This adventure originally appeared in response to an informal adventure contest on the (now defunct) Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society (JTAS) at SJGames, http://jtas.sjgames.com, and was posted to Freelance Traveller in June 2002 with the permission of SJGames and the author, and reprinted in the November/December 2019 issue. It may not be distributed elsewhere without the express permission of SJGames and the author.
Criteria: The adventure should feature gift-giving and a frozen landscape.
Play takes place on any world with about the following stats: Thin or very thin atmosphere, hydrosphere less than 20%, population in the hundreds of thousands or less, moderate to low control rating/law level, about average tech level. The star system has to have a gas giant. Cordillion (2411 Trojan Reach), Esterhazy(1404 Solomani Rim) or Hammermium (2936 Spinward Marches) might be good choices.
Any player group will work, but there should be some widespread vacc-suit or zero-g skills, and probably streetwise and/or administration skills. And of course a soft spot for a fat old man with a snowy white beard, dressed in a red suit.
“Polar City was full of smoke and mirrors.
“Most places, they put their starports on the equator. Traditional, from back when people used ballistic engines. Anyway, you don’t see ports at a pole, except here. They’re doing their ‘grand experiment’ and the whole system is geared for it. Giving the planet ‘the gift of life’, or whatever their tridee talking heads go on and on about. Terraforming. So they put the port on the pole, so it will be safe.
“The whole town is only a couple of thousand overworked people. Lots of robots running around too. Kinda creepy, all those little machines jumping about. The main business of the place is making mirrors for the orbitals, and smoke. That’s right, smoke. All these huge smoke stacks, belching out great black clouds. You couldn’t see the sky half the time. It’s for the terraforming. Looks like those coal towns we saw on Aramanx, la?
“Huh? Safe from what? Oh, yeah, I didn’t tell you about the best part.
“Safe from the snowfall…”
This world is an experiment in terraforming. It is somewhat Mars-like, cold and mostly dry, with small icecaps and vast deserts. The goal is to thicken and heat the atmosphere, to make the surface a ‘shirt-sleeve’ environment.
Huge orbital mirrors enhance the normal sunlight. The soot from industries at the north polar starport help melt the polar ice, cutting down the albedo, increasing the heat absorption. Geneered algae pump soil-locked nitrogen into the air. There are a host of other efforts, but the most dramatic is the snowfall.
‘Snowfall’ is the nickname for a project to bombard the equatorial regions with comets and ice chunks captured at the gas giant. The snowfall heats the surface, sometimes triggering local volcanoes if they punch through the crust (but that is rarely done). It also provides additional water and methane. The vast scale needed to have an effect, however, means that this project must be run as economically as possible.
The comets (even the ice chunks are called comets once they are on their way) are set on Hohman transfer orbits. They are maneuvered into a parking orbit and then launched toward the mainworld during the ‘window’. The engines are then jettisoned (to be captured and used on the next ‘pod’ of comets). The pod of comets (a pod refers to all the comets launched during a particular window) then coast to their target, often for months or years. Since there can be no last minute course corrections, only the polar regions of the planet have any permanent inhabitants. The orbital mirrors are regularly replaced.
The players arrive at a peak in the starport economic cycle. A snowfall is coming down in the next few weeks, so the equatorial work teams have headed into the port. Everything is crowded and expensive. Gangs and organized crime have infiltrated the rank and file, so vendettas and turf battles are nightly occurrences as they compete for the laborers’ funds. Local security is overworked.
Before the players give it up, a news bulletin from the gas giant comes in. An entire icerigger crew, spacers who set up the comets for launch toward the mainworld, has been killed in an accident. Not too unusual, except anyone with Administration or Streetwise will find out that the next launch window is coming up. If the government wants to get a full pod of comets out in that window, they will need to replace that crew and fast. It will be very easy for the players to get jobs as iceriggers, at a very high rate of pay since the need is great (especially for people without gang connections). It is only for a month or so, the work is easy (if strenuous) and the pay is better than anything they are likely to see for a long time.
“Murmansk Station smelled like feet. Their airscrubbers were running on low, like everything else in the place. Half the lights were out, brownouts hit all the time too. And just enough gravity to make you spill your drink. Bare metal walls, bulkheads, plumbing and wiring trunks in all the hallways. Just like back on those old Dragon boats they had us on in the Navy, la?
