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The Petrified Forest

A version of this adventure originally appeared in response to an informal adventure contest on the Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society (JTAS) at SJGames, http://jtas.sjgames.com. It was originally posted, lightly edited, to the Freelance Traveller website in 2002, and re-edited into the present form and reprinted as the featured adventure in the September/October 2016 issue.

A map in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) accompanies this adventure for download. The map is 454KB in size. You will need a program such as Acrobat Reader to view the map. Acrobat Reader is available from Adobe, http://www.adobe.com.

This mercenary ticket adventure was designed to take place in the author’s version of the Vanejen system, but it can take place in nearly any backwater system, ideally one close to the Vargr frontier. The action takes place in a forgotten base orbiting a distant companion star. There should be no gas giants or other reasonable sources of hydrogen fuel in this star system.

For more detailed maps (to resolve firefights, for example) the floor plans in GURPS Traveller Starports are ideal. Or just draw a maze of boxes on a grid.


Pirates have been raiding the meager shipping of a cluster of backwater worlds. Generally, they’ll enter a system disguised as normal shipping (with a spoofed transponder), enter normal space lanes, and attack outbound shipping. They specialize in hijacking, boarding a ship and usually dumping the passengers and crew in lifeballs. The IN had brought up their forces, ready to deal with these corsairs, and in fact destroying one pirate ship, when analysis of the attacks pointed out the pirate’s likely base. Then the problems began.

Apparently, the likely candidate for the pirate port is not a normal port gone renegade, but an abandoned refueling facility. The problem became one of jurisdiction and blame. Centuries ago, the base had been established by the IISS. Sometime later the IN (for long forgotten reasons) decided they needed the base, and moved to take over operations. The Scouts resisted, eventually leading to dual control. Later, the base was closed. Now, if the base is being used by pirates, a question of who was overseeing that base, and who could be found negligent in allowing the base to fall into pirate hands comes up. Is it a Scout base or a Navy base? Neither the Scouts nor the IN (actually, the local commanders of the two services) wish to be found guilty of being asleep at the wheel, and allowing millions of Credits and a dozen lives to be taken. The subsector Duke is away at the Core, so the problem will not be resolved anytime soon.

While the services bicker, the pirates continue their raids. Some of the local nobility have decided something has to be done, but do not want to risk offending one or the other service. Household troops or colonial fleets are therefore out of the question. The answer lies with mercenaries.

The PC mercenary company is approached, covertly, by either the local Count, a planetary noble, or even a major shipping company. They will be asked to jump to the region of this forgotten base, investigate it and engage any possible pirates there. If the pirates should outgun them (analysis of attacks say this is unlikely), they are to return to the homeport as best as possible, after gathering as much forces data as possible. They will be paid half their normal fee. If the PCs should engage the pirates and destroy them, or at least win over the base and free any hostages, the mercenaries will earn four times their normal fee, plus individual bonuses based on any injuries or (documented) acts. If the mercs can gather other data (such as the source of those spoofed transponders, for example), the Ministry of Justice will likely give out rewards based on the usability of that information.

Referee’s Information

The Forgotten Base

Gikuk, a dim, M9 star, revolves around its primary in a highly eccentric orbit. Centuries ago, when the base was operational, it was quite close to the central system, but currently it is nearly 160AU from the mainworld. No bodies of great size or worth orbit Gikuk, but a base was planted on the largest body in the system when water-ice was detected. Named for the first commander of the base, Phebe was little more than a refueling depot, armed against possible attacks from commerce raiders or pirates. Eventually the water mines (the only sources of hydrogen fuel around this particular sun) played out and the base closed as Gikuk’s orbit took it farther and farther away from the shipping lanes.

Phebe Base is situated on a small (200-kilometer diameter) asteroid. Gravity is negligible. When the base was abandoned, it was stripped of literally everything that was economical to move. In subsequent years scavengers took most of what was left, basically leaving only machinery too outdated to be useful and too big to be sold for scrap.

The base consists of a central dome, surrounded by a ring of defensive turrets. Connected to the dome by wide corridors sitting on the surface is a ring that in turn connects all of the starship berths. Each berth is underground, access gained via a huge iris door in the roof. Observation ports dot all the above ground access ways.

Thermal imaging will reveal that the central building in the dome (the Mall, see below), several floors below that, a few turrets and three of the berths are in use. Neutrino scans will reveal a fusion plant, probably stripped from a large star ship, in the heart of the base, as well as several ships sitting in the active berths. The rest of the base is at or near the background temperature of the asteroid.

