This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue.
|4m (3m(F), 2m(S))
|Brawling/horn-1, spit-0 (none (S))
|Flee 6-(9-(F)), Attack 7+(11+(F)); Horn (2D), Bilious spit (special) (will not attack (S))
|Diseased 8+ (END check: Avg(8+)/Dam(2D)/Int(2D days), IR Vision (blind(S)), Large(F), Slow metabolism(-2 to initiative)(F)
|Values suffixed by (F) apply when the food sac is full, those suffixed by (S) apply when in seeder part of life cycle.
|Bilateral symmetry, decapod (eight short limbs for locomotion, two limbs for handling of food)
|C/H/O/N (broadly Human-compatible), pseudinsectoid
|Oxygen-nitrogen inhalant, carbon dioxide exhalant
|Circadian (active day and night), solitary
|wide range of climates and habitats, tundra to tropics, semiarid to humid
|Diet and Trophics
|Scavenger/hijacker, ectothermic (cold-blooded)
|One gender, sporal intercourse, oviparous birth (cluster of three to four eggs), iteroparous (reproducing more than once in a lifetime). Progeny are not cared for.
|Lifecycle and ontogeny
|Six months to maturity. Lifespan of about eight to ten years.
When the Imperium took the planet Feldspar from the Sword World Coalition, the first Imperial settlers called this ugly and potentially dangerous part of Feldspar’s ecosystem a “bloatbag creep”, “undertaker’s daughter” or “carrion bug”, along with other unkind names. None of the epithets stuck: The Sword Worlder-descended minority refused to give up the original name, “skrafolg” (plural: “skrafolgar”), and the rest of the population finally adopted it as well. (“Skrafolg” or “skraffie” subsequently became a common insult for a lowlife person or someone of Sword Worlds origin throughout the subsector. Few of the non-Feldsparites who use it today know what creature it refers to, though.)
The IISS survey still lists the creatures’ name as “backpackers”, named for the large food bag that makes up their dorsal region.
Crawling along on eight segmented legs, the skrafolg resembles a large roach carrying a lumpy bag of slimy pinkish-gray skin. This bag may lie flat against the oval dish-shaped abdomen if empty, but usually it will be distended with undigested food and may rise in a grotesque, roughly ball-shaped dome above the creature if fully stuffed. The head sports a single large, sharp horn, two segmented eyes and a short, wrinkly flexible trunk of a vivid pink colour that can be extended to half a meter. Set in the front end of the trunk are muscular jaws capable of cracking bones.
The skrafolg lives in dependent symbiosis with the extensive fields of Ondax fungus which cover large parts of the land area of Feldspar’s main continent. Above the surface, Ondax appears as a whitish-gray, fluffy, moss-like carpet, with large, wool-like strands of thallus descending deep into the earth. Bundles of large, pale, flute-shaped fruit bodies grow in places out of the whitish mycel. Within its area of growth, the fungus covers and smothers all forms of plant life and quickly leaches the soil, turning the area into a gray wasteland barren of life. In the center of such areas, the Ondax finds no nourishment and dies away, creating a ragged ring of fungus centered on an area of blackened, wiry strands (dead Ondax thallus). In an area about five kilometers around the living ring, skrafolgar patrol in search of carrion.
The skrafolg is a typical hijacker, chasing away other animals from a carcass with its horn and a caustic bile secretion it is able to spit from its snout. It then dismembers the carrion and eats it piecemeal – although in this case, “eating” may be entirely the wrong term. IISS biologists use the term “harvesting” instead.
Skrafolgar have only a rudimentary digestive system. Their atrophied major intestine can absorb only very simple amino acids that have already been broken up. Food that the skrafolg harvests is not digested, but stored in the large, bulging bag on the creature’s back, which can expand to five times its original size, a bloated, lumpy ball that can reach up to two meters in diameter in large specimens when full. Once the skrafolg’s hump is filled, it lumbers back into the Ondax-covered area and regurgitates. The fungal thallus quickly pre-digests the food, and part of the deconstructed protein is then re-ingested by the skrafolg. The rest goes to feed the fungus.
