Absalom Station – Starship Hippocampus
As promised, Gevalarsk Nor had procured a ship the crew – the shuttle Hippocampus, which was waiting in a private docking bay. The Hippocampus was one of numerous shuttles that regularly ferried passengers and cargo between Absalom Station and visiting ships that either were too big to dock directly with the station or preferred to remain among the ships of the Armada.
Originally a Ringworks Wanderer model, the Hippocampus had been heavily modified for station security use, and Nor had further modified it for the expedition with upgraded armor, defenses, shields, and the addition of a turret-mounted coilgun. With no idea what the crew might face, Nor had even outfitted the shuttle with life boats, just in case. Nor had not supplied a pilot, to maintain neutrality in the matter by not involving any of the station’s crew.
Before they departed, Nor made one final thing clear: the Hippocampus belonged to Absalom Station. He had arranged to borrow the shuttle for their use, but it was not theirs to do with as they pleased, and the station expected the ship to be returned.
“Kusanagi” took the helm and fired up the ship’s engines. The _Hippocampus_’ thrusters took only a couple of minutes to warm up, Absalom Traffic Control gave clearance for takeoﬀ, and they launched into space. Their destination was not far from Absalom Station and the course had been preprogrammed into the shuttle’s computer. It took only a couple of hours to reach the quarantine zone around the Acreon and the Drift Rock. Along the way, they had a good view of the exterior of Absalom Station, as well as the so-called Armada, the endlessly moving ﬂeet of independent ships that surrounds the gigantic space platform.
Once the Hippocampus passed through the last fringes of the Armada, there should have been nothing but open space between them and the Acreon – but the ship’s sensors picked up a small ship that detached itself from the bulk of the Armada and turned toward the shuttle on an intercept course. Strangely, however, the ship’s transponder did not seem to be working – it was not broadcasting any identification codes, and the ship did not respond to any hails. An alarm suddenly sounded in the cockpit of the Hippocampus – the mystery ship was armed, and its targeting lasers were trained on the shuttle!
Winslow recognized the incoming ship as a Death’s Head Necroglider, an interceptor class ship of Eoxian make. It was much faster than their shuttle, and as such would be difficult to outmaneuver. Difficult, but not impossible. Twitch boosted the shuttle’s speed, allowing the crew to stay on the interceptor’s flanks for the most part. Kusanagi had been reluctant to assume the role of pilot for the crew, but his natural talent made him the best candidate. And the android was up to the task of outflying their attacker. Even though the enemy had a broad arc gyrolaser, it was unable to hit the Hippocampus due to his evasive maneuvers. In short order, the vesks’ skillful gunnery burned through the necroglider’s shields and disabled the enemy starship, which crash landed into the Drift Rock. With the threat neutralized, the crew continued on their way to the derelict starship and its mysterious cargo.
The Acreon was an old prospecting and mining ship that had seen years of hard use in the asteroid fields and hard vacuum of the Pact Worlds and beyond. It was a boxy and ungainly ship, and its patched and repatched outer hull bore the scars of countless micrometeorite impacts and was faded from exposure to the radiation of space. The Acreon ﬂoated alone in space, far from Absalom Station, its only companion the misshapen asteroid called the Drift Rock, which was tethered behind the ship on long tow cables. The Acreon’s transponder broadcasted a repeating message that the ship was under quarantine by order of Absalom Station security, warning away any curious onlookers and would be explorers.
A sensor scan of the Acreon identified the ship as a medium transport that could carry a full crew complement of six. The sensors were unable to get a good reading on any life signs that might be present on the ship, however. The ship’s aft airlock was open, exposing the interior of the ship to vacuum. The Acreon was armed, though none of its weapons were currently active, and its power core was outputting minimal energy – enough for life support, gravity, and basic ship functions, but little else. The tow cables were attached to the ship’s hull near the aft airlock, mooring the Drift Rock to the Acreon, but since it was already open, they docked there, activated their armors’ vacuum protection, and prepared to board, Nor’s recording drone floating quietly behind.
The ship’s emergency lights flickering inside the derelict ship, and the sense of abandonment was only heightened by the apparent lack of any movement or life inside its airless corridors. Artificial gravity was still functional, however, so there was likely still power to run essential systems and possibly restore life support and atmosphere to the ship. Unfortunately, there were no obvious clues as to the fate of the Acreon’s vanished crew. They easily closed the aft airlock using the nearby controls, though they needed to go to the bridge to repressurize the ship with a breathable atmosphere.
Surrounded by machinery, the long chamber connected to the aft airlock stretched across the width of the ship. All of the Acreon’s main engineering functions could be operated from the room, which also contained a tech workshop expansion bay. The ship’s power core could be accessed through maintenance panels in the forward wall.
They also noted numerous resinous shards littering the floor. Upon inspection, Kusanagi realized they were composed of the valuable starmetal noqual, which Galakrond began to collect. These were remnants of the cocoons of a terrifying predator that dwelled in the vast void of space known as akatas. He relayed this information to the others, including the fact that the aberrations reproduced by implanting parasitic larval oﬀspring in humanoid hosts. This infection, known as void death, transformed its victims into undead void zombies. None of them argued when the android instructed them to wait there in engineering while he scouted ahead.
