Starfinder: Dead Suns

Session 8

Practical Xenocide

Struggle’s Scholar

When the crew used the beacon’s coordinates and instructions to drop out of the Drift, they found themselves a few hundred yards from the disabled Struggle’s Scholar. The heavily damaged kasathan transport ship floats in empty space, dark but for a slowly flashing orange light at its aft. Just a few miles away from the ship, a massive storm dwarfed the vessel, blue and gray etheric clouds warping the field of stars behind the ship and flashing internally with jagged streaks of light. For all its violence, the vast storm was silent, and it loomed larger with each passing second. It was clear that the storm would overtake the Struggle’s Scholar, destroying the ship long before the Starfinders could restore the vessel to working order or even tow it out of the way.

The Honorbound floated nearby, and Captain Yuluzak hailed them on comms. He explained that he sent his crew on a boarding action, leaving only himself and the doctor aboard the vesk ship. The boarding party came under attack and stopped responding to hails. He feared the worst but hoped that Galakrond’s challenge of physical combat was not a boast. The Starfinders were his only chance to salvage the mission.

Twitch used the the ship’s computer to scan the Struggle’s Scholar. He was able to get the basic internal map of the ship, with outlines of every chamber. The Struggle’s Scholar is an older model of kasathan starship known as an Idaran Centuria, its curved hull representative of kasathan design standards. Each room is 15 feet high with walls made of starship interior material and steel doors. The ship has enough power to provide both basic life support and normal gravity. According to the scan, only low-power emergency lighting illuminates the ship. He also noted the presence of notable power spikes in the captain’s quarters, engine room, and bridge.

It was a simple matter to attach to the Struggle Scholar’s airlock, which had an internal access door to the fore. Loose netting floated in the gravity-free chamber. A warning light above the interior door flashed every few seconds, periodically bathing the room in a dim orange glow. A small panel next to the door flashed orange in time with the warning light. Kusanagi used the panel to close the main airlock door, which caused the room to automatically pressurize. Artificial gravity then began to kick in gradually, and as air filled the room, a blaring alarm could be heard, timed with the light. After thirty seconds, the alarm and light stopped flashing, and a horrifying screech echoed past the sealed forward door. Signaling the others, the android used the panel again to open the interior door.

Beyond, a gruesome trail of blood ran across the floor of the ten-foot wide hallway that ran horizontally across the ship; at each end of the hall were metal access doors leading to the forward and aft. A shorter hall led to a forward door, with two doors halfway up that hall exiting to the port and starboard. The wreckage of a double-barreled weapon turret limply hung from the ceiling, just to the left of the airlock door. Two vesk corpses lay there, apparently having been gunned down by turret fire.

Galakrond stepped into the corridor and a turret dropped from the ceiling to shoot him, as had almost become protocol for this sort of exploration. It apparently spent its last round on the effort, as only clicks issued from it after the first shot. Kusanagi crept along the starboard side of the corridor, following the blood trail to an open door on the forward side. Within, the operative saw the signs of struggle throughout the room. A single bed in the forward-port side of the chamber was torn, with its comforter halfway on the floor. A nearby bed table and desk were in similar disarray, covered with shattered glass and hunks of broken ceramics. A pool of blood covered the nearby floor near the door.

A strangled vesk corpse and a lifeless kasatha in a suit of battle harness powered armor lay on the floor. The armor was unpowered – a cable on the floor led from a starship battery pack to the base of the suit. It appeared to have been disconnected. Kusanagi returned to the others to report his findings.

They decided to try to reach the bridge, the most logical place for them to find the information on Sangoro’s Bulwark. They paused to check out the engine room, through a portside door. Cracks marred the surface of the chamber’s portside wall. A constant thrum of power was audible within the area, clearly emanating from an immense engine embedded into the forward wall. A standalone control module sat opposite the entrance, but the thick cable that should connect it to the humming engine was irrevocably split. Three rectangular stacks of batteries filled the southern end of the engine room.

The engine enclosure in the forward section of the room was missing its front panel, and a maze of crisscrossing wires connected to various terminals. Aft of the control module, several dead, brick-sized starship batteries were stacked on metal shelves. The topmost row was hooked up to an exposed power terminal labeled “Bridge” with a black marker. Another power terminal was labeled “Mess,” and it seemed to have power running to it.

As near as they could tell, someone appeared to have patched what they could and diverted remaining power to the ship’s life support systems and most of the ship’s internal doors. Connecting a charged battery pack to the associated terminal would presumably unlock the associated door. The patchwork of rerouted wires would take even an expert more time than they had to reverse-engineer; they recognized the futility of attempting to reroute power using the existing wires. They had power to the mess, which seemed to be between them and the bridge, but they would need another battery to then access the bridge itself. Kusanagi mentioned the battery he’d seen near the battle harness on the kasatha corpse in the captain’s quarters.

