Note: This is a dramatized version of an actual tabletop role playing campaign. It is not a stand-alone short story)
The CS Samantha – Atmospheric Entry – Terra
Today is day 245 of the year 2112. A yellowed, translucent plastic button sails past Leon’s face, followed by a nut and some bolts. They seem to travel in slow motion as the dusty cockpit around Leon threatens to be torn apart by the seams. Warning systems blare their distorted cacophony from singed speakers in the ceiling and numerous monitors along the console in front of Leon, proclaim urgent warning messages
- Engine Room – Unmanned
- Systems Room – Unmanned
- Maneuvering capabilities impaired
- Hull integrity critical
- Blast shields at 30%
Leon stopped paying attention to them the moment he began his descent through Earth’s atmosphere. If the SC Samantha, or Bitchy Sam, is going to get cooked during entry, none of those warnings would matter, anyways. He tightens his grip on the console in front of him as sweat drips from his chin onto his hands.
The blazing flames on the outside of the hull had made all external camera displays turn white. Opening the cockpit window shields would be suicide, now. In the old days, before Tokyo City’s Sector D had been taken over by the Yakuza, air traffic controllers would help with AE procedures. Today, smugglers, like Leon, have to rely on their guts and hope. Hope that their shoddy ships would make it through atmospheric entry in one piece.
Abruptly the shaking stops and gravity rapidly takes a hold of Leon. Countless bits, pieces of metal and plastic and other junk suddenly drop to the ground simultaneously.
Leon wipes down the sweat from his face with both hands and exhales loudly through bloated cheeks. The CS Samantha is in bad shape. The ship has been stripped of most of its inner padding and plating over a time span of years. Some of the radiation shielding was gutted from the inside and re-purposed for debris shields to patch up holes in the hull.
- Atmospheric Entry Procedure Complete.
- Terra Atmosphere – Breathable.
- Pollution Warning – High.
- Sandstorm Forecast: Clear.
- Airspace Authority: Anzai-Steiner Conglomerate – Sector D.
- Immigration Notice: All smuggling activities will be punished with extreme prejudice.
- Have A Nice Stay.
the CS Samantha PA systems announces in a flat tone.
Leon is certain that he can detect a touch of sarcasm in her voice. This AI is in dire need of some clean-up. The rest of the descent is smooth. The weather is clear and no stand storms have been spotted in the area. Terra doesn’t actually look that bad from up here. But it’s just hiding the details.
Earth is a mess. Over populated, polluted beyond hope and a corrupted cesspool of crime and depravity. A small-time criminal and smuggler’s paradise. Sure, there are some conclaves for the super-rich, who have refused to leave Earth due to business interest or politics – but large parts of Earth’s urban landscape have been turned into slums, syndicate controlled sectors and markets. Trade of illegal goods is Terra’s main business model these days. The rest of humanity has taken to space. At first they tried colonizing mars. That failed. The Terraforming technology was never tested before and all 4 colonies failed almost simultaneously. 7500 settlers died abruptly in a matter of 5 years. An investigation was launched, but progress was slow. The distance between Earth and Mars was too big. Nations gave a mandate to large corporations to build vast space stations orbiting Mars. They were to allow the investigations into the colonial deaths to resume. However, instead of facilitating a new infrastructure for the nations’ governments, the Mars Belt, as the stations were collectively named, became the staging ground for corporate business interests. Construction took 30 years until the belt became functional. Almost immediately, all corporate entities with a Mars Belt Mandate began mining Mars for minerals. With government control effectively removed from this region of space, new laws and regulations were implemented. The Mars Belt was now humanity’s new Earth. Trade and commerce were strictly regulated and heavily controlled. Immigration regulations are very selective and Terrans are seen as unwanted refuse from an old world. However, officially, the Mars Belt was still a parliamentary project from Earth. As the political elite began to arrive in the Belt, they began shaping public opinion in their favor, promising democracy and a resolution to the colonial deaths. This allowed the parliament to regain formal control of the colony. The corporations, however, continued to be the actual power brokers in this new world and would begin to undermine parliamentary efforts from below, at every turn. Corporate lobbyists were given parliamentary positions in return for large equity stakes in numerous mining companies. First Wave colonists also received small but insignificant shares. Second Wave immigrants did not get a share of the pie. This was and is no problem that money can not solve. If new immigrants can afford large enough equity stakes, citizenship can still be bought. No questions asked. Now, that humanity was surrounded by more than just one circling moon, Earth’s moon was referred to as Luna. Luna is now a a prison rock. In fact, all of Terra’s and the Mars Belt’s prisoners are now on Luna. Humans are now a space faring race. And they are assholes.
As the ship approaches Leon’s coordinates for Sector D, the vast Furuta Market comes into view. Even from several kilometers distance, the market betrays its gigantic size, comparable to no other market on the planet.
