Into The Black
Seventy-five years later, Into The Black II transpired...
2099: Limited nuclear war in Middle East. Jerusalem & Mecca are utterly demolished in one night, and 14 million people die from radiation in the 6 months following the blasts. United Nations granted much greater authority and control in the following years.
2150: Identification of the habitability of Epsilon Eridani's planets, 11 light years from Earth.
2220: Invention of reactionless space drive, enabling space travel at fast enough speeds to be worthwhile. The technology improves over the next hundred years from 0.4 light speed to 0.99 light speed.
2260: Explorers land on Eridani Prime. Full-scale colonization begins shortly thereafter. This is coordinated, overseen, and largely funded by the United Nations, to whom all Earth countries have ceded governance of space colonization.
The Eridani planetary system
Eridani Prime, the most Earth-like of the four habitable planets, has been the focus of human activities, and this is where the campaign starts out. The other three planets (officially known as Eridani Beta, Eridani Gamma, and Delta) have more inhospitable conditions, but already are home to thousands of frontier settlers. Moons of each planet (numbering in the dozens), despite having harsh conditions, are also being developed by settlers in anticipation of future environmental manipulation technology.
No intelligent species have been encountered on any planets thus far. Flora and Fauna discovered on various planets largely comply with biological principles developed and understood on Earth. Fish, birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals are different than Earth-evolved species, but their configurations are still generally familiar to humans.
Politics and Society
Nationality (such as American or Russian) has been forgotten, except among the residents of increasingly abandoned Earth (still home to 12 billion souls). The United Nations runs the bureaucracy of governance on all civilized planets to a greater or lesser degree. Frontier worlds are left to their own devices and provided neither support nor oversight. However, once a colony is established and fruitful, the UN sends in troops to establish government infrastructure, with varying degrees of acceptance.
A growing faction within the UN leadership believes it is inevitable that hostile and sophisticated species will eventually be encountered, and the past 20 years have seen a gradual buildup of military technology, arsenal, and personnel.
To maintain control of an organically growing and far-flung civilization, in which basic communication can take years to conduct, the UN has become increasingly authoritarian and invasive over the past 50 years, requiring regular dispatches from local technocrats and developing a strictly defined chain of command. Laser weapons are completely illegal (excepting military), and other weapons are strictly regulated on Eridani Prime. These laws apply on other settlements but are rarely enforced unless UN security forces are present.
Inevitably this has resulted in factions that resent UN rule, and seeds of discontent are gradually brewing outside Eridani Prime. Civil unrest and rebellion are not uncommon on recently (<50 years) established human settlements, while older colonies are generally peaceful and civilized. However, no group or rebellion seriously threatens UN hegemony.
A rash of excessive “enhancement” in the 2200s has led to the outlaw of most cybernetic implants. Bionic limb and organ replacement to save a life is universally accepted and commonly practiced, but voluntary unnecessary bionic enhancement is illegal and culturally frowned upon. However certain elite units of the security forces are known enhance their troops, causing endless societal debate.
An underground market for enhancement or “chroming” exists. Costs listed in Cyberpunk book are doubled.
Space travel speed has “maxed out” at the speed of light. However, “jump points” have been mathematically proven and identified in the galaxy. Scientists have been laboring for decades to work out a way to use them to “skip” huge distances in space. It is anticipated that the technology is within a few years of actual testing (transferring small amounts of inanimate matter is the first test); governments and corporations are spending vast sums of money and resources to do it.
Recently, enthusiasm abounds for further space travel because of the development of stasis chambers. When engulfed in one of these gel-filled “cocoons”, humans age 90% slower, allowing a 20-year journey to have little effect on the perceived age of the traveler. This is a far cry from the initial journey to the Eridani system, during which babies were born and grew to adulthood on the transport vessels, only setting foot on a planet well into their thirties.
However, the cocoon technology is imperfect, and the risks associated with long ”hibernation” periods is still substantial. To minimize this, travelers are brought out of stasis for a few weeks of each traveling year to recuperate. There's a trade-off though, because the special biomatter gel is bulky and expensive, and must be entirely replaced before re-entering stasis.
The settling of the Eridani planets has led to a thriving human population, which, when combined with rapid advances in technology, has resulted in the planning of additional colonization of surrounding star systems. First is the twin system of Sirius A &B 16 light years away, which are orbited by at least two planets. Data from exploration drones indicates both may be habitable, and human exploration teams are en route.
The UN has decreed hundreds of planets within 100 light years as “fair game” for settlement, and future colonists are organizing resources for the land rush. These groups of adventurous souls generally consist of two types, profiteers or idealists, and those founders' attributes will inevitably leave their mark on the culture that will develop in each colony.
Over the past 120 years, numerous aspiring colonists of like-mind have launched massive 5,000-person superliners in the direction of various theoretically habitable worlds, and have not been heard from again; their status is unknown.
Additionally, “terraforming” technology is being developed. This will involve massive machines capable of producing air and water from local elements. On smaller planets and moons, optimistic technocrats are estimating 10-20 years to turn a barren rock to a habitable but harsh home for humans. Such deployments are already underway on moons in the Eridani system.
This will be a mix of TL 9 & 10. 4th edition Ultra-Tech rates technologies and equipment based on both TL and whether the item is considered 'superscience'; we'll be skipping the superscience items as a general rule but there will be some exceptions (such as gravity manipulation).
- We're re-imagining the Milky Way as having numerous stars with habitable planets within a few dozen light years of Earth.
- We're ignoring Einsteinian time dilation. If you travel at the speed of light for 15 years, then 15 years pass for the departure point, travelers, and at the destination.
- Gravity Manipulation: We're generally adopting the Firefly-esque concept of standard on-board gravity in space – as long as the ship is pressurized with breathable air, normal gravity is present. However there are some nuances:
- Internal artificial gravitational field generators are common on all space-faring craft. These generators are rated on the Gs they can override, so even if your reactionless drive can accelerate/maneuver faster, the Gs might crush you if the internal compensator can't keep up.
- In the upper ranges of acceleration for which a gravity generator can compensate, gravity is experienced as palpably 'off'. Eddies of spurious anti-grav can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, euphoria and localized earthquake-like tremors. (see B434, "Space Sickness" and "High Acceleration" for some ideas)
- New technology has been developed (and trademarked under the name Grav-Right) that overcome all these limitations, and provide a perfect experience of 1G within a craft, but it is only available on very high end small (< 5 passenger) luxury craft and one-man military attack craft, neither of which is capable of long distance travel.
