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Invasive Species

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.

The adventurers are caught up in a conflict between farmers and an agricultural corporation with a species of insect being the key.

This is a Classic Traveller adventurer for 4-6 characters of diverse backgrounds and careers, assumed to have been previously traveling and working together. No special skills or equipment are necessary to run the adventure, though wilderness and combat skills or Scientist characters could be very helpful.

Pre-Adventure Preparation

The referee should select or create the following items:

Introduction

This planet is one of the breadbaskets of the subsector, mostly due to xengi, a native insect pollinator similar to the Terran bee. The world’s position along a major trade route ensures that its produce is sold all over the subsector. An Imperial noble, Count Salomon b-Huang, has a fief onworld, administering it and several adjacent planets for the empire.

Over the objections of local farmers, the Count has allowed some corporate farms to operate onworld, complete with substantial land grants and subsidies. The largest of these, Rhyzen-Phytotek, is a particularly aggressive player in the agriculture business; known for price fixing, ruthlessly crushing competitors, manipulating legal processes, and silencing critics by any means necessary.

Scientists have lately been noticing a sharp decline in the xengi numbers. The results of an investigation as to why have so far been inconclusive, but the insects are so important that their extinction would be disastrous for the planet’s economy. Meanwhile, Rhyzen-Phytotek hasn’t been idle. They’ve been taking advantage of the rising financial and social chaos to mercilessly expand their operations. This has sparked bitter protests and opposition from the natives. The situation is fast becoming a powder keg.

One: Infestation

While delivering their cargo to the starport, the PCs make the acquaintance of Nathi Bossor (see NPCs below), who is on her way back to her farm from trading offworld. During a conversation, she draws their attention to a report on the holovids about an insect plague in a nearby province—which contains her father’s farm. She asks the team for transportation to her farm, promising to also speak with her father about hiring them on temporarily as extra hands to deal with the swarms.

Assuming the group agrees, Nathi pays them Cr500 for the ride. The farm is an hour away by air/raft. During the journey, she briefs them on the strife between the farmers and Rhyzen-Phytotek (give the players the information in the second paragraph of the Introduction.) Her father in particular is a very outspoken critic of the company, and she worries about him; RP has a reputation for ruthlessness.

The Bossor farmstead is bustling with activity; 3D+20 farmers have gathered there in preparation for deploying against the swarm. Kosan Bossor is, of course, happy to see his daughter—the PCs, not so much, reacting to them initially at -3. He apparently thinks they’re with Rhyzen-Phytotek. The team can attempt to allay his concerns. The attempt is reflected in another Reaction throw (DMs: Liaison skill; Nathi’s intercession, +2.) If the second reaction throw is 7+, Bossor will soften his stance against them, and offer to take them on as temporary hands at Cr50 per day (all he can pay due to crop failures and RP legal action.) Nathi quietly begs the group to accept the terms and possibly negotiate more later.

The exterminators are equipped with protective gear both professional and homemade; hastily smeared-on insect repellent and improvised face coverings (bandannas, sheer hosiery, etc.) at the very least. The PCs are furnished with the latter if they don’t have protective gear of their own. The farmers are armed with pesticide sprayers and bombs, torches, flamethrowers both military-grade and jury-rigged, and whatever else they can find or cobble together that’s effective against pests. Several battered farm vehicles are outfitted with spraying equipment. If the PCs have an air/raft, they are asked to take a tank of insecticide aloft and spray.

The target is a crop forest on an adjacent farm about 3 kilometers away. The group moves out an hour after the PCs arrive. Upon arrival, they find the situation is as dire as it was described. The swarm can be seen swirling above and among the trees even from a distance. The extermination party seems to have its work cut out for it.

The growers are deployed in two lines, an advance party that moves deeper into the forest to find and destroy any eggs, and a rear line responsible for using pesticide bombs and flamethrowers to slow or stop the insects’ advance. If the PCs have been asked to dust, they may choose whatever area they deem most effective. Nathi will stick close to the PCs.

Once the groups have settled into their tasks, they’re suddenly fired upon with automatic weapons! The unseen assailants target the allies in the following order: anything flying, the advance party, and the rear flank.

The attackers soon reveal themselves as they advance: a squad of mercenaries. They’re only lightly armored (PCs with Tactics skill realize that this means they weren’t expecting trouble); and wear face masks. They are equipped to tech level C, complete with automatic rifles (Book 1) and full field kit. They do not challenge or attempt to detain or parley with the heroes; they simply shoot.

