by Stefan Jones
Like many SF fans, one of my guilty pleasures is watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's not great SF, and not even the best SF on television. Most of the time it's pretty lame. But last season the producers threw in something wonderful: The Borg. Technology had turned these humanoids into horrors whose values and ultimate goals are incomprehensible to lesser races. They weren't the decadent pushovers that Captain Kirk used to destroy with a few photon torpedoes or careful use of illogic. Implacable, mysterious, and terrible, the Borg put the smug, civilized Federation types in their place. There were races in the galaxy, it seemed, that didn't play fair. They defied easy understanding, and could, if they needed to, crush the Feds and the Romulans like ants.
Original? Perhaps for TV. There are plenty of juggernaut civilizations in written SF. The Ousters in Dan Simmons' Hyperion, the "calculator races" in Gregory Benford's Across the Seas of Suns and the Jarts from Greg Bear's Eon are good examples. These races not only endanger humanity physically, but threaten its collective ego, its place in the universe. S.O.P. goes out the window when they appear; politics and economics take a back seat when dealing with them. The fact that one of these made it to TV was inspiring. If it was OK for TV, it was OK for a roleplaying game . . .
Enter the Harvesters. These folks are not your average alien race. They an immensely powerful elder civilization, with magical technology and a way of life that humans and their ilk would find bizarre, terrifying, and even hideous.
Far coreward of human space – in the constellation Sagittarius, as seen in Earth's skies – is a huge volume occupied by a mysterious, secretive race. Until recently, humanity only knew the "Sagittarians" through travelers' tales and distorted third-hand accounts. The reports were contradictory and full of tall tales about machines with mystic powers, slave races and stars surrounded by swarms of artificial worlds. The only point of agreement: The civilization that occupied the regions bordering this side of the galactic core was vast, immensely powerful and frightfully advanced.
There was no pressing reason to investigate these reports; the long journey involved would have been fabulously expensive, and dealing with enemies and opportunities closer to home had a higher priority. But through the decades, humanity's sphere of exploration, trade and influence has edged closer and closer to the core.
Though Dgro-dgri merchant-pioneers have been visiting human space for decades, only recently has humanity reached and contacted their home worlds. The Dgro-dgri Confederacy (see sidebar) has confided that the Sagittarians are real . . . and frightening. Through their own efforts, and information bought from other races living near the core, the Dgro-dgri have assembled a few facts:
The Sagittarians calls themselves many things. The most authoritative name seems to be Jowuril Kee. This translates loosely as We Who Harvest Souls. Harvest in this case has a slightly sinister connotation, as in "the hunters harvested the park's excess wildlife." Kee, a word also used to designate an sapient individual, translates crudely into "soul," but has no apparent religious mean-ing. Incrementing memory string is a better but less elegant translation.
The Jowuril Kee seem disinterested in the affairs of lesser beings, but treat interlopers with callousness and dispatch. According to the Dgro-dgri, the Sagittarians maintain a buffer zone 1,500 light years wide around their territory. Intruders are warned away by automated mobile beacons. Ships that persist in trespassers are blasted by warning shots designed to cripple intruders to the point where limping home is the only option. Massed fleets approaching Jowuril Kee worlds simply disappear.
A few Jowuril Kee have visited Dgro-dgri colony worlds, apparently out of sheer curiosity. The visitors were of many species, and acted strangely. Some spent their vacations talking with children; others wandered around in zoos. Though they volunteered no information about themselves, careful analysis of taped conversations indicates the visitors came from a diverse, complex multi-species culture.
Jowuril Kee technology is frightfully advanced. Refugees from a wandering race calling itself Waltzers-On-Creation claim that the Harvesters create artificial planets, terraform worlds by the dozen and build megaengineering projects of frightening scale. Once good customers of the Dgro-dgri, the Waltzers made the mistake of moving their migration fleet through Harvester space. Only a fraction of their mobile colonies escaped.
The Dgro-dgri themselves have dared buffer zone patrols on occasion. One expedition discovered an asteroid belt aswarm with Harvester mining robots. The asteroids turned out to be debris from a brown dwarf star that was apparently disassembled for its mineral content. A recent mission confirmed that the Harvesters occupy normal planets as well. Some of these seem technologically backward; others are city-worlds with tailored ecosystems and trillions of inhabitants.
The Jowuril Kee are a dynamic, sophisticated and civilized people. More than 50 sapient species belong to the civilization, which occupies some 12,000 habitable worlds and uncounted millions of space habitats, asteroid burrows and comet colonies. The oldest races in the coalition have been around for nearly a hundred thousand years . . . and their culture, politics, religion and science have been evolving and changing since then.
