Dragonstar: The Serpent's Teardrop

Sick

Based on the Star Trek: The Next Generation adventure “Marie Celestial” originally published in the book “A Fragile Peace: The Neutral Zone Campaign Vol. 1” by Last Unicorn Games © 1998

Tipping the Scales

The wind whistled through the peaks of Galdarast Prime, it’s high whipping pitches buffeting the cold rock while it’s song was echoed by the cries of falcons. Across craggy mountains and through deep valleys it blew, until, almost self consciously, it caught itself on the rim of a great dark crater. It seemed to lose it’s bluster in an instant and instead turn away ashamedly from the spires within. The flags hung limply across the grand temple of the Church of the Reaper.

Built from black, volcanic rock across the dry caldera of an extinct volcano, the temple was an awe-inspiring and frightening sight. Great towers adorned with skull and scythe motifs dominated both the domed cathedral and the plain office buildings. Mausoleums of archaic design crowded the modernized roadways. And on the outer edges symbolic pyres gave the sooty ground the appearance of volcanic life. Even the efficiently laid out space port on the other side of the crater seemed grim.

Death was the Reaper’s business, and no devotee would be allowed to forget that here. Needless to say, Galdarast Prime didn’t receive too many willing visitors.

It was, however, the hub for the Church, it’s system heavily defended by the Savarans as well as the impressive fleets of it’s wealthy cardinals. Despite the brooding facade the Church’s temple was not just for contemplation of mortality, but was the bustling business end of a galaxy wide religious order. The ferrymen worked tirelessly to ease the last gasps of all, to see the balance of life and death maintained, and to hunt down those who would pervert the spirits or the bodies of the dead for their own ends. Most bereaved gave a little of their worldly wealth to ease the transition of their departed into the next world. Given how many trillions of lives had passed on since the inception of the Dragon Empire, it followed that the Church was incredibly well funded.

In the basement of a gruesomely festooned office building, racks of servers whispered away in a perfectly controlled dance of data. Expensive portals to other worlds across the Empire remained open day and night feeding, not materials or people across the stars, but information. Records of the dead and dying were the primary movers. Extrapolating necromancy hot spots sucked up bandwidth. Finances whirled around them all.

But in one small corner of the network a few unusual subroutines continued their daily waltz. Processors that had until relatively recently been seeking very particular stories about uplift events or grainy pictures of a half-seen space vessel, now seemed to focus on feeds coming from the border between Golion and Altaran space. The Serpent’s Teardrop. Phrases like “temporal anomoly,” “dark zone interaction,” and “resurrection of a deity” organized themselves around a few, particular, unique names. Galen. David. Elocinda. Celie. Praxus. Silverhand.

Data whipped like the wind across an archaic display. Cardinal Trenar’s unblinking eyes didn’t miss a moment of it. Patterns played themselves out, the raw information conjoining inside his insect mind with perceptions beyond what the data net could bring him. He saw events triggered, lives changed, and shadows deepening across countless parsecs. Throughout all the myriad layers of information racing across the screens and through his mind he clearly saw something tipping the scales out of balance.

“Perhapssss,” he hissed to himself, “it is time to tip the scale back…”

With that he unfolded like a dry slender origami and stepped slowly from the midst of the data center towards the temple’s research laboratories.

-

Pariahs

The Mithral Star, home to thousands, continued it’s endless trek through the dark spaces between the stars. The Serpent’s Teardrop was a long and empty expanse, but sometimes the massive ship was simply too easy to find…

Elocinda and David saw each other around the townhome that week. Silverhand was no longer a member of Alsir’s “deniable assets” having elected to stay behind on the planet Vera. Celie, Praxus, and Galen had been sent on a routine courier mission to the central planets. And the dopplegangers of some of the crew had long since left the environs of the Golion flagship (though few doubted Alsir still had a hand in their activities). So the human and the drow passed along a few mundane pleasantries but otherwise stayed out of each others’ way.

