realised what's going on, but he's not prepared to say it out loud.

Benny produces a convincing illusion of Wyn being sucked out through a hull breach, to be spliced into the records from helmet cameras. The team leaves in the lander; once they're back aboard Ossipon, Captain Marlowe fires a nuclear missile, and the station vanishes in a blinding flash. (If the gravity sensors twitch a bit, nobody seems to be paying attention.)

2.7. Zetsche

22 October 2011

Back on Earth, Brian rejoins the team - having read the reports, he's not surprised that they're a bit on the silent side about their most recent mission.

Dizzy returns from "upgrades", with the same cheery attitude as before, and an explanation (when pushed) that its former loyalty to RosToExMoShell was a deception made necessary by [null pointer exception].

Also joining the team is Corporal Terry Barton, who's primarily an electronics operator with some repair skills.

The next mission is to Zetsche, one of the first planets colonised - its atmosphere is breathable without treatment, and the inhabited area is mostly temperate forest. It was settled by RosToExMoShell as a resource site, but it's turned out to have useful biota as well; recently, BayerPfizerGlaxo has managed through some obscure legal means to get rights to an undeveloped area in the east of the main continent. For the last year, BPG has been moving people on-world, and RTEMS has been responding. The level of "industrial accidents" has increased sharply, both sides have substantial security presences, and the UN team is being asked to calm things down a bit pending a formal resolution from the boards of the two companies. (But shifting in a large number of troops wouldn't be popular with either side...)

When the Ossipon brakes down into orbit round Zetsche, there are already two ships in orbit: the RTEMS corvette Niobrara, under Captain Reyneke, and the BPG corvette Vardenafil, under Captain Teschendorff. The latter is the same captain the team met off Verwaayen ("fricking eye lasers", comments Eddie), and they know that he's capable of being reasonable.

It's clear, however, that both the ground commanders - Mr Millett of RTEMS, a lawyer with little field experience, and Dr Randall of BPG, a pharmaceutical chemist who's been promoted to administration - are feeling edgy about what the other side may be up to. RTEMS has around 400 people on-world, mostly at a couple of major sites with isolated supervisor teams for mining machines; BPG has 250, mostly split up into small camps of 10-20 people.

The most immediate concern is an RTEMS sifter - not unlike the snow sifters the team ran into on Hammer IIa, though this one's designed for tearing down forests in a search for interesting chemicals and raw biomass. The RTEMS tech team, in its VTOL, is waiting for the UN troops to arrive before going in - there have been too many structural failures, sudden pits, and other such problems lately. While there's no absolute proof, they're convinced there's a BPG sabotage team on-world with them.

Cincebeaux calms them, while Dizzy sends his swarm ahead to take a look round. There's no sign of damage to the sifter; the reactor's still live, and radiation levels are normal. The team cracks the maintenance hatch and heads in; Eddie goes first to the reactor, while Dizzy and Terry collaborate on the computer. (Terry is distinctly unhappy about this lump of electronics that acts like a person; unfortunately, since this is slightly more Dizzy's area of expertise than his, he's forced to take second place in the investigation.) The cause of the problem is easy enough to isolate: the size filter has been set to a very small value, such that the sifter can't find anything small enough to ingest and has called for help. It might be alpha-particle damage to the memory, but it seems wildly unlikely.

The RTEMS techs come in and start to reset things. Eddie notices that the reactor's started putting out a lot of power - it's shunting it into the capacitors that smooth out power to the track motors, and they're already substantially over their nominal capacity. He forces the reactor to return to idle as everyone else gets to a safe distance; there's some discussion of draining the charge quickly by starting the sifter moving, but on balance it seems safer to leave it alone to bleed off charge.

Tuovi has been looking for signs of stealthy movement; the forest doesn't take tracks well, but she spots some human-sized breaks in the tree cover back along the sifter's track. There aren't any indigenous animals big enough to make them.

