Nejeor – Gate 1
It took a couple of hours to enter orbit around the planetoid, which was made difficult by the gravitational fluctuations throughout the system. The unnatural forces threatened to tear the ship apart, but Glitch’s calculations helped Kusanagi navigate the dangerous space with ease. Once they were safely in orbit, they performed another scan of the surface to see what they were in for.
The planetoid had an oxygen-rich atmosphere and dynamic weather patterns. It supported one large ocean and a few small continents, whose biomes ranged from temperate plains to steaming jungles to polar ice caps; signs of life could be found all across the world. All of this normalcy seemed to be maintained by technomagical ley lines emanating from tall antennae that encircled most of the planetoid, as the world’s strange interior and the huge bore that ran through the center would most likely render the surface unlivable.
The Sunrise Maiden’s scanners also revealed a number of ruins scattered across the planetoid’s surface and a single intact structure on the equator. The buildings were thousands of years old, and the intact structure stands in the middle of a dense jungle. The only safe place to land a starship was on a landing pad – no more than a deteriorating slab of an ancient concrete-like material – in a clearing half a mile away.
As the crew breached the cloud cover and made their landing approach, they caught glimpses of the planetoid’s surface. They spotted a stampede of wild, horned quadrupeds kicking up dust across a grassy plain. They skirted the edge of a mountain range and watched as an avalanche swallows a copse of tall trees. They passed over the canopy of a jungle, spooking a flock of brightly colored, double-billed birds. As they approached the landing pad, they saw a crude trail burned in the brush leading in the direction of the control center.
As they stepped out of the Maiden, the crew noted a very wide path through the jungle. The densest parts of the foliage had recently been cleared with fire, explosives, and sharp instruments. Walking the half mile to the control center looked simple enough. They noted that many of the nearby plants were poisonous.
As the crew moved through the jungle, they heard screams and howls in the distance from the local fauna. Occasionally, carnivorous plants made half-hearted attempts to grab at the Starfinders with a green tendril, but they were easily avoided. After about five minutes of walking, the crew stepped into a swampy clearing. Several inches of rainfall had collected in this natural depression within the jungle, making the ground damp and squishy. Bits of broken pavement jutted from the mud at odd angles, remnants of the service road that once connected the landing pad to the control center.
The nearby trees swayed as something very large barreled its way out of the jungle. Branches snapped and foliage is scattered about as a large, bulbous beast with two mouths, each one dripping with slimy green saliva, burst into the clearing. The creature walked on a handful of small legs, and two massive clawed arms jutted from its torso. Its thick tail flailed violently about, and both its mouths each let loose deafening roars as it charged forth.
It got one bite on Galakrond before the crew put it down.
Half an hour later, the Starfinders all got the sense that they were being watched. A moment later, an androgynous human with a shaved head covered in scars dropped out of the foliage overhead. It had only hollow holes where its eyes should be, and a pair of fanged mouths open on its palms. A grayish haze tinged with crackling red lightning floated above it. The atrocite shouted into their heads, ”DIE!”
The flying outsider proved a challenge, since half the crew’s strengths lay in melee combat. It also seemed to be protected by a displacement illusion. Kusanagi scored the first significant hit against the creature, and it focused its void bolts at the android. The second one sheared off the operative’s right arm above the elbow, and the Starfinders scrambled to finish the fight before it could kill one of them. After a brief discussion about what to do with the hand – Kusanagi didn’t much appreciate his companions’ jokes – and some time to rest, they continued on.
Eventually, the path through the harsh jungle turned into the remains of a battered road leading to a large bunker-like structure. As the crew approached, they saw that more of the jungle had been scorched here, most likely the result of a large explosion that had blasted a hole through the wall of a one-story building. They heard sounds of cruel laughter from inside. The remains of a large double door lay broken on the floor, while a couple of bizarre-looking chairs or couches sat mangled against the north wall. Two short sets of steps led up to a raised section of the room, from which a double door exited to the north. A smaller door stood in the southeast corner.
Three cultists inside the wrecked lobby had captured a furry, three-legged beast the size of a small dog with a spherical head on a skinny neck. They were teasing and torturing it on the far side of the room, laughing and shouting cruelly as they battered the creature. They were so focused on it that they didn’t notice the crew’s approach until it was too late for them.