The doors from engineering opened into a connecting hallway that made a square around the power core. From there, a third door opened to the main corridor, a long passage that seemed to run most of the length of the ship from bow to stern. Signs of battle – bullet holes, scorch marks, and droplets of blood – were clearly visible on the walls and ﬂoors. A small body in a space suit lay sprawled on the ﬂoor in the middle of the nearer of two junctions in the hallway.
Moving deliberately and quietly, Kusanagi approached the body, puzzled to discover it was a space goblin. It was possible that the Acreon may have employed such a creature, but the little nuisances were usually scavengers, rather than gainfully employed. The halls to the left and right each ended in the port and starboard air locks, with an additional door on the aft side of the each corridor. Noting this, the operative stealthily moved forward to the next four-way intersection. There, he spotted the first akata, and it was worse in person than it had seemed in the dossier he’d read about the creatures.
He’d avoided the akata’s notice, and so he carefully retreated back down the hall to report to the others. He also recalled that they were immune to cold, but had a weakness to salt water. Boske swapped his zero rifle with his artillery laser, and Winslow readied a syringe filled with saline. Then the vesk took point as the crew advanced into the main corridor to confront the alien. The sound of their heavy boots attracted the akata’s attention, and it rushed down the hall to sink its teeth into Galakrond! It also snapped at Boske as he fired on it with his laser. Unfortunately, the akata also appeared to resist the heat. With a curse, the sharpshooter maneuvered down the portside hallway. Kusanagi and ARTE proved that the akata was not particularly resistant to bullets, and Galakrond injected it with Winslow’s saline, eliciting a pained howl from the creature. It didn’t manage to do them any more harm before they brought the creature down, and Winslow promptly began collecting samples.
Two more akatas lurked in the starboard cargo hold adjacent to the air lock, and though they got a couple of bites in, the crew swiftly dealt with them and searched around. Galakrond collected more noqual, and Twitch scooped up a flame pistol he found on the floor. They crossed to the port side of the ship and found another cargo hold that mirrored the one on the starboard side. No akatas awaited them, but the hold contained much of the ship’s supplies – extra food and water stores, replacement air filters, spare parts, and the like. There was also a shipping container approximately eight feet square, addressed to the Eoxian Embassy on Absalom Station. The container was sealed and had no manifest detailing its contents. Winslow inspected the crate and verified it had not been tampered with, so the crew left it lie and continued to the other intersection.
They found an open galley on the fore of the portside corridor, though the quality of the preserved rations left something to be desired. Still, they created a few salt water “grenades” to use against any more akatas they might encounter. A pair of doors graced the aft side of each of the corridors. The first they tried proved to be barricaded from the inside. Kusanagi asked the vesk to try breaking in, and they set to the task with gusto. It took about a minute and a half, but they did managed to hack their way through the door. Within, they found a cabin that appeared to have served as shared living quarters for the Acreon’s crew. It contained two simple bunks, a pair of lockers, a small sink, and the miners’ personal possessions. Additionally, it was occupied by two terrified space goblins, who blindly opened fire. One was killed by ARTE before the other could be cowed into surrendering by Boske.
The goblin blubbered about its dead friends Fred and Bob, a scavenging mission, akatas, and poor life choices. He begged the crew to take him to safety but agreed to stay in the quarters when Kusanagi told him they had not yet cleared the ship of akatas. Galakrond collected the goblins’ scrounged items, which consisted of several grenades, and a few other sundries. Twitch found a computer key card and a credstick, pocketing both items.
The remaining three aft-side doors in the hallway led to identical crew quarters. When Galakrond opened the door across from the starboard crew quarters, he set off a jury-rigged laser blast trap and was hurt so badly that Winslow had to tend to his wounds. Beyond the trapped door, they found a storeroom containing the Acreon crew’s personal mining and prospecting tools, as well as a few other supplies. They collected a shock fusion seal, a couple serums of healing, and a few medpatches in addition to the noqual fragments of yet another akata cocoon.
The only place left unexplored was the bridge of the Acreon. The crew steeled themselves then opened the door. A wide transparent aluminum window stretched across the forward wall of the control room; twinkling lights in the distance were all that could be seen of Absalom Station and the ships of the Armada surrounding it. Of more immediate concern were the three akatas that turned to regard the crew when the door to the bridge opened. The ensuing fight was a bit bloodier than the others had been by virtue of sheer numbers, but decisive application of firepower, tactics, and a bit of magic secured another victory for the crew.
Galakrond collected the noqual from three more cocoons while Twitch and the others moved to inspect the computers. The bridge contained four stations equipped with consoles and controls for operating most of the ship’s systems and functions, including its computer system. Most of the control consoles were powered down or on standby, but the ysoki mechanic easily accessed the basic, unsecured functions of the ship’s computer. He started the process of repressurizing the ship and restored the lights to normal, then noted that to access the more advanced functions – such as the ship’s logs – he would need to hack the system to get into the secured files.