Sector D is Yakuza controlled. No air traffic control and no maintenance. This means that all merchant and cargo ships land in haphazardly coordinated fashion all around the market’s perimeter. Bitchy Sam begins to level out, the autopilot buzzing its alarm for the assisted landing protocol. Leon is forced to his knees by the sudden counter-burst and then slammed hard into the ground as the ship touches down without a working suspension. A deafening crash rips through the ship, likely also heard outside for miles.
“Now that’s how a smuggler makes an entrance.” Leon muses to himself and slams the red button for the hatch to open. Thick, dusty and humid air immediately pushes itself into the ship. A smell of roasted peanuts, generator exhausts, sand fills the air as Leon disembarks from the CS Samantha.
Furuta Market – Sector D – Terra
“Chǎo dà lǎoshǔ! Chǎo dà lǎoshǔ! Hot off the skillet, Mister! Special price for honorable Kyodai of ninkyō dantai!” Ricky passes the fried rat vendor without response, trying not to engage with the man, but the show is apparently not over. Short and dressed in a gaudy “chinaman” outfit, the old man hobbles out from behind his cart and pushes himself in front of Ricky. He grabs his hand and holds it in both of his and shakes it vigorously.
“Senpai! Zàixià is pleased to see you here! Please let the boss know that we are grateful for his grace and endless kindness. Wish him and his family well from us!” the words come flooding out of his mouth, unstoppable. All the while he keeps shaking and squeezing Ricky’s hand.
Ricky slowly but forcefully pulls his leather-gloved hand out of the man’s grip and, without a word, sidesteps the vendor and leaves him behind. On the inside of his mirror shades, he can now see the IData for the man: Shen Lee, 98 years old, property of Tama Corp., registered business in Sector D: Street Food Vendor, License valid until: 247 of 2112, Attention: 1300 NuYuan debt to Tama Corp. – Collect Immediately!
“You have a lot of strange friends.” Joe says as he catches up with Ricky. His heavy backpack jingles and clanks with the weight of countless gadgets, components and cables. He bites into a mystery-meat shishkabob and chews contently.
“Comes with the job, Joe.” Ricky answers as they continue down the alleyways of the vast Furuta Market. Evening is settling in and the neon lights along the shops, shacks and stands slowly blink and stutter to life. A light rain begins to drizzle down from a sky the color of a dead TV channel. Acid rain. People begin to open umbrellas with blue, pink or white neon rods, casting ghostly reflections onto the wet ground.
The two Yakuza keep on moving ahead, as the crowd seems to instinctively make way for them.
Joe sucks the last bit of meat from the rim of the shishkabob and tosses it to the side. The duo arrive at the northern edge of the market and Joe’s clothes are soaked wet from the acid rain. His backpack, however, is dry as the desert. Water repellent fabric – exactly like that of Ricky’s fancy suit. He calls it The Killing Suit, because it repels all kinds of liquids … not just water. Ricky hates it when he calls it that.
A very loud bang can be heard a distance outside the market, somewhere by the landing zones. But before Joe can begin rubbernecking, an old man steps out from his shack and loudly greets some customers. The bead curtains behind him rattle gently as he makes a welcoming gesture to his waiting clientele.
“Fresh fish, straight from the bay! Special price today! Buy 3 get 4! Deal valid only for Tuna! Salmon special today for 300 NuYuan per Kilo!”
Ricky has stopped and is now standing in line with the other waiting customers. Joe shakes his head. Ricky never tells him where they are going. Not even today. All he said was,
“Today we are leaving this place, Joe.” They had spoken about this for weeks. It was time for change. Sector D and life with the Tama Corp was heading to a dead-end. Leaving was the only option, and also not an option at all. Ricky is a killer for the syndicate. And Joe’s job is it to maintain Ricky’s tech. For the first few years they didn’t speak much. Ricky would come in with busted shades, busted guns, busted cars, busted armor – and Joe would either fix it or put in the request for a replacement. Unlike the other killers that worked for Tama corp, Joe always felt that Ricky betrayed more and more of his mental state as his field of operations grew. He knew that he hated this job. Joe can’t remember anymore how it happened. But they began talking regularly. Only after jobs. At first they talked about trivialities, which was odd enough. Corp Killers usually don’t small talk. Admittedly, they were both pretty bad at it. Soon they began talking about the things they would do if they had a chance to leave Terra. And here we are – walking around Furuta Market, looking for a discrete way off this fucking rock.
“Kojima-san!” the old man greets Ricky. “What can I offer you today?”
“I heard you have puffer fish on offer today.” Ricky states flatly.
“Of course. Give me a moment.” the man answers and retreats back into his shack, pushing through a rattling bead curtain. Puffer fish again? Joe never understood how they get away with smuggling drugs this way. Wouldn’t it be obvious to hide Elysium shots in those things? How do they get these things past the Mars Customs?