The process also seems to serve as a substitute to mating, as the skrafolg leaves some of its genetic information in the fungus and is in turn impregnated with other skrafolg’s DNA. About once per year, a skrafolg will lay a clutch of about three eggs in a patch of fungus. The young feed on the mycels until they are about as long as a human arm, at which point they leave their birthplace and take up their wandering existence.
When the skrafolg reaches about eight or nine years of age, it begins to age rapidly. At this point, the Ondax will inject it with spores that slowly grow through the entire body of its host and trigger metabolic changes. The skrafolg feels an uncontrollable urge to wander as far from its parent fungus field as possible. In this state, it is hardly able to feel or see and will often blunder into rocks or creeper patches. It will not defend itself, but is intent only on moving further away from the field. After two days it perishes, and the mycels in its body will spread to the earth, laying the foundation for a new Ondax field. A last set of eggs will ripen in the skrafolg’s carcass, providing the new fungus with its own guardians.
“Seeder” skrafolgar can be spotted by their deflated carrion bags. Their carapace takes on a whitish appearance, as if dusted with flour, and their eyes are misted over. Jerky, uncoordinated movements are also a good indicator. The Feldsparites maintain a corps of rangers that keep a watch on the Ondax fields, shooting any skrafolgar that show signs of becoming seeders, because the fungus is one of the main obstacles to agriculture – and the IISS warns that the continent’s ecosystem is on the verge of being irrevocably damaged by the uncontrollable spread of Ondax. Already the habitable area of the continent has diminished by 30% over the last hundred standard years, and several species of large animals are thought to be extinct as a direct result of the fungus’ spread.
While an “empty” skrafolg is reasonably nimble, a full bag encumbers the creature and makes it slow to respond. Also, skrafolgar with filled “backpacks” usually have been outside their parent fungus field for a longer time and tend to be undernourished, making their movements less coordinated and very sluggish (-2 to all skill checks and attacks at the Referee’s discretion). Empty skrafolgar may attack a group of travellers, especially if they are defending a carcass or other source of food, but full skrafolgar will usually try to flee and fight only if cornered.
If encountered in a fungus field, a skrafolg will be highly territorial and will attack trespassers on 4+. Skrafolgar defend the Ondax viciously, and while in the vicinity of the field will refuse to be driven off even if reduced to half their total hits.
At a range of five meters, a skrafolg intent on attacking uses its bilious secretion, which it can spit with appalling accuracy. If a hit is scored, roll 2D. On 9+, the face was hit, and the target is blinded for 2D rounds unless wearing protective goggles or a faceplate. Otherwise, the substance is harmless, save for a nasty itch (-1 to all actions) if it gets in contact with skin, and a noxious smell that may cause those without filter masks in the vicinity of the target to retch if they fail to roll under their END (again, -1 to all actions). The smell has an uncomfortable way of clinging to equipment and won’t wear or wash off, even after several weeks. It takes industrial-strength detergents to get it off, and even then, a slight unpleasant whiff may remain. If bare skin was affected, one or two weeks of obsessive personal hygiene will get the person presentable again.
If the bile does not drive its enemies off, the skrafolg may follow up its attack with its horn. The strong jaws and rending teeth look formidable, but are never used in a fight.
Depending on the amount of food it has harvested, a large percentage of a skrafolg’s body is made up of its food bag. An attack on the skrafolg will hit the bag on a chance of 11+ (empty), 9+ (half full) or 7+ (completely stuffed). Hitting the bag will cause no damage unless explosive rounds were used, but will rupture the skin. Those nearby may be splattered with bits of harvested, partly putrefied food (NORMAL AGI check to avoid).
On a roll of 8+, the skrafolg may carry a disease. Being hit by the horn or splattered food may contract the disease. Dead skrafolg may also be contagious and should not be touched.
Fighting a skrafolg in its Ondax habitat is a difficult proposition. The fungus gives off a faint mist that may obstruct or limit vision, even in the infrared spectrum. Filter masks are also a must, or a mycotic infection of the lungs will develop within a week of exposure. (The mist is also soporific, so breathing it for half an hour or so may result in vivid hallucinations.)