No sooner than he said that than a four-armed kasathan driftdead floated through the wall to attack Twitch! A brutal melee ensued, as the incorporeal creature resisted even their energy weapons, but despite the harm it inflicted with its vicious claws, the crew managed to defeat it. Winslow was particularly instrumental, harming the undead while also sending healing energy to wash over his companions. They took a break before continuing their exploration.

Galakrond fetched the second live battery from the captain’s quarters and Twitch connected it to the terminal marked “Bridge.” They headed forward into the mess hall, which resembled a charnel house. The remains of two dead kasathas were piled in the forward-portside corner, surrounded by knocked-over chairs. A ceremonial table setting in the center of the chamber was spattered with blood. The stench of decay was palpable in this room, and even the sink along the southern wall was coated in a dark-red shade. Storage containers filled the eastern side of the room, each similarly spattered by gore. An impressive set of double doors barred passage to the bridge.

Winslow and Boske went to inspect the corpses, while Kusanagi approached the door to the bridge. All three were attacked by something that burst from the corpses as they drew near. They prevented the alien larvae from burrowing too deeply into their flesh, even as they came to the sobering conclusion that the driftdead was likely not the last of their problems. Galakrond produced a pair of healing serums from the storage containers, and the party continued to the bridge.

The ship’s bridge was alight in red warning screens. The nearing ethereal storm loomed beyond the forward viewing platform, while the ship’s failing power caused each station’s panels to flicker intermittently. A battered captain’s chair oversaw two tiers of descending operations panels. The seat appeared to be occupied by the corpse of a kasatha.

Kusanagi noticed that something seemed to be wearing the body of the pilot. He warned the others and the creature spun around in the chair as Galakrond approached. The four-armed alien was a xill, and it bit the vesk only once before it was cut down by the crew’s combined efforts.

With the alien defeated, they scoured the bridge for the data they needed. It was heavily encrypted, but they both downloaded it onto multiple computers in their possession and physically removed the hard drive from its damaged casing in the bridge’s command console. A silk kasatha mouth scarf rested at the feet of the ruined pilot’s body. They brought the fallen man to the main cabin where they began to collect the other bodies, vesk and kasatha. With one of the Honorbound crew still unaccounted for, the Starfinders methodically searched the rest of the ship.

Opposite the captain’s quarters, they found four beds filling most of the tidy crew quarters. Each bed was neatly made with a prominent item placed atop its center. Above the beds were tightly sealed storage compartments. A single-tier metal shelf curved around the southwestern wall, its surface pristine but entirely empty. The culturally sensitive crew knew that the items placed atop the beds were each part of a kasathan tradition for those who were making a journey from which they didn’t expect to return. The kasatha crew members had left personal items on each of their beds, as gifts to those who survive them and continue to create future history. The crew collected the items, including a datapad which they restored to power and unlocked. It contained the most recent personal logs of one of the kasatha named Teliu.

RECORD 1
I am worried about Yotto. She is furious about what happened at the Bulwark and seems to be withdrawing more and more – she didn’t even attend this morning’s spar. Instead, I battled against Blue Sky-101, who is a skilled opponent but lacks the same vitality and understanding of honor. I thought Yotto would at least work some of her anger out by taking baton to bot. Perhaps it is her youth getting the better of her. I will give her a few days to restore her balance.

RECORD 2
The loss of Yotto is unbearable, and to make matters worse, the damage to the ship was more extensive than we thought. The captain sent out a distress beacon in the Drift, but it is too dangerous to stay in this minefield, so we have returned to the Material Plane. When we return to the Idari, I hope the adata will accept Yotto’s body and grant me dispensation to query her soul. I’d like to speak with her one last time – and ask her why she was in the cargo hold when we were hit. For now, I have shrouded her body and placed it in the sparring chamber.

RECORD 3
At first, I thought it was a dream – a nightmare. I walked into the sparring room and there was Yotto, but… changed. She swung at me from across the room, but I felt her hand rip through me as though I were made of paper. I tried to subdue her with the sparring equipment, but my blows simply passed through her. It took all of us armed with force batons to eventually lure her into the captain’s quarters, where the captain sacrificed herself to trap Yotto – or whatever she has become – within her suit’s force field. Kela has rigged one of the ship’s batteries to amplify the field and keep the creature contained, but we may soon be faced with fighting this thing for our lives.

FINAL RECORD
As our forebears faced the dimming of Kasath’s sun, so do we know that our ship’s power reserves near their end. Traska has encrypted our ship’s log, and tonight we will gather in the mess to partake of our final meal. We have placed our sacred items atop our beds, as tradition requires. I hope those items, as well as something of the captain, our pilot, and even Blue Sky-101, find a safe return to the Idari should we not. Eloritu guide us.