You are inhabitants of New London, a tightly compacted city of silvery towers on the Earth-like planet Eridani Prime, home to three million souls. Beyond the city, another two million inhabit the mild, fertile planet. You have lived here all your life.
You have been brought together by volunteering for an expedition organized and funded by the Advanced Research Division of the United Nations' Galactic Exploration Agency.
Thirty-five years ago, concentrated Tylium was discovered on GD-66b, a small mineral-rich but inhospitable planet in a neighboring star system 15 light years away. A key ingredient in cutting-edge star drives, and widely believed to be the key to faster-than-light speed as well as jump drives, Tylium's presence on GD-66b ensured rapid mining development and research.
This went well for three decades, until communications with the research station and colony suddenly ceased. Messages take 15 years to traverse the distance, and so the final communication (which was entirely routine in nature) had been sent 15 years previously. The most popular theory was that the station had been utterly wiped out by a meteor, common in the system, but a deep space drone telescope revealed no such evidence. The buildings and mining structures appeared intact.
So, this expedition has been organized to investigate and rescue any survivors.
Because it is a thirty-year round trip, the expedition accepted only volunteers, provided they met certain physical and training criteria. Specially-qualified individuals were also be allowed to bring their spouses, again, provided the spouse met the same physical criteria.
Estimated population of the research station is 200, accounting for probable deaths and births. The craft selected to make the trip is a Valeria IV, a military troop transport with modest defensive capabilities and 250 recently-developed stasis chambers.
The chosen breakdown of volunteers is as follows:
- Ship's crew -- essential personnel required to operate the craft, consisting of a captain plus seven crew members with various engineering specialties.
- Security Forces: Sixteen UN "Peacekeepers" are assigned to the mission in case the facility has been overtaken by hostile forces, consisting of a captain and three sergeants to whom four-man squads report. This contingent of military force will double as fields medics and heavy physical labor in the event that the facility is in need of significant construction repairs.
- Scientists and support staff: A handful of prominent and accomplished scientists accompany the mission to provide engineering, medical, and other deep expertise.
These apply to all:
- Because of the dangers of spending 15 years in a stasis chamber, all volunteers must have an effective HT of 12 or more. (Fit or Very Fit applies.)
- All PCs must have a Sense of Duty (optionally: Fanatic) to the UN and the mission, unless you take a GM-approved Unusual Background.
- All have at least 3 points in electronics operation (various types as desired) & computer operation unless you take a GM-approved Unusual Background.
- Cultural Familiarity: Eridani Prime
- At least 1 point in Area Knowledge: New London
- At least 1 point in Area Knowledge: Eridani Prime
This mission will need a variety of specialists. Killing everything will not be an effective strategy. Well maybe sometimes.
The character types/templates proposed are:
- Security Forces Sergeant: The Captain is an NPC, but you can choose to be a Sergeant, with four Corporals reporting to you:
150 point max Rank: 3 (15 points) Skill guidelines: Reports to the captain, four men report to you. Well armed and well trained. Very good at killing people and breaking things but not much else. 6 points in Soldier, 2+ points in Leadership, 2+ points in Military Savoir Faire, 2+ points in Tactics. Beam weapons. Other than that, no more than 6 non-combat skills. You have been trained in controlling and destroying enemy forces.
Optional Advantage: Optional neural interface to weapons is a 20-point implant, and gives +4 to skill with properly equipped weapons (laser assault rifles are on board).
- Ship's Crew: The Captain is an NPC, but you can invent your own crew position, such as co-pilot, ship's medic, navigator, propulsion engineer, and so on.
150 point max Skill guidelines: Plenty of zero-grav experience, astrogation & piloting, some light military training, mathematics and engineering talents, a steady demeanor (Cool/Collected recommended). While a specialist in something on the ship, you are a practical engineering generalist with many talents. No more than 12 points in combat skills.
- Scientist: You can be a specialist or a generalist.
200 point max Status: 5 (25 points) Other guidelines: Well-experienced Genius (IQ15+), with broad and deep scientific and/or medical skills, theoretical and practical problem solver. No more than 8 points in combat skills. Bionics feasible if consistent with story and not combat-focused.
Adventurous and Valiant Volunteers
When the UN's GEA put out a call for volunteers for a 30-year-long rescue mission, 300 individuals stepped up to serve. After 2 weeks of mental and physical tests, only the most qualified were assigned to the mission. After a 24-hour ride up the space elevator to the massive space station nicknamed Searchlight above New London, the crew receives final mission briefings, a moving farewell speech from Director Skinner and then boards the freshly fueled and tuned Valeria IV troop transport destined for GD-66b.
For 14 years, they awaken from their stasis pods once a year for a week to exercise and become reacquainted with solid food. During the 15th year, just as deceleration begins, the ship receives a garbled signal on a channel reserved for distress calls. Unable to either descramble the signal nor change course in any event, Captain Rod Reynolds opts to maintain course and prepare for arrival. Just before he gives the order to start bringing everyone out of stasis, however, serious problems are encountered with the gravity stabilizer drives, and the Captain and his two waking crew are forced to choose between two unattractive options:
- Bypass GD-66b, get slung deeper into unexplored space by its gravity, and try to sort out the problems. Problem is there won't be enough fuel to get home, so they'll need a rescue mission of their own.
- Belly-land the Valeria at 20km/second on a 1000km-long stretch of what appears to be sand not far from the mining facility. They anticipate the ship will be 75-90% demolished, but some sleepers may make it, unless the ship goes into an end-over-end tumble, in which case certainly everyone will be killed. Captain Reynolds instructs all his crew to got into stasis; they decline, despite knowing their chances are better in the shock-absorbent gel.
Upon regaining consciousness, Sergeant Todd emerges from the stasis-gel and discovers he is in a small portion of ship along a several-hundred kilometer stretch of crash site. He collects whatever survivors and gear can be found, and pushes the group onwards towards the mining facility, trudging through soft sand below a huge red sun. Besides the PCs, survivors are marines Dirk Harmon and Faraz Habeeb, and ship's engineer Waylon Greer. Strangely, the adjoining stasis pods of Cynthia McKinney and Kaya Rotterdam are opened, but their bodies are nowhere to be found.
