Trades of Terra Norma

Prologue
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Station space bar2

These are lean times for free traders in the Endiku system. The party has been lounging around the Endiku IX’s Commonwealth station for almost two weeks, and not a single freighter has rolled in with a short crew.

There’s no side-work to be had, either. The station’s tenders simply refuse to break down, and never have so many scoundrels paid their sharks so promptly and courteously. It ain’t natural.

Then, finally: a familiar face at the bar. It’s Hank “Grizzly” Collins, captain of the tramp freighter Farmer’s Daughter. A few party members have had good experiences working for him in the past. He’s gruff, but has lived up to his reputation as an honest sort.

* * * * *

“Thanks for the drink, but I ain’t got no work for ya, boys.”

A pause.

“But…” says the Captain, wiping foam from his beard. "I might know where a bit of decent crewin’ might be had, for capable folks.

He raises an eyebrow.

“You capable folks?”

Salty sailor crop

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Episode One
The Kindness of Strangers

Endiku IX Station, Endiku System

Salty sailor crop

“You reliable folks?”

Collins raises an eyebrow, looking each party member square in the eye.

Nods all around.

“Well, it ain’t in this orbit. Shit here; you know that. For this, you gotta head way out to the rim. Zhang-Xian station off Koschei IV. I got it on good authority that a nasty Crimson Flu tore through ‘em last week. Prob’ly a dozen captains sittin’ there with organics ’bout to rot, and half their crew in quarantine.” He chuckles, perhaps thinking of a rival captain having a good heave.

“You won’t be the only down-and-outers headin’ that way for work. But I s’pect with a good word from me you should be able to scrounge up somethin’ decent.”

The party offers its hearty thanks to Collins, but after learning that the Farmer’s Daughter is the only Koschei-bound ship for the next week, they press the gruff captain for an additional favor.

“Sorry, my mid-berths are all filled up, and I got low-berths offline,” says Collins.

Party members offer to bring their own cots and rations. They offer to sleep down among the lower deck bulkheads. Billy, a gifted computer jockey, offers his services during the trip, and a few of the others follow suit.

“Ehhhhh… Okay, fine, I’ll take yeh. Departure at minus twenty-four t-hours; don’t be late. Now, buy me another drink.”

Farmer’s Daughter, Endiku System

Beowulf side 1b

The following afternoon, after a little information gathering and supply shopping, the party reports to the Farmer’s Daughter. They check their weapons, undergo a cursory medical exam, then head down to the A-Deck, where they’ll be spending the duration of the trip.

“She’s not much to look at, but she runs like a dream!” says a two-foot-high robot, who patters into the Lower Cargo Bay just as the party is stringing up their cots.

“I’m the ship’s Steward, TP-810, or ‘Teapot’ if you like,” he says, giving a little salute. "I cook the meals, tend to the passengers, and do a little fix-it work on the side. Normally I’m not supposed to serve the low-berths, but according to the paperwork, you’re spending the next couple weeks as honorary crew members. Saves the Captain from having to explain an exceeded passenger capacity to the Trade Authority, I imagine.

“So… Welcome aboard, colleagues!”

The party spends some time chatting with their new, metallic friend, eventually taking him up an offer to tour the ship.

The Farmer’s Daughter is an older 200-ton Beowulf-class Type A Free Trader. The Type A is an extremely common make of tramp hauler, but this particular ship seems to have been maintained better than most. Her various patches and customizations reflect a history of talented engineers who took pride in their work.

The party takes in the highlights, noting the unusually relocated low-berths and a medical bay twice as spacious as most.

Along the way, they spot a few of the ship’s mid-berth passengers. There’s a gaggle of young toughs – probably underachievers en route to their first low-pay, high-hazard mining job. There’s a quiet father and son who keep to themselves, and a chatty gentleman with a pencil-thin mustache and a nice suit.

After a bit of unlucky card-playing, as Endiki shrinks in the C-Deck’s rear observation window, the party tucks in for some shut-eye.