Twitch inserted the key card he’d found, which should have made the task simpler, but the miners apparently had some custom programming because he not only managed to fail accessing the system, but locked out the key card. He sighed, pulling it out and tossing it on top of the console. It would be of no further use. He conscripted Winslow and Kusanagi to assist him, setting them the task of “distracting” the system with lesser requests while he tried again. It worked, and he gained access, but found that the ship’s log was contained in a secure data module kept behind a firewall, which would require a more sophisticated hack. It wasn’t easy, but with his companions’ help and a little ingenuity, he gained access to the secure data module and gained access to view the ship’s logs. He didn’t get root access, so he wouldn’t be able to copy or delete any of the data, but it would have to do.
The logs detailed the discovery of the Drift Rock, the crew’s initial exploration of the asteroid’s surface and the strange “geodes” they found there. The captain then stated that the crew was under attack from monsters that “hatched” from the geodes they brought back to the ship – describing the dreaded akatas. The next entry was more hurried, and the sounds of combat were audible in the background.
“There’s something else – it came from the rock!” the captain reported with more than a trace of panic in his voice. “We’re getting overwhelmed! I’m going to open the ship to vacuum – maybe that’ll slow them down!”
The log’s final entry was recorded in engineering and showed the captain in his space suit. “Purging the air didn’t work. I’ve set the autopilot to continue on to Absalom Station, but we’re abandoning ship. We’ll fall back to the rock and try to regroup there. Acreon out.” There were no further entries.
“Something else?” asked Kusanagi. “Something aside from the akatas?” No one had an answer.
They were distracted by additional akata howls from the aft of the ship. Perhaps repressurizing the ship had stirred the beasts from wherever they’d been hiding. The crew moved swiftly to exterminate the aberrations and finally cleans the Acreon.
Afterward, they returned to the crew quarters where the space goblin – named Roger – awaited. When they told him that the akatas were all dead, he said he wanted to go with the crew. He was reluctant to explore the Drift Rock, but if it would secure him a ride off of the Acreon, he was more than willing to push past his fear. The crew moved the crate from the cargo hold and all of the bulky noqual they’d recovered into the Hippocampus, then began to crawl along the tow cables toward the Drift Rock.
The Drift Rock was a rocky asteroid a few thousand feet in diameter with an unremarkable, irregular surface. While inspecting the asteroid, Twitch noticed an unusual feature: one side of the Drift Rock seemed to have been sheared cleanly oﬀ, as if it had once been part of a larger planetoid or celestial body. He also noted another odd detail: unlike on most asteroids, no impact craters marred the Drift Rock’s surface, as if it had been somehow protected from the ravages of space for millions of years. While the crew pondered these facts, Galakrond found a rocky overhang concealing a cave entrance that seemed to lead inside the asteroid. The cave did indeed become a tunnel that bored into the Drift Rock’s interior.
Predictably, there was no atmosphere inside of the asteroid, and the tunnels were completely dark, necessitating the use of infrared sensors for those in the crew who could not naturally see without light. There was also no gravity in the tunnel, so the crew engaged their boots’ anchor functionality. Though narrow, the tunnel ceiling was fifteen feet high. They came to a fork after a few hundred feet, and followed the left-hand passage into a chamber twice the height of the tunnel. A dead humanoid body ﬂoated in the cavern. The corpse was that of a human male, still wearing an estex suit with a patch that read “ACREON,” identifying it as a member of the mining ship’s crew. Winslow inspected the body, determining that the man had died of wounds inflicted by an akata but had not been infected with the void death. He had been lucky, in a way. With the camera drone watching, the crew was respectful and did not loot the corpse.
A short passageway exited the chamber to the east and dog-legged before opening into another cavern. Four tunnels exited this area to the north, south, east, and west – from which the crew had come. Strangely, however, while the south and west passages were hewn rock, the north and east passages were finished and lined with some sort of polished, metallic plating on the walls, ﬂoors, and ceiling. Something bipedal wandered the cavern, appearing to be a prospector wearing a space suit. But the lower half of its helmet was shattered and a repulsive, bloated blue-gray “tongue” hung from remnants of the creature’s lower jaw. A void zombie!
The undead lurched forward and its “tongue” – the larval akata’s feeding tendril – sank into Galakrond’s scaly flesh. He felt it drain some of his blood before detaching, and the sensation sapped his strength. Kusanagi activated his jump jets, launching toward the ceiling and somersaulting to anchor his boots there before firing off a round into the void zombie’s chest. The creature would not do any more harm to the crew before they took it down. Galakrond hissed as he put one hand to his wound, and Winslow said it would take some time for the bite to heal.
Twitch moved forward to examine the strange walls, determining that the panels were some sort of ceramic-metallic plating that was as strong and durable as adamantine alloy, but was itself a substance unknown to Pact Worlds material science. Kusanagi recommended that the crew return to the original fork, exploring all of the “natural” caverns before advancing into those that appeared to be manufactured.
The right-hand of the fork came to a dead-end cavern. Large chunks of rubble were scattered across it, and a large boulder lay to the west. No one noticed anything before a silent muzzle flash from the ceiling alerted them to the danger!