The Spectral Corsair: Episode XIII – “A Wretched Hive of Scum & Villainy”

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In the quiet of his cabin 8 Bit held the ornate deck of cards.  He’d found them in Valdez’s quarters when they had been clearing his stuff after his death, and for some unknown reason had been drawn to them.  He’d had no idea why.  But his experience in the Chrysalis Pod, his revival under the power of the Icons, had changed everything.  The old 8 Bit was gone, dead almost in the same way as Valdez was, and Sebastian Fenwick was re-born: even the lost fingers that had given him his nickname had been restored.  The cards were his last connection with his old friend, and his first real connection with the Icons – the scales fell from his eyes and Fenwick now knew his place in the Horizon.

But he didn’t have long to ponder this revelation.  Hanbal nursed the Corsair to the settlement on Talacia, and they set to getting medical care for Karter and Mehr, both still battered from the crash on Omran, and repairing the ship.  After some negotiations, with Alina taking the lead and using her skills and feminine wiles to get a good deal, the deals were done: ten days later both Karter and Mehr were well and up, and ten days after that the Corsair was as good as new.

But this wasn’t all Alina had been up to.  In what seemed like a deep-seated urge for comfort and company she propositioned all the crew (with the exception of the Nekatra, perhaps no surprise).  This wasn’t the first time she’d done this and had seduced just about every one of the crew at one time or another.  The only one to resist was Hanbal, but 8 Bit – now calling himself Sebastian Fenwick once again – had fallen heavily for her charms.

Three weeks after reaching the safety of Talacia they were off again, heading to the Odacon portal and the large Legion fleet guarding it.  They were flagged down by the Legion Cruiser Horizon Shield, who was offering help and advice.  Horizon Shield’s communications officer warned that the Odacon system was “bandit territory”, that it was very dangerous indeed, that there was no portal station in the system so a return jump would have to be calculated and managed without help, and they would be on their own: the Legion would not mount any form of rescue attempt if they got into trouble.  Before offering help with the jump calculations he also added that the last ships to go through – a small salvage outfit of six ships – went through two days ago, so space on the other side should be clear.  But you couldn’t discount the possibility of a pirate ambush on the other side.

Taking this advice seriously they calculated the jump, and the stasis programme, to release them from stasis the moment the ship was through.  This was risky: usually a generous margin for error would be added to make sure they wouldn’t wake before the jump was completed, but this time it was riskier to stay in stasis too long, if they were to be ambushed…  The calculations were made with brilliance and inspiration, and the plan worked perfectly.

They jumped.  And found a wreckage field of a recent battle with a number of destroyed ships.  There was no sign of any ambush awaiting them, but there were power signatures deep in the wreckage, one of which moved in their direction.  A quick burst of the engines and skilful use of their stealth tech saw them slip away without contact, and without identifying who or what was after them.

Now they were safely in Odacon they could analyse this system, one so shrouded in myth and rumour.  The Odacon sun is a red giant, bathing all before it in its dim red glow, casting a bloody aura across the system’s five remaining planets.  But their sensor sweep turned up something they hadn’t expected: a huge gravity field and accretion disc lying at 90 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic – a black hole, with one planet in its orbit!

They turned to Alina, to guide them on the next step of the mission.  Their destination was the planet Sharma, and the junk city known as Calumet.  This city, built on an island in the centre of a toxic lake, is the only place of so-called “non-aggression” in the whole system.  Calumet City is ruled by the Triumvirate, a “council of truce” made up of the most dangerous pirate outfit in the system, the most powerful salvage organisation and a colonist faction, largely made up of elements of the Nomad Federation.  Resim was last seen here, negotiating with the Triumvirate for safe passage in Odacon so he could explore and prospect the system’s ruins, for a share in the profits.

But who knew if Resim was even still at Calumet City on Sharma?  Or even still alive! Calumet City is a dangerous place, with a whiff of ever-present violence in the air.  It is a wretched hive of scum and villainy…

In the quiet of his cabin Fenwick shuffled the cards he found from Valdez.  One fell out and landed, face up and looking it him.  It was the Lady of Tears.  Fenwick felt this meant something but it was such a random event it surely meant nothing.  He collected the cards with the intention of picking this one up, and another fell out.  The Song.  Now what did this mean?  He pulled another and threw it on the table.  The Forest…  Then drew another – the Blood card.  He felt this was the Icons trying to tell him something.  Did the Lady of Tears mean Alina?  She could move him to tears that’s for sure.  What about the Song?  A good song?  A Siren’s song?  Who knew.  Fenwick gathered up the cards and shook his head in confusion…

Calumet City, resting as it does on an island, is accessed across one of two rickety scrap metal bridges, with landing zones for visiting ships outside the city itself.  The Corsair settled down and all the crew, except Fenwick who chose to stay aboard with Alina who claimed she might make things worse due to enemies she may have here, set off to the Triumvirate Court, a huge metallic arena and dome – the hub of activity in the city.

