Starfinder: Dead Suns

Session 17

Augmented Reality

Salvation’s End – Orbit

The crew was on the Exemplarion, the personal starship and luxury space-yacht of an Eoxian celebrity, having just arrived aboard a far more modest Starfinder starship. They had had a brief window to tour the larger craft’s six decks, casino, spa, trio of restaurants, and other extravagant amenities that accommodate the hundreds of guests on board. After a while, one of Zo!’s skeletal assistants intercepted them and escorted them to the production studio on Decks 4 and 5.

The studio was a large, multi-tiered auditorium with an immense window that looked out over the moon known as Salvation’s End. Dozens of professionals rushed about the studio, adjusting lights, testing holographic displays, pulling clothes from wheeled wardrobes, cleaning the hundreds of tiered seats, and more. The elebrian media mogul Zo! sat on the stage with the Starfinder Society’s First Seeker, Content Not Found: uwazi, animatedly telling a story while Luwazi marveled at the ongoing activity. When the First Seeker spotted the crew, she waved them down the aisles to join her and Zo!. Assistants immediately rushed out with additional chairs to accommodate the Starfinders.

“Yes. Yes! You’re everything I was hoping for,” exclaimed the undead showman while looking over the new arrivals. “Oh, Luwazi, you’ve truly outdone yourself. They’re so exciting, so energized, so–”

“–alive?” finished a ghast woman wearing well-tailored clothing as she stepped onto the stage. Zo! frowned at the blunt observation, muttering an introduction to Wazasha Kevir, his associate producer. He looked like he was about to say more, but Luwazi intervened.

“Starfinders, no doubt this is all happening a little fast, so let me explain. After the Scoured Stars incident, the Society struggled to support new expeditions. I reached out to numerous people and organizations for grant money, and our host was eager to help. He financed more than a dozen missions, including the one to Salvation’s End. There was one big catch.” Zo! visibly bounced in his seat with excitement as Luwazi continued. “If we found anything especially exciting, we’d need to cease exploration long enough for him to get a film crew out there to document whatever we found next. Well, Salvation’s End may look like a moon, but our initial survey of it found there’s something built inside – the whole thing might be artificial. That qualifies as especially exciting, but that was also several months ago.”

The skeletal mogul waved his hands. “Oh, but Luwazi, I couldn’t just send a single crew. No, the Starfinder Society’s greatest triumph deserves far more production value.” He hopped up from his chair and gazed out at the moon as he paced and gesticulated. “Imagine: heroes from the Pact World, a mysterious planetoid, untold secrets, limitless adventure – all broadcast before a live audience in our greatest production yet!” He spun to look back at the group, his lipless mouth smiling gleefully. “Live Exploration Extreme!”

The ghast Wazasha clapped politely before interjecting. “To translate, you’re scheduled to explore part of Salvation’s End accompanied by a professional camera crew and production team, led by me. You will find exciting things and be thoroughly entertaining.”

Luwazi explained the Starfinders’ stake in Salvation’s end and what they had encountered so far. “I hired a team to perform a surface survey, and it was they who discovered a hatch that led much deeper into its interior. We also know that a tribe of goblins calling themselves the Exhaust Drinkers lives on the surface, and we’ve clashed with them in the past. Most recently, we undertook a concerted effort to clear the tribe out from our landing facility on the moon’s surface. The moon’s gravity will feel about normal, but we’ve detected that the gravity is artificially maintained and even seems to reorient itself in some areas.”

Wazasha glanced down at her wrist-mounted holoscreen and announced that the show was an hour away from starting. She ushered the crew out of the auditorium toward a dressing room for further instructions. There she reviewed the assignment and confirmed that the Starfinders had the supplies they thought they might need. In this venture, they wouldn’t just be holovid stars; they were performing for a live audience of passionate fans able to contribute to whatever incentives Zo! concocted during the event. Although the Starfinders’ only obligations involved exploring the designated portion of Salvation’s End and not killing the production crew – or getting them killed, Wazasha clarified patiently when they asked – they stood to reap considerable social rewards if they put on a good show and pandered to the crowd. Before continuing the briefing, Wazasha called in a squad of makeup artists to ensure that the crew would be looking their best.

