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This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 2008, and appeared in this form in the April/May 2015 issue.

Author’s Note: This system main world originated in the 30-year-old “Glavion Cluster” campaign notes of Steve Marsh. This is a generic version for insertion into any Traveller campaign.

Cathai C572506-9 NI
Eagleston Trade Class 0
Amber Zone (Ware Pirates)

The largest planet in an orange/red dwarf binary system with no gas giants, Cathai is a backwater, a mostly-desert world with seriously dust-tainted atmosphere and one small moon. Once high-tech, the world did not survive the Long Night very well; the population of 100,000 is almost entirely nomad tribes of “Sandpeople” wandering the desert, with occasional oasis towns and permanent holdings. The main export is a valuable spice and pharmaceutical raw material refined from the excrement of burrowing armor-worms, collected and pre-processed by the nomads as trade goods. The secondary export is artifacts from “Rooning” (finding and stripping the high-tech ruins that appear and disappear beneath the shifting sands of the Outback deserts).

With an Eaglestone Trade Index of zero (NI), Cathai is totally dependent on neighboring systems for any trade volume. Any cargoes moving in or out will probably be incidental small-lots, ideal for Type A free-traders; exports will be primarily Spices and/or Pharmaceuticals, with occasional specialty foodstuffs (cheese).

Planetary Geography

Most of Cathai is barren desert, with the only fertile areas around a cluster of small landlocked brine seas with the distinctive shoreline of clustered impact craters and edged by glistening salt flats. (Cathain seawater is almost as dense and briny as the Dead Sea on Terra, far too salty for any but native life.) Between the desert and the seacoast is a wide transition zone of semi-arid “badlands”.

The starport enclave and settled area are located on a peninsula separating the two largest brine seas. Most of the plant and animal life on this peninsula are originally from off-world, transplanted during the original settlement of Cathai before the Long Night.

(Tip: Use a map of the Moon as a basis, translating the dark “Maria” into the brine seas. The starport peninsula is the wide landmass between “Mare Nubium” and “Mare Tranquillitatis”, with a large set of islands to the north separating “Mare Imbrium” from “Mare Serenitatis”. See the images below; the top image is an unlabeled Mercator projection; the lower is a labeled “globe” showing the “Maria”.)

Surface Conditions/Sky Picture

Surface gravity is around 2/3 gee; the atmosphere is breathable, with normal density and pressure but tainted by slightly-low oxygen content and blowsand from the deep desert; the Starport Enclave peninsula gets a major dust storm every few local months. The day is 42 hours long from suntide drag, with a year (measured between conjunctions of the two suns) of 68 local days. The long day/night cycle causes extreme temperature variations including hot afternoons and cold nights; on the Port Peninsula, this is mitigated by the heat-sink effect of open brine, but is at its full extreme of scorching days and freezing nights in the deep desert.

The main sun (the K3 V orange dwarf) is half-again as large as “normal”, with a distinct orange tint; the moon is half the apparent diameter of the sun, with a distinct reddish tint and a twelve-day month. The second sun (the M6 V red dwarf) appears as a superbrilliant star, a ruby laser in a sky often tawny with high-altitude blown sand.

Like most surface-habitable worlds orbiting orange/red dwarves, the hundred-diameter safe Jump limit is determined by the sun, corresponding to Orbit 2; Cathai is in Orbit 1, the liquid-water habitable zone. Safe Jump distance is thus .3 AU (45,000,000km) outsystem from Cathai, corresponding to “close neighbor world” distance. This helps system defenses, as any attacker Jumping in must boost for 18 to 36 hours to get to Cathai; even a “Dump-and-Jump” with 6-G missiles would give some 15 hours early warning.

Native Life

Native Cathain plants are limited to the fertile areas around the seas. Most are low scrub plants, like tangles of carotene-orange rope. Some badlands and desert-edge plants appear similar to yucca with long, tentacle-like leaves that unfurl over the ground during the long day and curl up during the long cold night; though no Cathain plant is carnivorous, the larger tentacle-yuccas do have a creepy “man-eating plant” appearance, especially when furling or unfurling.

All native Cathain animal life are invertebrates, from the “wormfish” of the brine seas to the armor-worms of the badlands and deserts. Armor-worms—long invertebrates with peniform armored head carapaces—are the archetypal land animals, burrowing deep and hibernating during the hot days and cold nights, becoming active at dawn and dusk.

The largest armor-worms are 6-8m apex predators similar to the “Graboids” from Tremors. However, such mega-predators are rare. More plentiful are “Footgrabbers”, smaller 1-2m omnivores that are a major nuisance pest. The “Deathspike” is a venomous predatory armor-worm about 1m in length with a retractable stinger thrusting forward out of its head carapace. And then come “Spiceworms”, the subterranean grazers that produce Cathai’s cash crop. Or at least one species of them does, and only the Sandpeople know which one.

Starport Enclave

Population 6000 (Guild employees/vassals, dependents, local “camp followers”), Government 1 (Starport Guild corporate), Law Level 6, Tech Level 9. Downport only, no Highport.

The starport is a Guild-run ground port surrounded by the only true “city” and Startown on-world, built into and onto abandoned/mothballed sections of a former larger starport. The high Law Level (banning all firearms) is a reaction to tribal blood feuds/murders/duels among the Sandpeople entering town to trade.

The port has unusually-large TL9bis hospital/medical facilities, used for goodwill medical care of locals and neighbors. Additionally, the port has reactivated a desalinization plant to provide fresh water not only for the enclave and surrounding agricultural land down the Peninsula, but as a trade good with the Sandpeople of the deep desert.