Any farmers not shot outright run away. The PCs initially face 1D+6 opponents, who call for backup as soon as they take 40% casualties. The backup (3D more individuals) arrives in 4D combat rounds, during which time the mercs fight either a holding action or a fallback, depending on the PCs’ strength. At no time do the adventurers see the full number of opponents. DMs to all ranged combat: -4 (-2 for cover (trees and brush), -2 to vision due to the swarming insects) Flamethrowers only suffer the Cover -2.

Each time the mercs reach a casualty threshold of 40%, they call for backup; 2D more mercs arrive every 3D combat rounds until the PCs are driven off or killed. It’s not necessary that the PCs win this encounter; indeed, it furthers the plot if they’re routed with the rest of the farmers. The mercs don’t pursue.

Two: Application

In the aftermath of the rout, questions remain: who were the mercenaries working for? And why were they apparently protecting an insect swarm?

For the moment, there are doubtless casualties among the farmers. The injured require medical attention, and an accounting must be made of the dead. Any PC attending to wounded farmers are allowed to throw 10+ to find one of the bugs trapped in a fold of a stricken farmer’s clothing or tucked into an equally confining place. Neither Nathi nor her father recognizes the species.

If there are Scientists among the PCs, they can analyze the creatures (throw 7+ for success, takes 2d10 minutes) for more information. The insects are found to be bioengineered, even down to their molecular structure, and they’re optimized for pollination. If the party has no one available to do an analysis, one can be contracted out, at a cost of Cr2,500 and 1D days time. An outside analysis also discovers that Rhyzen-Phytotek engineered them.

40 minutes after the defeated victims return to the Bossor farmstead, a vehicle arrives with five people: a woman and a man in expensive-looking clothes, and three combat-armored mercenaries. The mercs are armed with automatic rifles, but keep them slung unless drawn upon.

The woman introduces herself as Muriel van Rien, Chief Counselor for the planetary branch of Rhyzen-Phytotek (see below), and her aide. She minces no words, demanding to see either the leader of the farmers, or the owner of the homestead. When this individual responds, van Rien presents an order for the “immediate surrender of any and all properties pertaining or belonging to said Corporation including, but not limited to, biological properties.” The order also prohibits any of the farmers from setting foot on what turns out to be RP land, and ignores the “previous heinous assault against RP personnel both hired and contracted” (i.e., the mercenaries) as long as the lands aren’t violated again. Ignoring the order carries the penalty of arrest by RP personnel and delivery to the nearest Imperial officer for judgment; in this case, the local Imperial noble, Count Salomon b-Huang, who countersigned the order.

Van Rien gives the group five minutes to collect any RP property (the bugs) and turn it over to her aide. If they ignore the order, take longer than five minutes, or offer any sort of violence, the guards have orders to start shooting. If any of the PCs let on that any bugs are being analyzed, van Rien demands their return as well.

Kosan Bossor is furious, and his fury threatens to spark violence. It’s in the best interest of the group to calm him down. Bossor makes a Reaction throw with a DM of -4. The PCs can use whatever interpersonal skills they have (Liaison, Telepathy, etc.) at its level as a positive DM. Results of “Violent. Immediate attack” or “Hostile. Attack on (x)” mean van Rien feels threatened enough to order the mercs to open fire as she flees to the safety of the vehicle. Otherwise, the PCs get Bossor to back off. For now.

Once van Rien’s demands are satisfied, she leaves them a hardcopy of the order and departs without another word. Neither she nor her party answer questions.

Three: Resurgence

The adventurers have either the results of an analysis proving the bugs are bioengineered constructs; or they have a hardcopy of a legal document, and even more questions. Regardless, the heroes have several options at this point:

  1. Visit Rhyzen-Phytotek: They can pay a call on Rhyzen-Phytotek itself. The regional office is 60 kilometers away. Once there, the travelers are treated like anyone else interested in seeing how the company operates: they’re assigned to a tour group with 3D+3 other people. (Weapons are, of course, forbidden.) The tour takes an hour and is the typical pabulum any company gives visitors, playing up RP’s positives and downplaying or ignoring its negatives.

    Team members encounter Muriel van Rien on a throw of 12 exactly every 30 minutes they’re at RP. If so, she assumes they’re there to do her harm and orders their immediate detention.

