Bleed Out: An Ashen Stars Campaign

Episode 1.5 "The Pleasure Bringers" Part 1 of 2
Andarta, Aventine Cluster

After discussing their contract via holo with Bazuhl from the Loghos Corporation, the Earwig proceeded post-haste to pleasure planet Andarta. Their conversation didn’t reveal that anything Gravely had been working on would lend itself to suspicion, and Bazuhl, who just wanted the meeting over, insisted that they’d just find Gravely shacked up somewhere with a prostitute, his tether off for privacy. Skimming through the hundreds-of-thousands-of-words-long attachments, Jim managed to identify another Loghos executive who had recently filed insurance paperwork for travel to Andarta: a durugh named Jezhabur.

The Andartan spaceport assaulted the crew with gaudy advertising for every kind of sexual experience: Wild Jim reveled. All incoming travelers had to submit medical records and a blood sample before being allowed on the main concourse: Jim made it through and continued on to the more commercial areas, and Vedeg was waved through perfunctorily as well, but Deadbeef, still in the female Ur meatshell acquired on Tartarus, required special attention.

Fortunately, the crew had foreseen this eventually and forged medical records for “Dead Betty,” but two friendly security guards, Gerd and Lou, insisted on holding him in a security room while the lab processed a larger blood sample. Deadbeef complied, and Vedeg convinced the guards to let him accompany her and wait.

Meanwhile, on the main concourse, Jim found the spaceport crowded with pleasure-seekers of every kind, some unable to wait for Joy City proper having sex on their luggage. Only a line of dirty, bedraggled refugees being processed in an out-of-the-way side hallway marred the mood.

A sleezy pimp who eventually introduced himself as Dhez approached Jim and attempted aggressively to hook Jim up with one of his prostitutes, and he didn’t take “no” for an answer. Jim offered to take Dhez’s contact information, but the man insisted, then eventually broke down and revealed that he had a quota to hit, and if he didn’t, bad things could happen to him. Jim sympathized, but left Dhez to find other clients.

Gerd and Lou proved amiable enough company for Vedeg and “Dead Betty” as they waited for the blood sample to process. They provided information on the slums, which were overrun by gangs like the Jerks and the Squirts. The two men disagreed on the state of the Church of Regenerative Carnality, with one believing the healing side of its message was taking a back seat to spiritual ritual since the war. The lasers asked where someone would go to indulge in illegal, scary sex acts, and the guards recommended The Pink Pit, a scary club in the slums. When shown a picture of Gravely, neither recognized the man, but that was unsurprising given the number of people they regularly processed. In response to questions about missing persons, the guards said they wouldn’t know: the government does all it can to keep scary crimes out of the media in order to protect the vital sex-tourism trade. They did offer that Andarta was straining under the weight of refugees from the Mohilar War which had been bounced around from facility to facility for years; apparently, the Combine or other local organizations had recently deemed Andarta a fit relocation destination. But planets like Ares-3 rendered unlivable by the war needed to shed their citizens somewhere.

Finally, “Dead Betty’s” blood sample came back clean, and Vedeg and Deadbeef were freed to go. As an apology, Lou offered “Dead Betty” his address and the possibility of a quick threesome later with he and Gerd. Deadbeef remained politely noncommittal.

Once the three lasers joined up in the main concourse, they spotted a group of smartly-suited young men and women passing out literature. A brief interaction showed that these were representatives from the Church of Regenerative Carnality. Jim briefly flirted with one of the women, Heather, who gave him a flier detailing their tenets. She invited him to the upcoming Grand Conciliation festival.

The crew boarded a mag-lev train headed for the city: Vedeg chatted up an older man who gave him advice about pacing himself and taking performance-enhancing drugs for his first exposure to Andarta. Their conversation was interrupted by a crowd of grey-robed zealots moving down the train aisle berating pleasure seekers. The older man explained that these were Restreamers, a cult who believed that reality could snap into an alternate, “correct” path if enough people simply believed it to be possible. The Restreamer group picked a fight with some CRC acolytes, but the lasers deescalated the violence by interposing Deadbeef’s enormity, Vedeg’s bulk, and Jim’s quiet hand on his disruptor pistol.

Downtown, the lasers visited the Alachir Hotel, first attempting to flirt with receptionist Bernice, then speaking with the manager, Tal Barner, who took them into his office.

After the lasers reluctantly displayed their credentials, Barner acknowledged that the Loghos Corporation had contacted him that they’d be sending effectuators to look into Gravely’s disappearance. The hotel’s record’s didn’t reveal anything new, and Barner provided them with a key to Gravely’s room, which was still allocated to him.