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Having pushed through the heaving crowds and negotiated around the seemingly randomly placed stalls, tents and temporary shacks, they arrived at the Triumvirate Court.  Losing patience with the others’ indecision, Norsa clumsily approached the Triumvirate leaders to get information about Resim.  His lack of respect suddenly risked escalating into confrontation, but Ozgare’s intervention and attempts at mollifying the leaders went some way to resolving the situation before the outcome became violent.  In the crowd Karter recognised someone they thought was back on Coriolis, a Jubal functionary called Abdelacar.  Challenging Abdelacar Karter and Hanbal were unconvinced by his answers about being in Odacon, and Ajit Mehr was put on his tail when Abdelacar hurriedly left the court.

Meanwhile, back on the Corsair Fenwick couldn’t find Alina.  It became apparent that she had slipped away from the ship and was heading into the city, for what purpose – and why she should lie to them – they did not know.  Fenwick alerted the others, then hurriedly headed across the bridge and into the city, trying to catch up with their passenger, and his lover.

Mehr followed Abdelacar to a building made of welded metal sheets and scraps, some three hundred meters from the court.  He called in the others and they settled down to keep this place under surveillance.

Within a few minutes Alina was spotted, heading to the same building.  Hanbal and Karter dashed through the crowd and challenged her.  Her answer – that she was trying to help by doing some undercover work – didn’t convince.  They were still trying to decide what to do when Norsa, again showing a distinct lack of patience, burst through the doors to the building.  Inside they found Abdelacar talking in hushed tones to another.  This second man stepped forward, and spoke:

“Welcome friends,” he said.  “I understand you’re looking for me, I am Resim…”

Having only seen a grubby image it wasn’t certain this was in fact Resim, and Alina screamed out: “he’s not Resim – he’s an imposter! We must kill him!”  And without waiting Alina drew her pistol and put a bullet through Abdelacar’s throat – he fell, voice gurgling, hands grasping at the terrible gash in his neck.  Hanbal screamed at Alina to stop as he dashed forwards to the stricken Abdelacar.  Fenwick turned to Alina, his hand reaching out to hold her back.  She looked up at him, and suddenly the Alina he knew wasn’t there – the power of her personality stunned him into immobility.  She dashed into cover as the others levelled their weapons.  But not all could act – suddenly Karter felt an unresistable urge, stopping him acting against Alina.  Before they knew it she had rolled from cover and had Resim – or the man claiming to be Resim – caught in a hold with a deadly blade at his throat.

Outside, and seeing the commotion, Ajit shifted his position and fired through a shuttered window.  The sniper shot hit Alina, but deflected off her armour – it shimmered, in the same way that Ozgare’s Zalosian animated armour did.  Everyone saw it happen, but not all understood the implication.  Could it be true?  Had they been harbouring a Zalosian Witchsmeller all this time?

There was a momentary stand-off: Hanbal stopped the bleeding and in doing so saved Abdelacar’s life; Fenwick and Karter desperately tried to resist Alina’s mystical influence; Ozgare and Norsa stood ready, but unable to act without seeing Resim die first; and Ajit watched and waited for the killing shot to open up for him.

In the seeming quiet a group of Zalosian acolytes pushed through the scattering crowd and dashed towards the building.  Ajit saw it.  He is not one of the Horizon’s best snipers for nothing.  A quick change of direction let him fire off three quick shots: one acolyte fell dead with a bullet through his neck; another fell dead as the second bullet tore a hole through the vital arteries in his leg; the third fell as a bullet took his foot off at the ankle.  But the shots also seemed to break the tension, and the stand-off, in the building.  Suddenly all hell broke loose.

Alina shoved her knife upwards, thrusting it into Resim’s brain and killing him in an instant.  Hanbal and Ozgare fired.  Norsa slammed the door shut to stop Alina’s reinforcements, but it was a ruse.  At the right moment he opened the door and the enemy fell into his grasp – his Black Fang teeth tore into the Zalosian: his bloodlust took over and the Nekatra gorged on his dying victim.  Ajit quickly reloaded and fired again through the window.

Fenwick suddenly seemed to come to his senses, but instead of attacking he leapt in front of Alina to protect her, shield her, from his crew-mates.  Surely she was doing this to help them, they just didn’t understand? Surely she wasn’t their enemy?  Surely she wouldn’t harm any of them – they were her friends?  Ajit continued to fire, winging Fenwick in the process, but still she wouldn’t fall and Fenwick wouldn’t get out of the way.  Ajit’s next shot was targeting Fenwick – he didn’t want to shoot his friend but he had to put him down to get a clear shot at Alina.