Two teams would be accompanying the Starfinders as they explored Salvation’s End. The first was the production team – consisting of two ghouls, two androids, and a hexapodal robot – that carried refreshments, portable seats, makeup, the bubble projector for The Booth, a pair of heavy-duty broadcast relays, and other equipment necessary to keep the operation running. The camera team consisted of ten ghouls bristling with holocord cameras, boom microphones, reflective screens to amplify natural lighting, and other equipment for properly recording the Starfinders’ exploits in several multimedia broadcast formats.

Like many reality shows, one of the crew would be periodically sequestered to speak candidly about recent events and (especially) other people on the show. Wazasha explained and demonstrated the Booth – the hexapodal robot could plant itself on the ground and unfold its top like a box, deploying a seat in front of a two-panel screen to create a visually neutral backdrop. At the same time, the robot deployed a pair of tiny hover drones equipped with cameras as well as a slightly opaque, noise-cancelling bubble to provide some privacy. The ghoul ushered each of them inside with her, at which point she asked a few basic introductory questions – some open-ended and others provocatively pointed to elicit a raw, emotional response.

After the briefing, it was clear that the ghast associate producer had a dry wit and largely professional demeanor. Occasionally, her two-foot-long tongue hungrily slipped out of her mouth or interfered with her speech, and she irritably recoiled it back into her mouth before continuing. She preferred to speak directly and it was clear that she wouldn’t coddle actors who couldn’t handle show business.

Once they were ready, Wazasha ushered them into a clean shuttle for the 15-minute voyage to the false moon’s surface. The camera crew and production team were waiting, while Zo!’s special effects team played an opening montage to build the audience’s excitement. The crew followed along on the local infosphere (connected to the Exemplarion), even seeing the overly dramatic renditions of their personal bios to introduce viewers to the show’s stars.

Kusanagi – This mysterious masked operative previously earned some small notoriety exploring the Drift Rock back on Absalom Station!

Galakrond – Another Drift Rock veteran, this strong, silent vesk mercenary wielded the signature weapon of his people to protect his teammates!

Glitch – This plucky ysoki master of magitech is a newcomer to the crew who has already proven his worth as the Tiny Technomancer!

Kima – A rising star with his own online series, this lashunta solarian has joined the crew, hoping to elevate their collective brand to new heights!

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Salvation’s End – Surface

Several other Starfinders were retrofitting the dock into a more permanent structure, and some of the Society repair crew casually explained that the location might become a new lodge depending on their findings. The repair crew guided them to a heavy hatch deeper in the facility, beyond which lay dark tunnels that led deep below the surface.

A network of service tunnels crisscrossed this outermost subsurface layer, providing avenues for repair drones to service the simulation chambers deeper inside. However, as the crew explored – and voiced their thoughts aloud, as Wazasha prompted – they found broken and incomplete robots and drones of unknown design at irregular intervals along the worn steel hallways. Almost every light fixture was broken or malfunctioning, making the fifteen-foot-tall tunnels dark but for the occasional, haunting flicker of light from the distance. In the few places where it seemed signage once hung, someone had purposefully defaced or removed the analog signs and torn out any digital displays.

The technological elements in these tunnels seem to be roughly comparable to Pact Worlds’ technology but are of a design never before documented. They examined the geology of the moon in the places where the tunnels were damaged and the surrounding rocky matrix is visible. The rock appeared to be natural, but there were signs of warping and buckling as though the moon had periodically experienced heavy forces such as strong gravitational forces or the large-scale movement of something large toward the moon’s core.

Farther down the tunnel, they also find a midden containing both refuse and excrement. The trash consisted largely of low-value technological scraps that might have been attached to something more valuable. The ample excrement appeared to have come from goblins. Some omnivorous creature about the size of a vesk was the source of another pile. The crew estimated that several creatures had visited the midden within the past hour, and could confidently follow the goblin tracks further down the tunnels.

The crew hadn’t traveled far when an explosion shook the walls and echoed from ahead. The camera crew fanned out to record their reactions. Wazasha prompted them, asking whether random explosions were the sort of event that made Starfinders curious. Although the circumstances seemed staged, Wazasha seemed as unsure of what might lay ahead as they were.