Fortunately for the lesser sapients of the galaxy, the Jowuril Kee are mature and enlightened. They are not interested in conquering their neighbors, though if they wished they could do that quite handily. Their wealth and utopian society has not made them capricious esthetes or decadent hedonists; Harvester culture is vital and the goals of their civilization are exciting and worthy.
Understanding the Harvesters must begin with their unique method of education and reproduction. The Jowuril Kee are obsessed with creating competent individuals. A typical kee begins its existence as an animal. There are twenty-odd species of sritkee u'korpil ("soul seed makers"). Some sritkee u'korpil are herbivores, some carnivores; a few are aquatic, and two can fly. All are borderline sapient, about as smart as chimpanzees or dolphins.
These animals are born, live and die in natural settings on urombi kee k'korpil ("worlds of nurturing and winnowing"). Automated machinery implants a semi-intelligent virus (similar to the "Riders" in GURPS Aliens) and a tiny etherspace transmitter in each creature. When it dies, the memories of the animal (its sritkee) are absorbed by the virus and transmitted to a collecting station. Vast AIs evaluate the animal's personality and recorded life experiences; if they meet the examiner's specifications the memories are transferred to a young creature of another species. After a dozen or so cycles, the combined memories are judged worthy and implanted in the custom-tailored fetus of one of the Jowuril Kee's sapient races. These memories surface slowly at first; the process accelerates during adolescence. By maturity, every citizen remembers a dizzying series of past lives in a variety of animal bodies.
To say these memories give the kee a broad view of things is an understatement. They remember drowning in floods and dying of thirst; they have experienced childbirth and the triumph of defeating rival males to win a harem. They know what it is like to walk on two, four and six legs, to swim in the depths of the ocean, to burrow in the ground and to fly. They remember the terror of being eaten alive by ravenous predators, and the thrill of stalking fleet herbivores with loyal packmates. This extraordinary pre-life gives kee a mystical streak and the innate wisdom of someone who's seen it all.
The pre-life is just the beginning of a young kee's preparation. The sapient species grow up slowly. Five decades of childhood and adolescence is not uncommon. Youngsters spend much of that time in study, making and raising jarum kee, and gamboling in carefully orchestrated educational realities. The payoff is individuals of astonishing competence and flexibility. The amount of time, material, energy and effort that goes into raising new kee is astounding, but the Jowuril Kee can afford it. They can't afford not to. Their civilization is too complex to be left to slackers.
Adult kee live a boisterous but civilized existence. Much of what kee do "for a living" is incomprehensible to humans. Consider the plight of a Kalahari Bushman or Amazonian Indian stranded in 20th-century Manhattan. He might be impressed by the skyscrapers, frightened by the crowds and roar of traffic, and dazzled by the shops . . . but he would miss 90% of what was going on him, unable to understand the implications of subtle cultural cues and unaware of the workings of the vast institutions dwelling in the cliffs of steel and concrete around him. He's no fool; he would quickly learn how to get around in Manhattan, perhaps even mastering the subway. But without years of learning he might remain totally oblivious to the fact he was at the center of world commerce and in the heart of power of vast mass-media empires. An interstellar-age human, even an educated and sophisticated one, would have as much trouble understanding the goings-on of a Harvester world.
In their plentiful spare time, kee do research, discuss philosophy or trade gossip, frolic in parks, create or study works of art, rough it in the wilderness, raise children, or contribute to the Great Works. A favorite activity of late is viewing scenes from the time camera.
Tedious, routine, and degrading work is done by the jarum kee (see below).
Jowuril Kee worlds are also home to highly specialized, barely sapient jarum kee ("utilitarian souls"). On many worlds, especially the urbanized ones, jarum kee outnumber the full sapients. Jarum kee are really little more than machines; they are tailored to specific jobs and live carefully supervised lives toiling in fields, mines or factories. Conditioning, tailored entertainments and drugs keep jarum kee content and productive. Their personalities are simple and stereotyped, like a cartoon character's. Though treated well, jarum kee have no civil rights; they are little more than property. They experience something like religious ecstasy while on the job, and are too limited in their thought patterns to contemplate another way of life. Freedom is an unknown concept.
Some jarum kee are grown in factory crèches, but most are made by young kee. Labs tailor and distribute jarum kee zygotes to the Harvester equivalent of high school health classes, where the kids study them, make interesting variations, and have them implanted in their bodies to gestate. In addition to being good parenthood practice, this makes kee affectionate and protective towards their servant-creatures.