Before Ajit could fire again Hanbal rose from his position next to Alina, raised his pistol and fired.  Again the animate armour shimmered and the bullet’s blow was deflected away.  Alina turned on Hanbal.  Her dreadful blade drove forward and punched through Hanbal’s chest, tearing through his armour as if it were hardly there.  Hanbal gasped, blood foaming in his mouth, and fell back, the blade still in his chest up to its hilt.

Fenwick heard Hanbal’s drowning cry and turned to see Alina standing over his friend.  This was too much.  It was too confusing.  How could Alina be like this?  There must be an explanation.  But at that moment there was just one thing swamping his mind: Hanbal was lying on the ground dying, and Alina was responsible.  Fenwick turned.  Grabbing Alina’s hair with one hand he slammed his knife into the back of her head with everything he had.  She stiffened, jerked, twisted and slumped to the ground.  She was dead.

Karter and Ozgare ran to their Captain’s side and worked feverishly to save his life.  If the blade had been a millimetre lower it would have cut into Hanbal’s heart and there would have been no hope.  But they had a minute’s grace, and in that time they pulled Hanbal around and stemmed the bleeding, before they could get him to the medbay on the Corsair for proper treatment.  He owes his life to them.

In the quiet of the few days following Alina’s betrayal and death Fenwick searched his soul.  Those cards did tell of a woman who sold them a story, with a forest of shanty tents and shacks and the blood spilled by the Nekatra.  Maybe the Icons were trying to tell him something, give him a glimpse of what was to come…  Fenwick sat in the deepest thought, trying to make sense of it all, but deep down knowing what it meant…

Another who owed their life to them, Abdelacar, made a good recovery, although he would talk in a hushed voice and with a rasp for a long time yet.  A few days later he visited the Corsair to say his thanks and see on Hanbal’s condition.  When it was time to leave he stopped and turned, and said in his quiet voice:

“Oh, you might like to know – the real Resim is ready to see you, when you’re ready that is…”


 

View from the GM’s Chair:

This was one of those scenarios where, as GM, everything played out as well – or maybe even better – than you had hoped!

Episode 13 of the campaign (which actually encompasses 15 scenarios and 201 days of in-game time) saw the Alina Abdessalam part of the story arc come to a conclusion.  Throughout the campaign the players have been very trusting of Alina, despite once or twice raising vague suspicions that they have never taken forward.  They have, on the whole, taken everything she has said and done at face value.  I had dropped some (admittedly quite obscure) clues over the campaign as to her history and motivation, but I’m not really surprised that no one picked up on them – there is much more of her story yet to tell!

But she had been planning for the day she would need to fight them from the start.  I gave her a special Mystic Talent, called Mind Warp, that would allow her to slowly build up a level of mystic control over time.  Each time she wanted to strengthen this control she needed an intimate moment, or a moment where she connected mentally with the victim in a positive way, hence her promiscuous desire to sleep with the crew as often as possible.  Once she had built up this control she could activate it any time she needed, and once activated the victim would struggle to take any action that might be harmful to her. 

I’d wanted this scene to be a climactic moment, and it most certainly was!  This climax (to the Alina story and the penultimate climax to the campaign line) was really enhanced by three things:

  1. The tension in the room – this felt like a fight that the players really thought they might lose;
  2. The great role-playing of all my players, but especially Paul (for Fenwick’s love of Alina driving his behaviour despite her seeming hostility) and Dean (as Ozgare, still just about clinging to his hatred of the Icons and just holding to his vow never to pray for a re-roll);
  3. And the almost prescient rolling of the dice, as if the dice themselves knew what numbers needed to come up to make the game as tense and compelling as possible.

There were two die rolls that were really powerful in driving the drama of the story, both of them for critical hits:

First, when Alina stabbed Tony’s character, Hanbal.  The situation was dire – Alina had already taken out two NPCs at this point, had barely been scratched herself thanks to her Zalosian armour, had two of the players struggling under her Mind Warp influence, and had just critted Hanbal with her blade.  I asked Tony if I should roll the crit or if he wanted to (he said me), I asked which die we should read first (he said green), I rolled the crit dice openly, and they rolled 64…  It was as bad as it could be and have him survive the blow: Hanbal was down with 1d6 minutes to live, but a 65 or 66 would have killed him instantly.  It was damn close,and we all felt it.

The second roll was Fenwick’s critical hit roll when he reluctantly and finally attacked Alina, the women he loved, the woman he couldn’t believe was turning against them, the woman he had tried to protect at dire risk to himself.  But when Hanbal went down Fenwick finally had no choice.  He hit with his blade, scoring two crits.  But Alina was tough, and had the Nine Lives talent, allowing her to swap the 10s and 1s dice on the crit to reduce the damage.  Paul rolled a 42 for his first roll, which becomes 24 and just a minor stun.  He then rolled his last crit, and rolled a 6 and a 6…  Not even Nine Lives could save Alina, and the desperate fight was suddenly over, with the crew of the Spectral Corsair victorious…

 

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