They were rudely interrupted one day by a call from the bridge of the Mithral Star. A Golion ensign sitting at some support station on the cavernous command deck conferenced them both and nervously announced the arrival of an old friend. Cardinal Trenar of the Church of the Reaper had brought his flagship, the Sword-class cruiser Crypt, halfway across the galaxy to specifically see the crew of the Whisperkiss...

Rushed along by the ensign’s entreaties, Elocinda and David boarded and shuttled quickly across to the capital ship. David brought them in to land under manual control as Whisperkiss turned himself off in fear of Reaper reprisal against soulmechs. Once their ship was safely nestled in a VIP bay very close to the bridge the drow and the human made the short walk to Trenar’s offices. The spindly and ancient bug like Cardinal did not rise to greet them, but in short order hinted that the crew were poised on a tipping scale and without intervention the Serpent’s Teardrop, even the Empire as a whole, could become victim of dark designs. As a result of this insight, the Cardinal thought it best he introduce a new weight and subsequently assigned a new crew member to Alsir’s hand picked team. Drifting forward from behind the Cardinal, a black-robed figure nodded cordially to Elocinda and David. The two tried to convince the Cardinal that further assistance, especially without the approval of Alsir, was unnecessary, but given that this was a Cardinal of Death they were talking to, they soon capitulated. David, thinking ahead to when this new crew-member met Whisperkiss asked for assurances that this new recruit would follow their lead and not stab them or their other crew-mates in the back.

“It has no interest in your deaths” came the hissing reply from the black depths of the cowl.

Trenar supplied David with a dossier on what was apparently a self-aware spirit form created from the raw elemental power of Death. Choosing the name Zakkoriamus from some long forgotten language of an extinct people, it had been mercilessly poked and prodded for years in the depths of the Church’s laboratories, arcane scholars at a loss as to why a simple construct had self-actualized. The Cardinal had obviously used his significant weight in the Church to bring this being out of isolation and place it with the crew of the Whisperkiss.

After perfunctory goodbyes David and Elocinda escorted their new teammate back to their vessel and departed the Crypt which winked out in a dazzling starcast mere nanoseconds after the freighter had cleared it’s envelope. David brought Whisperkiss back online and allowed nervous introductions between the soulmech and the Reaper spirit to begin. Whisperkiss bombarded the human’s private comm chanel with an avalanche of self concern, but eventually relented and simply refused to have an extended conversation with the “skull face.”

Hoping this bizarre encounter with an interplanetary Cardinal and his machinations was the worst they would have to endure today, David and Elocinda set course back to the Mithral Star and tried to come up with a comfortable way to introduce Zakkoriamus to Admiral Alsir. Unfortunately for them flight control on the Star suddenly and almost inexplicably ordered them on a course correction and denied them landing rights. Forced to orbit the massive vessel until a greater explanation was provided, the non-dead members of the crew cursed their ill luck.

Before long Issemene, the creepy psychic right hand to Admiral Alsir, called David on the private comm channel that was installed on the Whisperkiss. The albino’s emotionless eyes and steady, small voice imparted that the fact that Cardinal Trenar and the Crypt had now come to meet the Whisperkiss twice was raising ugly questions amongst Alsir’s top command and some of his enemies in the RES. In the background of the conversation could very clearly be heard Alsir on a self-indulgent tirade, cursing Emminicus Finch, a meddling bureaucrat on the Star, and also threatening to tear the faces off of his crew of “deniable assets.”

“How would it benefit him to remove your faces?” asked Zakkoriamus

“Personal satisfaction.” gulped David in return.

Issemene ended the conversation by giving the crew an assignment on Rielak, a massive Ringworld across the Teardrop border in the Altaran domain. They were to breach white dragon space under the guise of common travelers and contact a Mr. White on a secure local commcode once they had landed. In doing a job (or jobs) for him they would still further the Golion cause in the sector, but also allow for the aroused interests on the Mithral Star to die down. The other members of Alsir’s covert team, (Praxus, Celie, and Galen), would be instructed to catch up on Rielak once they returned from other assignments.