On arrival, they discover the facility has been apparently ransacked many years ago. Of the dozen or so buildings near the mine entrance at the base of a 350m cliff, only one appears to have power and be intact-- the science lab near the center of the compound.
- More than 15 years ago, mining operations punctured an underground reservoir, causing many to be drowned.
- Within hours, creatures emerged from the aperture and indiscriminately destroyed men and machines nearby; most of the workers were killed that day.
- For the next several years, to survivors' horror, the creatures, dubbed xiphs, would visit the aquagen device and drink from its spigots.
- One night, the aquagen malfunctioned, and the creatures smashed any remaining buildings, killed many, and abducted women and girls.
- Since then, the scientists were able to partially repair the aquagen, and the xiphs now return, roughly weekly, always at night.
- Dr Alphonso has been working for eight years now on converting their exploration shuttle to a jump ship. But without a redundant petawatt laser array, such as the one used for drilling deep in the mine, it will not fly.
- The scientists watched the 'comet' of the Valeria IV's descent and crash and assumed all were lost. Good news though -- another rescue mission is within days of arrival, according to recent communications from a Zettacorp ship (relatively) nearby.
Todd identifies the location of the laboratory's optical drives, 8 paperback-sized muti-petabyte storage devices, Mudd hands over the black box from the Valeria IV to the research scientists for analysis of the garbled distress call, and Dr. Thaler begins working with combat engineer Corporal Habeeb on a plan to trap a Xiph.
Dr Alphonso concludes that an approach by the ziphs is likely that night, and so the party scrambles down the sandy slopes near the mine entrance and fans out to cover the aperture with fire; Habeeb and Dr. Thaler rig up the tensile steel netting and cargo crate trap. Todd riggs a submachine gun to the small scout robot, and sends it into the cave, where it soon detects multiple radar blips deeper into the mountain. The scout backs up, and one blip breaks way to investigate the little robot.
Eventually, one xiph emerges, and the trap is sprung, lifting the beast into the air. Dr Thaler rushes forward with the big cargo crate on a hovercart as the clicking creature spins and kicks at the cliff wall. It breaks free of the netting, lands sideways on the cargo crate, and everything tumbles to the ground, nearly crushing Dr. Thaler. The marines open fire and Dr. Thaler backs off, and then turns and runs back towards safety.
The scout robot is instructed to open fire, emptying its clip over the next 10 seconds down the mine tunnel and causing a terrific racket.
Once illuminated by the scout robot's flashlight, the full horror of the bug-thing is revealed, causing Mudd to double over, retching food pellet residue and concentrated bile. Seemingly attracted by Mudd's helmet-mounted flashlight, the beast diverts from chasing Dr Thaler and moves to attack Mudd, all the while marines showering the area with bullets and laser fire. Mudd narrowly misses being pulverized, punctured, and dismembered, and the 850lb beast comes to fall upon him, draining 30 liters of cool blue blood.
The party drags the carcass back to the science lab for analysis-- the first xiph to be killed by men on GD-66b.
Autopsy and Spelunking
Dr. Thaler and company dissect the creature until past dawn, and learn several things:
- The only soft targets on the creature are its eyes and mouth
- It has a powerful stink gland
- They communicate by rubbing two barbed appendages together, similar to crickets
They go on to pursue two defensive tactics:
- A sound device intended to confuse or irritate the creatures
- A chemical repellent
The full staff of scientists and lab assistants proceed with production, with a small group continuing to unravel the mystery of the distress signal that preceded the Valeria's catastrophe.
By the end of the day, 12 ounces of repellent have been produced, which Dr. Thaler loads into old shotgun shells, the sound device is working, and the network analysts conclude that the distrss signal came from the Zettacorp vessel.
Mudd and Faraz Habeeb collect info using the scout robot about the interior of the mine, and go so far as to extract a 2' long husk of a trilobyte-like creature -- lab analysis later concludes this is the same species as the Xiph, in some pre-metamorphosis form.
Mudd and Alfonso also lift off the 'Epcot' and do some exploration of the surrounding desert.
The next morning the full group enters the mine, with Riggins and Waylon Greer driving Bobcat-like earth-movers in case excavation is required, as indicated by Mudd's scouting. More than a kilometer deep into the mine, the tunnel ceiling seemed to have collapsed, opening up into a huge underground chamber, covered in dusty silt and fragile trilobyte husks. At the far side of the chamber, a massive mother-xiph is found reclining in a stone throne, long dead, and the party concludes this must have been some sort of birthing chamber, which the mining activity drained catastrophically.
The mining drill and its redundant petawatt laser array is found deep in a side-shaft, extracted using a Bobcat, and sent immediately with marine escort back to Dr Alphonso to begin the alterations needed on the experimental craft while the curious Mudd and Dr. Thaler proceed deeper into the caverns. They come upon a chamber filled with scores of Xiphs engaging in ritualistic combat, or possibly training, and back off to explore a different tunnel.
The alternate route leads them into a chamber filled with hundreds of huge stalagmites, creating a forest-like maze of rock, in which clicking xiph noises echo confusingly. A beast soon shows itself, and combat ensues, with body-armor saving the lives of the humans. Dr. Thaler experiments with his sound device and finds two frequencies that seem to have an effect. When the returning marines arrive and take firing positions, the xiph turns and rumbles off into the maze.
Getting Out of Dodge
Seeing no mission-critical reason to continue into the caves, Sergeant Todd and his marines head back to the surface, while Mudd, Riggins, and Mergan Thaler succumb to their curiosity and spelunk further.
Upon ascent, Todd hears from the researchers that the Zettacorp rescue shuttle has been launched from the orbiting deep space cruiser Mammon's Hammer, and assigns Dirk Harmon to take up a position in the hangar while scientists produce dummy copies of the optical drives containing more than two decades of Dr. Alphonso's research data, a task the scientists approach with some skepticism and anxiety.