- Teliu Davead Mord of Clan Ferrous, House Elwood, truth-keeper of the Ferrous Stone

Crossing to the port side of the ship, they entered the aft chamber to find the sparring room mentioned in Teliu’s logs. Just inside the doorway, the entry floor was caked with blood, and several batons and shuriken were scattered throughout the room. A simple sparring mat covered much of the center floor. An alcove along the eastern edge housed a weapon rack filled several kinds of batons and a dozen fine shuriken. On the opposite wall was a pad of self-healing foam with colorful abstract targets painted on it. A four-armed metal robot stood in the southwestern corner of the chamber. An open panel on its back appeared to be where a battery had been stored, but it was empty.

They noticed a holoprojector in the ceiling with a carbonedge shuriken lodged in it, and Twitch was able to repair it enough that it replayed a crew member’s brief fight with a driftdead – presumably Yotto. The holovid of the skirmish was grainy, and it cut out periodically before ending when the living crew member threw a shuriken that passed through the driftdead and hit the projector. They collected the weapons and finished their exploration across the hall.

The northern wall of the final chamber was so forcibly compacted to the south that the chamber extended only about ten feet from the door. Several person-sized crates were fused into the distorted hull, obviously melted by extreme heat. Space was visible from between several gaps in the northern wall, accented by the occasional shimmer of a force field. They figured that it was a cargo bay before the Struggle’s Scholar collided with magma-filled asteroids in the Drift. It looked like a few containers had been sucked into the larger openings, their metal melting into that of the hull and fusing them in place. The body of the final vesk crew member lay there.

Searching the cargo bay, they found that one of the fused cargo containers housed a macabre set of limbs: the right arm and leg of an android. The limbs apparently managed to avoid getting sucked into the vacuum along with their owner. They also identified a pattern of android fluids and alien blood spattered along the edges of one of the force field–protected holes into space – surmising that an android and an alien of some sort had been sucked out into space. From a panel near the door, they identified that the field had last been lowered using the authorization of a crew member named Blue Sky-101. Winslow identified the limbs as being torn off by a creature with vicious claws – probably the xill.

They managed to get the bodies and possessions of the fallen back aboard the Sunrise Maiden. Sending word to the Honorbound, they powered their Drift engine before the etheric storm finally consumed the area. The last sight they saw before heading into the Drift, was the Struggle’s Scholar breaking apart as the storm overtook it. The vesk bodies were returned to the Honorbound. Their captain, though saddened, appreciated the gesture. With this last bit of business concluded, they set a course back home.

<<< >>>

Absalom Station – Exo-Guardians Headquarters

Zigvigix was extremely appreciative for the shred of hope that the retrieved data represented. The tale of the Struggle’s Scholar’s fate disturbed the Exo-Guardians faction leader. Zigvigix promised to deliver the remains and personal belongings of the Struggle’s Scholar’s crew for proper last-rite ceremonies. The Starfinder Society maintained active files on each of the crew members, and Zigvigix confirmed that every member had requested burial of their bodies or their final possessions returned to the Idari – even the android, Blue Sky-101. Zigvigix then told the crew that they would send the damaged data to the Dataphiles in the hopes that Historia-7 might be able to parse the information and recover any word about the fate of Sangoro’s Bulwark.

Before dismissing them, Zigvigix offered a personal thanks for their part in the mission. “This is the first shred of truly good news that the Exo-Guardians have had in a long time! My many thanks for all you have done in securing this important data. Now, there is another important matter I wanted to bring up.

“Prior to the Scoured Stars incident, I was part of a group of loyal friends, like the team you’re all a part of. Right before that dark event, I bought some tickets for my friends and me to a major upcoming concert. It was going to be our big outing—a capstone to all our missions together. Now, all my friends are trapped or lost in the Scoured Stars, and who knows how long it will take before we find out what happened there. The concert is coming up in a few months, and I wanted to extend an invitation. No promises or anything; you might be on assignment, and field missions take priority. If you are free, though, I would be honored if you would join me at this concert. Think of it as a remembrance for my lost comrades and a celebration of a new generation’s camaraderie.

“Oh! I just realized that I should invite Historia-7 too! Okay, well, thanks again. I should get going!” With that said, Zigvigix eagerly limped away, leaving the crew to enjoy their success.

<<< >>>

Absalom Station – Lorespire Complex

A couple of days later, the crew received an incoming call from Chiskisk, summoning them in for a briefing. Once they had settled in, the shirren explained the development. “There is some good news regarding the research into the symbols you found on the Drift Rock. The Starfinder Society’s linguistic database recognized many of them, because this is not the first time they’ve appeared post-Gap. The bad news is that the source is… highly unreliable,” Chiskisk noted, as segments of their chitinous body scraped together in agitation.

