This adventure originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue.
The PCs were unlucky enough to have been onworld as a powerful hurricane struck. The storm packed winds of well over 200 kph and caused a 6-meter storm surge. Fortunately, the tempest blew through with few casualties, although it left many structures damaged or destroyed.
As the adventurers are taking stock of their situation (and maybe counting their blessings), they are contacted by the research center to which they made a delivery before the storm. The Starzen Institute for Biological Research is well-known locally as a leader in the biomedical sciences. The call has an undertone of urgency, and the group is offered Cr500 to simply show up and speak with the director.
Director Reine Westin is quite anxious when the adventurers arrive. Declaring that time is short, she gets to the point. She explains that the storm did the compound considerable damage, with research projects scattered, equipment destroyed, and dozens of research animals killed. The Institute’s work may be set back years, but that’s not the worst of it. While cleaning up and taking inventory, the institute staff discovered that some of the animals—several specimens of arbelis, an animal native to the world but hard to acquire—weren’t killed, but in fact had escaped during the storm. They were carrying a specialized retrovirus designed to repair neural connections; the scientists were studying its potential as a treatment for brain injuries and dementia. According to the notes the researchers salvaged, however, the virus had the unintended effect of boosting the animals’ intelligence! The storm struck before an in-depth study of the development could get underway.
Westin can’t allow knowledge of what happened to get out, for several reasons: the arbelis’ newfound ability to learn and reason puts the surrounding population at risk. The creatures were valuable even before they started becoming smarter; rival labs would stop at nothing to acquire them. And several unethical experiments conducted years ago (before Westin took over, she hastens to add) made a negative impression on nearby civilians.
This means that the animals must be tracked and captured with the utmost secrecy. Westin offers the heroes Cr5,000 for each one captured (out of her personal funds, although she doesn’t tell them this) to do so and return them to the center unharmed. If the group haggles, she reminds them that time is short; the longer they delay, the farther away the arbelis get and the smarter they become. However, she offers to discuss additional terms after they’ve completed their mission.
Fortunately, the Institute recognized the arbelis’ value and implanted them with microchips that allow for tracking using an Institute-issued tracking device; Westin lends the heroes the last surviving one. She also lends them several dart guns with tranq rounds specially calibrated for the arbelis. Finally, she cautions the group against being bitten. Studies on the virus had only just gotten underway and there’s no data on whether it is transmissible or how it would affect a human.
2D arbelis—small arboreal animals similar to Terran monkeys—escaped the Institute. They use the foliage as cover from predators (-2 DM on attempts to spot them.) They are also capable of making extraordinary leaps to neighboring trees, another evasion technique. While ordinarily harmless, a cornered arbelis defends itself with surprising ferocity. They are highly solitary creatures that normally only gather to mate; but the Institute’s specimens are capable of working together due to the increasing intelligence.
The referee can substitute monkeys, if desired.
The arbelis are still being affected by the virus. They initially have an INT rating of 4 (as measured in humans). Every hour, the referee throws 9+; success adds 1 point to the rating. The increases stop once the creatures’ INT becomes 12 (C). In the meantime, it becomes apparent they’re becoming smarter as they escape ever more complex traps; formulate sophisticated offensive tactics; even use deception against their would-be captors.
The tracking device gives the PCs +2 to find the animals. The dart guns are similar to body pistols (Book 1) and use the same statistics and tables, although the rounds only do 1D damage. On a successful hit, an arbelis falls unconscious for 30 minutes unless it throws its stun hits (4) or less.
The referee should map out an area of several square kilometers centered on the Institute, which includes abundant tree cover and hiding places. The nearest town is a community of 3,000; its outskirts are situated no more than 1.5 kilometers away. Using a hex grid will allow the party’s movements to be more easily tracked.
Each hour, the referee should throw 9+ to locate an arbelis, with the following DMs: using the tracker, +2; +Hunting skill; per point of arbelis INT greater than 6, -1.
If the tracking throw is a natural “12”, two arbelis are found. On the first throw of a natural “2”, the townspeople have gotten word of the creatures’ escape. This is the last straw for them, as they’ve never liked having the Institute around. They quickly organize hunting parties to find and kill the little creatures while 2D×10 other townsfolk march on the Institute in protest (see below.) Hunting parties are encountered on 7+; number 1D+2, are armed with hunting weapons, and react to the PCs at -4. Harming citizens under circumstances other than clear-cut self-defense means stiff legal penalties. Naturally, Westin won’t pay for dead animals or legal entanglements.
If the team successfully catches all the arbelis, their mission still isn’t over. Upon returning to the Institute, they find it blocked by the protest group. The team must navigate the crowd in order to get inside. Simply plunging through the throng might result in injury; it takes the adventurers 2D combat rounds to get through the crowd; throwing their DEX or less each round or taking 1 point of damage. They might think of other routes into the building; the referee must determine their chances of success.
If the PCs seem to be having too easy a time of it, a complication in the form of a rival could be introduced: a spy from a rival organization was posted at the Institute. She had planned to get some of the arbelis for her employer when the storm hit and the little beasts got away before she could act. Now, she’s also out looking for them, armed with a dart gun like the PCs’. Although she makes the same 9+ throw to find them, she doesn’t have a tracking device and therefore doesn’t enjoy the +2 bonus. She will, however, get the heroes’ tracker at the first opportunity. She’s highly skilled and has no problem taking down any adventurer that gets in her way. If she captures all the arbelis, she hightails it for the nearest speeder and then to her employer’s headquarters in a neighboring province. Finally, if she hasn’t been dealt with by the time the PCs return to the Institute, she might make one more attempt at the arbelis while the heroes are dealing with the hostile throng.
An alternative complication could be that the ‘spy’ is instead an operative for a sophonts-rights organization, and believes that the arbelis infected by the virus may be no longer classifiable as animals. If she captures all the arbelis, she will return to the organization’s headquarters on this world, and (unless stopped) within a week, high-tail it off the world with the arbelis to get them tested and publicize the experimentation that the Institute has been doing.
If the group is successful in their mission, Westin pays off as promised, imploring them to keep quiet about what they know about the arbelis. If they break their silence, the referee should determine the flow of subsequent events.