Something about Barner’s eye contact in the interview bothered Straight, and after he subvocalized this to the others, Deadbeef planted a snail under the chair he was awkwardly occupying.

When the investigators proceeded to the hotel elevator, the snail picked up an immediate holo call in Barner’s office: he had a brief conversation with Victoria Fritz, updating her on the presence of the lasers, and she in turn reminding Barner to keep her updated on their movements. A quick Feed search showed that Fritz was a former heirodule in the Church of Regenerative Carnality, moved on into law enforcement, and has since acquired a nebulous, high-ranking position in Andartan government.

Inside Gravely’s room, the lasers found a card for an escort service called Joy Services, Gravely’s headset, medicine in the bathroom, a pamphlet for the Church of Regenerative Carnality, and a few blond hairs on one of Gravely’s shirts. The medicine represented a variety of vending-machine drugs intended to treat general symptoms. The headset showed that the last number called was Joy Services. Hacking the headset, the crew found that Gravely had also called a medical consultation number and a private number: they backtraced the private number to a Steve Moore. A Feed search showed him to be a dropout and social media douchebag.

Hacking Gravely’s private messages, the crew found several from Loghos wondering why he wasn’t answering his calls, plus a group of messages with pictures of Gravely consorting with various women with messages like, “Does she know what you’ve been doing?” The pictures were taken from the street outside the hotel; a quick records check revealed Gravely was not married.

Checking the halls outside Gravely’s room, the Lasers found no surveillance, but they did hack the lobby holos to see videos of Gravely coming and going. The final video showed him stumbling and a little bit confused as he left.

The group decided to take a cab to Joy Services next. As per “Dead Betty” and Vedeg’s conversation with Gerd and Lou, Joy Services was smack in the middle of Squirts territory. Leaving the cab, the group saw several Squirts (identifiable by the brown patch on their pants) lounging around, appraising Deadbeef’s meatshell from afar. The more dangerous individuals, however, were innocuously-dressed men acting casual, walking in pairs pretending to be in conversation, but also clearly packing heat and walking patrol.

The group tentatively approached the Joy Services building, a nondescript business with a small sign. The door locked, Vedeg tried the intercom and was told by a sultry voice to call the number from his hotel room instead. Vedeg responded that he would tell everyone how the company’s prostitutes were making their clients sick, and the voice became more concerned: she opened the door and let them in.

Inside, the group met with Hana Voltar, source of the sexy intercom voice, incongruously huge and repulsive. She was nervous at first, but eventually relaxed as “Wild” Jim Straight flirted with her. (Wingman Vedeg referred to him loudly as Wild Jim Thickcock.)

Shown a picture of Gravely, Hana identified him as a repeat customer who preferred a prostitute named Kara Canal. Kara left Joy Services, however, around the same time as her pimp, Rayan Fitch. Rumor has it they took some of club owner Kevin Brazil’s money and ran, which was so not a good idea. She also admitted that Brazil had her send Gravely’s details on to a mysterious “J,” for whom she only had contact information. She provided that information and the investigators backtraced it to The Church of Regenerative Carnality.

Hana at this point said she almost regretted alerting Kevin Brazil when the investigators threatened to spread rumors about sick clients. At the lasers’ urging, she left him a message calling him off.

Unsurprisingly, when the lasers’ left, their cab was gone, and in its place a huge black ATV. Four huge, cybernetically-enhanced men were exiting the vehicle: the bald one ran at the investigators while his dreadlocked thugs covered them with their disruptor pistols.

Kevin, the bald man, accused the lasers of being saboteurs from the Pink Pit sent to spread rumors about Joy Services, and he threatened to kill Vedeg and Deadbeef, letting Straight return to the Pit with his slain colleagues as a message. Vedeg quickly grabbed Brazil with his arms and flex arms, getting him into a lock. While Brazil screamed for his men to kill the lasers, and Deadbeef insisted they weren’t from the Pit, the screen faded to black.

Episode 1.5 "The Pleasure Bringers" Part 2 of 2

Maintaining his grip on Kevin Brazil, Vedeg convinced Brazil’s thugs that they would never get another paycheck out of Brazil if Vedeg killed him here and now. Brazil’s thugs took off, and Brazil folded, maintaining some bravado.

He revealed that Fritch had run off with Kara Canal, and, unable to find Fritch, Brazil tracked down Kara and killed her. The Lasers left him with an admonition to stay out of their way and went on to the Church of Regenerative Carnality.