Meanwhile, the spelunkers encounter chambers filled with dozens of xiphs and wisely avoid them, until the doctor hears a faint woman's cry within a rift in the wall of a yellow-fungused huge cavern. A hundred yards into the narrow crevice, faint green light emanates from a porthole into a smaller room, in which three xiphs and four women, including Cynthia McKinney and Kaya Rotterdam, are seen. Mudd barely contains his emotions as one of the Xiphs cuts into the apparently-pregnant belly of a scrawny blonde girl while a darker-haired woman tries to sooth her. The Xiph extracts a writhing trilobyte and hands it off to a second Xiph, which immediately scurries down a tunnel with the wriggling bug. The surgeon-xiph then spits a glob of snot-like saliva onto the gaping wound, communicates briefly with the third xiph, and then also makes its exit.
The spelunkers need rope to effect a rescue through the porthole, and Mudd is selected (after Riggins divulges that the dark-haired woman is his half-sister Alice Walker) to sprint back topside to gather needed supplies and reinforcements.
Sergeant Todd explains to Mudd that time is of the essence, and the rescue shuttle will be leaving them behind if they don't make it out in time. Nevertheless, Faraz Habeeb, convinced by Mudd, Alex Marsh, and Waylon Greer volunteer to go along to help with the rescue of the women. Corporal Habeeb brings along the explosive materials necessary to collapse the tunnel if needed.
Alice sees the rescuers approach, and begins taunting the guard-xiph with loud obscenities, diverting its attention as Alex Marsh is the first to enter. The plan collapses when Alex succumbs to emotion and rushes to his daughter Tabitha rather then lure the guard down the tunnel. Combat ensues, resulting in Riggins getting his right arm broken in nine places and Mudd first blinding, and then killing the guard-xiph. The doctor's sound device miraculously keeps three xiph reinforcements at bay while the group escapes. However, Alex Marsh is slaughtered before escaping.
Meanwhile, a tense standoff has emerged in the science lab. The rescue shuttle has landed, and from it emerge three medics in crew coveralls, and three "consultants", black-clad men of obvious thuggery. Sergeant Todd, in full marine gear with helmet visor closed, asks (or perhaps demands) that the leader, Jack Wade, to help ensure the (fake) optical drives make it aboard, and Wade instructs henchman Guido Siffredi to "validate the authenticity" of the drives. Moments later, Wade turns his back to speak to Zero, giving Todd the opportunity to blast a bolt of laser through the leader's head. Guido draws and fires a guass machine pistol at Todd, and projectiles ricochet off the Sergeant's visor. Todd dispatches Guido with a gauss shotgun blast through the lab bench, and moments later, Corporal Harmon enters and Zero is captured. To the medics' horror, Todd kills the still-breathing Wade with his commando knife and breaks Zero's arm with a heavy kick. Zero divulges that if the landing team does not report in, Mammon's Hammer will simply nuke the facility. Todd later ends Zero with a point blank laser shot to the vitals.
The rescue party emerges after blowing the tunnel, and a debate ensues about the feasibility of departing in the Zettacorp shuttle, or trying to make the Epcot jump drive work. After Dr. Alphonso's coy ambiguity leads Sergeant Todd to believe the situation is futile, the Sergeant shatters the optical drives with a spray of bullets. Dr. Alphonso's research data is gone, but he is energized by the prospect of conducting a live experiment with the Epcot.
The research scientists are split as to whether to participate in the historic jump drive experiment, or depart in the Zettacorp shuttle, and the decision is forced when an incoming missile is detected. The medics carry Tabitha Marsh to the shuttle, and most of the research scientists go with them.
With the conventional reactionless thrusters of the Epcot disabled, the only prospect for departure is the experimental jump drive. Dr. Alphonso warns that proximity to any large gravitational pull renders navigation unpredictable at best, but all agree that departing prior to the missile's arrival is desirable.
After a mathematical glitch is overcome, and seconds before the missile's arrival, the group is suddenly 7,000 light years away.
Land of the Lost
Sit-rep: The Epcot is hurdling through space as 33% light speed, 7000 light years from home, and with air and heat for 30 days max. First priority is to find somewhere to land to avoid suffocating and/or freezing to death. And that means a planet with breathable air, and ideally, a source of Tylium to fuel further travels.
That planet (later named Alphonso Alpha), is found, but requires 7 days of hard acceleration to adjust the current vector. Waylon Greer and Mudd, using his mad vacc suit skills, repair the reactionless drives, as Jones deciphers the "distress call from the Zettacorp ship, Mammon's Hammer, Todd and marines train, and Thaler inspects the infested female. After the ship is ready, everyone straps in for the crushing ride. All lose consciousness a few days in -- Bill Smith and Dave Jones suffer serious health consequences, and Maximillius Alphonso does not survive.
Alice Walker and Riggins both suffer the effects of the Crazy Vine; Riggins reacts poorly and fires his shotgun into Sergeant Todd's helmet visor at point blank range. The marines skewer him with laser fire, and drag the fallen miner into the bushes before heading back to the Epcot. An iguanaboon is encountered on the return trip; Mudd and the marines fire and the beast retreats.
Plotting the Escape
Dr Thaler brings Bill Smith to consciousness with a cocktail of stimulants and nutrients to begin planning the mining operation required to extract the Tylium that the Epcot needs to leave this planet. That process underway, he turns his attention to Cynthia McKinney and attempts to persuade her that the alien species parasitically growing in her body is more like a child in her womb, helpless and possibly the last of its species. Kaya Rotterdam is especially skeptical and defensive but they tacitly resolve to take no drastic action at least for a few days.
It rains throughout the day, and Bill Smith sets to work sending out sensor drones and running geological analysis of the surrounding jungle. When two drones get caught in the jungle canopy, Mudd convinces Alice to join him on an expedition the next morning if there's no better plan on the table. Mudd also flies the 'dragonfly' microbot over miles of lush jungle to discover that only the foot and boot of Riggins remains of his corpse. He also finds two apparently dinosaur species, groups of brontosaurus and velociraptors and some long armed spider-monkeyish creatures some miles away.
That night, 6' long reptilian flying creatures that a terrified Waylon Greer later calls "Batpeckers" descend upon the Epcot and begin hammering the hull with their bony beaks. The marines learn the creatures are nearly immune to laser fire, and after ensuring Alice is safe, Mudd downs one and scatters the rest with a burst of bullets from his PDW. Dr. Thaler causes the marines to drag the 60kg body inside the ship for dissection and inspection.