Ahead, the walls had shattered outward from an older explosion, leaving an open space that was partly collapsed along the edges. Due to the poor lighting conditions, the camera crew turned on an array of bright set lights that several ghouls turned toward the action. Something big reflected the light. As the crew drew nearer, they saw something that resembled a large, six-legged armadillo with compound eyes, iridescent banded armor plates, heavy digging claws, and a pair of rasping tongues.

The spicodranth’s scales reflected Galakrond’s laser fire and nearly blinded the vesk. The rest of the crew advanced on the creature while the undead camera crew maneuvered to find the best angle to capture the action. A trio of goblins emerged from the tunnels and began firing at the Starfinders. After the spicodranth fell, two of the three were handily defeated, leaving only a single goblin flanked by Starfinders. Kusanagi’s shot took out the last.

Wazasha pulled the android into the booth, looking slightly perturbed. She reminded him that they had agreed to try to capture and question any of the Exhaust Drinkers they encountered, and she pointed out that the audience had not liked Kusanagi “executing” the clearly outclassed creature. He shrugged and offered no further explanation for his actions.

The crew made their way up through the section of tunnels that the goblins had opened with their recent explosion. The camera crew filmed the proceedings, and once the Starfinders were above, several ghouls fired grapplers and adeptly hoisted themselves and their equipment up. The region beyond was a large cavern that sparkled with phosphorescent fungi whose caps spanned as much as ten feet in diameter. The goblins’ explosion from below had buckled the cavern floor here, leaving a concentric impression in the ground where there appeared to have just been unaffected stone before. These buckled rings were about a foot high.

Of greater note, a group of dwarves watched the Starfinders and accompanying undead horde curiously. A woman among them stepped forward to address them as the ghouls eagerly filmed the exchange. Glitch cast a tongues spell on himself to overcome the language barrier, and the dwarf introduced herself as Ylga Tulgarst, daughter of Ulfrodi. She claimed to speak for her clan. The ysoki struggled with the exchange, making the dwarves more nervous, before Galakrond discovered that Ylga understood Draconic. He then began translating for Kima.

Ylga told them that the Marbleheart clan was large, but had split into smaller groups to seek the surface more than a century ago, from a time before her memories. She now led a band of forty-three dwarves, though they were down to twenty-nine after the orcs and earthquakes returned. The Starfinders asked about the orcs, and Ylga explained.

“The orcs fought us for centuries, but they fled upward long ago. I heard stories of their towering forms, green skin, and rage as a child, but we only saw them for the first time a few hundred forge-days ago. They are shorter than I imagined, but just as cruel. Also, they jabber in a language unknown to us, even though I learned the orc language as part of my warrior training.”

The crew assumed that the dwarves had mistaken the goblins for orcs. Additionally, they estimated that Ylga’s forge-days, were roughly a 24-hour period – how much time passed between the time a smith heated a forge for work and the time she returned after rest to restart the process. As such, they calculated that the strange orcs first appeared about a year ago.

When asked what her clan was doing in the tunnels, Ylga said, “We have always lived below ground, but a generation ago my ancestors answered Torag’s summons – a tremor that called on our people to seek what lies above in the Quest for Sky. There we shall do our god’s will on Golarion’s surface.”

The crew exchanged glances. It was common knowledge that Golarion had disappeared during the Gap – leaving only Absalom Station orbiting in its place. Glitch mentioned in an undertone that Torag was a major dwarven deity who had also disappeared during the Gap. The Starfinders decided not to mention either of these things just yet and accepted Ylga’s invitation to return to the dwarves’ camp and speak with their head priest.

As they traveled to the Marbleheart camp, Ylga told the Starfinders more about her people. With its large baggage train, host of children and elders, and trek upward through unfamiliar tunnels, the dwarves’ Quest for Sky had never been an unbroken voyage from one point to another. The dwarves had periodically settled down for a year or more to gather resources, rest, and allow scouts time to blaze the next trail. Ylga’s band of the Marbleheart clan had built its current settlement more than a year ago, but the dwarves had holed up rather than travel further due to the “orc” raids that had slain many of their clan. As a result, the dozen stone buildings had reinforced doors, arrow slits, and other modest fortifications in the event of another attack.