At the Church’s Basilica of the Flesh, the lasers found all kinds of tourists and temple employees. Wild Jim entered the Basilica itself, and saw preparations underway for the great orgy of the Grand Conciliation. Deadbeef and Vedeg stayed outside and investigated one of the concession stands, recognizing Heather Roman from the terminal working one. While Deadbeef chatted with Heather, Vedeg hacked the Church’s network and discovered a connection between Brazil and Conciliator John Brook: pouring through wakaflops of data, Vedeg reasoned that Brazil’s organization provides security and protection for the church and steers wealthy clients to church recruitment drives, while the church keeps the government out of Brazil’s affairs.

Talking to Heather, Deadbeef discovered that she’d heard of Kara Canal through her friend Steve Moore: a facial tic was enough to inform Deadbeef that Moore and Heather were linked romantically. When the lasers reconvened to compare data, they decided to investigate Steve, whose number Mar Gravely had previously dialed.

Tracking the address from Gravely’s tether’s contact information to a tenement block on the edge of Joy City, the lasers spotted a figure watching them from a rooftop. Deadbeef sent up a prepared drone to snap holos of the figure and track in, but the creature ran and lost the drone in an alley. Video showed a grey-skinned, gilled creature with large black eyes and a small mouth. Abandoning the chase to find Steve, they knocked on his apartment door and eventually got him to open with their Laser credentials, which seriously impressed him.

Steve was a sweating mess, shying away from the bright hallway lights into the dark and messy interior of his apartment. The lasers immediately determined he was unwell, and convinced him to give them a blood sample, suggesting they would use it to screen him for application to their laser program. Steve dismissed his illness as a simple case of food poisoning from eating alien fruit, but Deadbeef’s analysis revealed that Steve’s cells were undergoing a radical transformation.

Showing Gravely’s picture to Steve didn’t spark any recognition, but a quick reconnaissance of the apartment revealed Kara’s holo and some personal effects: she roomed with Steve. When asked, Steve admitted he was worried about her: he hadn’t seen her in a week.

Pressing him harder, the lasers got him to admit that Kara had come home upset after being raped by her pimp, and he had “comforted” her through Church of Regenerative Carnality methods: he took advantage of her vulnerable state to pressure her into sex. He also mentioned that a doctor from Sanctuary Hospital had called for her, but he couldn’t remember the doctor’s name.

The lasers searched Kara’s room, finding a factory-fresh disruption pistol case without a vendor’s stamp: they surmised that the (missing) gun must have come from Gravely, who could get his hands on untraceable materiel through Loghos. While they searched the room, they heard Moore’s headset chirp with an incoming call.

The call came from Kara’s pocket communicator: Deadbeef intercepted it, but there was no voice on the other end. He did identify the call of the Andartan quiverbird, as well as the static hiss of a sonic fence. After tracking the call to the jungle just outside Joy City, Deadbeef triangulated the communicator’s location, and off the lasers went!

The crew took sky cycles to the edge of the chemically-cleared jungle, and found traced the signal to a morass of decaying vegetation disturbed by the tracks of a ground car matching Brazil’s SUV. They found a shallow, open grave.

Inside the grave was a mutilated, mutated corpse partially wrapped in plastic. Scales covered much of its body, and a forensic comparison of material gathered at Kara’s and Steve’s apartment revealed that the corpse was indeed Kara’s. She had signs of struggle, of sexual assault, and her face had been melted by extended exposure to disruptor fire.

The grave had been dug with shovels, but recently reopened by hand. Inhuman tracks led into the jungle: the lasers determined that whatever being Kara’s scales indicated she was transforming into could easily have been the same kind of creature making those tracks. Her communicator rested on the plastic, and in her pocket was a card for Sanctuary Hospital.

The lasers followed the tracks. En route, Wild Jim spotted jewel spiders in the trees. A quick and bloody battle ensued, resulting in six dead spiders and some wounded lasers.

The lasers made their way deeper into the defoliated forest, toward the scorched trees and broken ground of a landing or crash site. In fact, they found a small courier ship and a crater.

Several grey-skinned creatures, like the one they had seen near Kara’s apartment, emerged from the trees. One identified itself in hoarse and broken Comblish as Eldest, and explained that their race, the druath, when facing extinction, had sent its genetic material and collective artistic and technical achievements to the stars in an ark. The crater nearby contained this material, but time, the elements, and the crash had corrupted its data. Their genetic material had been programmed as a virus, set to transform suitable lifeforms into druath.