At dawn, Bill Smith reports that the Epcot has miraculously been landed upon and is sitting upon a mountain filled with Tylium. An excited Alice awakens Mudd to tell him plans have changed. Smith then directs the team to desired mine site. The redundant petawatt laser array is extracted from the engine room, and the marines, Mudd, and Alice head down the mountain to begin mining while the rest of the group stays in the Epcot to construct a mini Tylium refinery.
At the mine site, a pristine orchid-draped pond with a cascading waterfall sprinkling mistily, Mudd flirts with Alice with modest success before the laser array violently blasts a 10-meter hole into the mountain behind the waterfall. Using the dragonfly mircrobot as a 'handicam' to show Bill Smith the details of their progress, gradually the team loads up 500lb of rich Tylium ore onto the hovercart and Mudd, Dirk Harmon, and Alice begin back up the mountain, leaving Sergeant Todd and Faraz Habeeb to guard the equipment.
An hour later, as the ore-carrying team approaches the Epcot, five howling iguanaboons rush out of the foliage to attack them, just as four of the beasts emerge from the trees to attack the mine site. Faraz Habeeb is thrown in the pond and Dirk Harmon, after sprinting to the opening hatch and calling for Mudd and Alice to follow, is knocked down by an iguanaboon, and then has his arm twisted from its socket. Alice shoot a beast in the leg, then hits the deck and misfires once as Mudd unloads a shower of bullets on multiple beasts, felling two of the colossal monstrosities. Sergeant Todd riddles one beast with bullets before being slammed to the ground and grappled as a second iguanaboon raises a huge club to crush his tactical helmet.
Suddenly, all the iguanaboons pause and look off in one direction, into the jungle. The marines all take the opportunity to break free and recover weapons, and Mudd checks on Alice, then trains his weapon on a club wielding iguanaboon nearby. Then, all the beasts lope off into the jungle, though Mudd's target, perceiving the pilot as an obstacle, smashes the sturdy helmet visor into Mudd's surprised face, sending him sprawling and angering him into retaliation, dooming the club-wielding beast to die from an exploded throat and leg.
A few dazed seconds pass, and then a herd of Dopey Joes plod purposefully through the mine site, where Sergeant Todd and Faraz Habeeb have taken cover behind the waterfall. The Joes are followed by an Allosaurus, 15 meters and 8 tons of flesh-eating monster. It easily slays 6 joes with a sidelong hatchet head-motion, gulps them down after a single grinding gnash, and then gazes at the marines briefly before wandering off into the jungle, apparently sated.
Mudd then helped Alice up and the two of them tried to aid the angry, frustrated, injured marine into the cargo bay to seek Thaler's assistance. The episode begins to end as Todd scolds Habeeb for poor soldiering, then the screen fades as the ramp to the Epcot closes with Greer and Smith peering confusedly from behind a workbench in the background upon Alice looking out at the dead iguanaboons, Mudd standing very close to her, cleaning his glasses with his bruised and bloodied face peering out through a shattered visor, and Harmon holding a destroyed arm and barking a status report to his commanding officer.
Onwards and Upwards
The entire team reconvenes aboard the Epcot to plot next moves. Mudd and Dirk Harmon receive much needed medical care from Dr. Mergan Thaler. The hovercart is brought aboard and Bill Smith and Waylon Greer go to work refining the tylium ore into usable fuel, concluding that one more load of ore will be required to both escape the plant's gravitational pull and use the jump drive.
Sergeant Todd seeks medical care in the upstairs lab as well, and while being treated, Kaya Rotterdam asks to speak with him. She extends her elbow, waiting for him to interlock his arm with hers- ignorant of civilian customs, he simply stares at her until she begins moving towards the room- then he follows.
The pair steps into Cynthia McKinney's bunk room where the blonde reclines in a vacant stupor. Kaya explains that an alien xiph is on board -- within Cynthia -- and that Dr. Thaler has refused to extract the creature. Todd asks Kaya where the insect is, and she responds by pulling the covers off Cynthia McKinney. Todd looks at the obviously impregnated woman, and asks again where the insect is. Kaya grabs Todd's wrist (to which Todd stiffens and prepares for combat), then places his hand on Cynthia's stomach. Todd can feel the insect's legs moving within, and puts two and two together.
Todd walks back to the medical lab and tells the Doctor he needs to remove the insect (not suspecting the Doctor had prior knowledge of the impregnation). The Doctor explains the delay is necessary to ensure the survival of both the creature, possibly the last of its species, and its host, Cynthia. This response makes no sense to Todd, who returns to Cynthia's room to remove the insect (considered by him to be a future enemy of humans, thus an enemy of himself).
He returns to Cynthia's bedchamber, tells Kaya to retrieve some bandaging, then draws his marine combat knife, and slashes open her abdomen with a single quick slice, miraculously avoiding the stomach and intestines. Cynthia emits a series of blood-curdling shrieks and goes into a feral rage, kicking and swinging her limbs, and falling from the bed to the floor. Blood splatters the bed and floor and walls, as she convulses on the cold metal floor.
Kaya is next on the scene and tries to control Cynthia's convulsions. Alice enters next, discerns what happened, and grapples Todd's knife-arm. Todd pulls Alice forward with his arm and tells her to hold down Cynthia. Meanwhile, Dirk Harmon attempts to approach but swoons with shock and medication associated with repairing his shattered arm.
The Doctor and Mudd race toward the cacophonous bunkroom and Mudd is surprised when the Doctor lunges to the floor of the hallway and curls into a fetal position. When Mudd steps into the bed chamber and absorbs the situation, he concludes that the trilobyte scurried out in the chaos, and the Doctor has captured it; Mudd informs Todd.
Cynthia continues to howl and bleed profusely, and as Todd turns towards the Doctor, Kaya, Alice, and Mudd attempt to save her life.
Todd's left hand grabs the still-prone Doctor by the shoulder and flips him over on his back. He sees the Doctor does indeed clutch a wriggling, blood covered trilobyte close to his chest. While keeping his hold on the doctor, Todd plunges his knife into the insect- avoiding damage to the Doctor. The Doctor is stunned by the violent attack and continues to hold the creature tightly. (Upon learning at a later point the Doctor has plans to preserve and store the body of the insect, Todd seizes the creature from the Doctor's grip, and disposes of it, leaving the Doctor holding a single translucent multi-jointed leg).