Within the field, the footing is slippery (unless you are a skrafolg); there are potholes and crevices that are covered with thallus and virtually undiscoverable until a traveller steps into one. The mycels snag feet and impede movement. A fungus field offers little cover except for a few ridges or tree trunks too large to vanish completely under the cotton-wool thallus, so successfully stalking the skrafolg takes an expert.
After leaving the field, care must be taken not to carry the mycel elsewhere and start a new fungus field. The stuff has a nasty habit of getting into suits’ joints and clogging them, impeding movement after a while. The same goes for mechanical devices. The environmental suits issued to the Feldsparite Rangers, as well as all weapons carried by them, are coated with an antimycotic film. Aerosol cans with a similar protective substance can be bought in hardware stores everywhere on the continent. The agricultural settlements use tractors and air/rafts fitted with large fungicide tanks and spray nozzles to establish fungus-free perimeters; the long-term effect of these substances on the health of sophonts is currently investigated by the IISS. Still, no one has come up with a better solution, so the practice is continued, even though the preliminary findings indicate a definite danger to infants’ health and development.
- The travellers are pursuing a miscreant. The culprit has spent several terms in the Feldsparite Rangers and is intimately familiar with Ondax (+2 to all Survival and Stealth rolls while in an Ondax field). She will lure the travellers into a large patch of fungus and try to snipe at them with her carbine while they fend off the attacks of Skrafolgar defending their territory. Did the travellers remember to bring specialised equipment, spare filters and antimycotic film? The ex-Ranger did, and may be at a huge advantage if the travellers didn’t come prepared.
- In an outlying town, skrafolgar have been spotted rummaging through the garbage containers at night. The school has been closed, and the fearful citizens keep to their homes. Meanwhile, the city council requests the travellers to scour the surrounding forest areas for the budding Ondax fields that must have sprung up nearby.
- Skrafolgar have been spotted near an expensive boarding school
located in a rural area. The travellers are hired as schoolyard security
to protect the students. Fending off the occasional prowling skrafolg
proves easy enough, but they are beset by the teenage students playing
pranks, overly fascinated by the travellers’ guns, and the occasional
schoolboy/schoolgirl crush on the one or two travellers with the most
roguish appearance. Several students may approach a traveller with a
military background and ask for counsel whether they should defy their
parents’ wishes and join the Marines/Navy/Scouts/other service branch
with a nimbus of adventure. Parents complain petulantly (via
long-distance commlink) about the travellers ordering their children
around, and are ready to pounce on every mistake the team makes.
Generally, the job feels uncomfortably like herding ants.
Finally, a band of five students leave the school grounds on a dare at night, and become lost in the woods; the travellers will have to mount a quick rescue while still defending the school—and seeder skrafolgar have just been sighted moving toward the school’s main yard.
- A homeless person has stumbled into a large Ondax field. Breathing
the spore-tainted mist, he was beset by intense hallucinations which
convinced him that he had had a conversation with the Galactic Spirit.
Now he is back in the city, preaching in the streets to the disaffected
youth and starting his own religion. The experience has made him a
charismatic speaker, and he has managed to unite many of the gangs of
street kids into a veritable army of converts despite his failing health
(fungal pneumonia contracted in the Ondax field). The travellers are
hired by desperate parents who want them to rescue their son and his
fiancée from the sect’s clutches. The boy may not be willing to be
rescued, as he has joined willingly and risen to the position of the
preacher’s right hand man!
Just as the travellers are staking out their mission, a vociferous local faith affiliated with the Eschaton Movement sends armed agents to eliminate the preacher. The boy and his fiancée will be in the line of fire. If the travellers act quickly, they can foil the Eschaton agents long enough for the preacher and his aide to flee.
The injured preacher will take one of the gangs’ gravbikes and head for the fungus patch with the boy—he feels that his life is ending, and he wants to expose the boy to the same enlightenment that he experienced so he can continue his mentor’s work. The final confrontation with the dying madman, his teenage follower and the Eschatonics in the Ondax field is interrupted by several skrafolgar attacking at the least opportune moment.