Dizzy's swarm is sent in to examine everything, and the computer records are dumped to safety. (There is an external monitoring camera, but with a bit of examination it's apparent that yesterday's footage is a duplicate of the previous day's - cut across at midnight, so as not to be too obvious.)

Neil does a full sweep of the sifter's cabin, but there's no useful DNA or fibre; this looks like the work of professionals.

As the team's packing up, a call comes in from BPG headquarters: one of their camps has gone partly off the air, since the radio and computers are still working but nobody's answering. The team flies directly there and finds ten bodies, apparently the ten researchers: nine of them are neatly laid out, with the tenth contorted nearby. All have clearly died messily.

Looking at the flow of data from the camp suggests that everyone died in fairly short order - nobody was cut off in mid-email, but the flow goes from normal chatter to automated systems only very suddenly. The tenth man is clutching a bottle of something, a fairly toxic reagent; none of the team is a doctor, but it might well be the cause of death.

Tuovi finds some boot-prints outside the shelter that don't appear to belong to any of the researchers. She looks for the shelter's internal camera, but finds it's been smashed... in what Eddie recognises as quite a distinctive way, quite possibly secondary damage from a sonic nauseator (a weapon that's not often used by the military, though it has a role in crowd control). That seems consistent with the bodies, too: if they were helpless or unconscious from the nauseator's effects, poisoning them would be easy. The operation would probably need two or three people to get it done quickly enough.

Tuovi starts tracking the boot-prints to try to find out where this team came in, and what sort of transport they might have; she's shot without warning, and drops to the ground to get into cover. Terry and Jorge run up to help, while Eddie, Brian and Cincebeaux (who's rather more together than he's previously been when bullets are flying) drop and crawl closer. Neil gets to cover, then approaches the lander - which Cincebeaux has been warming up by remote control.

There's more fire, and Terry's hit, though his armour takes the damage. Brian moves left to come up on the attackers from out of the line of fire, and Tuovi starts to crawl towards safety. Jorge fires a grenade at roughly the source of the incoming fire, while Eddie's burst misses. Cincebeaux calls on Jorge to move right and enfilade.

Dizzy pushes its swarm through the trees, and spots the source of the fire: two storm carbines on a remote mount. It starts looking for sites that might be placed to ambush someone discovering this. Neil gets to the lander, and using its loudspeakers calls on the attackers to surrender.

Terry gets to Tuovi and stops her bleeding, while Brian fires blindly into one of Dizzy's possible ambush sites. Terry and Tuovi start to crawl towards the lander, while Jorge and Eddie keep up grenade fire; unfortunately, Jorge takes a burst of storm carbine fire, and his armour isn't up to stopping it all. He drops instantly, technically dead.

Terry runs towards him to do what he can, while Brian manages to spot his attackers and lay down bursts of fire on them, taking both down. Eddie puts grenades into the other group, taking down one, while Cincebeaux lines up a carefully-aimed shot that kills the other.

That seems to be everyone. Jorge's body is rushed to one of the lander's cryokits; by the time everyone's checked in and immediate wounds are patched up, the attackers are dead. Neil checks the bodies: their equipment is carefully anonymised, but they are carrying nauseators as well as their main weapons.

The best bet for emergency surgery for Jorge is probably BPG headquarters, and the team flies directly there. With a heroic effort, he's brought back to life - with a new spleen and half a liver, among other less glamorous replacements.

Things seem to slow down a bit; the team's waiting for Jorge to recover at least enough to walk, and the incidents have decreased, though an RTEMS supervisor site loses two people to toxic pollen that got into the water supply through a broken filter.

Neil arranges a meeting of the two corporate security chiefs on neutral ground - specifically Ossipon. Nobody's really willing to admit anything, but he and Cincebeaux eventually hammer out an agreement to clear all air traffic through Ossipon so that there's a formal record of who's going where, as well as the satellite observation of what is moving. Both chiefs carefully don't say that they are pretty sure there are corporate special ops teams from both sides on-world - who wouldn't answer to them anyway, having their orders from head office.

