Terra Incognita

This article originally appeared in Pyramid #14

San Juan in the One-and-Twenty

by Steven J. Hammond

Si breetva, me city is not what it used to be. I have seen pictures and heard the dyadooshkas' stories; it was once a great place. Si, si, the darkness of the swamp comes for San Juan now . . . As it will soon come for us all.

Four hundred years ago San Juan, Puerto Rico, was the center of Spanish power in the Caribbean; now it lies in ruin. Gradually the rising sea has flooded the remains of the city, and the mangrove swamps are slowly taking root and spreading. Already they form a dark canopy over parts of the city, bringing a variety of tropical wildlife with them. As always, a small piece of humanity struggles to scratch out an existence in the remains. All that is left of a once proud city is a few C-4's and Nullos with nowhere else to go.

The Downfall

The beginning of the end for San Juan was the Tolliver's Disease epidemic, which started in 1997, followed by hurricane Abner in 1998. The Toller infected over 60% of the population before a vaccine was found in 2021. When Abner struck, fear of the disease slowed the evacuation of San Juan as the other Puerto Rican cities tried violently to keep the disease from spreading. Over 2,000 people were killed by the hurricane — even more died in the starvation that followed. Help was slow to come to the infected city.

As the people were rebuilding from Abner, hurricane Marko struck with even more fury in the year 2000. The governor was killed during the riots that followed as people fought over the remaining food and water. The U.S. government declared a state of emergency and sent troops to restore order. That year the new governor, Arturo Louis Perez Acevedo, temporarily moved the capital of the island to the centrally located city of Caguas. When oil was discovered in the central mountains the importance of Caguas grew, casting a shadow over San Juan. In 2002, U.S. pressure forced Puerto Rico to become a state and Caguas became the permanent capital.

The Grand Slam of 2006 forced the hotels and tourist areas to shut down, never to reopen. As the world's economy recovered, the southern city of Ponce, which was better protected from the hurricanes, became the new tourist haven. When alternative energy sources reduced the importance of oil, North American Technologies converted the refineries in and around Caguas into high-strength polymer plants. With little remaining industry or tourism, San Juan's airport was no longer profitable and closed in 2009. The newly opened airport in Ponce took up the slack.

As the polar caps started to melt from global warming, the world's nations worked to protect the coastal cities. The Puerto Rican people could not expend crucial labor and resources to save the already dying San Juan, so the ocean began claiming the city. In 2013, president Patterson signed an executive order for the evacuation and abandonment of San Juan. The remaining residents were relocated to other parts of the island.

The City and the Swamp

San Juan is very old and many of the buildings reflect the Spanish origins of the Puerto Rican people. The buildings are typically two- or three-story structures made of cement or cut stone. The walls were covered with plaster and painted bright colors. Today, most of the plaster has been washed away by the elements. The buildings sit next to one another, like older European cities, forming a solid wall along the cobblestone streets. The beach front resort area, known as Condado Beach, is of much more recent design. These newer buildings tend to be high-rise hotels and apartment or condominium complexes — monuments of cement and glass. Many of these high-rise buildings have collapsed as the waves eat away at their foundations. The parts of the city south of Condado is a diverse mix of old and new architecture.

The sea level has risen 12 feet since the city was abandoned, flooding most of San Juan to at least waist level. Debris from the fallen buildings forms a breakwater which keeps the interior waters calm. As the fallen buildings wash away, the waves collapse new ones and the ocean gradually devours the city.

In the calm interior, mangrove trees have taken root in and around the various buildings, forming a dark canopy over a brackish swamp. The leafy branches drop new roots into the water and the tree spreads, often forming impenetrable thickets. Closer to the open ocean, the trees have a harder time and many areas are wide open. Here corals are starting to form and many ocean fishes find shelter in the buildings.

Palm trees and other tropical plants grow wild in the areas above sea level. Some of these trees are fruit bearing and provide an important resource for the people who struggle to survive here. The dry regions include part of the peninsula that holds Old San Juan and Castillo del Morro (see below). Old San Juan is the original Spanish settlement. Protected by a high stone wall on one side, Old San Juan slopes down to a flooded port area on the other.