While life-support has been restored to the Mall and immediate underground levels, the rest of the base is in vacuum. The berths and the turrets that are operational have power running to them, through jury rigged cables, but are otherwise equipped with machinery scavenged by the pirates from cannibalized ships. Only certain sections of the Mall have grav plates; treat the rest of the base as zero-g (or close enough).

The Pirates

The leader of these outlaws is an ex-Navy, outcast noble, Nathan Americodelsur. Drummed out of the service for thievery, and told by the family patriarch never to show himself in the home-system again, Nathan wandered the Domain of Deneb, and eventually the Vargr Extents, leaving a trail of increasingly serious crimes in his wake. Very charismatic, he eventually found himself near the leadership of a midlevel Vargr world. Unfortunately, his planned coup didn’t work out. He fled with his surviving troops into the Imperium.

While still in the IN, Nathan found out about the abandoned base, and had run a scheme to strip any valuables out of it (not profitable, as it turned out). He remembered this location when on the run from the Extents, and made for it with all speed. He and his troops set up operations at Phebe, hoping to sell the transponder spoofing algorithms he had acquired, to fund another coup attempt back in the Extents. Events got out of his control.

The criminal organization he was going to sell the algorithms to decided they liked Phebe Base so much they would set up shop here. Nathan wasn’t given a choice but to join forces.

So there are really two forces at Phebe; Nathan and his mixed gang of Human and Vargr criminals/politicians and the Electric Dogs, a Vargr-organized crime syndicate operating across the subsector. Nathan’s group are the warriors, a battle hardened team numbering 12. Each is heavily armed and armored (at least equivalent to the PCs, max GTL of 11). The Electric Dogs, on the other hand, are small time when it comes to combat. They are lightly armed, have minimally armored vacc-suits (if armored at all), and are used to back alley gang-warfare. There are lots of them (say 25, enough to keep the PCs busy). Most of them do the grunt work at the base, including stripping stolen ships.

Others at the base include a near-mad Vargr mathematical genius, Kfozorr Tsu Kfolgzar, attached to Nathan’s group, who has figured out the cryptography protecting the latest batch of Imperial ship transponders. Hostages include a group of five technicians kidnapped by the pirates to help with operations (the PCs will know that nearly a dozen ships crewmembers have been taken by the pirates—the referee should determine if others are present or have been spaced). Last, but not least, is the charismatic, persuasive and totally amoral leader of the Electric Dogs, Khaegzur Kso, a definite non-combatant, non-worker, here only to oversee operations. He should be the biggest challenge to the PCs, playing on their greed rather than fighting them (if it comes down to that).

Three turrets have been outfitted with weapons stripped from stolen ships (enough to slightly outgun the mercenary ship[s]). While there are three ships docked at the base, only one is a warship (a Vargr corsair). The others are a yacht (belonging to the Electric Dogs and usual location of Khaegzur Kso) and a recently-hijacked Beowulf. These two are only lightly armed (sandcasters and single lasers).