Another RTEMS sifter breaks down, and given the general level of paranoia the UN team is sent directly in. Infra-red shows that it's cooled to ambient temperature, and power is off. Dizzy deploys its swarm while the lander circles; there's a foot-wide hole bored from near ground level into the structure of the vehicle. No weapon that the team's met can do damage like this, with no sign of burning or distortion of the remaining material; what's more, the hole splits, with one part leading to the computer core while the other goes into the reactor... which appears to be empty.

The team lands to investigate further. The reactor has been emptied of fuel, and shows no residual radiation. There's another hole in the ground, close to the one in the side of the sifter; it varies in diameter between one and two feet, and goes some distance into the ground. Dizzy sends some swarmbots down to investigate; the first one sees a pool of silvery liquid with forms writhing within it, which rushes out towards it just before the signal's lost. A second swarmbot is left half-way up the tunnel to be an early warning, while more fly down towards the pool; they're swallowed up, and a few seconds later the other one drops off the net too. The team hurriedly gets into the lander, and takes off as a fountain of silver pours out of the hole, writhing as it forms and dissolves sensors and manipulators.

Tuovi points the lander's drive at the form, going to full throttle to get the lander away and damage the thing at the same time. It spatters and loses its consistency, falling away into inert silvery puddles, though even here there's less radiation than there should be.

The team flies back to Ossipon, where a message from Earth has arrived: the boards have agreed a shared-profit arrangement. A few minutes later, the BPG security head reports an attack on their base: it looks as though the surviving RTEMS special-ops team made a final bit to take out the top BPG management before the agreement took force, but the BPG security group - having pulled back the researches for the moment, to be able concentrate on defending a single target - managed to stop them.

A further conference aboard Ossipon sees Millett of RTEMS admit that he has heard of something like... what RTEMS is calling a "servitor", which seems to be one of the modes of the biotechnology found on Fiorina III. (The researchers prefer the term "shoggoth", but nobody listens to them.) They haven't been able to exert any sort of control over the things, so they haven't been deploying them anywhere, but this certainly looks like the same sort of beast...

For now, peace has been established, and the team - really not wanting or being equipped to go on a shoggoth-hunt, and with Jorge still injured - pulls out for home.

2.8. Okuda/N2 Librae

19 November 2011

The next missions involves open rebellion - what started as an argument about leave allowances has turned into a guerilla war between Clockwork Minds AI researchers on Okuda and the corporate security forces. The team will be sent in to try to stop the fighting and get some sort of arbitration set up.

Obvious UN logos will be the order of the day, particularly once Dizzy finds out that the Okuda team has mostly been working on collaborative swarms of drones similar to the ones he carries - slightly larger, though, intended for jobs like finding earthquake victims in collapsed buildings. Such machines are half-way militarised already - they can spot humans through cover with sonics and infra-red, and can cut away steel and concrete to get to them...

Everyone loads up on EMP grenades, and the Ossipon heads out. As usual, all crew and passengers except the APs are in hibernation for jump, so Dizzy and Norton are the only ones conscious. The stars change, as usual, but Dizzy is aware of having a slight gap in his memory. Norton has frozen completely. Alarms start going off...

The organic team members are brought out of hibernation the quick and painful way. Fog is pouring from broken pipes, red lights are flashing, and alarms are sounding - Tuovi recognises two of them as "hyperdrive malfunction" and "prepare to abandon ship". She heads for the bridge, followed closely by Captain Marlowe. The rest of the team go for the landers, getting them ready for a rapid launch.

Ossipon is in normal space, which is a good start. Dizzy, on the bridge, has send shutdown commands to the hyperdrive, but the unit is entirely unresponsive; checking the internal camera feeds shows why, as it's completely missing. The remaining alarms are to do with ship stress; the stern section in particular has been wrenched hard.