  2. The adventurers may slip away to do some snooping. If they do, the referee should throw every 15 minutes for 8+. The result is an encounter with 1-2 guards armed with auto pistols. If caught, the PCs are held in the security office until law enforcement can come collect them. It’s assumed they avoid regular employees unless otherwise necessary.

    The best places to find information are the biolab (located on 11+), the computer room (10+), or the executive offices (8+). DM: +1 if they enlist the help of an employee, through either charm or coercion. Each location takes 3D minutes to find.

    The following items can be discovered in each of the above areas:

    Biolab:
    Notes and files on the process used to engineer the insects; their intended use; tissue samples; and enough journal entries to allow the heroes to deduce The Plot (see below) on a throw of 5+ (DM +1 if a scientist is with them) and methods for stopping the bugs.
    Computer Room:
    If the security software isn’t first bypassed (11+, DM: per level of Computer skill), an alarm is triggered that brings 1D+1 security guards to the room in 2D combat rounds. The computer contains files on the branch’s operations; personnel files; company finances; and backups of the files in the biolab (see above)
    Executive Offices:
    Hardcopies of everything in the Computer Room; plus detailed documentation of The Plot (below); the executives who ordered it; the identity and mission of the mercenaries; information that could be used to destroy certain individuals (Muriel van Rien’s information is particularly juicy); and proof of substantial bribes to Count b-Huang to look the other way.
  3. Alert the Imperial noble: Count Salomon b-Huang is a rather detached sort, preferring to putter around his flower beds rather than take on the business of governing. This is assuming the PCs even get to meet him. They first must get past his staff, who schedule an appointment. The chance of that being the same day is low (roll 11+ on 2D); otherwise, it’s 1D days hence. When the appointed time comes, the group is given only 15 minutes to state their business to the Count. Assuming they ask the right questions or keep their ears open, they’ll gain the following information:

    • Count b-Huang did indeed countersign the order enjoining the farmers and the PCs from acting against RP, but honestly, he really didn’t look closely at what he was signing
    • He’s given RP a rather substantial land grant which, as far as he knows, they’re administering properly.
    • Along with the land grant, he’s pretty much given RP carte blanche to conduct their operations as they see fit, so long as they don’t break Imperial law.

    Any hero with Telepathy (Read Surface Thoughts) also discovers that the Count was paid in credits and top-shelf gardening products by RP to leave them alone, and he doesn’t care what happens anyway as long as his begonias come up nicely. If the team can’t read minds, this information can be quietly given to them by a concerned staffer on 10+. Any threats or accusations of wrongdoing are dealt with harshly (referee’s definition) by the Count’s personal guard.

  4. Nose around the forest: In the forest, the team runs the risk of being caught trespassing: throw 7+ to encounter a patrol of 1D-2 mercenaries once every 30 minutes. If discovered, the PCs are immediately fired upon. However, if the encounter throw result is 11+, the travelers instead discover an Advanced Base (Book 3) deployed in the forest. Outfitted as a field laboratory for studying the bugs, it’s manned by 6 unarmed RP scientists who immediately call for the mercs if the PCs don’t achieve surprise. Within are the same materials as can be found in the company biolab (see above), but the notes allow deduction of The Plot (below) on a 9+; apparently the field scientists haven’t been told everything.

  5. Rally the area farmers: Savvy PCs should avoid this option, as it’s likely to just result in a lot of dead farmers. They don’t know the full strength and capabilities of the mercenaries, nor are any of the farmers combat-capable. Still, if they insist, they can send out a call; 3D10 farmers—armed with hunting and sporting weapons—from the surrounding spreads will respond in 6D hours. But see “Extermination” below.

Whatever the travelers do risks reprisals from Rhyzen-Phytotek. If at any point during their investigations the group throws a natural 2 (fumble); throw 7+ for word to reach van Rien or one of the RP executives. A squad of mercenaries will be sent without delay to find and terminate the interlopers.

Four: Extermination

The adventurers at this point should have a good idea of what Rhyzen-Phytotek is up to. But what to do about it?