Jarum kee live a few dozen years. They are programmed to report to recycling centers when they begin to wear out or become senile. Occasionally, an emergency forces a jarum kee to become a hero, breaking its conditioning to distinguish itself in some way. These disruptive sports are quickly terminated, but their memories are recorded to be put in a sritkee u'korpil, eventually to emerge as a full citizen kee!
Jarum kee come in hundreds of varieties Most have been customized in small ways, either for efficiency or esthetics. They have pleasant, eager-to-please personalities. They are frighteningly enthusiastic about their jobs, and tend to be gullible and unnaturally cheerful.
3' long, 12" tall, 60 lbs.
ST: 7 IQ: 7 DX: 11 HT: 5
Basic Speed: 4 Move: 4
Armor: PD 1, DR 2
Advantages: Electric shock, 2d-2. All except metallic armor must be penetrated for the shock to work. Extra arms (two, limited reach), Extra legs (two extra), Striker (Pincers, 1d-1 swung/crushing dmg.)
Disadvantages: Slave mentality, Pacifism (total non-violence), Duty (Repair and build, always).
Skills: Various repair skills.
Sparkers are lobster-like creatures about the size of a small dog. They have an electricity-producing organ and a sort of secondary nervous system made of organic superconductors. Their natural electricity is channeled into specialized steel-alloy claws to do spot-welding and soldering. They do construction work and electrical repairs.
4' 6" long, 24" tall, 80 lbs.
ST: 9 IQ: 7 DX: 12 HT: 6
Basic Speed: 4 Move: 4
Armor: DR 1
Advantages: Extra arm, Striker (saw, swing/cutting, 1d+ 1), Extra legs (two extra), Built in sandpaper and glue organs.
Disadvantages: Slave mentality, Pacifism (total non-violence), Duty (Repair and build, always).
Skills: Climbing 14, various carpentry and repair skills.
Carpenters are expert furniture and building makers. They look like huge fiddler crabs with soft brown shells. One of their four arms ends in an 18' long saw made of a metallic substance. Their palms are covered with rough, horny tissue that improves their grip and can be used as sandpaper. Carpenters secrete a yellowish goop that acts as a strong, fast-drying glue. When diluted with saliva, the goop becomes a durable, if not especially aesthetic, varnish. Carpenters compulsively test and repair wooden structures they come across.
3' tall, 50 lbs.
ST: 6 IQ: 7 DX: 12 HT: 6
Basic Speed: 4.5 Move: 4
Advantages: Extra arms (2)
Disadvantages: Slave mentality, Pacifism (total non-violence), Duty (Clean, comb, neaten; always).
One of the first jarum kee a young kee grows for itself is a groomer. The most common model resembles a blue-furred, four-armed teddy bear. Groomers are chatty, gregarious little busybodies who compulsively "neaten up" other creatures in their presence. Their saliva, and secretions from modified sweat and sebaceous glands, act as natural cleansers and conditioners for skin, hair, fur, feathers and scales. With training, they also act as tailors and expert dressers. Most adult kee have a personal Groomer which lives with them and accompanies them on travels.
3' long, 18" tall, 70 lbs.
ST: 5 IQ: 8 DX: 11 HT: 11
Basic Speed: 5.5 Move: 3
Advantages: Acute Taste & Smell +4, Cast Iron Stomach, Extra Arms (two; have "no physical blow" limitation), Extra legs (four extra).
Disadvantages: Reduced Move -2, Slave mentality, Pacifism (total non- violence), Duty (Eat, forage, eat, serve food, eat; always).
Skills: Stealth-10, Survival (Foraging)-10, Cooking-11.
Snackers look like chubby tarantulas with too many limbs and a coat of bushy camouflage-colored fur. They are found in wilderness parks and on newly settled worlds. Snackers have incredibly efficient digestive systems and exquisite senses of taste and smell. They can eat almost anything, including cellulose and dirt. Snackers accompany kee during jaunts in the wilderness; they forage for themselves and their masters, carefully checking out strange findings for poison before passing them on to the kee. Excess calories, vitamins and minerals consumed by the snacker are concentrated in a waxy paste that fills bulbous, blister-like growths on the creature's furry hide. These deposits can be collected and eaten by kee if other food is unavailable. In extreme emergencies, snackers cheerfully asphyxiate themselves so kee may eat their nutritious (and quite tasty) muscles and brains.
Snackers are sometimes trained as expert campfire chefs, and can field-dress game animals.