Port entry gates enforce the local tribes’ “Peace of Water and Salt” hospitality ritual upon crossing the XT Line. All visitors are offered a cup of salt and cup of water upon entry; the recipient puts a pinch of the salt on his/her tongue then washes it down with the water. Once he has “eaten your salt and drank your water”, all blood feuds are null and void for either the length of his stay or a certain number of days (which varies from tribe to tribe). It works most of the time, but don’t count on it in Startown. The Cathai Starport Guild adopted this custom from the native oasis/trade towns where it originated.
The Guild runs and maintains the system defenses, close-orbital minefields of encapsulated missiles, some dating back to before the Long Night. Most of these are dead from sheer age, but you never know; the Guild may have more operational than the official figures. The Guild also maintains the only organized armed forces on Cathai, a single TL9 mercenary battalion on a long-term Security ticket.

The Sandpeople

Once you get away from the port, it’s effectively Government and Law of zero; the population is nomad tribes of “Sandpeople” (averaging 500 per tribe) and the occasional oasis town and/or permanent holding with populations of up to 1000. Most of the trade towns have similar Law Levels/weapon bans as the Starport Enclave, and for the same reason. This has not stopped the tribes from wanting higher-tech weapons for their feuds; some are willing to pay high premiums for firearms, traded at your own risk. (Referee: On any sale of firearms to nomads, secretly roll 1D-1, and add the result to the player’s roll on the Actual Value table for the sale.)

Though to the Starport Enclave and offworlders all Cathaians are “Sandpeople”, the term properly applies to the nomads of the deep deserts, not the settled people of the oasis/trade towns or the agricultural tribes on the Peninsula who grow the food for the Starport Enclave. Despite the name, most true Sandpeople wander the badlands at the desert’s edge, venturing into the sand seas only in search of raw Spice or ‘rooned’ artifacts.

Such nomads are dependent on their riding/pack animals, grazers genetically-engineered from before the Long Night to live on native Cathain vegetation, producing a fortified milk that is the nomads’ survival staple. Oasis towns in the Peninsula, badlands, and edge deserts are more agricultural, surrounded by farms and orchards of offworld vegetation. Some of the native cheeses (with unique flavor and texture) are almost as offworld-marketable as the Spice.

As is common on a harsh world with limited resources, the native tribes have developed a Tharkultur (tribal blood vengeance culture) in their zero-sum competition for survival. Trust is only within the tribe, among those related by blood; all outside is the Other. Blood feuds are common, as any “law” extends only as far as the tribe; outside there is only blood vengeance. Raid-and-pillage is also common, as in a zero-sum game the only way to get more for yourself (or your tribe) is to take it away from the Other (including the townies of the trade-oases and offworlders at the downport) by force. Yet tribes still need to interact with the Other (including townies and offworlders); this is the reason behind the “Peace of Water and Salt”, to formalize short-term cease-fires through a universal hospitality ritual. After all, the desert is the ultimate Other, the enemy of all.

This Tharkultur is at its peak in the nomad tribes; the harsher their territory, the more pronounced it is. Townies (especially those on the Peninsula) are mellower; their resources (agricultural) are more plentiful and the survival struggle was never so intense. However, townies still have to worry about nomad raids, and the port’s battalion of TL9 mercenaries is there for a reason.

The Gentlemen of the Red Moon

An abandoned base on Cathai’s one moon (C100303-9) once served as a major pirate haven in the Cluster; judging from the size and condition of the ruins, this Tortuga was cleaned out a long time ago. Recently, a band of pirates/corsairs has set up in the surviving base facilities and reached an accommodation with the Starport Guild for an ad-hoc Port Royal operation, including Letters of Marque and legal status as “privateers” or “mercenaries”.

The Guild has the leverage of operational system defenses (the abovementioned high-tech orbital minefields), a monopoly on the sources of fuel and high-tech medicine in-system, and an understanding to look the other way so long as the pirates don’t directly bother them or get too blatant with their operations. The “Gentlemen of the Red Moon” use Cathai downport as a liberty port, and are usually on their best behavior while doing so—no sense fouling your own nest, especially when said nest is the only open-sky habitable surface with the best medical facilities for parsecs around.

The pirates are also actively ‘rooning’ the lunar base and in-system for leverage over the Guild and as cover for their other operations; various types of plunder could be hidden in plain sight amid rooned artifacts.


If the campaign includes Vargr, the “Gentlemen of the Red Moon” could be Vargr corsair packs, i.e. “Wolves of the Red Moon”. Given the ever-changing chaotic nature of Vargr society and organization, the non-aggression relationship with the Starport Guild could go very sour very fast.

Adventure Nuggets

This is a less-than-stable situation; the Port Royal arrangement/balancing act between the Starport Guild and the Gentlemen of the Red Moon could go bad fast, especially if the pirates get too blatant and/or the payola flowing in both directions becomes inadequate. Though the Trade Index is minimal, Cathai’s customers would very much like to continue receiving Spice regardless of the world situation.

If the above Vargr variant is used, intrigue between the various corsair packs and between the packs and the Starport Guild would provide many dangerous opportunities; the Starport has a strong interest in preserving the current Port Royal arrangement, especially if Cathai’s branch of the Port Guild is doing this on their own, without sanction from the Guild proper.

Additionally, the source of the Spice—the Sandpeople—are out for themselves and their tribal blood feuds, and could easily cut their own deals without going through the Starport (especially if the deal includes weapons to knock over the neighboring tribes)—Another way for the pirates/corsairs on the moon to make life interesting.

Or, since the tribal situation is similar to a small-scale Dune with the Sandpeople as Fremen/Bedouins, what if the tribes were to actually unite under a Muad’dib/Mahdi?

Or you could chuck it all and go ‘rooning’, either in the Outback or on the moon/in-system. However, the Sandpeople claim the former as their rightful territory and the pirates the latter. Do you feel lucky today?