Going to Count b-Huang
is counterproductive; he’s in cahoots with RP (more accurately, he’s in RP’s pocket) and he’ll surely snitch on the travelers. Also, the word of a noble is sacrosanct in the Imperium. B-Huang won’t have any trouble painting the PCs to the authorities as sociopathic malcontents, or even pathological liars who should be locked up. The group could go over the Count’s head to the subsector Duke/Duchess, but the team’s evidence of wrongdoing would have to be rock-solid and incontestable before (s)he would get involved. Assuming RP even lets them get off the planet alive.
Blackmailing Rhyzen-Phytotek
is the most dangerous thing the team could do. Even if the company agreed to the PCs’ terms, it wouldn’t adhere to them for more than a few minutes. And it has enough resources to keep the PCs tied up in court, on the run, or in prison (or some combination thereof) for the rest of their lives. Van Rien has made a career of putting away people that try just such a stunt. And of course, there are always the mercenaries…
Exposing the plot
depends on to whom the group exposes it to. The news media would take the story and run with it, causing RP no end of legal, social, and financial headaches; at least long enough for the group to get offworld. Contacting an environmental entity such as the Pan-Galactic Friends of Life is less effective. RP’s PR machine is very good at marginalizing such groups and making them look like crackpots. Going straight to Imperial authorities is a mixed bag; they’d certainly take the group’s account and evidence seriously, but the wheels of justice turn very slowly. RP would have plenty of time to mount credible legal and financial defenses. Meanwhile, the adventurers’ demise becomes another line item in their massive budget.

There are doubtless other ways the team can stick it to the corporation, but they must first deal with the mercenaries. They may have taken some of them out during events leading to this point, but the unit at full strength numbers up to 60, all heavily armed. Their commander is a capable individual, who’s been involved in many such campaigns, and their ship and supplies are well hidden.

Still, the PCs could give them a bloody nose. The key isn’t a frontal assault, but stealth and guerilla tactics. A marshaled force of farmers (see above) works much better as spies and saboteurs than as troops. With the farmers’ help, the PCs might be able to weaken the mercenaries enough to either deliver a decisive coup-de-grace (when it would then be effective to rally the farmers as troops) or make their operation unprofitable enough to drive them off the planet. With the mercenaries gone, the danger of being killed outright goes with them.

Five: Exclusion

The information the PCs gathered, if utilized properly, means prison time for several local RP executives and official censure for Count b-Huang from his peers. It also spells a huge embarrassment, financial loss, and official scrutiny for Rhyzen-Phytotek. Authorized responses to the decline of the xengi and the introduction of the engineered insect would be crafted and implemented.

The PCs’ reputations with the farmers—especially Kosan Bossor—would be greatly increased. While there are no apparent monetary rewards from the adventure, an enterprising crew could doubtless think of some way to use events to line their own pockets.

The Plot

The xengi are among the most efficient pollinators in Charted Space; so efficient the planet’s entire economy revolved around them. The problem, as Rhyzen-Phytotek saw it, is that no one charged for the services the xengi provided; thus, no one—especially they—made money from the bugs.

The solution RP developed was simple and twofold: first, they engineered their own pollinator, one they completely owned right down to the molecular structure (the patents were filed through Count b-Huang’s offices). Then they set about destroying the xengi through use of a popular plant fertilizer it produced; its formula had been tweaked to be lethal to xengi. Once the xengi numbers had fallen to critical levels, RP could then introduce its new insect as a replacement pollinator…for steep fees, of course.

The swarm the PCs and the farmers encountered was a test run of the creatures, designed to study their pollination efficiency, and their mating and feeding habits. To protect RP’s expensive investment, they hired mercenaries to guard the test grounds.

NPCs

Count Salomon b-Huang 57998E Age 51 Cr300,000
8 terms Noble
Admin-4; Computer-2; Jack-O-T-1; Leader-3
Yacht

Count b-Huang is standoffish and haughty, and categorizes others based on their perceived utility. Since his hobby is floriculture, he sees his association with Rhyzen-Phytotek as being mutually beneficial, negative reputation and all.

Nathi Bossor 689957 Age 31 Cr—
3 terms Conservator (Farmer)
Animal-3, Hunting-1, Jack-O-T-1, Legal-1, Liaison-2, Survival-4, Trader-2, Ground Car-1

Nathi is outgoing and engaging with a touch of wanderlust. She was built using “The “Other” Option: An Extended Career for Classic Traveller” in Freelance Traveller, Jan/Feb 2014. Her Animal skill is proficiency in controlling working beasts.

Muriel van Rien 3657EA Age 39 Cr91,200
5 terms Litigator (Attorney)
Admin-3, Blade Cbt-1, Interrogation-1, Leader-1, Legal-9, Streetwise-1

Muriel is overly ambitious and overly confident, but undeniably skilled. She was also built using “The “Other” Option…”