“All that we have about these earlier texts comes from Halkueem Zan nearly three centuries ago, and it seems that no published studies of those texts have appeared since. According to these records, Zan’s original findings were donated to the Qabarat University of Xenoarchaeology and Xenoanthropology on Castrovel shortly after his—” the shirren paused while contemplating how best to phrase the sentence. “—disruptive expeditions.

“Fortunately, the Society has numerous alumni from that university, and I can readily secure you a contact there and forward my personal recommendation to a few faculty members. Perhaps they can show you Zan’s notes and even take you to the original site so that you can search for more clues about whatever this Drift Rock once was.”

No one had heard of Zan, so Kusanagi asked what was known about the man.

Chiskisk replied, “As you know, the Starfinder Society is an organization dedicated to uncovering the secrets of the universe and its past. As in any pursuit, a sensational hero can attract new recruits, and a buffoon can tarnish the whole field. Halkueem Zan was both. He traveled throughout the Pact Worlds making a name for himself as an explorer and archaeologist, but his techniques were utter rubbish. He was a looter with a good press agent, and he published lurid gibberish like ‘Pyramid People of Ukulam.’ His articles were popular with the public, but for every diligent explorer they inspired, another two were unscrupulous treasure hunters who just wanted to blow things up and call it archaeology.”

“So, he was a Starfinder?” asked Boske.

Chiskisk shuddered visibly. “No. Zan did most of his work at about the same time the Starfinder Society formed, but I don’t believe he was ever associated with us.”

Galakrond grunted. “What happened to Zan on Castrovel?”

“Different planets have different regulations for explorers. Zan wanted to explore a site on the restricted continent of Ukulam, but when the authorities denied him passage, he went anyway. I believe they confiscated most of his findings, and the whole incident spurred a decade of restrictions on offworld explorers.”

“That’s great,” said Twitch, his tone bored. “So, who’s our contact?”

The shirren nodded and tapped a few keys. “There is a postdoctoral student named Whaloss who has worked with the Society in the past. I’ll ask him to greet you when you land in Qabarat.”

Chiskisk believed that this was a strong lead, and because the crew had so far been at the forefront of this investigation, the shirren believed it was only proper that you have the right of first refusal to visit the university and learn more. In fact, they preferred that you do so, as thanks to the broadcast of the Drift Rock exploration, it was only a matter of time before someone else beat the Society to the prize. The shirren also sent the crew a digital copy of “Pyramid People of Ukulam,” which was a tawdry travelogue that lauded the author’s bravery as much as it described the culture that built the sites using ample nonacademic language such as “exotic,” “savages,” and “time immemorial.”

As a final note, Chiskisk said, “I know you’ve been running nonstop for us since you got back from the Drift Rock, so if you agree to pursue this lead, I’ve also authorized a stipend of 1,000 credits for the team.” No one argued.

<<< >>>

Castrovel – Qabarat

The crew traveled to Castrovel aboard the newly repaired Sunrise Maiden. Beyond dealing with a few fans of their recent celebrity on the way to the spaceport, their voyage was speedy and largely uneventful, taking only a few days using Drift travel.

Castrovel was a vibrant planet of sparkling blue oceans, continents blanketed in vividly green forests, and swirls of clouds. As the Sunrise Maiden entered the atmosphere near Qabarat, the city-state’s aviation authorities hailed the starship, asked for identification, and directed the crew to one of the landing pads at the city’s spaceport, Ship’s End. As a matter of course, a guard and a customs official briefly interviewed them about their business in Qabarat, whether they had local contacts, the expected duration of their stay, and whether they were importing any foreign life-forms. They were also informed that carrying personal weapons was not illegal in Qabarat, merely frowned upon. After the customs process, the officers issued the crew travel papers to keep with them for the duration of their stay.

Their Castrovelian contact Whaloss was waiting to meet them just outside the spaceport. Even for a damaya, he was tall and thin, almost to the point of seeming gaunt. His clothing was a stylish blend of local silks, though the overall ensemble showed considerable wear, as though he had relied on this nicer outfit for formal meetings for many years. Nonetheless, he positively beamed with antennae-twitching excitement to meet the crew and show them around Qabarat. As an advanced student of xenoarchaeology, he had collaborated with members of the Starfinder Society before and he was eager to hear about their recent findings.

Whaloss hailed a robo-taxi to carry the group into the heart of Qabarat and the university. As the taxi wended its way deeper into the city, trees gave way to elegant towers of carbon fiber, glass, and steel, each artistically sculpted to create a stunning forest of dazzling skyscrapers. The Qabarat University of Xenoarchaeology and Xenoanthropology was just north of the downtown commercial district and consisted of about ten buildings scattered over a campus of groomed lawns and gardens.