Three ancient kishalee hoverbikes leaned against the wall in one corner of the room. Two of them were still operational, but the third was critically damaged by an explosion. Within the closet on the southeast side of the room was a stand with four space suits constructed for kishalee anatomy. Galakrond took the golemforged plating off the largest of the three cultists and replaced his armor with it. They piled the rest of the cultists gear on one of the doors, and continued into the building.
To the north, they found a corridor that served as the spine of the control center, connecting the various chambers in the building. Except for a few smears of grease and tracks in the dust, it was relatively free from the predations of the cultists. They entered the nearest door across the hall, and found a computer lab. The large chamber was lit only by the bluish glow of a single monitor across from the southern door. The other computer consoles that lined the walls were dark. A circular platform of some unknown technology was affixed to the floor in the center of the room. The view outside a window in the western wall was completely obscured by thick jungle foliage.
Glitch got to work hacking the system and almost immediately set off an alarm countermeasure. It took him a couple of tries to shut it down before he could get back to the business of accessing the terminal. Once he had it, he powered up the lights and the other computers in the room. The platform near the center of the room also flickered to life as a luminescent holographic projection manifested above it.
Within seconds the light coalesced into a tall, regal humanoid form that resembled the images of the ancient kishalee found on Istamak. The figure was dressed in garb that appeared to be a mixture of military and scientific outfits that seemed to disappear into the glow of the circular dais at the figure’s feet. The holographic figure stretched out an arm and started speaking with the strange, spidery syllables of Kishaleen with the rapidity of purpose, though her expression remained fixed and stoic. Galakrond and Glitch explained to the others that it was greeting them and with some urgency.
“He has gone mad. His programming had degenerated and he kept raving about something called the Star-Eater. I confined him due to these critical errors, but now he is out, and I am in here! He and those who helped him must be stopped.” There was a brief pause. “From your attire, I assumed you weren’t allied with those cruel marauders. Please tell me you aren’t with them.”
As if on cue, the door to the hall opened and there stood a foursome of cultists, three rank-and-file led by a half-orc with a sniper rifle. Galakrond rushed to block the doorway, and a messy melee began. When the sniper rifle failed, the half-orc pulled a knife and tried to stab the vesk to death. He defended himself from the barrage and the crew started to make some progress against the cultists. It was painful, but they managed to win, limping back into the computer chamber to recover from the effort.
The hologram, assured by the fight that the Starfinders were there to stop the cultists, introduced herself. “My name is Osteth. I was once one of the many kishalee scientists who monitored this entire system, protecting its secret. Long ago, I had a physical form, but in order to maintain these computers past our civilization’s fall, another engineer and I created digital versions of our consciousnesses to serve as custodians for eternity.”
“His name is Eltreth,” she continued. “We have operated here for millennia, keeping this place functional and its terrible secret hidden, until a couple of centuries ago. Without warning, he began to display signs of instability and critical errors. He became convinced that he was the tool of some being called the Devourer. I believed it to be just some sort of manifestation of degradation in his core programming, and I sequestered him to these servers before he could cause any damage. I had hoped he could be repaired, but recent events have changed my mind.”
“The cultists arrived,” said Kima.
The hologram nodded. “Several days ago we were invaded by that group of raiders. Some of them looked much like yourselves, but others were like figments, strange dark apparitions with no true form. The raiders call themselves the Desperate Hunger and are led by an android woman named Null-9 – I discovered this as they blasted their way into this facility spouting paeans to this Devourer and caught me off-guard. Before I knew it, they had freed Eltreth and forced me into his prison. Luckily, I was able to place some roadblocks in their path to slow them down, but they cannot be allowed to access the Stellar Degenerator.”
“How many were there?” asked Galakrond.
“More than a dozen main members, some number of shadow creatures, the android, and a couple of smaller creatures like you,” Osteth pointed at Glitch.
“Okay, so what have you done and how can we stop them?” asked Kusanagi.
“The many maintenance robots that perform the physical tasks of this system have always been semiautonomous, but ever since I locked Eltreth away, I have been striving to uplift the robots to full sentience so that they might continue should something happen to me. When it looked as though Eltreth would be freed, I uploaded as much independent programming as I could to their processors. It will take Eltreth some time to regain full control over those robots. In addition, I generated a pulse of electricity throughout the terminals in the operations room, making sure the demiplane containing the Stellar Degenerator could not be easily accessed.