“You got a moldy vacc suit and a cot, one in a stack of five, a lock box, and no place for the suit, so you wore it. You didn’t pay for the showers, but you got only X liters of hot water, depending on how much your foreman liked your work. The pay was fantastic; it had to be in place like that. And my buddy, Mac, she was able to pull some strings to get us hired on at a primo level, a sweet deal. You’d think there wouldn’t be much to spend your Credits on, out there in a glorified tin can. And there wasn’t, not in the government stores, anyway…”
Murmansk Station is the icerigger base of operations at the gas giant. Iceriggers are vacc heads, basically low-skill level workers just coherent enough to wear a vacc suit without killing themselves. They are assigned to a work crew, and are daily shipped out into ring system. There, the crews select and weld chunks (water ice chunks a meter or more in diameter that make up the rings) into huge clusters of several thousand dtons. They shape it and spray it with reflec to keep it from sublimating too much, hang a motor on it and go to the next job. The work is mostly brute force, manhandling the chunks into the comet-cluster. At the end of the shift you log your mass (how much you say you added to the comet) and the cutter ferries you back to the Station.
Murmansk Station is built on a tiny asteroid moon. It is home to about a thousand, mostly iceriggers. The docks are small, built for the dozen modular cutters, but a couple of Suleimans or Seekers are usually docked too, part of the deep space Oort teams. A player run ship would have minimal docking fees while here.
Some laws are strictly enforced; most are not. Vacc suits, generic 24-hour models, must be government issue (too easy to hide weapons/contraband in private suits). Of course, there is a cottage industry in altering suits to hold weapons and contraband, and to spoof the helmet transponders and radios (the only links the riggers have out in the ice, the government/foremen can monitor unspoofed transmissions). Guns and beam weapons are prohibited, but knives and clubs are easy to get and there is a black-market in cheap gauss pistols. The security teams, dressed in well-used combat armor, are way outnumbered and they know it. Only the above rules are enforced with any regularity.
An icerigger crew numbers about 40. The crew ships out in a cutter, fitted with a 24-hour passenger module. Shifts are 12 to 16 hours, with up to four hour travel time. They move out into the rings, to areas thick with larger (1m+) chunks. A comet is usually already forming, as it takes a weeks to gather the several thousands dtons considered minimum for a comet. The crew foreman estimates the total work done (each crew is given a section of comet to fill up) and hands out any bonuses or penalties based on that. Foremen are easy to bribe.
The Station is cramped, with bare metal walls and not too much in the way of ‘approved’ entertainment. Organized crime has flourished, selling most any entertainment rich, bored iceriggers care to indulge in. The place is a rough frontier mining town; fist fights are common, as are protection rackets, gambling and the occasional murder. The hint of organized crime should be in the air, but not too blatant; the megacorp running the whole operation makes a sweep only when production levels drop dangerously low. (The movie Outland is a good model.)
A couple of days into the routine, the players will start getting hassled by small time bullies, or thieves, basically testing them to see how easy/tough a mark they are, and to see if they are aligned to any gangs. The referee should make the encounters challenging, but not too difficult to overcome. Fights out in the rings are common, for example, beyond the reach of even the minimal Station Security. Once the players have a regularly appearing enemy (say a group of two or three bullies), they should encounter that enemy pulling the same stunts on a kindly old man in the mess hall.
Claude Sinter is dressed in a beat up red vacc suit. He is fat, not uncommon in low-g, and has a huge white beard, which is uncommon in low g. He is friendly and has a twinkle in his eye, since he is usually hopped up on vacuum distilled rum. The referee should set it up so that the players drive off the bullies after a short scuffle. Claude will thank them and offer to buy them drinks. He is a nice old guy full of stories (revolving around the souped-up fighter he flew as a kid in a Sword World aerospace force—”quick as a flash she was, I called her Slayer”).
A few days later, going back to their bunks after a long shift, they come up on the bullies pounding Claude to death in a dark hall. He is in really bad shape and needs medical attention. The players should get him into the infirmary ASAP, but will have to bribe their way in (or they can attend to him themselves if anyone has the appropriate skills). Claude will be very grateful, and pull them close to tell them the rest of his story.
He was part of a group that hijacked a United Armies shipment a few months ago. A syndicate job, he didn’t know what the shipment was, but worth millions or more. The syndicate was to have them lay low in this system, since they had contacts at this station. Well, he and his friends got greedy. Some of them hid the shipment (a single cargo container), somewhere on the mainworld, probably at a Polar City freight yard. Then they were going to negotiate a better deal. It didn’t work out. His friends were killed in a cutter “accident” a few weeks ago. The syndicate didn’t know Claude was part of the team, and he has been laying low, hoping to get at the container. He knows what the access codes for the container are, but he doesn’t know where it is. The location is inside that destroyed cutter, drifting in the rings. If the players help him find it, he will cut them in on the profits—his gift for saving him.