With Cynthia stabilized in an adjoining room, Mudd and Alice clean up the gory scene and finally, exhausted, exchange lingering good-nights and retire to their respective bunks.
The next morning, Bill Smith participates in the mining expedition to ensure efficient ore extraction. Alice learns a thing or two about piloting the dragonfly microbot with Mudd's help while the laser drill is positioned and recalibrated, then fired. The hovercart is loaded up with the best chunks of ore, and the entire team makes their way back up the mountain to the Epcot.
In the early evening sun, as plans to retrieve the laser are being discussed, Waylon Greer and Mudd run a life-form sensor sweep, and ascertain that hundreds of iguanaboons seem to be surrounding the ship in a strategic pattern to ambush an expedition to the laser. The microbot is sent out and confirms that intelligent tactical coordination -- and that one iguanaboon is 50% larger than the rest, with bright red neck markings.
Mudd realizes that the Epcot can be made to fly, but not jump, with existing onboard refined fuel, and a plan is hatched to fly the Epcot to the laser, and send the marines down to retrieve it. He and Waylon Greer work together to patch up the engine room, and the Epcot lifts off.
Sensors indicate the iguanaboons are convening on the laser, and so the extraction scheme is accelerated. Dirk Harmon positions himself at the entrance of the open hatch with the sniper railgun as Mudd and Faraz Habeeb free fall into the jungle canopy attached by cargo cables. Mudd maneuvers the Epcot closer to the treetops and adjusts the craft's position based on Todd's feedback. The laser is attached and ascent begins as the iguanaboons rush into the mine site.
During the two days of movement away from the planet, mangoes are consumed and the laser array re-integrated in the engine room. Todd, heading a faint urge to see the woman who had the insect inside her, enters Cynthia's room and stares at her. He then says, "I cut the insect out of you, sir." She motions for him to come closer, she takes his hand and says, "Call me Cynthia." Todd replies, "Yes sir... Cynthia". She takes his hand and rubs it all over her face. Soon, she takes his other hand, and Todd decides to sit next to her on the bed. At that moment, Mudd makes the the jump into hyperspace, which causes the gravity controls to turn off for a few seconds, then engage again. This weightless hiccup causes Cynthia and Todd to float off the bed, then come crashing to the floor with a completely nude Cynthia atop Todd (with her bedsheet between them). She clutches Todd quite forcefully with both arms, and Todd holds on to her.
The never-before-used pleasure center within Todd's brain begins firing and turning out signals for the first time in his life. He is unable to make sense of what he is experiencing. He's never touched a woman before, or embraced anyone he didn't kill, but at this moment he's simply intoxicated by the feel and smell of Cynthia. His hands explore her body, like a blind child given a toy for the first time.
Back on the ship's bridge; despite Dave Jones' calculations, the arrival point is still 70 light years from Eridani Prime, near an orange-red giant, Arcturus, which features a habitable planet, Arcturus Beta, supposedly settled by Eridani colonists decades ago.
“United Nations research vessel Epcot, Welcome to Utopia. Please adjust your vector to 8192m/s, 234 degrees to rendezvous.”
Descent to Utopia
Mudd navigates the Epcot to the rendezvous coordinates, an empty spot in the upper atmosphere of an arid planet, directly above a 20-mile-wide mirrored dome. An aperture in the center of the dome appears, and three tractor beams begin drawing the ship within the dome. The city within is green and lush, with mirrored pyramidal buildings and aquamarine waterways snaking among the foliage.
The tractor beam deposits the Epcot on a 100-yard-wide white circular marble landing pad decorated flanked by three 10-yard-high towers, apparently the sources of the tractor beams.
Noah greets the group as they come down the landing ramp, Mudd and Alice and Dr. Mergan Thaler followed by the three marines in full combat gear. They address Alice as the group leader, tentatively. On Utopia, Noah reports, the motto is "Be all that is possible."
He next provides two basic rules for visitors -- no intermingling DNA with homo superioris, and all visitors must be fitted with a 1024-molecule tracker device in their spinal column, to be installed by Venus.
Dr Thaler begins explaining that Sergeant Todd is a homicidal maniac; Noah wonders aloud if the opposite isn't true, and that Dr is simply ingratiating himself with the Utopians. Venus smiles serenely and injects the tracker device into the Doctor's spine.
Tensions gradually rise, and the panthermen fire their sonic stun rifles at Faraz Habeeb and Dirk Harmon, felling them. Todd manages an improbable laser blast into the unprotected eye of one pantherman, killing him instantly, before he is riddled with bullets and nearly killed, over Noah's objections.
The Utopians decide to seize the Epcot and send all the visitors out to live among the "defects". The party is loaded onto an unmanned hovercart and sent across the greenery to the edge of the city, where they are sent out into the desert.
Approaching a decrepit mining apparatus a few hundred yards from the edge of the dome, they are accosted by a rag-wrapped, goggle-wearing native with some sort of laser-spotting device and told to wait for the Mayor of Rockville.
The Mayor, called Voight, emerges (with a scimitar-wielding bodyguard) from a dirt-covered iron trap door amid the mining equipment, and bids the party to come within for a drink. When he mentions that the elevator has been broken for years, Waylon Greer and Mudd fix it, with oversight consulting provided by Bill Smith.
Once underground, in a dimly lit, low ceilinged distillery, stone mugs of outrageously strong liquor are provided to all. Alice Walker in particular seems consume it voraciously; all three women seem a bit anxious at being underground.
Voight summons medicine for Todd, and explains that the "jugger match" is in just two days, and the Rockville team is in no shape to compete. Voight goes on to introduce the party to Shade as her new team members, and a discussion ensues of the rules of Jugging.
In the Land of the Juggers
Within the underground mine complex, Voight uses nanobots (applied by Thaler) retrieved from scruffy, wheelchair-bound Blitzer to heal Todd before the Jugging match begins, and the party learns that this is a Vegan technology, acquired by the Utopians in trade for sensie-booths. Dr. Thaler later trades Blitzer some sedatives for a small jar of the 'bots.
Alice Walker causes a stir when her drinking and singing goes too far, attracting a small group of drooling miners who encourage her to strip. Alice knocks one out, Mudd intervenes and throws a miner to the floor, after which they disband grudgingly.
Todd demands Thaler's tac suit, Thaler refuses, and a full-party brawl ensues in Blitzer's medicine chamber, with Todd briefly considering tossing Thaler down the mine shaft, and Mudd disabling Blizter with his stun pistol.