Finally, there are the ebjo jarum kee and the keeli urom d'kthist. These are sapient machines imbued with the memories of deceased kee. Ebjo jarum kee ("enlightened servant souls") are AI machines with the preserved personality of a particularly talented and distinguished individual. They are immensely powerful, able to command the resources of entire worlds. Ebjo jarum kee also have a direct tap into the knowledge contained in the civilization's vast electronic libraries; they "know" this information as though it were their own memories! Ebjo jarum kee maintain the urombi kee k'korpil (nursery worlds), run automated outposts, oversee the education of the young and advise kee still in corporeal state.
Though ebjo jarum kee are effectively the leaders of Jowuril Kee civilization, living kee are not anxious to be preserved in this way. They look on it as a kind of civic purgatory, like serving a thousand years of jury duty. The usual fate of a dying kee is to have its memories poured into the keeli urom d'kthist, the "soul world-ocean." Physically, this is a series of immense AI machines scattered through Jowuril Kee space. The oldest parts consist of continent-sized mats of organic computer circuits, floating in the placid seas of sun-drenched ocean worlds. The greatest mass of the brain-stuff can be found in densely packed space habitats. Newer additions may be found growing in comets, or on the crusts of brown dwarf stars. The various parts of the network communicate by some sort of FTL radio.
What the keeli urom d'kthist thinks about is a mystery. The ordinary kee don't even bother trying to comprehend the entity's thoughts; it (they?) is as far above the kee as they are above the sritkee. The ebjo jarum kee can, with great effort, communicate with a portions of Its composite intelligence, but have only a vague idea of what It thinks about or does with Its time. Occasionally, the keeli urom d'kthist may temporarily eject a kee individual from the fold for mysterious special missions. The memories and personality of the agent are implanted into a living body or sapient machine for the duration of the task, then transferred back into the pool. These reincarnated individuals claim to know nothing about existence in the keeli urom d'kthist . . . but they seem extremely anxious to finish their missions and get back.
Establishing a telepathic link with the keeli urom d'kthist is incredibly easy. Any telepath on or near a mind-world (within 1 A.U.) can do it. But, as Jowuril Kee psychics discovered long ago, breaking a link with the great mind is almost impossible. They gave up probing the soul store, and are satisfied with descriptions provided by the ebjo jarum kee.
Psychics attempting to contact the Keeli Urom D'kthist immediately get a head-splitting migraine and an intuitive feeling that they'll be real sorry if they continue. If a character persists, roll vs. Telepathy skill +4. On a critical failure, the psychic passes out, waking up hours later with a worse migraine that prevents them from doing anything meaningful for 1d days.
On an ordinary failure, the psychic screams in terror, clutches his head, and begins laughing hysterically. After a moment the psychic falls into a coma (lasts 24-HT hours). When he awakes, the psychic vaguely recalls being bombarded with the thoughts of countless alien minds. Each mind seemed to be simultaneously participating in a tense PTA meeting, a scientific conference and an endless, ecstatic Mardi Gras revel attended by hordes of strange creatures. The intruder's appearance seemed to startle, outrage and delight the things there. Feeling like a chimp loosed in a society ball, he bolted. Another consciousness, unbelievably vast and powerful and utterly unreadable, could also be detected, hovering in the background and somehow directing the chase. After what seemed like days of pursuit, the intruder was ejected, receiving the mental equivalent of a slap on the behind just before contact was broken.
A telepath who makes the skill roll has his mind sucked into the activities of the keeli urom d'kthist. His body falls into a permanent coma. Unless his mind has been stored on braintape, he is gone. On a critical success, even this doesn't work; his tapes turn up blank! Optionally, the tape may contain a short, jovial goodbye message from the lost character, addressed to his friends . . . "Having a wonderful time, wish you were here!"
The Harvesters' strange psyches make communication with outsiders so very frustrating that they rarely bother to do so. Language is not the problem; they simply can't relate meaningfully with ourki ("earlies"). Their past-life memories give them a insight into the web of life that outsiders cannot hope to fathom; rather than empathizing with lesser forms, kee see animals and ourki as links in a chain. The stimulating mental life of the net isolates them even further. Some actively dislike being around ourki, just as some humans are uncomfortable around animals. This may be fortunate. Full contact with the Jowuril Kee would induce culture shock that would surely destroy a primitive society.
Nearly all kee respect the right of less advanced sapients to exist . . . but deity protect the unfortunate or foolish ourki that gets in the way of some Harvester project, or intrudes on a urombi kee k'korpil or keeli urom d'kthist world.