Tuovi gets to tbe bridge, shuts off the distracting alarms, and takes star sights; she establishes that Ossipon is in the N2 Librae system - about twenty light-years from Earth, a dwarf star that's never previously been visited by humans. There are a few rockballs, but nothing useful. She and Marlowe get the crew busy taking inventory of available resources. There's only one unusual feature in this system: a small but high-albedo object about an AU away.

Dizzy takes a look at Norton, who's shut down completely. A bit of probing suggests that failsafes have cut in - as a navigator and jump pilot, Norton has a fairly detailed knowledge of hyperspace procedures, and based on his experience during jump has started to speculate about forbidden subjects. Dizzy doesn't have those particular failsafes, and reads with interest Norton's thoughts about how all this business with quantum black holes is clearly nonsense...

Captain Marlowe brings Ossipon closer to the object; the ship's weakened, but her in-system drive produces very low thrust anyway, so she can manoeuvre fairly normally. The trip takes about a day, in the dim red light of the dwarf star.

Seen closer, the object seems to be in two parts: a geodesic torus with a completely hollow centre, and attached to one side of it a chaotic assemblage of polyhedra, mostly cubes and tetrahedra. It's very close to background temperature, but it's in a stable orbit (with close to zero eccentricity) and not tumbling at all.

With Ossipon standing off a few hundred miles, the team takes a lander over to investigate. There aren't any obvious docking ports, but there are circular recesses of a variety of sizes scattered over the polyhedral structure. Dizzy throws some of his swarmbots over to the closest small recess, which is about four inches across; when the first bot approaches, the recess drains away like liquid. The bot enters, and the team sees a liquid iris closing behind it, cutting off radio communication. When it opens again, the bot's memory shows that the fluid pushed it out of a cylindrical space into what looks very like a small maintenance duct; when it started back towards the surface, the process of draining, iris formation and expulsion reversed itself.

This seems worth the risk, so Lt Cincebeaux, Brian, Dizzy and Jorge enter through a larger recess. While they're inside the chamber, the walls flow around them in a disconcerting manner. They come out into a larger hexagonal corridor, clearly not designed either to be used under acceleration or by beings who cared about keeping a consistent orientation relative to each other. There's gridwork on each face, making it easy to manoeuvre even in zero-G (and vacuum). Neil finds that the hull doesn't block his telepathic abilities, and monitors the team, though he has no way of communicating with them.

With a marker placed by the recess - with some difficulty, as the surface doesn't take paint or chalk - Cincebeaux leads off towards the junction between polyhedra and ring, since that section was very fractionally warmer than the others. The corridors are straight, but they are broken up by junctions, and there doesn't seem to be a coherent scheme of angles.

There also aren't a lot of doors, though the team does find one larger open space - it's empty, but easily big enough to hold the lander. On the far side is a much larger circular recess, but this one doesn't open when the team approaches.

Cincebeaux shouts in surprise as a laser bolt hits his shoulder, though it doesn't penetrate his armour. The team spreads out, and Dizzy throws a bot down the corridor - quite inaccurately, and it bounces off pipes and wires before being scooped up by something that it can't make out clearly... after which communication is cut off. The team starts to retreat to its entry point, but finds several foot-high octahedral forms blocking its way; their surfaces look similar to the metal of the hull. They're advancing, with a variety of wire-cutters, laser welders, and crimping tools being waved menacingly.

The team opens fire, finding that the attackers shatter under storm carbine attack. The bots shoot back, but without enough power to break through the team's armour. Once four of the sixteen bots have been destroyed, the remainder retreat, except for two that were immobilised by one of Dizzy's EMP rounds. He picks up one of them as the team hears louder footsteps through contact with the gridwork...

This larger bot seems to be made of three of the octahedral shells butted together; it doesn't visibly fire, but Brian takes a major wound and is knocked out. Jorge and Cincebeaux return fire, and it's also shattered; they haul Brian back to the exit point, and get him back to the lander for medical attention (and Tuovi flies back to Ossipon, where there's a proper sickbay available). Dizzy tries to analyse the bot he picked up, but it just doesn't make sense to him - some of the basic principles are clear enough, but the technology is wildly advanced over anything he's familiar with.

