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The Plague Robbery

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue.

Author’s note: This is an adventure in the “Old Scout” series of adventures, based around a Type-S (the Snipe), with a detached duty Scout in command, and a mixed crew of 3 other players. If you intend to be a player in this adventure, please do not read past the end of this page.

“Sometimes the best summary for a week is ‘an epic cascade of fails, one after another, until you begin to wonder if you’re actually being pranked by Hidden Holocam and pray that Alan Funk steps out soon.’

“This week was like that.

“It was supposed to be a routine courier job—well, as routine as a rag-tag bunch such as ourselves get. We had a full hold that had to be delivered planetside, just one jump from where we took on the load. A bunch of wooden statues, carved by the natives of ______ and meant to decorate a bar on _____. We found out later the regular Type-A that did this run had a captain that was the same religion as the wood-carvers, and he refused to space with them aboard, fearing bad ju-ju.

“Apparently he was right.

“Just as we exited Jumpspace, the portside fusion-to-JDrive plasma conduit ruptured. Containment held—small blessing—but we’d be stuck until the conduit was replaced. The part was too big to keep in shipboard stores, so we’d be stuck in a yard for a week or so. The latest parts catalog uploads said only 25 k-creds for the part, plus 10 k-creds or so for labor, which’d eat up the profits for the trip.

“Once we made radio contact with Traffic Control, we found out how screwed we were….”

Adventure Synopsis

The origin and destination systems are deliberately left vague to allow the referee to adapt this to an ongoing campaign. There are various corporation names and other details that are left vague to allow integration into ongoing campaigns. If the players are in something other than a Type-S, then various sizes/amounts/times will need to be modified.

A MegaTraveller-style task description is used (Easy/Routine/Difficult) for purposes of not tying this to a particular edition of Traveller. Descriptions should be used as a guide for the referee to decide on how hard to make the roll for his players.

The adventure begins as the players in their Type-S come out of Jump in the Destination system. As they exit the Jump, there’s a loud “CLANG! POP!” from engineering, and they discover the J-Drive has eaten one of the plasma conduits. The part is not terribly expensive, but it is about 4 meters long and 1 meter in diameter, making it too large to fit in the S’s limited spare parts locker.

The Destination system has two inhabited worlds:

Aleph, which is about 0.8 AU out and is a hot world. The upper and lower latitudes are desert, with a central sea that is bordered by rain forest and jungle. Aleph has a Class B port operated by OneCorp LIC, though, and they have the part the players need in stock.

Bet, which is about 1.7 AU out and is cold and dry, with a thin, tainted atmo. Bet’s main interest is a lichen that has awesome antibiotic properties, but a very limited shelf life (4 days). There’s a small research station on Bet, operated by TwoCorp, LLC, where a group of scientists are working on making a drug from the lichen that is stable enough to ship through multiple weeks of travel.

And, of course, the complications:

And, of course, the hook: While orbiting Aleph, deciding what to do, the players pick up a tight beam comm from someone on the planet. The guy is a Mafia type, who’s strongly involved in the Aleph Black Market. As an ex-Scout, he knows certain security protocols that allow him to make a private offer to the players: if they can raid one of the labs on Bet and get the drugs, he can arrange to get them the parts they need, plus a nice cash bonus. They’ll be saving lives as well… but they need to hurry, since every day means more dead people on Aleph.

Bet has a main base (spaceport, small admin building, warehouses, barracks for workers and small security force) and there’s a dozen or so small labs scattered here and there where the lichen grows. The Mafia contact knows which of the Labs has finished product, and can give the players the coordinates.

The Type-S’s ECM will work for sneaking to Bet and landing near the Lab, as the spaceport’s sensors are no more than just minimal traffic control radar.

The Lab has maintenance staff (one or two fewer than PCs) who have access to limited weapons, and 3 scientists who are non-combatants. They’ll need to get into the Lab, find the stuff, and get out.

The Lab is hour travel by ATV from the main base on Bet, and it’s presumed that as soon as the alarm is raised, an armed ATV with a dozen soldiers will be dispatched—so the PCs need to get in and out quickly, and try not to raise the alarm too early.

Once they achieve that, they’ll need to sneak to Aleph and land at the hidden spaceport. There they can trade the drugs for the repairs needed.

1. The Opening Situation

The players easily opened radio contact with Aleph Traffic Control (ATC) and were routed to a parking orbit, with the explanation “you’re in the queue for landing, please hold.” Curiously, there’s no one else in the queue, so there’s no obvious reason to be waiting.

After a ten minute wait, they are placed in contact with William Sonoma, a very mellow, relaxed gentleman who speaks with a definite Solomani accent (Midwest North America—think “Ward Cleaver” from the old TV show).

