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Smoke Test

This article was originally submitted to the website in 2003, and was reprinted in the March 2011 issue of the PDF magazine.


The players are hired by a research and development firm to retrieve an autonomous sensor platform.

Players' Information

A local research and development firm approaches the players with a contract offer. Several months ago as part of their current project's test regime, the firm deployed an autonomous, geological survey probe within the system. That probe now needs to be retrieved.

The probe is currently orbiting the largest moon of the system's outermost gas giant. It has been in position for 120 standard days conducting was is, hopefully, an extremely detailed survey and analysis of that moon's geophysical nature. All of the probe's data, both test records and operational logs, must be recovered, collated, and transmitted back to the firm as soon as practical. A physical assessment of the probe will also be performed.

If the probe is found to be physically sound and the records of its operation warrant it, the probe may be refurbished on site and re-deployed at the end of the mission.

If the players own a ship, the firm will wish to arrange a charter. The local firm will offer to pay standard charter rates. If the player's vessel needs to be modified in some minor manner, the firm will pay for the modifications as well as pay charter rates during the amount of time the work requires. A bonus upon the successful completion of the mission will also be offered.

In order to be considered for the charter, a vessel must have at least 50 dTons of cargo space and facilities to house a five-man technical team. The large amount of cargo space is necessary for various reasons. The probe will be housed aboard while it is being inspected and serviced, so specialized cradle will be needed. Also, two small docking arms will be used to capture the probe and transport it into the cargo bay. Finally, diagnostic equipment, supplies, and materials will need to be shipped aboard.

If the players do not have access to a ship, the firm will require crewmen to man a leased ship taking the technical team out to the probe. In this situation, the firm will have already leased a Beowulf-class free trader and finished the necessary modifications. Pay during the contract will be in line with normal crew salaries and skill bonuses. A bonus upon the successful completion of the mission will also be offered.

Background Information

A sector-wide R&D consortium made up of the IISS and various megacorporations was created last year and immediately announced a technology development grant program. Keeping in mind the sophont-power deficit most IISS and megacorp survey efforts face, the consortium requested bids and proposals on a number of autonomous and semi-autonomous survey platforms. The hope of the consortium is that a major part of the myriad IISS and corporate survey efforts can be made much less labor intensive.

The sector nobility, wary of undue megacorp influence over the program, set aside a portion of the grant moneys for medium and small sized companies and institutes. After some hurried work, the local firm made a proposal for an autonomous, orbital, geophysical surveyor. They were awarded funding and immediately went to work in producing a prototype. Development of the probe has gone fairly well and this test deployment is the last major hurdle to clear before the R&D consortium signs off on the project.

If the probe succeeds in this test, the local firm stands to make billions from licensing fees and sales. The local firm has kept its efforts low key, not wanting to draw unwanted and potentially dangerous interest from any possible rivals. However, news of the firm's success has slowly trickled out and interest by various third parties has begun to appear.

GM's Information

The trip to the probe's location can be as eventful or as placid as the GM requires. While the leader of the local firm's tech team will not sit still for any frivolous side trips, the Imperial requirement to respond to maydays or any other similar emergencies will prevent him from complaining too much about those types of detours.

The PCs and tech team will arrive off the gas giant moon and find the probe orbiting as planned. The tech team will now begin to direct the PCs through all the steps required to bring the probe aboard.

The probe itself is a lumpy cylinder of approximately 5 dTons displacement.

The longest axis will fit easily within the ship's cargo bay. A small onboard fusion reactor powers the probe. Solar panels have also been installed but, because the test has taken place in the system's outer reaches, the probe has not deployed those panels. Various surveying instruments are housed along the probe's length. Other surveying instruments are deployed as necessary outwards from the body of the probe on several retractable arms.

The forward half of the probe contains most of the onboard sensors and signal processors. Housed amidships are the probe's CPUs, data storage cores, and communications equipment. The folded solar panel arrays are located here also. The aft half of the probe contains a few additional sensors along with the fusion reactor, onboard fuel supply, and thrusters.

Most of the instrumentation and equipment aboard the probe can be accessed through removable, surface mounted panels. Additionally, there are three maintenance 'cubbies' however, one each forward, amidships, and aft. These cubbies are large enough to allow a single person with tools and diagnostic equipment to reach those portions of the probe not easily accessible from the normal maintenance panels.

The retrieval of the probe for inspection and servicing will follow a precise, time consuming procedure. Soon after making orbit around the gas giant moon, the R&D firm's tech team will contact the probe via radio and maser. The probe's current operations will be shut down one by one, any deployed sensor booms will be retracted, and the power plant will be first ramped down and then secured. Each step in the procedure will be double-checked and independently certified before proceeding to the next task. The firm's tech team will explain that all of this painstaking procedural compliance is driven by the grant requirements; they must prove what they have accomplished, and not because the probe is either dangerous or delicate.