Chagrined and irritated at the unfortunate turn of events, David simply plotted a course for Rielak and sent the Whisperkiss starcasting into enemy territory.

-

Marauder

The extended trip across the Teardrop was passed quietly in somewhat self-imposed isolation. David played chess with the nervous Whisperkiss. Elocinda spent most of her time having erotic dreams about arachnids. Zakkoriamus was told to wait in the galley, and having no need of sustenance or other indulgences, stayed put as instructed.

But then the team had an unfortunate pit stop.

Starcasting into a designated “safe zone” for smaller vessels in the midst of the neutral no-go territory, the Whisperkiss suddenly picked up a distress call. Deciding that following spacefaring law was more important than keeping their noses out of trouble, David hailed the distressed ship. The vessel, an Altaran warship called Marauder, was outside of the safe zone and drifting with limited power. David’s call was answered, a slender white elven woman with silver dragonscale armor and a severe military haircut staring him down with icy eyes. She sat regally on her command chair, although from the looks of the bridge around her the rest of the crew had all succumbed to some calamity. Even her response was interrupted by coughing and bleary half-formed sentences.

It appeared the Marauder had been taken sick.

“My crew is down, get over here and help” commanded the woman who’s commcode handshakes introudced as Commander Messix.

Acquiesing, the two assassins and an angel of death set out on a mission of mercy.

-

Quarantine

The Whisperkiss slid gracefully into an inverted docking with a dorsal airlock on the Marauder. David, who’s communication with Messix had been cut off, hacked into the warship’s life support and door controls. However he and Elocinda were unwilling to immediately board what appeared to be an infected vessel and so instead found a use for their new-found compatriot. Zakkoriamus, unconcerned with biological contaminants, floated across to the Altaran vessel with Elocinda’s spider-droid Priscilla in tow.

The vessel was divided into three major decks, each with very utilitarian purpose and little in the way of creature comforts. Even access to ships engines and systems was limited, the hard-nosed Altaran designers forcing their engineering crews to suit up and step in to the vacuum if they needed to make major repairs. Zakkoriamus almost immediately found a body in the cramped hallway off of the airlock on the top deck. Surprisingly the Altaran lieutenant was in a deep comatose state, but was not dead… yet. It appeared that whatever parasite had infected the crew was keeping them alive and feeding off of them very slowly.

As Zakkoriamus studied the bugs he could sense within the victim, David pulled up the logs of the Marauder. Messix’s reports were troubling. The ship had been ordered to this specific location a week ago from the Altaran ringworld of Rielak. Told to wait until otherwise instructed the commander had done just that, even when it was discovered that the ship’s long-range communication devices had been sabotaged. The sickness, it seemed, had then come on suddenly and had quickly paralyzed most of the crew without any real diagnosis or effective treatment determined by the medical staff.

Unable or unwilling to make any snap judgments based on one studied victim, Zakkoriamus continued to explore the top deck until he found the bridge. Carefully entering the dark and quiet space, expecting perhaps only comatose bodies, he surprised Commander Messix who was still struggling to remain conscious. It appeared a little dragon blood, evidenced by light scales below her ice blue eyes and across her porcelain neck, was responsible for her resistance to the disease. Initially resigned to the fact that the skeletal creature in front of her was a personification of death, she had enough life in her to try and grab a laser pistol from the console next to her when catching sight of Priscilla.. Suddenly Zakkoriamus was able to dilate the space between him and the commander, passing across the deck like a bolt of lightning and snatching the gun away before she could pick it up. It took some doing, but eventually Zakkoriamus, Elocinda and David (over the comms) were able to convince Messix that the spider droid was not a threat. Messix’s reaction, however, indicated she had run into a similar model of droid.