He delivers the following message in that calm voice test pilots use when something is wrong: “<Ship Name> , ATC. William Sonoma, Chief of Operations. Look, we’ve got a little issue, we’re going to have to keep you topside for a while. Say again fuel status and engineering situation?”

(allow the PCs to respond)

Sonoma: “We’re going to have to be creative here to work around that. For your own safety, and for the safety of other worlds, Imperial Regulation 2217-4(b)(7)(ii) has been invoked, and I’m sure you all know what that means.” Sonoma delivers this with a tone of voice that is perfectly matter-of-fact, as if he’s convinced that everyone has memorized all of the regs, and will know off-hand what IR2217-4(b)(7)(ii) is. An experienced spacer will know that “2217” covers starport/ship interaction, and that -4 is the part where “something bad has happened”.

A Routine check against an experienced spacer’s memory—skills such as ‘Admin’, ‘Jack-of-Trades’, ‘Purser’, ’Trader’ will bring back the knowledge that the next subsection is vague—(a) is ‘wartime/pirate’ and is more common, but (b) has something to do with “biological.”

On success at a Difficult roll, one or more PCs will know that 2217-4(b) means a plague is ravaging the planet, and quarantine is in place. The (270)(ii) is just the grisly details.

In the event they decide to just use the computer’s library to look it up, they get:

Sec. 270. Quarantine regulations governing civil navigation and civil spacecraft

-STATUTE-

(ii) The Surgeon General is authorized to provide by regulations for the application to civil navigation and craft of any of the provisions of sections 267 to 269 of this title and regulations prescribed thereunder (including penalties and forfeitures for violations of such sections and regulations), to such extent and upon such conditions as he deems necessary for the safeguarding of the public health. Planetary quarantine may be declared by the local Surgeon General, with a minimum duration of four weeks. Deadly force may be used to prevent ships from landing or lifting in order to prevent the spread of infection.

[2] "As for all men who shall enter this my tomb… impure… there will be judgment… an end shall be made for him… I shall seize his neck like a bird… I shall cast the fear of myself into him"

Curiously, (if asked) William Sonoma denies that [2] appears on his copy of the regs.

The players are stuck—they can’t jump, they can’t deliver the cargo, and they don’t have enough fuel to wait around indefinitely.

Sonoma does, however, have a plan: “I realize you’re stuck up there, and we’re working the problem. We’ve already got some pretty bad things going on down here, and I’m not going to start losing ships too. It’s not going to happen on my watch. So… We’ve got a cutter we can operate remotely. What we’ll do is send it up with a full load of refined fuel, and the hold full of replacement life support supplies and such. When it’s near you, we’ll open the hold to space, which should kill the plague bacteria, and you can bring the stuff aboard. We’ll just bill you for the service, at 10 k-creds a week plus the cost of fuel.”

This price is about 2.5 times the normal life support cost for the ship, and adding in the cost of refined fuel makes it even more of a gouge. (The fine print includes a line about they’ll be paying both for the fuel they bring aboard ship, and the fuel the cutter uses to bring it up, and the cutter’s return trip fuel usage.)

If the players ask about the part they need, Sonoma will be glad to ship one up as well… for Cr50k (about twice the going rate). If the crew thinks to ask, anyone with Engineering-2 or above will immediately realize that installing the conduit is going to take a variety of shipyard tools that they players don’t have. Sonoma won’t volunteer that info, and will gladly take their money. Should the players end up with a Cr50k, 4m long 1m wide object, it’s their problem what to do with it.

Sonoma will gladly make small talk with the players, but is vague about the groundside situation… People are dying, a lot of them. Getting people to come to work means paying huge bonuses to convince them to come in and (potentially) be exposed instead of staying home with the doors and windows locked. The local economy is one big gouge-o-rama, and if the players had something other than decorative wooden idols, they’d be in a position to clean up.

2. Don Nullivoni

After signing off with Sonoma, the players have two orbits (174 minutes) to ponder the situation. Rather than waiting this out, the referee should wait until the player-to-player conversation tapers off, then mention another comm contact, this one tight-beam and encrypted in a fairly decent IISS code:

“As your conversation tapers off, the comms console pings for your attention.”

Someone is trying to make contact on a tight-beam. The starport probably won’t notice it, and if the players respond on a tight beam as well, they should be able to talk with no one noticing. The encryption isn’t current or super-secret, but it’s better than what merchants use and should make the conversation reasonably private even if it is noticed.

If the players accept the contact:

The voice is male and heavily Sylean accented (think one of the “Goodfellas”).

“<Ship Name>, this is Don Nullivoni, private contact… please respond…I’d like to make you an offer you’d be happy to accept.
“I think I have a win-win for everyone involved. The fourth planet in this system has a research lab on it—they found a lichen or fungus or some such that grows there that is a really good antibiotic. The problem is that every attempt to refine it has resulted in a drug that’s only stable for three or four days, which means it won’t last long enough to be transported out of the system.”