<<< >>>

Qabarat University of Xenoarchaeology and Xenoanthropology

While talking about their discovery, Whaloss admitted that he did not have the background to decipher the Drift Rock’s writing and technology, but he offered to introduce the crew to Professor Muhali, the head of the linguistic anthropology department. Her office was in the Alsima-Karei Hall, an eight-story building whose lobby is currently home to a small pack of journalists insistently trying to convince a receptionist to let them upstairs. Whaloss said that he was unfamiliar with any news that would warrant this level of attention.

Galakrond asked one of the journalists what was going on, and the fellow told them that Dr. Ailabiens 21:2 had given an incendiary lecture that some interpreted as a defense of violent xenophobia. The media was there primarily to secure interviews and comments from ranking academic staff.

The receptionist – Ikimsi, Whaloss supplies – was clearly out of his element dealing with the media. It was all he could do to keep them at bay on the ground floor while paging for support from the university’s publicist or deans. Lest the journalists try to piggyback on the crew’s access, Ikimsi was unwilling to let them upstairs until he had control of the situation downstairs.

The vesk tried intimidating the mob, while Twitch tried to fake a news story about an alternative source speaking out about the lecture. Kusanagi asked Whaloss if he could be disguised as someone important to scatter the journalists – a suggestion that was met with a firm denial on the lashunta’s part. It was Winslow’s calm and measured arguments, even in the face of belligerent shouting, that ultimately pacified the swarm and granted peace to the beleaguered Ikimsi.

Once the journalists are no longer clamoring to get upstairs, Ikimsi was amenable to hearing why you would like to meet with various professors upstairs, noting that Professor Muhali was currently very busy. They explained their reasons and since they had helped him with the media, Ikimsi rearranged the professor’s schedule for the day and created an official appointment for them. Whaloss led them to Muhali’s office on the fifth floor.

As the head of the linguistic anthropology department, Professor Muhali had one of the nicer offices in Alsima-Karei Hall. Her door was unlocked, and she accepts the crew in after they were introduced by Whaloss. This office was clean, roomy, and orderly. A large desk stood imposingly before a broad window that offered a charming view of a nearby park, and a small table in one corner had a quartet of chairs arranged evenly around it. Near the door was a wide examination table covered with broken fragments of stone, many of which bore incomplete words or letters written in a spiraling text. Several tiny fountains throughout the room burbled soothingly and shimmered with soft light.

Professor Muhali was fairly stern, having wrestled with offworld authorities to secure excavation permits, cut through red tape, and debunk fraudulent ideas vigorously defended by stubborn fools. She was dark-skinned for a lashunta, with pale green facial markings and purple hair cut in an asymmetrical style. After introductions, Muhali said that she had spent the past several hours corresponding with colleagues and devising ways in which to resolve the scandal Ailabiens 21:2 had started.

“One of my colleagues, Ailabiens 21:2, gave a rather incendiary public lecture last night in which he examined a war from nearly a millennium ago and used the cultural fallout from it to rationalize the genocide of the formian species. Even before the lashunta city-states and formian Colonies signed peace accords thirty years ago, such brutal conclusions would have been dismissed. Now he is fomenting hate crimes under the guise of ‘pure logic’ and anthropology. This is not what the university stands for, but it’s what the public now believes. I’ve placed him on academic leave and restricted his access to university resources until we can clean this up.”

With the media and university deans breathing down her neck over the incident, Muhali was largely uninterested in working on anything else, even as a favor to the Starfinder Society. Twitch cut right to the heart of the matter with a simple question. “How can we help?”

Professor Muhali sighed and delicately massaged the bases of her antennae. “You’re persistent. Maybe that could come in handy. What the university needs right now is to smooth this over quickly, and Ailabiens 21:2 is not listening to anything I say. He has not quite violated enough protocols to be dismissed; firing him would otherwise be good for optics. I think the media would settle for a public apology. If you can convince him to do that, I should be able to handle the rest.”

The crew agreed to try to defuse the scandal by convincing Ailabiens 21:2 to apologize. Whaloss took them to the professor’s office and while they were walking, the lashunta briefed them on the controversial doctor.

“Ailabiens 21:2 is an accomplished xenoanthropologist. Although his academic peers cannot doubt the contemplative’s knowledge of the subject, his own publications tend to receive mixed reviews due to the utterly sanitary impartiality and lack of empathy with which he approaches his work and subjects. This extends to his interactions with his coworkers and students, whom he boorishly psychoanalyzes to their faces as though he were performing a favor. For his part, Ailabiens 21:2 boasts of his emotional detachment with hypocritical pride, claiming that his objectivity makes him a superior analyst.

“Despite his uncouth demeanor, few have read as many articles and files as he has, and he commands an unrivaled mental catalog of the university’s collections. He reviewed Halkueem Zan’s confiscated notes a decade ago, dismissing it as drivel. Even so, that makes him one of the few who has personally read the explorer’s notebooks, few of which are properly digitized.”