The commander, stubbornly refusing to slip into the coma that had claimed the rest of her crew, demanded that the Whisperkiss immediately transmit an emergency code to Altaran space with her personal distress handshake attached so that Altaran command could come and retrieve the Marauder. Unwilling to stick around for a healthy Altaran force to question them, and convinced that the crew of the Marauder were probably victims of an experiment visited on them by their own government, David managed to forestall her demands while he had Zakkoriamus conduct additional experiments on the parasites that had infected the crew. They tried extreme cold and heat, lack of oxygen, and various radiation therapies without any luck. Zakkoriamus even attempted to kill one of the patients to see if the parasite would leave a dead host, but the bugs actually took steps to keep the victim barely alive, probably in hopes of finding a new host before this one expired.

Meanwhile, trapped on the Whisperkiss Elocinda and David tried to come up with a effective way to extract themselves from the Marauder’s fate. David found and hacked one of the warship’s microdrones that was orbiting them and surprisingly aimed to look inwards at it’s parent vessel rather than outward for potential external threats. Again convinced that this meant the fate of the warship was an experiment in sabotage David thought to call the whole rescue mission off, but was cut short by a terrified cry from Whisperkiss. The soulmech reported that something had just breached his hull, some kind of high powered laser slicing a micron sized hole in the airlock. Aware that this meant the interior of the Whisperkiss was likely to get invaded by the parasite Elcoinda pulled on a hermetically sealed EVM suit as fast as she could for protection, while David activated his thinskin suit with rebreather to the same effect. Now that the enforced quarantine between the ships was mostly useless the drow and human made their way onboard to help Zakkoriamus and discover the cause of the Marauder’s troubles.

-

Sabotage

Zakkoriamus found the medical bay of the warship on the second deck, the corridors around it packed with the fallen bodies of crewmembers who had been desperate for a cure. He quickly installed himself in the chief doc’s office and began his research, reading the medical records, logs, and also having Priscilla retrieve bodies for experimentation. He clarified the parasite as a life-form that suspends it’s victim’s activity and lives off of small levels of energy. After the initial paralysis this became a very slow process, such that the organism could find another host once it had wiped out it’s original food source.

David, in between assisting Zakkoriamus, decided some additional security measures were necessary as he assumed a droid or drone had been responsible for burning into the Whisperkiss. The soulmech already had instructions to only let Elocinda or David on board and to warn them if someone tried to bypass or break in. Additionally David hacked the security protocols on the Marauder and set them up to lock down sections of the vessel if any unauthorized movement occurred. He didn’t have long to wait.

As Elocinda tried to casually chat with the dying Messix on the bridge, the on-board security suddenly sealed the room, locking out the door controls as well as shutting down the air ducts. David ran to the hallway outside and readied his assault rifle while Elocinda tried to keep her eyes on every dark corner in the quiet room. After nothing attacked the drow, David cautiously ordered the security system to open the door to the bridge. He walked slowly in, Elocinda glancing at him with a tense expression, then suddenly, with no explanation raising both pistols and firing above the human’s head. Trusting his drow companion had not gone suddenly insane David ducked and turned at the door, firing with his rifle. He and Elocinda saw a blurry shadow bursting across the ceiling of the bridge for the open doorway. Almost too late David commanded the door to close. A shower of sparks followed.

After checking that no-one had been injured Elocinda and David approached the door and found what appeared to be a spider-like droid leg twitching and sparking where it had been severed by the door. Apparently a model of droid not unlike Priscilla had been skulking about on board with a cloaking device. While they’d wounded it, David was convinced the droid was still at large. Guessing it was a covert issue, probably ISPD, he immediately broadcast a standdown instruction from his shady past. It was unlikely to work, being that the code was potentially outdated months ago, but the response he did get was even more unexpected. A male voice, potentially drow by the accent, broadcast a single word. “Cute.”

David went ashen.

