[This was a relatively short session due to 2 of the players not being able to make it for various reasons, and doesn’t really feature much action, but it does set up a couple of things that might go pop in next week’s episode.]
A week went by after the Crew of the Blue Beetle defeated the djinn of Orun II, and saw the ship and its remaining crew dock safely with Coriolis. As tends to happen, word began to spread. Mister Adzem Kembouri became something of an overnight celebrity, his career as a freelance paranormal investigator and exorcist cemented. He had several interviews with big names in the Bulletin, who speculated and imagined great things coming from him in future, but he was at all times a surprisingly humble, albeit still devastatingly charming, guest.
The crew, having experienced the rather unpleasant situation of being outnumbered by a vastly more powerful force, decided that hiring on some new members would be a good idea. Enter Ash Drum, an expert in data analysis and programming, who as you can see came with her own coffee mug, which was a major selling point to the other kawah (coffee)-swilling members of the crew. In fact, after joining the Blue Beetle, the very first thing they did was spend 500 birr from their reward money on upgrading the kawah machine in the mess. I forget which rolls were made but they succeeded admirably, and the formerly average brew was replaced with a potent extraction, black as the Dark Between the Stars, and as invigorating as a blessing from The Dancer. I gave them a moment to nod with satisfied approval at their excellent decision making abilities, before giving them some Plot.
Their tabulas rang out, bearing a new message from one Zulaikhu Irides, professing to represent the hauling company Melem Gesurra, who had contracted them the week before with the thorny djinn problem. Pol, perhaps owing to his upper class heritage, was instantly paranoid, and spent an hour researching Zulaikha on the station’s equivalent of social media. He found Mr. Irides’ profile quite handily, and skimmed over his credentials as a graduate of the Miran courtesan Acadamy of Ahlam’s Temple, exclaimed that he was a *beautiful* specimen of a man, and promptly hit like on a dozen of his pictures before being reminded that Zulaikha wanted to meet them to discuss business.
Away with the group to the infamous Wahib’s Cantina, where they found Zulaikha drinking water while reading the financial news. He rose to greet them warmly, the very model of grace and hospitality. If he’d noticed Pol smashing that like button like the fist of an angry god, he made no sign of it.
“Ah, a pleasure to meet you my friends! Please, sit, make yourselves comfortable, I have ordered refreshments for you all.” The group did so, and made hopeful sounds about the possibility of work.
“Straight to business, then, very good! Yes, I represent Melem Gesurra, who were very impressed with your work last week. Oh, by the way, Captain Rajtun sends his regards. He is currently on leave and in hospital undergoing treatment for all the unpleasantness that was forced upon him. But I digress. My employers have authorised me to offer you further work, if that is to your liking. Now, as you’re no doubt aware, the normal procedure for hiring independent contractors is that an employer will place a mission on the Free League’s trade database, and waits until a crew in good standing claims it for their own, before the fine details and negotiation of price are entered into. Melem Gesurra has decided to delay this protocol for the moment, and offer you exclusive contracts before they are made available to the wider trading community. To give you first refusal, as it were.”
He paused for a delicate sip of his drink, while a waiter brought an earthen jug of lime-infused chilled water to fill glasses for the crew.
“And this is why I requested the pleasure of your company today. Melem Gesurra wishes to transport a shipment of medical equipment and supplies to the neighbouring system of Caph. One jump, along well-patrolled routes, minimal danger. I am authorised to offer a base payment of 15,000 birr on completion.
“What if, um, something like last time happens? Or we get really unlucky and pirates happen?”
“Well, the Caph system is home to the Hydra Fleet, a Zenithian organisation which is *enthusiastic* in its dedication to hunting corsairs, so I can safely say it will be safer than Kua! But you’re quite right, I cannot guarantee some problem may come up. To that end I am also authorised to offer generous hazard pay, on a case-by-case basis, as well as a bonus for timely delivery. In addition, I happen to know that a bulk hauler will be making its way through the Kua-Caph portal in approximately 48 hours. The captain is known to me, and he is happy to let smaller vessels dock and share the portal jump, which is considerably safer when the portal stations are paid to make the calculations on your behalf. I believe the journey from here to the nearest portal averages a day and a half, and about as much again from there to Quidar, the planet destined to receive the shipment.”