Thaler secretly negotiates with Voight for a supply of Tylium if the Jugging match goes well.
The next day, the competition arrives and the Jugging match is on. Mudd throws opponents to the dusty ground for Todd to crush with the huge maul, and the match is over rather quickly once two of the opponents are crippled. Celebration ensues, and Mudd and Alice share a special moment high atop a mining apparatus as the sun sets while Habeeb plays the role of victorious hero for the miners' emotional benefit.
Voight reports that the 'perfects' are interested in a reconciliation meeting with the male members of the party. Mudd meanwhile concocts a plan to encase the party in 55-gallon drums and import them as cargo inside the domed city. When the plan is explained to the rest of the party, resistance (particularly from the women) accumulates, and other options are investigated, but not before the transfer of 12 drums, 2 filled with Tylium and 10 empty, are delivered to the storage facility adopted by the party as a temporary headquarters.
Mudd and Alice explore the (forbidden) water transfer tunnel and encounter a steel wall at its far end. On Todd's direction, Faraz Habeeb begins designing a bomb and Dirk Harmon retrieves the Gauss shotgun pistol from Blitzer via unknown means.
Voight, Dr. Thaler and the 55-gallon drums await the arrival of the Utopians and eventually Praetor Phillipe and bodyguards arrive in the huge underground food warehouse via hover-rail cargo craft. When the Praetor inquires and Voight defers, Dr. Thaler explains that he alone can help, and the rest of the party wishes the message 'come and get me' to be delivered. Food is unloaded by worker-apes, and the Doctor accompanies the visitors back towards the city, leaving one Pantherman guard behind.
The Pantherman proceeds directly to the party's HQ, and comes in shooting, grievously injuring Sergeant Todd before being mortally wounded by Todd's deadly sniper railgun shot. Mudd, Harmon, and Alice take the elevator one level down to retrieve the corpse (and the weapon) while Dave Jones, Bill Smith, Mudd, and Kaya Rotterdam try to keep Sergeant Todd alive; Todd becomes quiet to slow his heartbeat and maximize his survival chances.
Mudd directs Waylon Greer, who has been working on building an aerial surveillance drone, to temporarily disable the elevator. Voight arrives and explains his most recent communication with the perfects, and about his failed promise to ensure the entire party would be at the reconciliation rendezvous (which makes him anxious about an internal rebellion or riot).
With Dr. Thaler off accompanying the perfects on a supposed reconciliation, the rest of the party discusses the situation with Voight in the storage room/barracks while Sgt Todd recuperates. After some discussion, Mudd decided to keep Voight under watch until a plan is hatched. It is resolved that the party needs a mobile mining drill and Voight provides it.
Dirty Paul shows up, the neckless laborer from the water treatment facility, and gets uncomfortable when he sees Voight standing by. He moves on, but summons Mudd to accompany. He leads Mudd to an old communication station where Mudd is contacted by none other than Venus, who explains Dr. Thaler's 'challenge', and warns that a platoon of panthermen is being dispatched to the planet surface to go room-by-room down through the mine and eliminate the marines and capture the engineers. She offers to help as she's able to, including the action of briefly interrupting power to the blast doors on the food delivery level. Her assistance is offered in exchange for her hopeful escape from Utopia and what she refers to as it's twisted unnatural mentality.
The party brings the massive locomotive drill to the food delivery level, to the laborers' collective gasp. With the power to the door interrupted, Mudd and some laborers begin prying it open. Once the gap is wide enough, the marines and Mudd move through it, as they have been told a guard station is 1000m up the corridor. Venus puts the station into an artificial communication loop as the men move forward. One Pantherman guard boards a hoverbike and speeds towards the party, spelling his own doom.
Mudd sprints ahead as shots ring out, using the hoverbike to get himself and Todd closer before it is shot out from under them. Mudd continues his daredevil approach as the guard station is riddled with bullets, past the fallen guard, and arrives at the guard station in time to engage the remaining pantherman, while Dirk Harmon howls with anger at being shot twice in the chest. A vicious wrestling match ensues, until finally the remaining marines blast Mudd's foe to smithereens after a judo throw threw him from behind cover.
Venus reports that 6 more panthermen are on their way down from above, and she manages to send them an extra level down.
The mining engine catches up and the group plans next actions. Mudd sends Waylon Greer's little flying probe down the hallway and spots another guard station, empty, 1000m further down. The bomb built by Faraz Habeeb is loaded onto the elevator nd sent up as high as the elevator went, to level S2, and the party drives the locomotive-drill to the next station. A deep and thunderous BOOM erupts, causing lights to flash and dust to fill the air, before the party ascends the elevator in the next station, and into a street-level security substation. The station seemed recently abandoned due to an emergency in another sector of the complex.
After some searching around and dispatching the sole attendant (and recovering his Heavy Blaster Pistol), the group loads the injured Harmon into a SUV-like hovercar, and follows Venus' directions to the hangar containing (they are told) their jump drive.
Once opening the doors using a recovered security swipe card, the huge hangar doors open, revealing the Epcot in a state of grotesque disassembly, but also a sleek black 15-passenger deep-space cruiser with a bulbous honey-comb aft end. Five repair robots, looking like 20' tall leafless trees with 32 arms, and 3 panthermen are here -- the first of which is plowed down by Mudd in the hovercar. Moments later, the remaining guards are gunned down, and as the dust settles, Dr Thaler is heard to remark from an overlooking scaffold as Habbib jams the hanger doors shut,
"Isn't it remarkable?"
Todd groans and Mudd looks up cleaning his glasses as the credits roll.
Escape from Paradise
- 3 pts for roleplaying
- mudd - 1 pt piloting, 1 pt hovercraft, 1 pt appropriate guns
- todd - 1 pt soldier
- thaler - 1 pt acting
The hangar grows tense when Sgt. Todd trains his stun rifle at Thaler and sends Habeeb upstairs to retrieve him. Thaler, having been fired upon for not immediately complying with the marine's orders, activates the knockout gas he previously installed in the marine helmets, Habeeb drops to the floor before Todd zaps Thaler with the stun rifle and drags him downstairs.