Ship cargo bay resized

Brynn’s opens his eyes… Hmmm… Was that…?

A second gunshot rings out, then another. The entire party is awake, some already on their feet. More gunfire, then screaming. Clearly something unpleasant is taking place on an upper deck.

With creaks and groans, the giant freight elevator starts its descent from an upper level. Friend? Or foe?

Not taking any chances, the party looks around for useful supplies. With a few hold-out weapons, scavenged mechanics’ tools, a tube of ultragrease, and a steady hand controlling the overhead cargo crane, they stand ready.

The elevator inches downward. Soon the party can see boots, then pants, then…

It’s two of the mid-berth mining toughs, apparently sent down by their fellow hijackers to clean house. Yellow cloth armbands mark them as Junkers – an unsavory gang of pirates and scavengers. The pair wastes no time in attacking; the muscular one hefts his length of pipe into clobbering position, while the scrawny one draws his revolver.

The skirmish ensues, a blur of charging, bashing, shooting. The heftier thug is too distracted with his opponent to notice the cargo crane above him, descending with claws open. With a howl, he meets a messy end.

As the skinny thug watches with horror, the party’s Murdi darts in and snatches the revolver from his hand. Surrounded and outgunned, the desperate thug attempts the slowest escape in recorded history by activating the lift’s upward control. He makes it to a full six inches off the floor before—predictably—being gunned down.

As muffled shooting and shouting continues topside, the party makes a quick decision to split up. The three more combat-seasoned party members leap onto the ascending lift, while those left behind huddle around the cargo office computer, attempting to seize control of the rest of the ship’s systems.

As the heroes walk into the Main Cargo Bay, weapons drawn, the B-Deck party is addressed by one of the hijackers.

“You got some skill, taking out my boys. I can respect that. Come. Sit.”

The freckled redhead wears a scarf and cap, and sits behind the metal folding table used for card-playing just a few hours ago. Around him stand a pair of armed thugs, all wearing yellow armbands. Around them, the lifeless bodies of the ship’s crew. The redhead introduces himself as Daryl Thaz, boss of these Junkers, and motions toward three empty chairs.

The party inches forward cautiously, but fails to spot a third thug squatting behind a storage container in ambush. With the thundering boom of a sawed-off shotgun, blood is spilled and another brawl begins. Thaz flips the table for cover. More shooting. More stabbing. More blood. Thaz cackles like a madman as he empties round after round from his auto-loader.

The party’s skill turns fatal shots into lucky grazes, and they press hard to even the odds. The table itself transforms from cover to weapon, and one thug falls with a split skull. Soon another clutches his stomach and slumps to the ground.

Thaz himself backs toward the door. But his escape, and his cackling, are cut short when a fatal shot sends him tumbling down the corridor, a cloud of red mist left hovering in the air.

The party subdues the final hijacker, and after an unsuccessful interrogation, airlock him into deep space. He flails wildly, then not so wildly, then not at all.

The trio finds one last enemy on the bridge. The ship’s pilot is there, wearing his crew uniform, but also the yellow armband of the Junkers. Seeing this traitor, it suddenly becomes clear how the Junkers gained access to weapons and the ship’s vital systems. The pilot dives for a weapon, but is slain before he reaches it.

Beside him, on the floor, Grizzly Collins lies in a pool of his own blood.

“Wait, he’s alive.”

The captain still has a pulse. He needs more medical care than the party’s doctor can provide, but the party successfully moves him into a low-berth cryo-chamber, where his condition will remain stable until help can be found.

On the A-Deck, the party discovers that the Junkers hadn’t gotten around to slaughtering the passengers—the father, the son, and the dandy—they’d simply been locked in their staterooms. One of the party tells the passengers they are safe, but advises them to stay on the A-Deck until the mess below can be cleaned up.

Over the next few hours, the party moves the slain crew members into cryo-units beside the captain, preserving them until they can be given a proper burial. After picking through the Junkers’ remains for valuables, they unceremoniously airlock the corpses.