Some general muttering of approval, and Pol being told to put his phone away and stop liking Mr. Irides’ pictures on social media.
“Ok, we’re in.”
“I am delighted to hear it. Here’s the contract, please read and sign with a thumbprint on the scanner at the bottom…”
They read, found the contract agreeable, and signed. Mr. Irides smiled beatifically at them, finished his glass, and rose to leave. “My friends, it has been a delight. I have a considerable amount of free time today, now that I no longer have to log this contract with the Free League Database, and I thank you for your time. Now, I must capitalise on that free time. I bid you a good day and a safe journey!” And then he was lost in the crowds outside.
The crew spent a few hours getting everything ready. They checked the cargo manifest, and double checked, and ticked each item off as it was loaded into the hold of the Blue Beetle by a surly group of stevedores on one of the station’s many docking rings. The medical supplies were just that; various bandages, medications, first aid and surgical items, antiseptics, all quite dull but valuable nevertheless.
Their work done, the stevedores waved goodbye. “Good luck out there, Messenger bring you back safe and all that” their leader grunted. And with that, the Blue Beetle cleared the station and plotted a course to Kua’s star.
On their way they passed Jina, the hot, oppressive world of poisonous air and sudden storms of concentrated acid where one breath without the correct filtration equipment is certain death. They sailed within visual distance of Lubau, tidally locked, closest planet to the Kuan sun and a mystery in and of itself; despite being 40% the diameter of the planet Kua, its gravitational pull is almost equal.
At last, then to the portal station, where they only had to wait about three hours in the blinding fires of Kua’s yellow star before sensors detected the Zula, a heavy freight ship, coming from one of the other portals on the far side of the sun. They were hailed, and quite amenable to letting the Blue Beetle piggyback on the portal jump.
At this point, Dav the pilot noticed a blinking light on one of the consoles. “Problem in the stasis chamber. Fattah, can you go check? We have beds to spare but better safe than sorry.” Fattah dutifully inspected each of the stasis pods that would protect the crew during the transition between one star and the next. The machinery was in perfect working order, only… something had caused a malfunction in one of the pods, altering the mix of gases and fluids it supplied. As he watched, another pod followed suit. The ship had a virus, and the problem was spreading!
Calling for Ash, she took stock and analysed the machine code of the stasis chamber in a smooth, professional manner. Indeed, someone had managed to insert malicious code to the AI maintaining the stasis pods, altering their functions slightly enough that many crew members might not have noticed, but significantly enough that they would provide no protection travelling through the portal. She was not at all pleased at the thought; Very few people ever survived travel through the portals while awake, and those that did were all driven irreparably insane, their minds destroyed by forces no human understood. A rare few travelled through physically unharmed but possessed by something from the Dark Between the Stars, not unlike the djinn the crew encountered the week before.
But Ash was well-learned in the ways of computer memetics and malicious code, and recognised exactly how the virus operated. It was a trivial matter for her to not only isolate and purge it and repair the damage, she was able to deduce that the code had been uploaded during the 2 hours it took to load the cargo into their ship’s hold. The docking rings on Coriolis are well monitored, and there would be video footage of the area. She made a note to inspect that footage when they returned. For good measure, she updated the ship’s operational programming to harden it against any such attempts in future.
The stasis pods secured, they barely had time to prepare for the jump. Dav’s docking procedure with the Zula was decidedly lacklustre given his previous attempts, perhaps shaken by the knowledge that someone had tried to murder them. Nevertheless, they were all in their pods and asleep by the time the Zula entered the portal from Kua to Caph.
