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The Edge of Helium

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue.

This is an adventure for 6-8 people using the Orbital setting by Paul Elliott (Zozer, 2013 for Traveller/2016 (as Orbital 2100) for Cepheus Engine). The PCs are a Southern Cross Mining work team based at the mining and reprocessing facilities on Epimetheus (Orbital p.172/Orbital 2100 p.193).

Janus and Epimetheus are two moons of Saturn in the same orbit, both are irregularly shaped and both are less than 200km in diameter. The UWP for the combined pair is B000485-9 with a population of 87,000.

Page numbers given are from the Orbital setting books; a page designation of a/b indicates page a in the 2013 edition of Orbital, or page b in the 2016 edition of Orbital 2100. The usual layout of situation, complications, agendas and resolution has been used. If the Referee doesn’t want to use the agendas, these can be ignored.

The Situation

Southern Cross Mining currently holds the licence from Earth Union to exploit the resources in Saturn’s atmosphere. They are extracting helium-3 and a description of the process can be found on p.172/193. Much of the process involves a 100-ton Kronos refining drone and details of this can be found on p.83/105. The Referee should be familiar with this process and vehicle as both will be key to this adventure.

The players are a work crew engaged in delivering the Kronos drones to the correct location and altitude in Saturn’s atmosphere and retrieving said drones fifteen days later once they have collected and refined sufficient helium-3 along with the hydrogen fuel required to return to orbit and the PCs’ recovery operations. In general, the drones need little supervision and can be delivered, controlled and recovered from a DSV in orbit at Epimetheus. Occasionally, closer attention is required when a drone has to be placed particularly carefully or there are problems retrieving it. This may necessitate the DSV making a closer approach to Saturn. There are currently six drones in operation with four in Saturn’s atmosphere at any one time, one in transit, and one undergoing unloading, servicing and refuelling. One of the drones, nicknamed Drizzle, leaks hydrogen and cannot make it back to Epimetheus unaided. The DSV must leave the moons’ orbit and make a close approach to Saturn to both deliver it and retrieve it. Two additional drones are being assembled as spares (one nearly complete and one far from finished) in the event, which inevitably happens, of the loss of a drone; a further drone is in transit from Earth orbit but it will be months before its arrival. They cost more than MCr50 so Southern Cross Mining regard them as valuable pieces of kit which are not easy to replace.

The PCs’ mission is to retrieve Drizzle and its cargo of helium-3. Whilst doing so, they may as well pick up another of the drones, Gimel, as it’s near the end of its mining cycle in any case. The characters enjoy a reasonable amount of downtime between insertion and retrieval jobs although they are expected to maintain the DSV and the drones as well as fit in recreational periods. If the Referee wishes to use such a period as an introduction to the adventure, see the Downtime notes on p.99/120. There is no immediate time pressure on completing the mission except for the professionalism of a job well done and the knowledge that regularly being slow at such work may result in them being replaced, either individually or as a team, by harder working crews.

The commander, Wooten Fardon, has persuaded Southern Cross to stump up for a Beam Laser which has just been installed as deterrent to any criminals intent on stealing either the helium-3 cargo or the refining drones.

Player Characters

(Cepheus Engine alternatives can be found at the end)

Wooten Fardon 756988 Age 46
Command-pilot (also reserve astrogator)
Characteristics: STR 7 (+0), DEX 5 (-1), END 6 (+0), INT 9 (+1), EDU 8 (+0), SOC 8 (+0)
Skills: Astrogation 3, Gun Combat 2, Pilot 2, Broker 1, Electronics (comms) 1, Engineer (life support) 1, Flyer (wing) 1, Melee (bludgeon) 1, Steward 1, Admin 0, Mechanic 0, Vacc Suit 0
Equipment: Cr2500