“Truthfully, I fear the Desperate Hunger will be stopped by nothing short of death. Though it pains me to say so, I must trap Eltreth again and destroy his programming for good. What I thought was a mere degradation was but utter corruption borne from powers I do not understand. If you know of any other way, please tell me.”
The crew had no suggestions. “How do we free you?” asked Glitch.
“You cannot do it from here. You must access the sequestering subprogram from the main operations room.” Osteth brought up a map of the control center and points out a large chamber down the hall. “This should initiate an exchange of my core programming and Eltreth’s. Beware, though. Eltreth has probably installed countermeasures.”
The crew made their way down the hall and decided to check the door before central operations. The rectangular chamber had various illuminated panels and monitors along its walls. Some showed what looked like the schematics of the entire structure, while others seemed to show the interior of the planet. In the latter images, squads of robots skittered along the technology-studded walls of a massive tunnel. A circular platform stood in the center of the room, projecting a hologram of a tall figure clad in white robes. The figure gestured at the various screens, seemingly attempting to direct the robots in their tasks.
When it noticed them, it said, “Oh, thank the First Cause! I thought I was going to be stuck with these lunatics forever. You are here to help, yes?”
The crew exchanged uncertain glances and Galakrond said, “You Eltreth?” At the hologram’s curt nod, the vesk continued. “The other hologram said you were on their side.”
Eltreth rolled his digitally emulated eyes and said, “Well, of course she said that. They’ve corrupted her programming. I barely managed to escape and trap her so I could try to salvage this clusterf- Look, can you help or not? I could use a hand reprogramming these crazy robots.”
Glitch looked at the others who shrugged. The ysoki entered the room and moved up to a terminal. He frowned when he saw that the computers had only holographic interfaces, not physical ones. They could only be accessed by someone with a rig that would work remotely and wirelessly. He looked up at Eltreth in confusion, but the AI was glaring at the rest of the crew who continued to wait in the hall.
“None of you know how to program?” They shrugged apologetically – bust mostly, suspiciously. Eltreth threw up his hands and said, “Fine!” In a blink, the room filled with deadly arcs of electricity.
Glitch survived the blast and noted with a grunt that the computers were also fried. He limped back out into the hall and muttered, “I could use a few minutes.”
“Guess Eltreth is the crazy one,” said Galakrond. Once the ysoki had recovered, the crew continued to confront the AI.
The door opened onto a raised platform that overlooked various panels alight and abuzz with digital activity. Screens flickered with schematics of the many pieces of technology that controlled the kishalee megastructure, while others showed views of legions of small robots repairing and maintaining massive mechanisms. The shadows moved strangely, seemingly having a life of their own. A circular dais occupied a second raised platform in the eastern end of the room, where Eltreth was manifested.
Four oblivion shades and a couple of Desperate Hunger cultists also occupied the chamber, and they grinned madly as the crew entered the chamber. The crew were in for a tough fight, between the spells of one of the shades, the sharp blades of the cultists, and the nattering of Eltreth throughout the entire affair. Kima lost consciousness from his wounds or a crucial few seconds, and Kusanagi was locked down for half a minute by a hold person spell. Even so, they rallied and defeated the cultists and their incorporeal allies.
Glitch engaged in a hacking battle with Eltreth, who was rewriting code to create countermeasures on the fly. One of the terminals exploded during the course of the effort, but the ysoki persevered and swapped the corrupted AI for his counterpart Osteth. Once the control center was secured, she expressed her gratitude.
“Thank you, travelers. With Eltreth returned to his containment, the Gate of Twelve Suns is one step closer to being safe from the predations of those marauders. Now that I have access to the gate’s full sensor suite, I can detect that some of them are still within the system. They are within the core facility of Gate Two’s controller moon, an underground facility where my colleagues could adjust the gravitational pulses emanating from the planetoid’s center when necessary. Since my inception as an artificial intelligence, physical presences have been unnecessary in those facilities, with the exception of standard maintenance bots, of course.”
Osteth’s form flickers for a moment. “It seems as though the marauders have briefly commandeered some of those robots to help them in their quest. I am completely locked out of those bots’ programming, and it is only a matter of time before our enemies retrieve an intact control board required to repair the controls that open the Stellar Degenerator’s demiplane. You must stop them!” A frown creased the hologram’s face. “But first, there are still cult forces here in this building!”