They woke slowly, groggy and shaking. The stasis chamber door opened to reveal the mess hall bathed in the harsh blue light of a whole new solar system. They fumbled around, getting dressed, and their communications bleeped. The Zula calling to confirm they arrived intact. Ash growled something about not being intact until she has consumed a large mug of kawah, to which whoever was manning comms on the Zula replied “I can appreciate that. May the Icons see you safely to the kawah machine before they see you to your destination.” then, slightly muffled as if turning away from the mic, “Hey, Vadim! See, SHE gets it!”
As luck would have it, the planet Quidar was currently on the same side of Caph A as the crew’s exit portal, a mere 2 AU which could be covered in about 18 hours. They were almost immediately intercepted by an armed cruiser, requesting their name and business in Caph on behalf of the Hydra Fleet. After a quick cross-check with their own records, they were almost escorted by the ship to one of the Caph Platforms, the large ring of satellite stations above Quidar that serviced the fleet. Lacking the means to land on the surface, the Blue Beetle was instructed to dock with the one platform that also serviced the public, Platform Nakshatra.
Hails were made, identifications confirmed, and docking clearances granted. A team of stevedores and one official-looking clerk stood by to greet them once the docking clamps were engaged and engines powered down. The clerk, as fastidiously as the crew had been when loading the cargo, ticked every item off as it came down the ramps, checking and double checking. When the last item was off the ship, he smiled a thin satisfied smile as he ticked a final box, and approached the crew, addressing them as one unit with a dry, monotone voice beloved of bureaucrats across the Third Horizon.
“Thank you for this prompt delivery. If you can provide a thumbscan for my tabula here, I will immediately release payment. I’m sure you know, but I am contractually obliged to remind you that as radio signals cannot travel through the portals, your account will not *technically* be credited until the next information courier travels through to Kua and broadcasts the change, which could take several hours depending on traffic. All financial institutions in the Caph system will have been updated within approximately thirty minutes of contract completion, so you may avail of your new credit within Caph. Thank you, and have a pleasant day.”
As our heroes basked in the glow of a job well done, they noticed several squads of soldiers enter the hangar and form up by all the docked ships. Soon after the tannoy system crackled to life, informing everyone on the station that an immediate embargo had been enacted, and no ships were permitted to dock or leave the Caph Platforms except under the approval of station management.
Three soldiers formed up between the Blue Beetle and its crew. Ash, never one to back down in the face of authority, walked up to them and asked what the hell was going on. The sergeant, or at least who they thought was a sergeant because his helmet visor could turn transparent and he had some more dots on his uniform, told her “Honestly? You know as much as I do ma’am. We weren’t expecting this, but orders are orders. We won’t stop you going on board, but the docking clamps won’t be retracted unless one of the high-ups says so. If you need lodging or food, the central plaza has a few cantinas, a small market and a hostel.”
Ash, perhaps trying to test their claim that they wouldn’t stop her, went aboard. She spent the next hour listening to any radio chatter she could decrypt, which was basically everything but military channels. Lots of confusion, frustration and fear. From what she could gather, the main colony on Quidar, Jevghena, used Legion troops as security and defence from the larger desert predators. The Legion, considered by most a Zenithian faction of mercenaries for hire, appeared to have been involved in a dispute with the Zenithian Hegemony proper (considered particularly arrogant and imperialist even for Zenithians) over the past month, and diplomacy finally failed a couple of hours ago. Details were scarce but most likely revolved around both who was paying who and how much, and various interpretations of exactly where each group’s jurisdiction began and ended. There were already multiple skirmishes planetside, with a few confirmed casualties.
Ash wondered if the Legion had a representative on Platform Nakshatra. A quick data search revealed that there was indeed. A man by the name of Majid Nahas, a veteran soldier who retired to the relative safety of orbital politics, was stationed on Nakshatra. Perhaps he could tell them what was going on, and whether there was a way to get off the station?
Satisfied, Ash updated her colleagues on the unfortunate situation, to glum faces. Military blockades were considerably less fun when you were trapped in one. Ash said “I think it’s time to go meddle. Who wants to go meddle?”
And suddenly, the faces were not so glum at all. A glint in their eyes, they set off for the central plaza…