Stav Semtana 741BA4 Age 48
Astrogator (also reserve medical technician)
Characteristics: STR 7 (+0), DEX 4 (-1), END 1 (-2), INT 11 (+1), EDU 10 (+1), SOC 4 (-1)
Skills: Astrogation 2, Medic 2, Vacc Suit 2, Advocate 1, Broker 1, Carouse 1, Recon 1, Steward 1, Streetwise 1, Gun Combat 0, Engineer 0, Explosives 0, Heavy Weapons 0, Mechanic 0, Melee 0
Equipment: Cr12,000, Blade

Ector Ortramond 593A78 Age 34
Engineer (also reserve pilot)
Characteristics: STR 5 (-1), DEX 9 (+1), END 3 (-1), INT 10 (+1), EDU 7 (+0), SOC 8 (+0)
Skills: Steward 3, Broker 2, Engineer (drive) 2, Gun Combat 2, Astrogation 1, Pilot 1, Drive 0, Electronics 0, Melee 0, Science 0, Vacc Suit 0
Equipment: Cr5500, Body Pistol

Shee Cham 335588 Age 40
Medical technician (also reserve astrogator)
Characteristics: STR 3 (-1), DEX 3 (-1), END 5 (-1), INT 5 (-1), EDU 8 (+0), SOC 8 (+0)
Skills: Medic 2, Astrogation 1, Drive (wheel) 1, Gun Combat 1, Steward 1, Admin 0, Broker 0, Electronics 0, Engineering 0, Melee 0, Science 0, Seafarer 0, Vacc Suit 0
Equipment: Cr0

Jassmeen Dunmore C68485 Age 38
Payload Specialist (also medical technician)
Characteristics: STR 12 (+2), DEX 6 (+0), END 8 (+1), INT 4 (-1), EDU 8 (+0), SOC 5 (-1)
Skills: Broker 1, Electronics (remote ops) 1, Medic 1, Melee 1, Steward 1, Tactics 1, Zero-G 1, Gun Combat 0, Engineer 0, Flyer 0, Vacc Suit 0
Equipment: Cr2000, Blade

Irame Gurmorsen 879688 Age 38
Payload Specialist (also gunner)
Characteristics: STR 8 (+0), DEX 7 (+0), END 9 (+1), INT 6 (+0), EDU 8 (+0), SOC 8 (+0)
Skills: Admin 1, Astrogation 1, Gun Combat 1, Gunner 1, Jack-of-All-Trades 1, Electronics (remote ops) 1, Melee 1, Steward 1, Carouse 0, Drive 0, Flyer 0, Leadership 0, Mechanic 0, Profession 0, Streetwise 0, Vacc Suit 0
Equipment: Rifle, Cr5200

If more PCs are required than the crew of six detailed above then a second engineer and/or a Weapons Operator may be added, or alternatively a DSV with larger crew requirements could be used. Or perhaps there is a local (or other) politician on some fact finding mission or a representative of one of the government agencies, corporations, NGOs or even criminal organizations along to see how the mining processes could be developed more widely in Saturn’s atmosphere or replicated elsewhere.

Complications

Interpersonal relations on the Hindsight could be an issue with four crew having worked together for some time (Semtana, Cham, Dunmore, and Gurmorsen), the command-pilot (Fardon) having only taken up the reins in the last month and the engineer (Ortramond) being a last minute replacement who has just arrived on board.

Transit from the Janus/Epimetheus orbit between the F and G rings to the upper reaches of Saturn should be trouble free. Using a Southern Cross DSV called the Hindsight, specifically a DDV for its drone handling capability which is detailed below, the time taken will be 1200 hours divided by 90 for the delta-v (see p.56/72) – i.e., 15 hours. If the Referee wishes to use a vehicle from the Orbital book, then a Reiner-Gamma DCV Corona (p.79/101) might be used and the trip would be 19 hours. In place of six fifty-ton modules, the Hindsight can handle up to three 100-ton drones.

The Referee can impose an encounter chance (1D6) on the journey out and one on the journey back if desired (see page 76). Or, to save the ‘Resolution’ below as a climax, could use both encounter chances on the journey out as time and inclination permit.