- A scientific expedition has been missing for more than a month. The travellers are hired to investigate, and discover that the expedition’s Type S scout/courier is stranded in a patch of Ondax and already partially overgrown by thallus. The fungus has clogged the exhausts, and aggressive skrafolgar are mounting a veritable siege of the ship’s hatches. The travellers need to come up with a way to rescue the researchers trapped in their own ship.
- A courier carrying a vital message was intercepted by pirates/enemy agents/terrorists in the Feldspar system, and xir ship was disabled by a direct hit. Xe managed to escape in an emergency capsule and survived by going into freezer berth. The capsule landed near the center of a large Ondax patch. The travellers need to reach it before a group of mercs or pirates hired by the opposition does. Once their enemies catch up with them, some skrafolgar do so as well, and break the standoff by attacking everyone.
- While out hunting, a young Feldsparite noble is attacked by a
skrafolg. The travellers arrive in time to help xir, and are graciously
rewarded on the spot with xir antique duelling sabre, a heirloom of
inestimable value. The noble turns out to be very charming and sociable,
and seems to take a genuine liking to the travellers; xe may become a
valuable Contact if the travellers are similarly polite and mind their
In the course of the fight, the noble was spit on by the skrafolg, and now develops an ugly rash within half an hour—not to mention that xir skin now stinks to high heaven. Xe is dismayed: in a week, xe is supposed to attend a very important social function and meet with offworld dignitaries—unthinkable to appear there reeking of carrion! The visiting notables will be deeply offended. Fortunately, one of the travellers looks superficially similar to the poor noble and may be able to play xir role at the ball. If the travellers agree, they have one week to learn proper etiquette, courtly dance, terms of address and the necessary background knowledge.
The noble will helpfully suggest wearing a miniature communicator disguised as a brooch or earring, so xe can give valuable input if the traveller stumbles—but once the traveller and xir “retinue” arrive at the function, they find that the Imperial Marines responsible for building security run random scans for listening devices, and they are forced to turn the gadget off or risk being discovered. They are on their own now.
- The IISS or a local biological institute hires the travellers to stalk and kill several skrafolgar, and to open their food sacs and catalogise the contents for an extensive study on the creatures’ feeding habits. They will be accompanied by a young biologist and be responsible not only for his well-being, but also for the half ton of fragile equipment necessary to analyse the pieces of carrion. The job is smelly and dangerous, and soon the biologist’s cheerful manner grates on their nerves—as well as his tendency to get himself into trouble in the wilderness. Worst of all is the unanticipated fact that a dead skrafolg (or rather, the dead contents of its hump) will draw lots of other scavengers, which have to be kept at bay until the lengthy analysis is finished.
- There is a disturbing tendency for the Ondax fungus to develop a
resistance against the types of fungicide used to spray the perimeters
around the agricultural areas. Larger and larger doses are necessary.
Now a human health NGO has started an independent survey, and they find
that the traces of fungicide in the soil lead to higher infant
mortality, growth issues during prepuberty, an impaired immune system in
adults, and a host of minor illnesses. The local authorities tried to
shut the NGO up with various methods, ranging from bureaucratic
obstacles and confiscation of equipment to bribes, and when the attempts
failed, they quietly sent in a mercenary team disguised as local
separatists to kidnap or kill the doctors and their staff.
There is already a possible solution to the fungus’ unchecked growth: a trained Psionicist would be able to control the mycel’s spread easily. The NGO has found this out—and discovered that the authorities knew all along. Faced with the choice between continuing to use the harmful fungicides and training citizens in psionics (thus violating the planet’s Imperial Charter), though, the administrators decided to disregard the latter option and hush the issue up.
The travellers are hired by the government to rescue the NGO’s research team from the “insurgents”. In truth, the administration wants them to botch the rescue attempt so the blame for the “hostages’” deaths can be laid at their feet. They will be given false information, and the mercenaries will be ready for them.