Eventually, the probe will be shut down and made ready to bring aboard. The PC's vessel will have to approach to probe very closely. Vacc-suited tech team members will then use the installed docking arms to capture the probe and transport it to the waiting cradle. After the probe is aboard, the cargo hold can be sealed and pressurized to convert it back into laboratory space.

Examination and refurbishment of the probe will 24 - 36 hours with the R&D firm's tech team working in round-the-clock shifts. Redeployment of the probe will follow in reverse the same steps as the power down and capture procedures performed earlier. The entire capture, examination, refurbishment, and redeployment effort should last about 48 hours.

Possible Complications

  1. A member of the R&D firm's team becomes ill or is injured in some manner. With the deadline fast approaching, the PCs will be asked to fill in for the team member and help perform some of his duties. Any PCs with vacc suit, zero-g, electronic, computer, or engineering skills will be asked to help.
  2. Several minor accidents and delays will occur during the probe's capture examination and the R&D team leader will suspect that one of the PCs is deliberately trying to sabotage the mission. Relations between the crew and team will deteriorate until the PCs can either prove someone else is responsible for the sabotage or that no sabotage and only accidents have taken place.

    Any sabotage may actually be the work of an R&D team member, disgruntled in some manner or paid by other interests to delay or destroy the project.

  3. During the ship's approach to the gas giant moon, a battered seeker will be detected in orbit near the probe. If contacted, the seeker will not at first respond. The R&D team leader, fearing for the probe's safety and the mission's success, will demand that the PCs investigate the seeker as soon as possible.

    Continued hails or a boarding attempt by the PCs will reveal that the seeker's one-man crew, a somewhat eccentric belter nearly as old as his ship, has been busy doing something else. He did not feel that answering the PCs' hails was necessary and ignored them out of habit.

  4. As in 3, but the seeker is damaged in some manner and cannot respond to the PCs' comm attempts until both ships are much closer. The crew of the seeker is trying to repair their vessel and will request assistance from the PCs. The R&D team leader will loathe any distraction from the mission at hand while Imperial regulations will require that the seeker be helped in some manner. The PCs will be forced to balance the completion of the mission and any of the repair/rescue efforts the damaged seeker may require.

    The probe may also be responsible for the seeker's damage. The seeker may have passed between the probe and the moon and been damaged by any of the active sensors aboard the probe. The probe may have considered the seeker to be a threat and thus 'defended' itself with its active sensors. The truth about the encounter between probe and seeker will be found in the probe's data cores, someplace the R&D team leader may not want searched.

    Additionally, the crew of the seeker had been investigating the probe when the mishap aboard their vessel occurred. Data storage cores or other equipment from the probe may be found aboard the seeker. The seeker's crew will try and hide their previous activities from the PCs and R&D team but, when equipment on the probe is found to be missing, the R&D team leader will demand that the seeker be searched.

    In this case, the damage to the seeker may be the result of the seeker's crew interfering with the probe's operation or physical components. The seeker crew may have removed certain equipment from the probe and inadvertently triggered an attack by the probe's active sensors.

  5. While the probe is being captured or serviced, the PCs' vessel is approached by another ship. The approaching ship wishes to capture and carry away the probe and will attack the PCs vessel to that end.

    Whether or not the probe's hijackers succeed will depend on how well the PCs perform in ship and/or boarding combat.

Resolution and Conclusion

The success of the probe mission will depend greatly on the PCs efforts. Despite his bluster and bad temper, the R&D team leader will insist in his report that the PCs receive their full salaries or be paid the entire charter amount.

Whether the PCs helped handle, examine, or refurbish the probe or not, they will be approached in the near future by individuals wishing to ask them questions about the probe. Some will pay for any information, some will ask politely, and some will ask with clubs or worse. The PCs may find themselves swept into the shenanigans surrounding industrial espionage.

If the seeker crew removed equipment from the probe, the PCs will find themselves in the midst of a legal battle. The R&D firm will file suit and ask that the PCs testify. Whether the probe actually damaged the seeker or not, the seeker crew will counter sue claiming the probe is dangerous. Either way the legal battle develops, the PCs may find themselves embroiled in legal difficulties for months to come.

If the probe hijackers were successfully or not, the PCs will find themselves in far more legal and extra-legal troubles. The authorities will wish to debrief the PCs and check on their stories. The hijackers and those who paid them will wish to 'handle' any potential witnesses to the crime. If the PCs win the fight with the hijackers, there will be bodies to explain. If the PCs lose the fight with the hijackers, they may be left in orbit around a distant gas giant moon aboard a badly damaged ship.