The cutter wreckage is a standard work crew cutter, supposedly hit by a stray chunk that blew the drive and overloaded the powerplant. It was a bomb in engineering, no survivors. Most of the bodies were recovered, but since the syndicate controlled the cleanup operation, they left the bodies of their enemies (they didn’t think that they had any value). The wreckage is drifting in the main ring. The players can get out there (if they hijack/borrow/bribe a cutter or use their own ship), but they can’t dock with the wreck; too much damage. Most of it is open to hard vacuum anyway.
A syndicate-hired team follows the players there. Not professionals, but they will have gauss pistols. They might be able to sneak up on the players, if they hide in the chunks. Anyway, the syndicate has been shadowing Claude, and even the bullies were in on it, trying to get him to confess to some connection with the shipment.
The info is in a chip on the body of one of Claude's friends. Claude will have told them what to look for as well as the encryption codes to read the chip. The players will have to defeat the syndicate team before they can use the information, of course. The container is in the equatorial region targeted by the incoming snowfall. That was going to be part of the pressure tactic. Snowfall is in ten days, they have that long to retrieve it.
By now the gas giant and the mainworld are about 10 AU apart. The players can wait for the weekly shuttle, but it probably won’t get them back in time. If they have a ship, or otherwise get access to one, it might be faster to do a microjump within the system. That tactic might even throw the syndicate off their trail for a day or two.
“The fighters buzzed us on the third day out. We had just finished digging the container out from under that sand and here they came, popping over the horizon. Easy to see since they were the only things moving out there. Their first salvo took out the back of the Suleiman, and young Ildwani with it. Mac was lucky she was with us behind the dunes. Old Claude picked up the SAM launcher and boom. Took out one as they banked around for the next pass. Sweet, la?
“When it was over, both fighters were down but we’d lost Ildwani and our ride out of there. Mac said she could get one of the fighters back together, in about a week. The sun had gone down and the comets were coming up over the horizon. They were so close you could see the jets where the reflec was boiled off. We didn’t have a week…”
Once back at the mainworld, they can get to the container, resting in the open at a makeshift landing-pad, half covered with sand dunes. They will be followed, of course. The syndicate is able to call in two Iramda fighters down from the pole. To make life interesting, the fighters should be able to disable any transport they have. If they survive, the fighters will attempt to land and take control of the container. If not, an overland team will arrive in a day (unless it is snowfall day, then they arrive in three days to look for remains). These guys will be professionals, armed with laser weapons.
Should the players find themselves without transport, there are underground bunkers scattered across the equatorial regions, normally used by the algae teams. They are hardened, able to survive anything but a close strike. Their locations are not secret, but they are locked against vandalism. The nearest one should be just far enough away to make the players sweat to get there. A countdown race to a locked bunker would be dramatic.
Aside from the normally inhospitable conditions a Mars-like surface provides there are other dangers when traveling across the surface. Nitrogen-blooms are one. Geeneered algae suddenly releasing vast quantities of nitrogen into the air will cause tons of soil to blast into the air like a geyser. People or machines too close are hit by the sand, possibly buried.
Anyone caught in the open during snowfall is in for a bad time, too. Each impact is equivalent to about 1000 megatons, and there are about a dozen or so impacts. Anything within a few kilometers is destroyed (a good way to get rid of evidence—and the container site will be destroyed whether the players make it there or not). The overpressure wave can crack a foot of concrete within a dozen or so kilometers, hyper-hurricane force winds will scour the landscape for hundreds to thousands of kilometers around. Ejecta from the blasts will rain down for hours, dust storms, complete with static lightning strikes, will sweep out behind the blastwaves. The entire landscape will be altered. Even safely inside a bunker, the doors can be buried or the bunker itself lose its atmosphere integrity in the massive ’quakes.
There are several choices for the treasure. It can be a shipment of combat drug, worth millions on the street. Getting it to a fence will net the players hundreds of thousands of Credits. It can be part of a payroll shipment, traditionally done in cash. The notes will be in sequence, however; laundering it will be a big problem and the players are likely not to see much profit—certainly not the millions that are there. It might even be a new type of weapon system. In that case the customers for such a device are limited, but willing to pay. In all cases the treasure is the legal property of the Imperial Army, and the nominal property of a medium sized crime syndicate. Both will want it back. The referee should determine subsequent events.
“We drank to Ildwani and counted our loot. Now that the bars were empty, Claude stuck out like a Virushi at Geonee convention. He insisted on wearing that red vacc suit, claimed it was lucky. I was sure we hadn’t been followed, but there was a guy sitting in the corner booth, and I didn’t think he was there for the atmosphere. Lucky.
“Mac said we should lift soon, and I agreed. The only problem was making it across town to the berth she had lined up for us. We were going to need cover, and more luck than Claude’s suit could provide, but it was doable. Polar City is full of smoke and mirrors, la?”