Harvesters who seek out contact with outsiders are either nonconformists who enjoy communing with their simple, stunted brethren, or the Jowuril Kee equivalent of dogcatchers. Rambunctious youth sometimes seek out ourki to study or molest.
The Harvesters should be used carefully, if at all. On one level the Harvesters are an awful warning, a chilling example of what extensive use of mind-machine interfacing and braintaping techniques could do to a civilization. Their main purpose is to loom in the far distance and remind the PCs and humanity that the universe is a big place full of terror . . . and wonder.
These seeds aren't full adventures. They are incidents, designed to introduce the Sagittarians to the PCs, give them a hint of their powers and perhaps tease them into investigating.
The PCs, enjoying a period of R&R, meet an elderly Dgro-dgri trader. The trader, far from home and lonely, talks their ears off. Fortunately, she is a good storyteller. She tells them of the places she's been and the things she's seen. Not the least of these is a place, far toward the core, she calls "The Rip." She and her crew of merchant-pioneers were lured there by what seemed to be signals from an young interplanetary civilization. Instead of a new market, they found a time-space anomaly surrounded by a swarm of space habitats and sensor arrays the size of worlds. They had stumbled upon one of the Sagittarians' stupendous engineering projects! The traders watched and listened for several days before they were spotted. Their ship was pursued and crippled by swift, agile warships and forced to limp home. The trip back took nearly a year, and only half the crew survived it.
Analysis of the recordings showed that the anomaly was a wormhole; the signals that lured the traders came from it. The signals proved to be the radio and TV transmissions of a world with primitive space flight; the images showed scenes of space battles and planetary bombardment, "obviously" the result of an attack by the Sagittarians. The creatures were using the wormhole to project their power to distant corners of the galaxy. The trader, who begins to rant a bit as she nears the end of her story, finishes by describing her futile attempt to convince her race of the danger it faced. She fled rimward, convinced that the invasion could come at any time.
The trader refuses, "for your own good!," to divulge the location of the Rip. If the PCs offer her enough ($10,000, modified with a commercial transaction roll), the trader will pass on a disk with a copy of the signals. The images show a vicious interplanetary war, but it's impossible to tell whether the grainy transmissions are genuine.
A long, careful analysis shows that the war is between technological equals, far below the level that the Sagittarians must have achieved.
The PCs, laid over on a backwater agricultural planet, decide to explore the small town outside the starport. It's a pleasant, pastoral place, but decidedly dull. While looking for something to do, they spot an unfamiliar non-human wandering in a park. The creature is the size and build of a large black bear. A coat of stiff, woolly black hair covers most of its body; over this it wears a vest of coarse fabric and a harness hung with leather pouches. Its blunt, symmetrical face has four eyes arranged around a complex multiple jaw; the four digits on each hand have sharp, retractile claws. Though bipedal, it walks on all fours at times and is twice seen climbing trees, seemingly for enjoyment.
If the PCs take the time to observe the thing, they'll quickly come to the conclusion that it is a fellow tourist. When not looking over the stock of local stores, it occupies itself taking pictures of people, animals and buildings using a tiny camera mounted on a finger ring.
Eventually, the thing takes notice of the PCs and follows them around. It occasionally asks a simple question – such as the name of a tree or bird or what a certain building is for – but for the most part it is content to amble along, window shop and take pictures. It answers most questions about itself with a grunt and a shrug, but freely gives its name if asked: "ChooHOOO! Swam vigorously through methane for a mate. Called Uhnuh." The questioners will feel subsonic pulses in their viscera and hear an almost inaudibly high keening when it pronounces this. (These sounds are parts of its name too. It will be very impressed if the PCs realize this and manage to duplicate the sounds.)
After a half an hour or so of wandering together, the PCs will realize that they and the beastie are both being carefully watched. Wary-looking offworlders disguised (badly) as locals tail them; armed, uniformed men from the local militia will be seen peeking around street corners. Children playing in the street are scooped by their parents and hustled indoors when the party approaches. The stranger doesn't seem to notice anything untoward until the party reaches the next shopping district. The thing will stare at the CLOSED signs and shuttered shop windows, mutter "This always happens," quietly floats into the air, then streaks toward the horizon and out of sight.
After the thing disappears, the party will be briefly but thoroughly questioned by agents from the Contact service. The awe-struck investigators will take down the PCs' every word and observation, request duplicates of pictures and recordings they may have made and ask that they report further contacts with the creature. The investigators won't say what they know about the creature. If the PCs do some undercover work, they learn that the tourist is thought to be from some terrifically advanced civilization, and that it has been paying regular visits to the town for nearly 50 years.
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