-

From Bad to Worse

Without explanation David quickly cut off all communication broadcasts between the crew of the Whisperkiss and set about setting up a controlled and encrypted shortwave channel the team could use to communicate without fear of interception. As he did this he also asked Priscilla to search the air ducts of the warship for a cloaked spider-droid like herself, although he warned her that it was likely to be a combat hardened model.

Zakkoriamus was closing in on the parasite’s weaknesses, aware that certain chemical compounds could kill the individual bugs without excessively harming the host. The problem was that the compound had to defeat the bug’s armored like outer shell, and all the delivery methods he’d devised thus far to accomplish that would undoubtedly kill the patient. Trying as they were to do the right thing and also get off the Marauder alive it seemed that the scorched earth policy was not appropriate.

David was also now convinced that the cloaked droid was still out there and began coordinating a deck-by-deck search with Elocinda and Priscilla to track it down. They started from the bridge, quickly shutting down access to sections they had thoroughly searched, then moving aft and having Priscilla check the air ducts for anything trying to sneak past them.

As they dropped to the second level Zakkoriamus announced a breakthrough using a programmed chemical structure to go after the armored parasite, then infecting it with the killer agent. He immediately began replication, needing a few hours to create enough of the compound to flood the whole ship. David and Elocinda continued their sweep, passing the medical bay as they tried to make sure no portion of the ship was left un-searched. David then caught a glimpse of something moving around a distant corner. He and Elocinda quickly ran up and turned the corner, expecting to find and destroy a solitary drone. Instead they were immediately engaged by a fully armored humanoid in what appeared to be spider themed armor. The black metal turned aside their early laser blasts while a cluster of glowing red eyes lit up the curved helmet. The attacker also used additional spider like appendages on the back of the armor to move with surprising grace and speed in the confined corridor.

Hearing the gunfire Zakkoriamus bolted from the medical bay and rushed up to assist. He rounded the corner to find Elocinda and David being beaten back by a vicious mono-edged sword. The death spirit, attuned to the force of entropy, quickly forced the attacker’s chestplate to disintegrate while Elocinda, annoyed at the ineffective laser blasts, pulled out a plasma pistol and drilled a smoking hole into the now exposed flesh.

“Now he’s dead” claimed the drow.

“Not dead enough!” retorted David with surprising venom, “None of them will ever be dead enough!”

The team made their way back to medical to pick up the security sweep and for Zakkoriamus to check on the progress of his chemical warfare. Unfortunately the spider agent attack had been enough of a distraction that the damaged-but-not-yet-destroyed spider droid had managed to slip in behind them. It stood amongst the dripping towers of medicine and the same male voice that had earlier taunted David began to chuckle from an on-board speaker. With barely any warning the droid exploded.

-

Left for Dead

David and Elocinda picked themselves up from the floor of the now burning medical bay and helped Zakkoriamus extinguish the worst of the flames. With barely a word the spirit of the Reaper began to methodically put a replication process back together, realizing one way or another the cure for this parasite would need to be delivered. David and Elocinda, now believing their enemy had done it’s damage and left them for dead began to make their way up to the bridge. They had barely arrived when the Marauder shook as if struck by an earthquake and Whisperkiss let out a horrific scream that was cut suddenly short. Unable to contact the souldmech David punched up the microdrone he had hacked and turned it to look back at the Marauder.

Above the Altaran vessel hung a gargantuan, spindily ship, looking not unlike a black widow spider spinning her web amongst the stars. The vessels “legs” had reached out and apparently torn Whisperkiss from the top of the Marauder and was now backing away from the warship’s gravity envelope as if to starcast away. As the human and drow looked on in shock, a final transmission blasted itself across all channels. What appeared to be the face and body of a human woman, pinned and stretched between pipes and conduits in the depths of a dark starship addressed them, her eyes black and dead.

“This is Widow Matron Jinai of the Nightmare. You are guilty of breaching the Teardrop and your vessel has been confiscated. Good night.”