Teapot, the robot Steward, emerges from hiding, and over the next few hours helps the party to figure out the ship’s systems. He also explains that the ship is essentially theirs, according to salvage law. Although Collins might not take that news gracefully when he recovers. If he recovers.

The new crew of the Farmer’s Daughter divides up responsibilities, and decides to push on toward the Koschei IV system. There are still many things to discuss, decisions to make, and work to do. But as they prepare the ship for its J-1 slice into the slipstream, each of the party members silently entertains the same thought: that something truly significant just happened… This is the beginning of an adventure.

The beginning of an adventure

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Interstitial News Bulletin
Endiku System, CR-717-114

INTERSTELLAR NEWS AGENCY
SUB-LIGHT TRANSMISSION
NEWS BULLETIN, ENDIKU SYSTEM

Late last cycle, a latent pressure suit transmitter led the skip tracer vessel Cyan Thick to the body of wanted hijacker Thomas “Torque” Jameson. A known affiliate of the Junkers, Jameson had been sought in connection to multiple charges of theft, transportation, exchange, assault, and murder. He is thought by authorities to have participated in the recent hijacking of the Haldris BX-bound passenger liner Solace 288 that resulted in nineteen deaths.

Jameson was last spotting fleeing into the treacherous outer Mina Belt. Authorities report that he was likely slain by members of his own gang; a result of a personal grudge or illicit deal turned sour. An alternate theory contends that Jameson was a casualty in yet another violent hijacking attempt. At this time, it is not known when, where, or even if such an attempt took place, nor which party was the victor. Thus far, no registered starships or personnel have been reported missing, but witnesses to any recent suspicious activity near Endiku IX are encouraged to file a report.

No family or beneficiary has come forward to claim Jameson’s remains. “That [expletive] scum-sack won’t be missed in this system, that’s for [expletive] sure,” said one Civil Authority investigator (who asked not to be named).

Another anonymous inside source made a more cryptic prediction about the circumstances surrounding Jameson’s death. “All I can tell you is this: This two-microcredit hoodlum is history, but he’s in a book that’s far from over. And I have a feeling the next chapter won’t be long in coming.”

FURTHER BULLETINS AS EVENTS WARRANT
END OF TRANSMISSION

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Episode Two, Part One
For They Have Sown the Wind...

Four days off Endiku IX Station, Endiku System

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Although many are still shaken by the Junkers’ bloody slaughter, the crew and passengers of the Farmer’s Daughter are starting to settle into their new roles, responsibilities, and routines.

Together, they’ve swabbed the bloodstains and patched most of the bullet-holes. With the help of Teapot (the ship’s steward and sometimes-engineering assistant), the bridge crew (Pilot, Co-Pilot, and Com Officer) have gotten a feel for their stations. The Engineer and his helper have not only familiarized themselves with their Engineering Deck, they’ve already elbow-deep in overdue maintenance and repairs. Every crew member has learned basic operation of the ship’s modest gunnery stations, should they be called upon to defend the ship from another attack.

Although no clear Captain has emerged, the crew’s comradery and united purpose have served well enough in the interim.

In the ship’s special cargo locker, the former Captain Grizzy Collins remains in low berth cryo-stasis. The crew finally reaches a consensus regarding his fate. A legal technicality allowed the current crew to claim this 200-ton Beowulf-class Free Trader as a salvage prize, a fact they fear the former Captain will will not take with good grace. Wishing to avoid conflict, while at the same time wishing the old Captain no ill will, they plan to deposit Grizzly at the Koschei IV trade station’s well-regarded medical facility, along with enough credits for passage home upon recovery.

In the ship’s upper deck, three passengers remain. The dapper Victor Alured Swan, the nervous Gregor, and his troubled son, Aidan. “Swan,” as he’s known to his associates—continues to show the crew courteous gratitude for saving his life. As an incredibly successful prize agent, trade broker, and financier, he explains to the crew how he is in a unique position to assist them. He offers his ongoing services in facilitating profitable cargo transactions, seeking employment contracts and other “less formal” opportunities, and—perhaps most importantly—information from Swan’s web of agents and other contacts, a communication network that spans half-a-dozen sectors.