To plot a minimal transfer orbit: Average (8+) Astrogation/Navigation check (1D6 minutes + 10, INT). Success reduces the transit time by 1D6 hours.

Depending on available game time, as much or as little can be made of retrieving the first drone, Gimel, as is desired. This can be a milk run just to familiarize the players with the procedure that would be bread and butter to their characters or it can have problems of its own. Perhaps the winds of Saturn’s atmosphere are stronger than usual; perhaps there’s a vortex that suddenly comes upon them. Drizzle, on the other hand…

On arrival at the usual altitude and the correct location for the drone retrieval, the DSV will not be able to detect it on sensors. The Referee can describe the swirling atmosphere and bands of clouds that are immediately below them. Occasional pockets of gas or gusts of wind are not hard to compensate for but will keep the pilot on their toes.

To maintain required position: Average (8+) Pilot check (1D6 minutes, DEX). Failure will move the DSV out of position and require 1D6 minutes to reposition.

These timings should begin to put pressure on the PCs that their actions need to be focussed or they may lose the refining drone.

A closer approach will be required until a faint signal is found. Further Astrogation/Navigation tasks can contribute to the Pilot tasks to make this approach. These should get harder as altitude in Saturn’s atmosphere decreases and time progresses. The drone is on station and will respond to signals from this closer vantage point but only with difficulty. The Payload Specialists (and others with Electronics skill) should make task rolls to both find, communicate with and control the drone. Data will indicate that it attempted an orbital insertion burn but aborted, for reasons unknown. The drone will respond to the PCs directing a manual orbit insertion burn command and its altitude will be seen to increase but much more slowly than usual and for a limited duration only. It will then maintain altitude some 40km higher than its station keeping position having aborted the burn once again. However, without its balloons for support fuel will probably only last an hour or so before the drone cannot make orbit. The payload specialists or engineers will see that the engines are overheating. Increased buffeting in Saturn’s winds may cause injuries for those with Medic skill to deal with. Succeed at a Routine (6+) DEX check every 15 minutes or suffer 1D damage. Alternatively, equipment may be damaged requiring Engineer or Mechanic skill to fix.

As this takes place, it will be possible to see, or pick up on sensors something rather unusual. Or rather some things. Three clouds – perhaps 10km high – are in the vicinity below the DSV off to one side. They don’t seem to be moving in relation to the local wind currents although there are enough vortices, eddies and contra-currents that it is difficult to tell. Multi-coloured and unlike any clouds the characters are familiar with. Closer inspection will reveal wisps trailing beneath them and trailing off in the winds.

Agendas

Pun-loving Wooten Fardon is actually an undercover LOPS cop who has a lead on one of the 2092 smash-and-grab-raid miners-turned-pirates from Rhea (p.177/198) who escaped justice and is believed to be working now for Southern Cross. Naturally, he’s keeping his Lunar background a very tight secret. Fardon would describe himself as extremely cautious about most individuals as well as any required safety checks; others might say paranoid. His theory is that no one would suspect the recently appointed commander of a drone DSV to be a cop but it plays to skills he’s picked up and gives him a good overview of the comings and goings of Southern Cross personnel in the Janus/Epimetheus orbit.

Ever an optimist, Shee Cham is a Japanese miner from Mimas. One of Joseph Takamura’s people who he has employed to keep an eye on any scientific developments that might explain the reason Earth Union researchers are investigating the crater on Mimas. As Takamura has no people on J/E he has managed to get Shee a position on a DSV that is often moving around that orbit of Saturn.

In complete contrast to Shee, Stav Semtana is a pessimist and grouch. Not so much a ‘glass half empty’ kind of person as ‘why haven’t I got a glass at all?’ He’s a failed marine who became a commercial spacer and is also a Planetary Reproductionist (p.26/26) who is concerned that the mining of Saturn’s atmosphere will damage it, perhaps not immediately but as operations ramp up, and that this destruction will stop the gas giant and thus the solar system as a whole developing in the way it should to maximise life’s reproduction.