Scanning the druath, the lasers identified individuals who had formerly been Kara Canal, Steve Moore, and Mar Gravely. A scan revealed to Deadbeef that the probe in the crater would be salvageable with time and the right equipment, but in a row of sconces containing cylinders of genetic samples, two cylinders were missing.

The lasers bargained with the druath, telling them about a known planet inhabited by non-sentient humanoids which would be suitable for their viral genetic overrides. Deadbeef promised to help them recover the data in their probes, and, after much convincing, Vedeg laid down his fury cannon.

The druath revealed that they could sense humanoids “infected” with their DNA. Although the lasers’ mission was complete, having found Mar Gravely, they decided to follow up on the druath STD to make sure all Andarta didn’t become druath. The druaths’ noses led them in the courier ship to the Basilica of the Flesh, where a huge crowd showed them that the Grand Conciliation was under way.

Heather Roman stood at the center of a great mob of people in sexy ceremonial robes, sweating slightly. Hers would be the first flesh of the Conciliation, and the druath informed the lasers that she, plus a few others in attendance, were in the process of transforming.

The lasers burst into the basilica, pushing past Brazil’s guards, and announced that the Conciliation would have to wait; a deadly threat was nigh.

They led Heather and the other nascent druath into a back room and comforted them while their Combine bodies died and birthed new druath. Although the lasers couldn’t save everyone, Andarta, its sex industry, and its millions of inhabitants thrived thanks to their intervention.

Episode 1.6: "Crystal Clear"
Season Finale

After viewing the most recent contract, Wild Jim had some questions about its validity. First, why would the Crysolis attack a space station in an admittedly strategic location, when their attacks thus far had only involved taking mineral-rich worlds held by intelligent races like the Missec? Well, that, and when the Shengli activated its Interociter.

In addition, Jim noted that the Combine admiral in charge of this operation, Tans Owana, was noted in the Mohilar War for his ends-justify-the-means philosophy. Jim himself had processed a materials-diversion request from Owana which supported a somewhat questionable military objective, but left a defenseless balla colony without the means to gather and process food in a hostile environment, effectively sentencing them to starve.

Fortunately, the crew had upgraded the Earwig into a capable fighting machine; when the ship emerged from translight into a chaotic combat zone, they had a fraction of a second to respond to the mines at the corridor’s event horizon. Thinking fast, Vedeg managed to overwhelm the mines’ friend-or-foe sensors, causing the mines to draw in on and detonate upon one another while the Earwig flew through the center of the ring of explosions.

Deadbeef ran algorithms to label the dozens of sensor pings out on the battlefield: The crysolis fielded two enormous Geoshe-class warships in addition to swarms of Sharden scouts; the Combine group was led by the supercarrier McMillen, several cruisers and a destroyer group which included the CS Brian Hudd and the CS Noomi Grant. Irregular ships, like the Earwig and the Egggobbler, also fought on the side of the Combine for the defense of the Bleed, and, presumably, a paycheck. Gudun’s Wild Wild West was engaged with a Sharden, and Vedeg recognized the Baloney Factor 7, a Laser ship featuring Tutit, a tavak with whom he recalled an embarrassing history.

Deadbeef contacted Owana’s battlefleet VI for a situational analysis: the VI assigned the Earwig a specific Sharden to target, advising the crew to withdraw if damaged or overwhelmed, and to reestablish contact if they eliminated their target. Seeking more information, Deadbeef managed to push through the VI to a sentient contact, cybe Specialist Attributor aboard the McMillen. Vedeg spoke with Attributor, and with some wit, managed to pull from Attributor that the crysolis had appeared after the Noomi Grant fired a directed energy beam. Vedeg moved the Earwig to engage the targeted Sharden, while Deadbeef downloaded the McMillen’s sensor data from the Noomi Grant’s energy beam, discovering that it matched that of the interociter.

Their ship bristling in glistening modifications, the Earwig crew made short work of the Sharden, while Wild Jim studied the pattern of the battle as a whole. He quickly ascertained that the Geoshe were punching a hole in Combine formations to allow Sharden scouts access to a single group of destroyers: the Combine in turn appeared to be aware of this motivation, and continually reformed to protect the destroyers. Both the crysolis and Combine fleets appeared to be maneuvering around the Noomi Grant.

The crew began discussing their role in the continuing battle when Wild Jim’s sensor sweeps revealed a nearby translight corridor about to open: a detailed scan revealed that another wave of crysolis ships would soon burst forth and overwhelm the Combine’s flank. Deadbeef located a nearby cosmic string, and with Vedeg’s careful maneuvering and the ship’s repulsors, the crew managed to guide the string onto the corridor’s opening, effectively “barring” it for a time.