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Marbleheart Camp

When they arrived, the settlement was in distress, and Ylga was quick to ask a nearby dwarf what was wrong. The goblins’ latest explosion resulted in burst pipes and additional tremors. Less than an hour ago, a fissure split down the middle of the settlement’s cavern, dropping a massive chunk of stone to crash into the Temple of Torag’s facade. The few dozen dwarven survivors were struggling to break through the boulder or one of the reinforced walls to get inside, where their chief priest Holsin Nolskrit was trapped!

Ylga quickly introduced the Starfinders and coordinated the dwarves in their rescue effort. After some examination, she determined that there were two likely ways to get in and help Holsin: remove the boulder or send in a small group through the fissure. Several dwarves determined that the fissure’s trajectory should lead to its intersecting with the temple’s rear rooms, but the trench had partly filled with an unknown, viscous fluid.

The ghast Wazasha let the crew know that the audience was voting on what they should do next, then pulled up a holographic display from her wrist computer to show the votes as they were cast. Every time the dwarves identified one option’s difficulty, painfulness, or uncomfortable circumstances, the voting for that option surged. Ultimately, the audience voted for the Starfinders to clamber through the strange fluid-choked fissure to sneak into the temple from behind.

The oily fluid seemed to be a synthetic lubricant, much as would be found in a mechanical engine or hydraulic system. The substance wasn’t directly harmful to the touch; however, anyone marching through the fissure will become slathered in it and probably have trouble moving without falling over. The Starfinders used a combination of magic, technology, and brute strength to climb through the fissure above the fluid, making their way to the back rooms of the temple. As they traveled down the fissure, several tiny camera drones followed along to record your actions.

They found Holsin in the front room of the temple, surrounded by what appeared to be globules of autonomous fluid. The crew handily dispatched these strange technological oozes and Galakrond gave the dwarf a healing serum to mend his wounds. The dwarves outside the temple managed to remove the boulder and free everyone shortly thereafter.

Holsin was thankful for their aid and very disturbed by the cave-in that had nearly killed him. Despite his tireless piety, it seems that Torag was angry with the dwarves. He was open to discussing his concerns and theories with the crew, including his suspicion that the dwarves are near the surface. Wazasha encouraged the crew to keep the old dwarf talking.

For generations Holsin’s people had climbed higher and higher in the Darklands, following Torag’s prophesied tremor that began the Quest for Sky. Ever since, Torag had rumbled periodically, coaxing his people to ascend. Now Torag’s miracles had become less powerful, which Holsin believed was because the god’s power was diluted by the influence of surface faiths with which he must contend. The “short orcs” had also returned with magic wands from the surface to fight their age-old enemy. Furthermore, the orcs had used vile surface magic to channel the sky-realm’s toxic air into the caverns and kill the dwarves. If the dwarves were to survive and reach the surface – Holsin believed that they were so close – someone able to survive the poisons needed to travel into the deadly fog and clear the tunnels.

Wazasha didn’t have to tell the Starfinders that the audience demanded they be the dwarves’ saviors.

The tunnels extended only another mile up, but after traveling half that distance, the air became visibly cloudy until, the haze obscured all distant objects and terrain, giving the caverns a spooky and menacing ambiance. Skulking in the haze, the crew saw a handful of goblins, including one wearing what appeared to be a piecemeal set of powered armor. Big Genius Polbak – loudly referring to himself in the third person – ordered his subordinates to attack!

The goblins were no real match for the Starfinders, and because they knew the audience would love the loud-mouthed leader, they left him alive. With the goblins defeated, the crew explored the cavern and found a large adamantine door. The goblins’ tools, explosives, and other gear was scattered haphazardly about, available for them to use in opening the door. With applied engineering and strength, it didn’t take long to accomplish.