The bead curtain rattles again and the old man comes back outside, holding a small crate. Suddenly a slightly shorter than average man in a long, brown duster, cowboy boots, jeans and a t-shirt that reads I survived Mars and all I got was this lousy t-shirt, approaches and speaks,
“Hi, Sebastian! Man, I was just about to ask you for a new shipment. But there you are, clairvoyant as always, ready to get back into business with me, buddy!”.
The old man’s eyes narrow as he freezes and slowly turns to address the newcomer. He spits some debris from between his teeth through tight lips and licks them. “Leon. How absolutely shitty to see you. How have you made it through the atmosphere with your piece of shit, ship?”
“Oh, you heard that? Yeah, that was me. Sorry about that. Hope I didn’t scare your customers.” Leon looks around demonstrably and then shrugs his shoulders. “So how about it? Want to hand me that puffer fish and I’ll turn it over for you, for a damn good profit margin?”
Sebastian chortles and shakes his head. “Leon, what about the last two shipments? I gave you two shipments in the last 6 months. Each one you took up to Mars and you have not brought back any of the profits.” Sebastian now begins to gesture more wildly as he gets worked up. “No, you didn’t even shave anything off the profits. You just didn’t bring anything back at all! Tama is pissed, Leon! They think I am conducting personal trade on Mars and cutting them out of the deal.”
Leon holds out his hands in front of him and leans forward a bit. “This time it’s all different, I swear! I have found a client in the Mars Belt who wants all three of the shipments. And on top of that, he wants a fucking subscription. This guy is our foot into the door of the Mars Elysium trade. People there don’t want the cleaned up regulated shit. They want the strong, dirty Elysium. The stuff they make here on Earth!” Leon spreads his arms, tilts his head sideways and bit and smiles – like a happy Jesus – and says “Come on, old man. Just this one more time. You’ll see, I’ll make it worth it and Tama will be happy!”
Sebastian squints again. This time longer and harder. Then he simply gives the crate to Leon and grunts, “Fuck off, Leon. If you don’t come back in 3 months with all the profits, I will send their killers after you.” With that, he turns around to face Ricky again and gives him a knowing nod. Leon has already turned about and is walking back to his cargo ship at a brisk pace.
Joe knows that nod. This isn’t good. He has seen that nod before. He can see Ricky’s HUD flash all kinds of information from the inside of his tacky mirror shades. He is checking out that smuggler, for sure. Joe is a geek for machines and software. The only things he kills are bugs and shitty code. Man, he isn’t even supposed to be here, today! Ricky turns away from old Sebastian and begins to follow the smuggler. Groaning and adjusting his backpack, Joe follows. “Where’s the dermal plating when you need it…” he grumbles under his breath.
Leon has made it half way back to his cargo ship when he notices the two obscure figures following him. He saw them before at Sebastian’s. He stops and turns around to face them. One is dressed in an impeccably fitted black suit – obviously Yakuza. Maybe Anzai-Steiner, maybe Tama. Hopefully not Tama. Black gloves, mirror shades, too smooth to not be a professional. That guy is death.
The other one is skinny and hunched over slightly due to the weight of his backpack. Leon also notices the Datajack on the side of his head. Judging by the state of his fingernails, the guy is more likely an engineer, rather than one of those cyberspace jockeys.
“How can I help you gentlemen, today?” He smiles his best smuggler smile.
“Give us what you owe us.” Ricky states. Always the man of words. Joe has to force down a grin.
“Ho, there fellas! Slow down. I don’t even know who you are, and what do I owe you?” again the smuggler holds out his hands in front of him in a gesture of peace.
“Three shipments worth. Your Mars profits. We are Tama.” Ricky answers.
“Everybody, stay cool! I have a new client on Mars. He wants bulk. He is your way into the budding marsian Tru Elysium market.” Leon pleads.
Ricky shakes his head, “I can slice you open right here and nobody would care. As I see it, there is only one way out of this for you.”
“What would that be, then?” Leon asks, looking hopeful.
“You take us to Mars. With you. On your ship.” Ricky says. Silence. The wind outside the market perimeter is always much stronger and the blowing sand is a constant nuisance.
Joe’s jaw almost drops open when the conversation is abruptly interrupted.
“Mister, mister!” a heavily accented voice yells. Out of nowhere a very short man dressed in wide, baggy clothes in bright signal colors, comes running up to Leon. His head is almost entirely wrapped in cloth, presumably to protect from the sand and wind. He wears all kinds of gear attached to his various body parts and a pair of rusty welding googles over his eyes. “Mister, you need maintenance? Maintenance on ship? Always very danger to take off without maintenance! Blow out turbines? Check oil? Hull integrity? Hah? Deal? Good price! Good price!”