With that the Nightmare, along with the captive Whisperkiss starcast away from the drifting and accursed Marauder.

-

Rielak

Despite having his earlier work destroyed, Zakkoriamus was able to replicate and produce the chemical antidote to the vicious parasite that David was now sure had been placed on the Marauder intentionally. The human explained that the voice he had recognized was of a ruthless ISPD officer by the name of Paxio. How he knew Paxio he didn’t elaborate, but he did go so far as to insinuate to Elocinda that the whole event may have been a cunningly laid trap just for them. What he didn’t tell the drow was that Paxio had slipped him one final comm note: “see you soon.”

Zakkoriamus’ cure was initially tested on Elocinda who had come down with headaches and shakes after taking off her EVM helmet prematurely. It cured the drow and commander Messix, albeit after some uncomfortable hours of sweating it out. The cure was eventually dispersed to the entire crew who came around in short order, though obviously not up to full speed and in dire need of further medical attention. Still, it was enough to get the Marauder under way.

Despite having more than enough power, and potentially enough reason, Messix showed an honorable streak rare amongst the Altarans and agreed to take the team to Rielak and drop them off without naming them in her report. Although it was small recompense compared to having Whisperkiss stolen from them, it was a far cry better than some alternatives. David and Elocinda debriefed the commander as she regained her health and her regal, if icy, beauty. She even promised to pass word along to them if she did ever hear anything of the Whisperkiss. When David told her that an ISPD agent named Paxio may have been involved she raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Paxio?” she said, “Means ‘peace,’ doesn’t it, in the ancient tongue? Strange name for a cutthroat operative.”

True to her word Messix snuck the three of them onto Rielak a week later, and they quickly contacted the supposed Mr. White at the number Issemene had provided. Told to meet at the Black Duck restaurant in Sossheim the next evening, David and Elocinda took the opportunity to get some much needed rest as they were watched over by the sleepless Zakkoriamus.

-

Mr. White

The next night they used the public transit system to go downtown amongst the skyscrapers of Sossheim. Zakkoriamus, afraid his skeletal appearance may frighten or discomfort their potential employer remained outside as David and Elocinda took the elevator to the top floor. The Black Duck was an open air restaurant on the roof, a beautiful and immaculately dressed elven hostess showing them gracefully to the table where Mr. White was to meet them. When he arrived, Mr. White turned out to be a brash and excitable fellow in an expensive all-white suit who wanted to know how the team had known to contact him. Despite some reservations about naming a high ranking Golion half-dragon in the midst of Altaran space, David eventually trusted the security arrangements apparent around them (white noise generators and scramblers) and softly mentioned Admiral Alsir. Immediately relaxing, Mr. White suggested the obviously famished party enjoy the mammoth steaks then departed, claiming he was happy with their interview and would be in touch with a job for them soon. Without much else to occupy their time, David and Elocinda dug in to the meal and enjoyed the impressive view of all Sossheim’s city lights from 75 stories up.

Meanwhile, down below, Zakkoriamus felt that he should somehow keep an eye on his compatriots in case of foul play and so began to fly steadily upwards with the intention of watching from a nearby rooftop. However, no sooner had he risen above the third story flashing lights announced the arrival of flying security jet bikes. Ordering the floating apparition to the ground the security officers called for magical back-up as Zakkoriamus attempted to garner why his floating had caused such an immediate response. Eventually a pudgy fellow with a purple-trimmed suit arrived and introduced himself as Detective Yanik. Under the impression that Zakkoriamus was simply a wayward spirit he tried to dispel the skeletal apparition. Unwilling to get into an altercation his second night on Rielak, Zakkoriamus instead dilated his personal time space and sped away from the officers. Yanik, surprised and really only part way through his spell-casting looked over his shoulder then quickly back to the other security officers.

“That was easier than I thought it would be,” he said with big smile.

For better or worse, the team was on Rielak, and soon would be working for Mr. White…

-

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