The office of the academic Ailabiens 21:2 was a model of disorganized chaos, containing a mishmash of texts and cultural artifacts from across the Pact Worlds and beyond. When they arrived, they found dust, debris, and discarded papers littering the floor of the disorganized office. The contemplative floated above it, apparently nonchalant about the filthy floor, which crunched noisily under the crew’s feet. A single chair stood in the corner, and the desk and shelves were crowded with books, scrolls, statuettes, and loose computer hardware.

Whaloss introduced the crew to the professor then excused himself. With little else to do with his time, Ailabiens 21:2 was willing to entertain visitors, communicating almost exclusively through telepathy while doing so. The crew started by asking him about his lecture and why he thought people were offended by it.

Offense indicates a narrow perspective in the listeners. I analyzed ancient lashunta armies’ strategies against their formian neighbors and concluded that the former’s conditioned sentimentality inhibited more effectively destructive actions against their long-time enemies. The audience found my conclusion upsetting. Ailabiens 21:2 bobbed thoughtfully before adding, Other species are endlessly fascinating.

They discussed the subject for a few minutes, unable to pierce Ailabiens 21:2’s certainty that he was correct. Galakrond started a tangential conversation by agreeing that the contemplative’s argument did make rational sense and aligned with a lot of what he’d been taught about military tactics on Vesk Prime. This pleased Ailabiens 21:2, who began to consider possible overlap between the history of the Veskarium and that of Castrovel. Kusanagi brought the conversation back on track by asking about Zan.

Halkueem Zan, I presume you mean. I reviewed the entirety of Zan’s original notes early in my time here as faculty, and to my considerable knowledge, only Doctor Solstarni has studied them more recently. Zan’s methodology was imperfect, catering to an uneducated reader’s lexicon, fetishizing the ‘exotic,’ and conveying a pathological love of his self-image as an adventurer—likely to earn money or as an elaborate mating ritual. As a result, his work is scientifically wanting and his conclusions doubtful. Nevertheless, his notes provide enough detail to hypothetically retrace his steps.

“That’s great,” said Winslow. “Can you get us Zan’s notes?”

Normally, I could, but I am currently on probation due to the weak-willed public’s inability to process the logical arguments I posited in my recent lecture. Until I am reinstated, I cannot assist you.

“All right,” said Boske. “How do we make that happen?”

Professor Muhali has suspended me, and barring the unlikely intervention by a dean, only she can undo this. Your convincing her to do so would allow me to help. If you also repair the damage she has dealt, you shall have my undivided attention.

It was clear that Ailabiens 21:2 was utterly confident that he had done no wrong, and that his academic conclusions were valid. Even so, the crew managed to convince him that upsetting others was wrong and that it was definitely a bad career move. Despite his frustrating insensitivity, the contemplative found the prospect of making an apology less degrading than enduring his academic suspension. He was willing to make this gesture in a convincing manner so long as the crew convinced Professor Muhali to make three concessions: cancel Ailabiens 21:2’s academic suspension, restore his access to the university’s restricted collections, and pardon the whole incident in his tenure review file. They agreed to try.

When presented with the contemplative’s conditions, Muhali grudgingly agreed that she would reinstate his status and library access in exchange for a public apology before the media. But she balked at the final demand. They managed to convince her that Ailabiens 21:2 had intended no harm and that this would swiftly bring an end to the whole affair. As such, Professor Muhali accepted all three concessions.

With his library access restored, Ailabiens 21:2 swiftly checked out Halkueem Zan’s original journals – a combination of image files in a long-obsolete format and physical notebooks that wouldn’t require battery power during an extended expedition – and sets to converting and digitizing them. The contemplative informed the crew that the process would take approximately 8 hours, after which he would be able to provide them with a fairly complete copy of the reckless explorer’s original account.

With the dispute resolved, Muhali agreed to examine the language records that the crew had found on the Drift Rock. She soon recognized them as belonging to a non-Elven language group found in association with the few known elven sites on the continent of Ukulam to the west. Hoping to draw upon specialized knowledge of her colleague Dr. Solstarni, Muhali attempted to contact the kasatha in her office, at home, and through her personal comm unit. Even Muhali’s attempts to contact the professor’s friends and family turned up no results, making the lashunta concerned. She pulled a spare key card to Dr. Solstarni’s office from her desk and asked the crew to accompany her to see if there was any sign of where her colleague might be.

The door to Dr. Solstarni’s fourth-floor office was made of a heavy wood composite. The office itself was in disarray, with cabinet doors ajar, several stone artifacts scattered across the floor from open archival drawers, and a traveling bag open and half-packed. The computer on the desk at the far end of the room was dark, but a diode at its base blinked regularly.