Map Key

  1. The Petrified Forest: This area, sitting on top of the Mall level, was once an artfully crafted landscape of miniature mountains and dense jungle. When the base was abandoned, most of the animals were rounded up, but the plants were left in place. The air was evacuated and the forest freeze-dried. It has rested undisturbed since. In the bloody light of Gikuk, and the deep shadows of the inner dome, the forest is eerily forbidding, a haunted jungle out of ancient legend. While the tree trunks are still sturdy, the smaller branches and the leaves are very fragile. Swinging through them (in zero-g, running is more like bouncing from tree to tree) will cause the leaves to literally explode in a cloud of dust. This might make rapid movement through this area rather noticeable to anyone in the condominiums. Careful movement, however, can mask a trooper very well.
  2. Main Street: The wide boulevard between the condos and the base of the Forest. At one time an ornamental trolley-car system ran the circumference of the street. All that remains today are the recessed tracks and an occasional bench station. Painted marks on the ground controlled the little vehicle traffic the street saw.
  3. Condominiums: This is where the inhabitants of the station lived. In their time they were luxurious apartment homes, each with a wide living room, several bedrooms, freshers and a couple of auxiliary rooms (to be used as dens, playrooms, gardens, etc.). All feature windows and balconies that look down into the central dome area. All were sealable against vacuum, just in case of dome breach (although the seals may or may not have failed over the years of neglect). The bottom level is the foyer, with elevators (inoperable), small shops and the occasional office or school, all stripped of valuables (but perhaps featuring abandoned signs, paperwork, and drawings by children—brittle and dry after centuries in hard vacuum, falling to dust at the slightest touch).
  4. Elevator trunks: Just very large elevators, with operational airlocks (20 minutes to cycle) at the Forest level, used to connect the Mall to the Forest. If they have power, the machinery would still be useful, operating on magnetic principles, instead of gravitic (which would have been salvaged). These also connect down into the engineering, cargo hold and fuel tankage levels.
  5. The Dome: Made of hexagonal sheets of artificial diamond set in a geodesic grid, the Dome is no longer airtight. Years of neglect have allowed various support struts to sag; several of the huge hexes have fallen out of the dome to crash into the forest below.
  6. Mall Entrances: These doorways are actually huge airlocks, sealing the mall against dome breaches. Very rugged, these are still usable. It takes nearly 8 hours to fully cycle one, due to its size and the inefficiency of the equipment. All have been repaired by the pirates.
  7. Mall: The Forest garden rises like a mesa from the floor of the dome. On the ground floor of this structure is the Mall, the one time heart of the Phebe Base business district. Along with shops and other services for the inhabitants, the Mall housed several hotels as well as the government offices. In the area above the Mall the life-support and various other machinery used to maintain the Forest existed, now only a huge maze of pipes and empty machine brackets, all in vacuum. The entire structure is heavily compartmentalized, so just breaching the walls will not expose much of the area to vacuum.
  8. Halls: With restored air and gravity, this wide and echoing hallways offer little in the way of concealment. The occasional pile of crate or even a few standard cargo containers are the only things in these wide, empty halls.
  9. Maintenance: This area is a maze of rooms, corridors and piping trunks. It once was part of the complex machinery that supported the Forest, but most of that equipment was long ago torn out. The pirates have put their life-support machinery here, as well as a miniature fusion plant to power the complex.
  10. Shops and Hotels: Here are the remains of once-seedy bars, food markets, clothing shops and a couple of small hotels. Again, all fixtures of any worth were either taken when the base closed, or looted by scavengers. The pirates have refurbished some areas for their own use.
  11. Starship berth: A fairly typical berth in a hostile environment starport. About 30m deep, with an iris hatch that could allow in a ship over 80m long. They were usually pressurized when occupied, although all passageways into the area featured airlocks. Today all are in vacuum, including the three the pirates have repaired and use.
  12. Iris hatch: Like the normal shipboard hatch every traveler is familiar with, except for its size.
  13. Access Hallway: Used to get people and cargo from the berths and into the port, these halls feature huge skylights and two (no longer functional) slidewalks. Cargo would be lifted via crane or gravsled from the bottom of the berth, into the observation ring and then transferred down these corridors into the base.
  14. Offices/Temp cargo storage: Small offices for ships operations and crew were in these rooms, along with a large area for temporary cargo storage, as well as the access panels for the fuel and power couplings (the outlets in the walls of the berth). A magnetic elevator connects the office to the access way above.
  15. Observation Ring: With several skylights overhead, the large plate diamond giving a view of the berth below, the observation rings often held cargo, unused items and machinery, and just plain junk. Many still do. The machinery for the iris valve is located in the floors of this area.

Resolving the Mission

The PCs need to take out the defense turrets and any possible ships (to prevent attack or escape). They need to take the base in detail, rather than blasting away from orbit, in order to retrieve any information valuable to the MoJ as well as to protect any possible kidnap victims. Evidence that they did not attempt to protect victims/evidence will bring charges from the MoJ. Therefore the ground battle will probably involve small arms in the airless corridors of the port, and probably a room-by-room search of the Mall. Some of the warriors or the Electric Dogs will likely attempt to hide out in the Forest, attempting an ambush.

Three days after the PCs arrive, another pirate ship (a Vanderbilt yacht, armed to the teeth) will jump in. An Electric Dog “patrol” ship, it is here to pick up any loot and rotate some crew out. If challenged it will only stay long enough to offer escape to any surviving pirates, Electric Dogs preferred. It will attempt to retrieve Khaegzur Kso primarily (who is expecting it), but will attempt to escape if too heavily outgunned.

Five days after the PCs arrive, an IN destroyer and two escorts arrive. The Navy finally decided to get their act together (learning of the PC’s mission a few days after they jumped). The PC mission must be completed by then or the Imperials will take over operations—and the PCs’ employer will not want to pay if that happens.

Considerations and Possible Alternates