“On the other hand, the station is only a day there and a day back—so you could transport the drug here, and save a whole bunch of lives… and rack up a good profit as well, while doing a good deed.”

“I’ve been in contact with a… friend… of mine on Bet. She can’t get anyone there to sell the drug to us through normal channels. There’s some kind of corporate shenanigans going on there. I do have a fix on where you can pick it up, if you’re willing to do some kinetic negotiation.”

3. Approaching Bet

Bet’s downport is at 29.3 degrees north, and considered the prime meridian for the planet. The approach radar can see 10 degrees off from straight up, and out to 500km. It’s a simple TL8 design built with TL12 components… the low traffic here doesn’t really need more.

A Type-S’s remaining sensors after being decommissioned can easily tell the above long before the return is strong enough for the downport to see them…. But they are still moving toward the planet, so a quick decision is of the essence.

“Your sensors pick up the edge of the approach radar. Right now, the echo from your ship isn’t enough for them to detect you, but every moment that goes by makes it more likely that the threshold will be crossed. What do you do?”

As soon as you finish reading that, click the stopwatch function on your handy tablet, phone, whatever. When they finally commit, roll d6. If it’s more than the number of minutes it took them to decide, they’ve been detected regardless of anything else.

  1. Break 90 degrees and thrust: A routine piloting skill check is indicated. Success means they stay out of the cone of detection, but continue toward the planet. They’ll need to recover and decelerate for entry into the atmo. Failure means they are detected.
  2. Break 180 degrees, decel to hold position: Normal Traveller flight already has them decelerating. Players, especially players of pilots, should already have thought about this. Greatly increasing the thrust will result in a drive flare, and unless the pilot is very good, they’ll be detected. Roll a Difficult pilot check.
  3. Maintain course, use the Type-S’s ECM: make a Routine sensor ops or electronics check. Sneaking up on TL8 worlds is what this ship was made for.
  4. Something else: This is why you’re a referee. The key factor it should be reasonably Routine to beat TL8 sensors.

The detection roll should be, of course, somewhat hidden from the players. They can roll dice as directed, but the result of the roll isn’t announced. A worried “hmmm” sound is recommended as feedback.

If the players want to know if they beat the radar, then a Difficult sensor roll would give them the answer. Using the ship’s computer will also help, giving a +1 on the roll… and the helpful message, “any who… shall do evil or wickedness to them… may the lords below insure that no man accept any goods he offers, and may his heir not inherit”

Bet’s downport is not usually staffed. Nobody but company ships come here, after all. If a ship is detected, then the computer sends a text message to the tech on duty that includes strength of radar return, incoming course and speed, with update text messages sent every 5 minutes. With the knowledge of the Plague on Aleph, they are worried enough that maybe someone will be trying something. A ship on a direct course from Aleph would probably be enough of a “ooh!” to make the tech sound the alarm.

If the Alarm is sounded, then the reaction crew will be getting into the ATV and trying to figure out where the ship is coming down. The players lose 10 minutes of their 30 minute head start.

4. Landing

The players have three basic options:

  1. Land right beside the lab: The people inside can’t really do anything, but they will radio the alarm right away. The players could try a Difficult task to find and jam the frequency being used before enough of the message to raise suspicion is sent. On the plus side, this removes any travel time.
  2. Land somewhere and advance on foot: it would be an Easy task to land out in the outback. Figure the players make 5 kph on foot. If they land west of the lab, the river could be a problem…. If they were spotted on the way in, then deduct the marching time from the time until the reaction force arrives. The players do have one weird moment—one person’s hand computer bleeps that they’ve gotten a text message from “The Forest Lord”: “the beasts of the field shall know the sinner, and leap upon him.”
  3. Land somewhere, and use the air/raft. Or have the pilot hold the ship somewhere, and the assault team goes in on the air/raft: Much like 2 above, but the air/raft goes faster and the river isn’t an issue.

5. The Lab

The lab is in a small valley that runs north/south. The valley is between 600 and 900 meters wide, with a gentle slope of about 30 meters between the high edges and the 25-ish meter wide river. The river is not particularly deep (about 1-3 meters) and current is only about 6 kph to the north. Both banks are covered in fist-sized gravel, on which the lichen in question grows, to a distance of about 25 meters from the water. At that point, the grass takes over.

The lab is situated on the east bank of the river that runs through the valley, about 50 meters from the water’s edge, and 25 meters from the gravel.

Parked outside is a small wheeled vehicle, a single person skid-steer front end loader. Gouges in the gravel reveal that it’s used to go get a scoop-load of gravel and dump it in the bin on the south side of the building.