Dr. Solstarni was an archaeologist specializing in archaeoastronomic validation: the study of how ancient cultures viewed the cosmos and expressed those observations in their architecture, artifacts, and writings. Her office contained an assortment of outdated astronomy tools from sundry planets. Professor Muhali noted that the disarray was not typical for the kasatha, and even at a casual glance, it appeared that someone was packing quickly and erratically – perhaps even ransacking the room. Suspecting criminal activity, Muhali excused herself to contact local police to file a missing persons report, but she encouraged the crew to investigate to see what clues they could uncover.

No one could get anywhere with Solstarni’s computer, but searching the office produced a couple of clues. One of the cabinets was ajar and contained Dr. Solstarni’s field suit, though it had fallen from its hanger. It looked like someone had hastily attempted to grab the suit off the hangar and knocked it to the floor. Kusanagi also noticed a slight dent in the carbon fiber cabinet where someone had collided violently with the furniture in a short fight.

They also found a printed message just behind the open cabinet from someone called Eyrub Paqual. It appeared to be an invitation for Solstarni to meet with him at a cafe called the Five Arches in Qabarat’s Gateway District 2 days prior to appraise several artifacts he had recovered. Solstarni had apparently printed the message out, perhaps intending to pass it by her colleagues to see if they had been likewise contacted.

While the search continued, Twitch set about researching Paqual, finding a series of articles about elven ruins he had published over the past six years. At first blush, he appeared to be a moderately well-established academic. However, most of his articles had appeared in poorly vetted journals or cited him as one of numerous secondary authors. The mechanic also detected inconsistencies in Paqual’s online bios and records, suggesting he might be entirely fictitious.

Finally, they found some printed scans of Halkueem Zan’s notebooks marked in red pen. These appeared to be copies Dr. Solstarni annotated by hand, and the notes included some unique conclusions that appeared sufficient to help the crew chart a course from Turhalu Point to, as Zan described it, the “accursed pyramid city of Loskialua.” Dr. Solstarni helpfully wrote that this regarded what was now known as the Oatia culture, a poorly understood dynasty of elven immigrants to Ukulam.

As they were concluding their search of the office, a Qabarat detective called by Professor Muhali arrived to survey the situation. He took basic statements from the crew and did a sweep of the room, uncovering a few things that the Starfinders had not. The building had security cameras in its hallways and at the entrances, but there weren’t any inside individual offices and classrooms.

At the detective’s instruction, the receptionist Ikimsi reviewed the video logs to see that a trio of korasha lashuntas carrying heavy backpacks and wearing uniforms had entered the building two days before in the late evening – after all reception personnel had left. They then took the stairs up, but there seemed to be no footage of them on other floors or even leaving the building.

The uniforms were identified as those of the Gateway District’s Port Authority. The investigators also noted that there are inconsistencies in the footage on several floors, including the fourth floor, where Dr. Solstarni’s office was, suggesting that someone had hacked into the building’s security cameras and looped footage of empty hallways to hide whatever they were doing.

Additionally, the detective got a system administrator from the university to get into Dr. Solstarni’s computer. They reviewed recent functions and Dr. Solstarni’s correspondence. Her personal calendar noted that she was scheduled for a research sabbatical in approximately two months, as approved by her department head, Muhali, and the authorities in Turhalu Point on the east coast of Ukulam. However, one of the recent files on the computer was a letter from Professor Muhali granting Dr. Solstarni leave to depart two months early to take advantage of special conditions in the field, signed two days prior – the same day as the apparent abduction. Muhali confirmed that she had supplied no such letter.

The computer also contained a series of messages exchanged between Dr. Solstarni and Dr. Eyrub Paqual regarding Solstarni’s research into the ancient elven settlements of Ukulam. The exchanges began fairly cordially as Paqual and Solstarni discussed minor details of interest from the minimal research published about these sites. As the discussion continued, however, Paqual grew more insistent and as the printed message they’d found suggested, he had attempted to cajole the kasatha to meet with him at the Five Arches to appraise several artifacts he had recovered. Solstarni had refused, citing a busy schedule.

Based on the evidence, the detective suggested that the best course of action was to follow up on the connections to the Five Arches and the Port Authority. Based on the nature of the suspects, the officer suspected they might hide at the first sight of law enforcement. The officer was amenable to providing the crew short-term deputation to investigate the situation further, but he did so under the conditions that at least two of them wear bugs to provide surveillance and that they allow a pair of officers to shadow them at a considerable distance in case of trouble. Concerned for her colleague, Muhali encouraged the Starfinders to pursue these leads. They agreed.

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Qabarat – Five Arches

The Five Arches was located off the beaten path in the Gateway District near the east end of the city. According to its advertisements, the establishment was “a café dedicated to serving the discerning palettes of a dozen worlds.” According to online reviews, it was an eclectic dive with wildly variable food and drink quality combined with bizarre food pairings for the daily specials.