Meanwhile the engineering geeks are marveling about Night Ranger and figuring out how to make it work again. Mudd tries to fuel the thing up but lacking pantherman telepathy, cannot work the fuel authentication station. Once directions are received from Venus and Habeeb is on his feet a few minutes later, he and Mudd and Alice drive over to the fuel depot beneath smokey skies above.
Upon using the swipecard and severed pantherman thumb to open the hangar doors of the depot, Gaussian automatic gunfire riddles the front of the hover-SUV and knocks Habeeb to the ground. Mudd guns it, runs over one assailant, and fills the other with bullets. A hovertanker seems full of fuel, and so Habeeb is loaded in and the three head back to the Night Ranger.
Todd gets everyone motivated to board the vessel (including a handcuffed Thaler) and prepare for departure after Venus warns of a dozen or more panthermen en route. While apparently intact, the Night Ranger's primary power is shut down, and Thaler claims to have the voice credentials to remedy the situation -- but demands his freedom in return. Over Todd's warnings, Mudd escorts Thaler out to the voice-activated station and the Night Ranger comes online.
Thaler then announces his intention to stay behind. With the hangar doors opening and well armed foes outside, there is no time to discuss it, and Mudd scampers to the pilot's seat to get the show on the road.
The ship aloft, Venus checks in and mentions that the dome's aperture is semi-permeable, and is currently configured to allow smoke to escape, but not solid objects. She offers to help -- but reiterates her desire to tag along. So, Mudd maneuvers the vessel to the upper sundeck level of Pyramid #23, and Todd heads astern to acrobatically pluck the diaphanous blonde from her sunbathing platform.
Noah makes contact and urges Mudd to return. Mudd blasts the craft out of the domed city forthwith, with pantherman fighter craft in hot pursuit. Mudd quickly ascertains the offensive capabilities and picks off a few fighters as the party leaves orbit under high acceleration.
Once safely away from Arcturus Beta's gravitational field, Dave Jones and Waylon Greer indicate it's safe to jump, and the party arrives 6 light-months from Eridani Prime, in an awkward rotation a mere 1km from a massive Zettacorp cruiser.
The huge cruiser hails the Night Ranger as an 'alien vessel', and Mudd introduces himself, truthfully. The cruiser sends a boarding shuttle, and the party decides to blow the remaining fuel getting the hell away. With Todd bracing for a firefight at the airlock, Jones and Greer throw the switch and the Night Ranger appears just a few million km away from Eridani Prime, and barreling towards the planet at nearly half the speed of light.
Mudd advises those who are able to strap in and starts planning how to decelerate sufficiently and enter atmo without being incinerated while Jones and Greer work on flushing the fuel lines of every last drop of precious liquid Tylium to help slow down. Miraculously, Mudd manages to pull it off, landing violently at 1000km/hr on a black sand beach. Those uninjured in body armor and/or strapped in properly survive; Cynthia McKinney, Dave Jones, Dirk Harmon, Faraz Habeeb tragically are killed in the crash.
Initial debriefing occurs in 3 groups:
GEA Mission Survivors:
Debriefing, and the Return of Thaler
The deceased are loaded into regeneration tanks and Mudd and Todd taken into the intelligence debriefing center, where they encounter some vague hostility from Director Moore.
Venus is kept within the belly of the intelligence center for months, long after the other party members emerge unscathed from the regeneration tanks.
Todd takes a job instructing special tactics to new marine cadets, while Mudd jetsets around giving talks on the daring new 'stone-skipping' atmo-entrance technique and test-piloting experimental aircraft.
The engineers and scientists work on the Night Ranger. Cynthia McKinney and Kaya Rotterdam accept hypnosis therapy to (mostly) erase the mission from their memories. Alice Walker demands frequent adventure trips from Mudd, and weekends are spent rock climbing and whitewater rafting.
Meanwhile, Eridani Prime prepares for the inevitable return of the Perfects.
Then one day.. 257 days later....
Sensors indicate four small objects, millions of miles away, approaching at near light speed but rapidly decelerating. In fact they're pushing 30Gs, far more than any manned Eridani craft could sustain. At current speed, distance, and deceleration, they will end up a mere 1000km from Searchlight in around 36 hours. OMFG.
There are no sirens, no alerts.
This evening, Cynthia is having a cocktail party on her condo balcony. The whole crew is there, plus a couple of Cynthia's old friends, also wealthy wine-loving widows.
Skinner invites Mudd and Todd to be present – they take the call in Cynthia's bedroom:
Men, early yesterday four small unidentified craft appeared on sensors, headed our way and decelerating at some 30Gs – nothing our people could survive. We're assuming it's the Utopians. I'm convening with the Secretary General, Secretary of Planetary Defense, and Intelligence Director Moore – I'd like you two to be there also. We're meeting in in the comm center on U-16, building 4.
Noah demands his ship, the Night Ranger, be returned. Thaler participates in the negotiations.
The Council attempts a ruse, giving damaged spare parts back to the Perfects.
As a show of force, the Perfects slice off a massive subsection of Searchlight, sending hundreds of detached workers into a freefalling, degrading orbit.
Minutes later, after the Utopians effortless disintegrate newly deployed Eridani warbots, just as overt hostilities are about to erupt, a 300-meter-wide Vegan spherical metal ship appears near Searchlight. The Utopian ships suddenly lose all propulsion and weapons systems control, their components suddenly at absolute zero.
On all available comm channels, including on the planet surface, in a pleasant male voice devoid of accent:
HUMANS. WE ARE OF VEGA. WE ARE NOT YOUR JUDGES. HOWEVER, INTRASPECIES SLAUGHTER OFFENDS OUR MORAL SENSIBILITIES AND WE CANNOT BEAR WITNESS TO IT.
WE CONCLUDE THAT THE FORFEIT OF THE SHIP CALLED NIGHT RANGER IS REASONABLE FORFEIT FOR THE SEIZURE AND DESTRUCTION OF THE SHIP CALLED EPCOT AND THE INDELICATE TREATMENT OF THOSE ABOARD.
THIS IS JUSTICE. HENCE, THIS AGGRESSION IS UNJUST.
Thaler at this point has mind-controlled Noah and convinced a pantherman to assassinate the pacified Chancellor. The Utopian ship however, is out of control, and it is by a miracle that they land it in a corn field outside New London, which happens to be filled with hungry marines....
And the camera fades to black.