The building is 10m25m prefab metal “shed”, with the long axis oriented roughly N/S. There’s a person sized door on the south side, next to the 2 meter square by 1 meter deep metal bin that’s half full of lichen-covered gravel. On the east side is a 3m wide sliding panel door. On the north side is a matching door and bin, this one full of clean, shiny scrubbed gravel.

20m north of the building is a neat arrangement of prefab dwelling huts, one per crew member. Each is a 4m dome, and has effectively a studio apartment. There are a pair of ATVs parked just east of the huts.

Each employee carries a survival belt with a first aid kit, sundry minor survival gear, a good knife, and an autopistol with two spare magazines. The durable field uniforms are treated as two points worse than Cloth.

The people present are:

Al: driver for the loader, mechanic for the equipment at the lab.

Brad, Clyde, Dave: assembly line workers who run the equipment

Lisa: the lab tech who sold the location. If the others can see her, she’ll shoot and miss the players. She’s fairly sure her cover’s blown, and if she gets a chance alone with any player will beg to be extracted to Aleph, offering Cr1000 to sweeten the deal.

Stanley: the ex-Scout responsible for keeping them from being eaten by ‘bobcats’. Stanley has a carbine (skill-2) in addition to his pistol, and wears a CES. He’s also smart enough to realize that “keeping the rest safe” may include “not fighting”. His logic is the knowledge in their heads about how to make the stuff is more valuable in the long run than anyone stealing the current production run.

If the players decide to negotiate, then start the timer again, and role play. Remember the time remaining before the Reaction Force gets there.

The medicine is conveniently loaded in six 1m cube shipping crates that weigh 500 kg each. If the players came in on foot, this may be an issue.

Loading the medicine into the S’s cargo bay is another issue: the cargo hold is full of wooden idols.

If the players reverently move the idols to the nearby forest, they’re off the hook.

If the players just dump them, then the curse stays with the ship. The ship’s computer will continue with cryptic curse references.

If the players give in to temptation and use a flare from their survival kit to make a nice bonfire, then the idols burn with an unnatural green flame, turning to ash in only moments while producing huge clouds of smoke which flow upwind into the ship. Not only will the ship’s computer continue to be annoying, but there’s a 50/50 chance that whenever someone pulls a clean piece of clothing from their locker it will be smokey smelling and greasy-feeling.

6. The Reaction Force

The ATV has an LMG on it. There’s a driver and gunner.

In the back is a fire team of 4 ex-Marines with ACRs, wearing CES’s.

They drive here from the downport to the north east, and stop about 800 meters NE of the lab. The fire team dismounts and sneaks up on foot to see what the situation is. (This sneaking is part of the 30 minute response time)

If things look untoward, they call in the ATV which will arrive 2 minutes after the call.

The reaction force is … grumpy. The Team Lead was just about to get lucky with his girlfriend when he got the text to go to work. While he should be professional about this, it does color his decisions on the gratuitous use of excessive force.

7. The Return

Leaving Bet is pretty much like approaching it, but in reverse.

If the players are detected, then they’ll be pursued to the 10D line by a 50 ton cutter armed with a single pulse laser. After the 10D line, they’re out of TwoCorp’s jurisdiction… but if the ship is identified, they will be remembered.

8. Approaching Aleph

This goes much like approaching Bet.

If they’re detected trying to land someplace other than the starport, then the 50ton cutter, armed with a single pulse laser, will try to interdict them. Considering the quarantine, they’ll be forced to land, no worries, but taking off later will be an issue.

If they were spotted on the way in, there will be a ding on the ship’s records for breaking quarantine, and they’ll need to pay a Cr2500 fine, and the next world will want to hold them for two weeks before letting them interact with people.

9. The Payoff

Don Nullivoni is a man of his word.

His spaceport is small, secluded, and beachfront. The work force there is curiously efficient at ship repairs, as if they were used to damaged ships coming in with maximum stealth and wanting repairs with no questions asked.

The repairs are done gratis, and the Don even throws in Cr1000 per crate as a spending money bonus. During the week of repair time, the PCs are hosted in the Don’s ‘resort’ with room and board as well as bar tabs covered. Medical treatment for injured PCs is covered as well.

If the players brought Lisa with them, the Don hires her as a medical specialist to make use of the drug. The players are given a “finder’s bonus” of Cr5000.

When the ship is repaired, Don Nullivoni asks the players if they could do him a little favor…. He has a 2 d-ton cargo of ‘sensitive goods’ that need to be discreetly delivered to a small spaceport 2 parsecs away. He’ll pay the normal Cr1000/dton rates, of course, and he’ll even throw in arranging to have Aleph flight control not notice the take off.

Of course, if they’re too busy, then he won’t have time for them either, and it’s their problem how to get out of quarantine without being flagged.

Or they can wait a month, until the drug is distributed enough and the plague is beaten. Of course, rooms at the resort during that month will be Cr250 a night, food about Cr100, and berthing for the ship Cr1500 a week.