Ector Ortramond is a late replacement crew member for Bee Suster, the Hindsight’s engineer, who has been taken ill. He needs to be brought up to speed on the workings of the DSV and the procedures of its crew and is often questioning them about detail but has no further agenda. He is, however, due to a medical condition, always sweating.

Good looking but not particularly bright, Jassmeen Dunmore is actually a counter-insurgent from Titan (p.177/198) hiding out on the DSV and keeping this very quiet to fit in with the mostly Earth Union crew. She is looking for ways in which the helium-3 mining operation might be subverted to funnel hydrocarbons and methane resources to Titan “when the revolution comes” (again) and Luna retakes control of the moon.

Irame Gurmorsen just can’t say no – and is always getting involved in one thing or another – it’s made for an interesting life. Having worked for Southern Cross Mining for twenty years, Gurmorsen is a staunchly loyal long termer with the company – hence the perfect person to be asked recently by SCM’s president to add an extra duty. “It seems,” she says, “that SCM is being infiltrated by persons intent on destroying the company, can you look out for any sign of this and report to me personally?”

Resolution

Closer, visual, inspection which will take another 20 minutes of manoeuvring and a Difficult Pilot (and perhaps Astrogation/Navigation) check. This will reveal that draped over the drone is some kind of semi-translucent sac. This won’t necessarily be immediately apparent but it is a deflated juvenile version of the three creatures seen earlier. These creatures live in the upper atmosphere of Saturn and are hitherto unknown as life forms; they’re not commonly encountered. Whilst not sentient they live in family groups and the parentals are manoeuvring closer to try to aid the youngster in a situation that is completely unfamiliar to them. The juvenile came too close to the drone, feeding on the leaking hydrogen and became entangled, losing its own buoyancy. However, its weight now means that the drone is too heavy to lift and is burning fuel just to maintain altitude. If the parentals get too close, their larger size could threaten the Hindsight itself.

Possibilities for the characters include using the new beam laser to try to burn the sac off the drone. This would kill the creature and possibly damage the drone but would work. It will take 30 minutes 10 minutes to carry this out.

Another possibility would be to conduct an EVA using the lander and try to remove the sac. Aside from the dangers in such activity in Saturn’s atmosphere, this might work but would be formidably difficult. It’s unlikely to save the creature although there’s probably no way of determining this. This would take at least 45 minutes.

Alternatively, it is possible to release some of the helium-3 from the right outlets on the drone to reinflate the creature, or at least partially reinflate it, so that it can return to the parentals. This will depend on the players determining the nature of what they’re looking at. To do this in a controlled manner will take 30 minutes.

The timings above are only approximate and the Referee should adjust them in the light of player discussion and character actions such that losing the drone is a near run thing.

The PCs should notice that the venting is attracting the creatures and it may occur to them that a modification of the drone technology could reduce or prevent this.

Once the juvenile is clear of the drone it should be possible to retrieve Drizzle with no further problems – although it may now be on the edge of its endurance and perhaps have completely depleted its store of helium-3. The characters will need to decide whether to refuel it and start its cycle again, or return it to Epimetheus for repair or adjustment.

Further adventures could revolve around science teams dispatched to investigate these creatures; meanwhile the PCs may wish to exploit their find for cash or fame. Anyone who suggests a tendril waved at them as they departed will be guaranteed a ratings hit or a best seller should they go public.

Southern Cross DDV Hindsight

Using a 600 ton hull, the Hindsight is a Deep Space Vehicle capable of handling up to three 100-ton Voroncovo Kronos III Refining Drones. It has a gas-core nuclear thermal rocket and a fission reactor powerplant with fuel tankage of 15 tons, which provides a delta-v of 80 km/s. The bridge includes a Model/1 computer and a suite of basic civilian electronics. Mounted on two spin capsules are four staterooms, two emergency low berths, a standard medlab, a storm shelter, small ship’s locker and a common area (or briefing room). Other features include a flare damper, a 3-ton workshop for repairing drone parts and a 5-ton Spider Light Lander. Total cargo capacity is 356 tons (three 100-ton drones and 56 tons of helium-3.