San Juan has become a haven for criminals, particularly smugglers. Its easy access to the ocean and many hiding places make it an ideal meeting place for those involved in the "small package trade.'' Many of the weapons bound for the Echeveristas in Cuba come through here, as well as drugs headed for the United States. Criminals and people running from the government — any government — hide here as well. NERCC made a few attempts to sweep San Juan several years ago, but met with heavy casualties and little success. Recently, NERCC has made three small raids with helicopters, targeting specific people. In two of the attempts, a small strike team landed on a rooftop and captured those inside. During the third attempt, helicopters fired rockets from a distance to destroy a building. Rumor has it this was to stop an arms shipment to the Echeveristas.

Besides the smugglers and criminals, las Ratas also make their homes in San Juan. The Rats are people who do not have anywhere else to go. They scratch their meager existence out of fish, tropical fruits, and what they can scavenge from the fallen buildings.

Castillo del Morro

Castillo del Morro

The fortress Castillo del Morro was the keystone of the Spanish defense of Puerto Rico. It sits high on what used to be a peninsula overlooking the entrance to San Juan harbor. The peninsula is now an island. However, the stone fort and surrounding city is still intact. There are tunnels connecting the fort to Fuerte San Cristobal, a smaller flooded fort on the northern shore, and other locations. Most of these tunnels are full of water, but there may still be some dry sections.

The Mordella cartel maintains a small garrison here, to hide dealers who are too hot to keep stateside and to dilute drugs before sending them on for distribution. NERCC has tried several times to shut the fortress down, but the Mordella are very well connected and NERCC always finds the castle empty. It is also rumored that another 'Traff has a drug processing plant and a large weapon stockpile somewhere in the city.

In The Campaign

Depending on the specific campaign, there are several reasons for the characters to go to San Juan. In all of these cases, San Juan is perfect for a long, "Hollywood-style'' chase and gun fight.

GURPS Cyberworld

Smugglers. The characters have something they need to buy, sell, or move without attracting too much attention. San Juan is a natural place to conclude the deal, and a natural place for the deal to go sour. The characters could be smugglers themselves, using San Juan frequently in their dealings.

A place to hide. Things have gotten a little too hot recently for the characters, and perhaps a tropical vacation is needed while things cool down. Of course the group they are hiding from could have people hiding in San Juan also . . .

The bounty. The PCs have been hired to eliminate someone who knows too much and is hiding in San Juan. The other residents may not be too pleased to have bounty hunters wandering around in the city.

Gold. The waters near Puerto Rico were a hot bed of pirate activity during the 16th and 17th centuries. There are many stories of undiscovered pirate gold still buried on the small islands around Puerto Rico. Perhaps one of those stories is true. San Juan provides a place to find an experienced guide and a place to hide when others hear of the characters' find.


GURPS CthulhuPunk

Deep Ones. These evil, aquatic creatures are a natural for the ruins of this old city. They could find worshippers and mates among las Ratas and work to spread their influence to the rest of the island.

Ghouls. The rising ocean has driven the local ghouls out of their tunnels. But the dark mangrove thickets and mazes of abandoned buildings are almost as good. They hide during the day, but by night they feed on the remains of the day's violence and the refuse of a dead city. They may even use small boats made from old wood and scraps of human society.

Hidden cult. An evil cult is hiding in San Juan. They are sacrificing animals and people to summon one of the Great Old Ones. The characters need to find them in time to stop the summoning. However, the other inhabitants of San Juan generally don't like people snooping around. Can they be convinced of the danger they are in if they don't help the characters?

Fountain of Youth. Ponce de Leon, the original governor of Puerto Rico, is best known as the discoverer of Florida and the Bahamas. He discovered these places while searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Supposedly he never found it, but the secret might be buried with him in the flooded cathedral on the south side of Old San Juan. Even if the characters can find the fountain, can they afford the price to use it?

Other Cyberpunk Campaigns

While the history provided specifically matches that of GURPS Cyberworld, the essential elements are the increased frequency and ferocity of hurricanes and rising sea level. These side effects of global warming are common in cyberpunk games and literature. This makes it easy to incorporate San Juan into other campaign backgrounds. Some of the horror ideas above could naturally be incorporated into a cyberpunk game that includes magic, such as FASA's Shadowrun.

Article publication date: August 1, 1995

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