With a wave from his hand, Ricky shoos the landing zone vulture away. Leon quickly focuses his attention back on the killer. “This makes no sense. Why would you want to come with me. What’s in this for you?”
“Because we’ve had enough of this shit and want to get away from the syndicate. Away from Terra.” I’m a fucking moron Joe thinks to himself and looks apologetically to Ricky. No reaction.
“So, uh … you want maintenance, hai?” the LZ Vulture asks again. He never actually left.
The scrawny engineer looks at the killer. The killer looks at the Vulture. Both then look at Leon. A short pause. Then, “Welcome on board!” Leon says and, knowing that the LZ mechanic probably heard too much of the conversation, the trio runs off towards the CS Samantha. This is going to be trouble. Nobody who works for one of the syndicates, just leaves Terra. It would probably be an hour before Tama will send in the boys. They had to be fast.
Joe can already see that the ship was in horrible condition. “What’s your name again?” he asks Leon. “Leon.” Ricky answers. Those mirror shades. “Right, Leon. Can you write us into the crew logs, Leon? I need access to your ship’s systems to see if we can safely take off. And we only have roughly an hour before we’re grilled cheese.” Joe explains while he takes a quick walk around the CS Samantha.
“Give me a second.” Leon answers as he unlocks the ramp and jumps up. A few minutes later he comes jogging down the ramp. “I have entered you into the ship registry as systems engineer and ship security, respectively. The ship will now take most commands from you.”
Joe has been hooked into Samantha’s systems for about half an hour. The ship needs maintenance badly. Huge log files, fragmented data, outdated routines, software glitches, missing updates; the thing can’t even maneuver left while weapons are engaged. And as expected, the turbines were full of sand. No take off until self-cleaning procedures are complete. 25 minutes until possible take-off. Joe jacked out of the interface and went looking for the other two. He found Ricky and Leon by the cockpit. “I cleaned most of your system, Leon. And you can now take left turns again when you are trying to shoot something! But the turbine pump will take another 20 minutes before we can take off.”
Ricky is worried. 20 minutes would probably be too long. That damn Landing Zone Vulture has probably told his buddies what he overheard. He should have killed him then and there. But that is something he doesn’t do, anymore. They will all just have to make the best of the situation. Ricky goes to his room, locks the door behind him and sits down on the floor. He unsheathes a tanto knife from inside his suit and a large caliber, silenced SigSauer P720. He places both weapons neatly to the left and right of him and assumes a meditative pose. What will happen, will happen. Joe had linked Ricky up with the ship’s surveillance systems shortly after boarding. Over the rhythmic sighs of the ship’s life support systems, Ricky is now watching the area around the ship – camera images projected into the inside of his mirror shades. 15 minutes later, and he sees them. They are coming. Two vehicles. “Samantha. Please let captain Leon know that we have guests.”
“Fuck, your buddies are here.” Leon says to Joe as he leans over the monitors in the cockpit. “We need to take off, stat!”.
“I could try to override the turbine pumping. It would be a risk to take off, early. But it is our best bet at this point. Firing the ship’s guns while in the atmosphere will get us Anzai-Steiner interceptor rockets to the hull.” Joe thinks out loud and then looks to Leon for approval. Leon nods, “Do it.”
Joe interfaces with the ship again. Seconds later and Samantha blares from the PA System: “60 seconds until ready for launch.”
Leon and Joe are staring at the monitors and so does Ricky, with his HUD. That’s all they can do. Stare and wait.
“50 seconds until ready for launch.”
Both vehicles are now parked in front of the ship, with a distance of roughly 50 meters. Nobody has gotten out, yet.
“40 seconds until ready for launch.”
The doors of one of the cars opens and a man, looking almost identical to Ricky, gets out of the back seat. He straightens his suit and looks at the ship through his mirror shades.
“30 seconds until ready for launch.”
The man nods. Then all doors of both cars open and heavily armed men take positions and aim at the ship.
“20 seconds until ready for launch.”
They open fire. The ship’s hull resonates under the relentless drumming of high caliber projectiles hammering against the already questionable armor plating of the CS Samantha. The noise is deafening as most of the ship’s insulation and safety padding had been ripped out years ago. What used to be soft, white leather padding all along the walls and ceiling of the ship, is now yellowed and ripped up foam remnants.
“10 seconds until ready for launch. We are under attack.”
“Come ooooon!” Leon yells and kicks the console in front of him.
“Ready for launch. We are under attack.”
Leon punches the ignition switch and immediately begins to yank the ship around without actually accelerating. Thank’s to Joe’s fix, the ship can now turn left when combat protocols are running. The ship makes a swift 180 degree turn and before the thugs outside have time to realize what is happening, Leon fires the engines. A huge dust and sand cloud is picked up from the ground and blasts the men that were raining death onto the CS Samantha just moments ago.
2 minutes later, the new crew of the Cargo Ship Samantha are leaving Terra’s orbit.