The Hindsight requires a crew of six: command-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, medical technician and two payload specialists. Sometimes a second pilot and/or engineer is added. There are four cabins for up to eight people and two emergency low berths for up to eight in cryogenic suspension. The vehicle costs MCr244 and takes 76 weeks to build.

Cepheus Engine Player Characters

The Cepheus Engine Core Rules don’t actually include Vacc Suit so the PCs have all got Zero-G at one level or another. Vacc Suit, of course, may be added as per advice on page 33 of the Core Rulebook.

Wooten Fardon 756988 Age 46
Command-pilot (also reserve navigator)
Characteristics: STR 7 (+0), DEX 5 (-1), END 6 (+0), INT 9 (+1), EDU 8 (+0), SOC 8 (+0)
Skills: Navigation 3, Piercing Weapon 2, Piloting 2, Bludgeoning Weapon 1, Broker 1, Comm 1, Engineering 1, Steward 1, Winged Aircraft 1, Admin 0, Mechanics 0, Slug Pistol 0, Zero-G 0
Equipment: Cr2500

Stav Semtana 741BA4 Age 48
Navigator (also reserve medical technician)
Characteristics: STR 7 (+0), DEX 4 (-1), END 1 (-2), INT 11 (+1), EDU 10 (+1), SOC 4 (-1)
Skills: Medicine 2, Navigation 2, Zero-G 2, Advocate 1, Broker 1, Carousing 1, Recon 1, Steward 1, Streetwise 1, Comm 0, Demolitions 0, Engineering 0, Heavy Weapon 0, Mechanics 0, Piercing Weapon 0, Slug Rifle 0
Equipment: Cr12,000, Blade

Ector Ortramond 593A78 Age 34
Engineer (also reserve pilot)
Characteristics: STR 5 (-1), DEX 9 (+1), END 3 (-1), INT 10 (+1), EDU 7 (+0), SOC 8 (+0)
Skills: Steward 3, Broker 2, Slug Pistol 2, Engineering 1, Navigation 1, Piloting 1, Bludgeoning Weapon 0, Computer 0, Shotgun 0, Slug Rifle 0, Social Science 0, Zero-G 0
Equipment: Cr5500, Body Pistol

Shee Cham 335588 Age 40
Medic (also reserve navigator)
Characteristics: STR 3 (-1), DEX 3 (-1), END 5 (-1), INT 5 (-1), EDU 8 (+0), SOC 8 (+0)
Skills: Medicine 2, Mole 1, Navigation 1, Natural Weapon 1, Shotgun 1, Steward 1, Admin 0, Broker 0, Comm 0, Engineering 0, Ocean Ship 0, Physical Science 0, Slug Pistol 0, Slashing Weap 0, Zero-G 0
Equipment: Cr0

Jassmeen Dunmore C68485 Age 38
Payload Specialist (also medical technician)
Characteristics: STR 12 (+2), DEX 6 (+0), END 8 (+1), INT 4 (-1), EDU 8 (+0), SOC 5 (-1)
Skills: Broker 1, Medicine 1, Slashing Weapon 1, Steward 1, Tactics 1, Zero-G 1, Comm 0, Electronics 0, Energy Pistol 0, Engineering 0, Natural Weapon 0, Winged Aircraft 0
Equipment: Cr2000, Spear

Irame Gurmorsen 879688 Age 38
Payload Specialist
Characteristics: STR 8 (+0), DEX 7 (+0), END 9 (+1), INT 6 (+0), EDU 8 (+0), SOC 8 (+0)
Skills: Admin 1, Archery 1, Comm 1, Jack o' Trade 1, Navigation 1, Screens 1, Slashing Weapon 1, Steward 1, Carousing 0, Computer 0, Electronics 0, Leadership 0, Mechanics 0, Tracked Vehicle 0, Zero-G 0
Equipment: Accelerator Rifle, Cr5200