The crew has become increasingly curious about Gregor and Aidan, who themselves have become even more jittery over the last few days. Like Swan, the two show gratitude, and seem to look forward to their arrival at Koschei. But after several interactions, the crew strongly suspects that the pair is hiding important information about themselves; specifically, that they’re running from someone or something, and are utterly terrified of whatever that is. The crew, becoming increasingly worried about the attention these two might attract, feel it wise to press Gregor for more information whenever the opportunity arises.

After a close call with a pair of Junker shuttles—apparently bagmen for the failed hijackers—the Farmer’s Daughter finally reaches its jump point. The bridge team performs the necessary astrogation plotting and other calculations, and the engineers spool up the ship’s FTL drive. After completing one last series of systems tests and route recalculations, the crew initiates its very first splice into the slipstream. In a flash, the Free Trader vanishes from the Endiku System, beginning its journey through the very same skeins of space and time that first brought the Solarians to Terra Norma.

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Episode Two, Part Two
For They Have Sown the Wind...

Three days from Zhang-Xian Station, Koschei IV System

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After a restful week of sailing the slipstream, the Farmer’s Daughter splices out into the Koschei IV System. Precise pre-splice astrogation translates to a tight, three-day approach to Zhang-Xian Station, and a hull inspection reveals no noteworthy structural distress. Teapot claps his little metallic hands with gusto as he congratulates the crew on a job well done.

The inbound cruise is not without incident, however. Shortly after entering the system, setting a course, and downloading the latest system news and weather reports, there is a loud commotion on the passenger deck. Several crew member rush up to find Gregor kneeling, trying to console a hysterical Aidan. On the floor all around them lie shards of several broken display screens. Normally, a half-dozen monitors dot the upper deck’s bulkheads for passenger business and entertainment use. Now the four closest to the father and son are blackened craters of twisted metal and exposed wires, some still arcing with current.

Keeping his arms around the sobbing boy, Gregor is immediately apologetic. Upon questioning, Gregor reveals that the boy himself is responsible for this damage. He sometimes has destructive “fits,” explains Gregor. The boy can’t help it, however, he continues, and in exchange for the crew’s understanding, he’ll gladly pay for his son’s damages on-the-spot.

The crew shows great compassion by not accepting Gregor’s payment, and by letting Gregor usher the boy to his room to get some needed rest. As he’s ushered off, Aidan blubbers out his own apology in between sobs.

Curious to learn more about the incident, the more technically minded crew members examine the monitors further. They do not appear to have been shattered from any external impact. Nor do there seem to be any objects of sufficient heft lying around this deck. Nor does it seem likely the boy would be strong enough to wield such an object.

Upon further investigation, the monitors almost appear to have been detonated from the inside. The crew continues to ponder the situation, but to no avail. It just doesn’t make sense. One crew member starts to bring up the idea of psionic powers, but then realizes how silly that sounds (even the most addled space janitor knows that only Ambyloids possess such powers of the mind, and this boy is clearly a Terran), and he lets his comment slip by unnoticed.

One of the techies gets to work repairing the viewscreens. He works with intentional slowness, as this job gives him a good opportunity to keep an eye on the passenger deck. He observes nothing suspicious, although from time to time he spies Swan giving Gregor an odd look – as if he’s somehow sizing Gregor up; perhaps trying to get a bead on his intentions, or overall character.

Teapot is also told to keep a closer eye on the passengers. Although he tackles his assignment with typical Teapot enthusiasm, after two days his most damning report is that—during an impromptu midnight snack—Swan may have possibly double dipped a chip.

With no further disturbances, the inquiries die down, and before long the Farmer’s Daughter soon cruises into the Zhang-Xian Station hangar.