While Brian's being patched up on Ossipon, there's extensive discussion over what to do next. The eventual consensus is to send in an expendable probe (i.e. Dizzy) to try to communicate with the bots; Jorge will go along as a telepathic relay, but both of them will be unarmed.

They do this. Dizzy advances down the corridor, and is approached by a variety of octahedral bots of different sizes. Some of them start to climb his armour; he doesn't resist, and suddenly finds himself in communication with - or possibly part of - a much larger intelligence.

This intelligence, which does not identify itself or indeed seem to have an identity, has a job: to keep the gate operational. It wants Dizzy to confirm that the organics are Dizzy's prisoners, since otherwise they would be considered a threat to the gate; Dizzy convinces it that, since the organics are not dangerous and therefore not loose, they must be Dizzy's servants. The bots were attempting to sample them and scavenge volatiles.

Dizzy asks about hyperdrives; the bot isn't aware of anything like what Dizzy describes, and certainly doesn't know what might have happened to Ossipon's hyperdrive, but is prepared to use the gate to send Ossipon to a "non-defended world".

Dizzy asks for a radio relay so that it can consult with greater intelligences, not mentioning that they might be organic. After considerable discussion (including Neil wiring up another suicide hat), Dizzy asks for a list of these non-defended worlds; they're all within about thirty light-years, and the only one that's been visited by humans is Earth. When Dizzy asks about "biologicals", the mind tells him that they are the enemy and the tools of the enemy; it shows him a ship with space sails, very similar to the one encountered at Verwaayen. (But all this information is old; the mind hasn't seen a ship come through for over two million years.)

After further discussion, Marlowe decides that any other system is no improvement over the present situation, and the information must be got home even if it means telling this creature where humanity lives; Dizzy asks that Ossipon be transported to Earth. He is given an approach procedure, and the ship is readied for jump. The reactors in the station's neck warm up, and a variety of exotic particle beams are fired into the centre of the torus; Ossipon passes through at a slow drift, and - after a brief interval of incomprehensibility - the team find their ship in a high orbit over Earth. Marlowe immediately turns on transponders, and Tuovi is surprised to see no ship traffic - there are some surface-to-orbit shuttles, but normally there'd be warships on patrol and merchanters heading in and out of the system. Instead, they're all docked to the big stations.

They don't have time to do much about this, however, as another ship starts to emerge from the same point in space where they arrived. This one's another assembly of polyhedra; it starts to orientate itself towards Earth. Some of the big ships start to undock from geosynch stations, but as soon as they power up they disintegrate - not explosively, but rather as though they'd simply lost all structural integrity. It looks as though Ossipon is the only ship in position to do anything.

Marlowe commands a missile be fired at the attacker, but before it can cross the intervening space, the newcomer has fired its spinal antiparticle accelerator at the planet... at somewhere in the Middle East, not a population centre or even a research base. The hundred-kiloton missile strikes, and the newcomer is destroyed before it can line up on its next target.

There's extensive debriefing. Shortly after Ossipon jumped, ships stopped arriving in the solar system; since it wasn't at all clear what was going on, all the big ships were powered down until things could be resolved. Now it looks very much as though it's the hyperdrives that were the problem; the official story will be that the nature of space has changed such that they'll no longer work, though Neil at least plans to spread the true story of what's going on.

The strike's target in the Middle East was an uninhabited area; why it was felt to be worth a multi-megaton attack isn't at all clear. The only thing there is a long-abandoned archaeological site, where it was theorised that there might have been a city lost to the desert sands, perhaps the "Irem of the Pillars" mentioned in the Koran.

Without hyperspace capability, and with the possibility of further attack, Earth is forting up and preparing for war...

Note: this is the end of season 1. Season 2 is planned, but not for a while.