The android proprietor Uilee purportedly ran an efficient business marred only by her insistence on developing new recipes that her muted sense of taste could not properly judge. Even so, she apparently delighted in creating “authentic” offworld cuisine that was utterly inconsistent. Fortunately, she made plenty of income from the various low-key criminals and gang members who knew to skip the menu and just order drinks. They all knew and honored the unwritten policy to take all fights outside. Overall, the reputation suggested it was not a place that right-thinking individuals frequented willingly.

The Five Arches was readily apparent from the street, thanks to its glaring neon sign suggestive of the numerous portals in the district. A riot of different worlds’ souvenirs plastered the interior’s walls, and each table, booth, and bench bore the name of one of the Pact Worlds’ planets or habitable moons. About a dozen patrons nursed drinks alone or in pairs. The daily special was an unidentifiable avian cutlet smothered in a fig-like fruit compote and served alongside a mashed bitter tuber from Triaxus.

A shady-looking lashunta calling himself Twonas En sized the crew up as potential offworld customers and invited them to talk. Winslow spun a tale about needing someone to move some drugs, and offered the fellow a couple thousand credits for the deal. Greed encouraged En to accept and he led the crew to a small warehouse nearby where two of his associates waited. Out of the public eye, the crew tried to arrest the three men, who reached for guns. En was gunned down by Boske, but they managed to take the other two smugglers alive. They swiftly looted the bodies before the police backup arrived.

When awakened, the surviving lashuntas admitted that they helped a male korasha lashunta named Eyrub Paqual secure travel documents for fifteen individuals, permitting them to use local portals to reach Turhalu Point. Most of the visas were counterfeit – including three fake IDs for Port Authority employees to help move the group’s equipment – though the smugglers had had to make only some minor adjustments to the legitimate academic visas that Paqual and his ill kasatha colleague had. The smugglers also shared that they had doubts about Paqual’s identity, suspecting he was using an alias to avoid suspicion. Ultimately, his money was good enough that the smugglers hadn’t minded. Because their role focused more on securing paperwork and conveying the group’s equipment through customs without scrutiny, the smugglers were not familiar with the group’s exact composition. They did, however, know that Paqual was shipping a considerable number of firearms and heavy gear, most notably a shirren-eye rifle and a sizable comm unit that was disassembled into three bulky pieces. The smugglers had also secured special permits for transporting fungal spores. The interrogation concluded, the crew turned the smugglers over to local police.

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Qabarat University of Xenoarchaeology and Xenoanthropology

Returning to the university, the crew met back up with Ailabiens 21:2 to secure the digitized documents the contemplative had promised. The professor noted that there appeared to be some gaps in the records, either because Zan had been negligent in documenting part of his journey or because someone else had removed some documents. Ailabiens 21:2 annotated the records as best he could in the short amount of time he’d had, identifying what he believed were the most relevant parts. These records – both text and audiologs – contained several key warnings and landmarks described in Zan’s judgmental verbiage.

Wildlife: “Castrovel crawls with vermin and beasts of all kinds. Thunder-bellied behemoths clear paths through the jungle while bellowing madly. More vexing, though, are what we’ve come to call stingbats—some hellish cross of monkey, bat, and scorpion that travel in troops and harass us regularly. I fought one off as it attacked a porter and shot another as it fled, and from then on they targeted me. It’s as though they can sense strength, yet resent it.”

The Rune Obelisk: “A dramatic spire barely rising above the tree line was the first of our great landmarks. Each side of it was once engraved with untold wisdom, but only the sheltered runes near the base have survived the ages. The plants here grow thicker, as if feeding upon some gifts left by the ancient elves – sacrifices of flesh and blood, no doubt.”

The Plague Warden: “This massive stone figure is a reclining elven form covered in weathered boils. I suspect it is an effigy that served ritual purposes, such as absorbing the illness of some great king so he might live forever.”

The Forsaken City: “The city in the foothills is a forest of small pyramids overgrown with vines. As with the funerary monuments of lost Osirion, it might be this was not a place of the living but a realm of the dead. Initial excavations uncovered multiple stone tiers of fine architecture – displaying skill truly more advanced than the builders’ primitive contemporaries.”

The Stairs to Eternity: “From the Forsaken City rises a staggering, weathered staircase carved into the mountain beyond, evoking mystical contemplation in all who would climb it. Beyond stands a great temple whose haunted guardians feasted upon my comrades, forcing us to flee the savage sentinels.”

Collectively, Halkueem Zan’s records, as annotated by Ailabiens 21:2 and Dr. Solstarni, provided a fragmented course that the crew could follow from the coastal outpost of Turhalu Point inland to the “accursed pyramid city of Loskialua,” which Zan claimed to have discovered. Since following Zan’s path would most likely also lead to the crew recovering Dr. Solstarni, Professor Muhali was more than willing to provide travel visas to Ukulam. They settled into their motel for the evening, planning to leave the next morning.

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Temple of the Twelve

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