Once the door was open, Wazasha urged the Starfinders to let a few of the camera crew enter first just to get a good reaction shot. The door exited onto an elevated walkway that ran along the length of a horizontal cylindrical space several hundred feet in diameter and extending as far as the eye can see to the right and left. At several points along its visible length lay heavy doors like the one they had opened. Most notably, though, they spotted a digital terminal near their door, its display glowing with strange alien text that quickly cycled through various forms before stopping on Common. It read:

Simulation #20,553
Dwarven Quest for Sky
Planet Golarion
Circa -4,900 Absalom Reckoning (simulation local calendar approximation)
Status: Simulation ongoing.
ALERT: ERROR! Immediate repair required.
ERROR! External influence detected.
ERROR! Control measures enacted.

The crew exchanged wide-eyed glances while the cameras zoomed in on the screen. The Quest for Sky was a simulation that had been running for who knew how long. At a second glance, they saw that each of the doors along this massive gallery have a similar terminal next to them, suggesting there were untold numbers of other simulation chambers sustaining other artificial worlds within the moon. This was a huge discovery.

As the chamber’s sensors detected the toxic gas and began venting it out of the Quest for Sky simulation, Wazasha signaled the crew to let them know that this was a perfect cliffhanger to stop filming. She asked that the Starfinders quickly assemble for one final action shot, instructing them to pose together like victorious explorers as the poisonous fog billowed past them. The camera crew snapped dozens of pictures for promotional purposes.

Wazasha ushered each of the crew in turn into the Booth to get their impressions and theories about the nature of Salvation’s End as a massive simulation machine. They offered their thoughts until the ghoul was satisfied that she had what she needed.

Just after the camera crew took the last set of pictures, Wazasha asked aloud, “How about we hear how they’re wrapping up the event in the studio?” She pulled up a program on her wrist computer, which played the live audio feed with Zo! shouting excitedly.

“What a discovery! What a destination! What a band of unlikely heroes! What could lie deeper in Salvation’s End? Find out on the next episode of Live Exploration Extreme! when the Starfinder Society returns to–”

“What?” shouted Luwazi with alarm from near Zo!’s microphone. “That was not part of our deal, Zo! You can’t just add a sequel when we haven’t–”

Zo!’s voice insistently cut back in. “Ha ha! And now a word from our sponsors!” A booming add for Nova Solutions blared out of Wazasha’s computer before she closed the program, rolled her eyes, and ordered the teams to retrace their way to the surface.

Wazasha told the Starfinders that Luwazi Elsebo wanted to give them a proper debriefing before deciding whether to send them deeper into the unknown. Furthermore, there was still the question of what to do with the Marbleheart dwarves. The gaping hole through which they had arrived and the open door into the simulation control chamber shattered the artificial existence in which the dwarves had lived for at least a century, and the existence of a larger galaxy beyond their tiny world might inspire some to travel the stars. For others, the stress might be too much without patient mentors to guide their path. It was clear, though, that given the malfunctioning machinery, remaining in the simulation wasn’t a viable option.

<<< >>>

Back on the Exemplarion, Luwazi seemed somewhat frazzled as she met with the crew to hear their un-glamorized accounts of the expedition. She reported that Zo! was desperately trying to negotiate for additional filmed excursions, but so far she had left him with a curt “We’ll see.” Prior to dismissing them, Luwazi asked for the crew’s thoughts on whether Live Exploration Extreme! should return for another episode or not. Considering the amazing discovery and all the good publicity it would likely earn the Starfinder Society, the crew were agreed in their recommendation that she should at least consider it.

The crew also recommended the Society take point on relocating the Marbleheart dwarves and integrating them into modernity. This humanitarian effort would likely also earn the organization some good publicity while also rescuing what was left of an entire civilization trapped for centuries out of time and tricked into pursuing something impossible by unknown parties for an unknown purpose. Luwazi agreed with the recommendation and started the process of creating the Marbleheart Initiative.

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Absalom Station

You arrive back at the Lorespire Complex shortly after the live broadcast of the show reached the Pact Worlds. They found themselves invited as guests to a host of programs, game shows, nightclubs, and other events – again for Galakrond and Kusanagi. The fame was short-lived, which was just as well. They were contacted by Winslow, who reported that the Sunrise Maiden had been retrofitted under Twitch’s supervision.

They were ready to continue pursuing the Stellar Degenerator in the Nejeor System.

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The Ruined Clouds

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