Zhang-Xian Station, Koschei IV System

Hangar by hideyoshi crop

The passengers, along with several crew members, disembark to attend to business on the station. But any hopes of carousing at the bar or brothel, browsing at the surplus depot, or tithing at the Temple of the Worm are almost immediately dashed.

As Swan splits off through the crowd to greet a waiting business associate, the party notices an out-of-place, make-shift Commonwealth checkpoint at the end of the corridor, manned by armed guards and two unpleasant-looking Commonwealth agents in matching black suits and ties. Gregor immediately panics, begging the crew to let him and his son return to the ship, and to travel with them a bit longer.

“Please,” whispers Gregor, “I’ll… I’ll tell you everything! Just… please let Aidan and I back aboard right away.”

To his surprise, the crew immediately consents. He rushes back, ducking and shielding Aidan from view.

The tension increases when Swan casually steps back and warns the crew that the agents have taken notice of their group; they’ll be coming over shortly to ask some questions. Swan says he’ll be fine, but that the rest of the group might want to consider quietly following Gregor back to ship, undocking, and putting some distance between themselves and the authorities.

“Listen, everything will work out,” says Swan. “I’ll stay here and work on finding buyers for your cargo. And I’ll track down some details about that salvage job you were looking for. Just get yourselves out of here, and come back when things have cooled down a bit.”

The crew doesn’t need any more convincing. They walk back as inconspicuously as possible, get the ship’s engines online, and drift back out into the void before any of the Commonwealth’s goons notice what’s happening.

As they head out to the jump point, Swan gets in touch and gives the crew two valuable pieces of information.

First, Swan recommends that, for answers to several pressing questions, they should check out the latest system-wide news transmissions. The crew plays the scans through a recent Commonwealth newscast, in between stories about the current decrease in Crimson Flu outbreaks, they are surprised to see the faces of Gregor and Aidan.

Fugitives. Wanted by Commonwealth authorities, for questioning regarding a series of criminal incidents within the Inner Homeworlds.

Vague and mysterious, as these Commonwealth missives usually are. The pair could be anything from mass murderers, to escapees from one of the few remaining slave worlds, to good, honest folks who just got on the bad side of the wrong influential CEO or politician. Fortunately, Gregor now seems much more willing to share his story.

Swan’s second piece of information: The Job. It looks like the Farmer’s Daughter will be heading to the Obsita system, to a jungle world of the same name. There (just over 0.5pc away), the crew will find two corporation-owned botanical/biological research sites; one an orbiting station, the other an underground bunker. Both suddenly ceased any and all outside contact roughly three weeks ago. If the crew acts fast, they just might be the first freelancers there. What they’ll find is a mystery. There might be researchers to rescue (always a profitable venture). If not, there will almost certainly be equipment and supplies to scavenge. Maybe even valuable research that could be sold back to the corporation, or auctioned to the highest bidder.

Opportunities this fresh don’t come along every day.

Gentlemen, prepare to splice.

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Episode Three, Prelude
And They Shall Reap the Whirlwind

Jungle planet by zip it.png

The Farmer’s Daughter cruises toward the Obsita System‘s lone terrestrial planet (also named Obsita). Each day the half-illuminated face grows larger in the ship’s window, and within a few days, the crew can start to pick out surface features. The yellowish hue of Obsita’s ammonia-heavy atmosphere blurs its finer details, but even through the haze, the crew can see a sprawling carpet of lush green jungles, broken up only by a planet-wide network of intertwining rivers.

The crew debates which to visit first: the orbital station, or planet-side bunker. But when the ship reaches primary sensor range, they are unable to locate the station. At first they are puzzled, but a probable solution appears when the planet rotates to reveal an ugly—and uncharted—black gash across the green surface. Refusing to chalk this apparent impact up to coincidence, the crew reasonable concludes that the research station met a cataclysmic end shortly before their arrival.

With their choice made for them; the Farmer’s Daughter enters a decaying orbit, smoothly descending into Obsita’s thick atmosphere, on an approach vector to the planet-side Axxon Research laboratory.

P jungle cockpit

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