Plague Planet

by Hans Rancke-Madsen

Art by Allen Nunisby

This adventure takes place in the Spinward Marches in the year 1117. It can start on any planet with a fair amount of interstellar traffic. The PCs are approached by a human male (of that indeterminate mixture of races sometimes referred to as "Imperial") with an apparent age of around 50. He gives the name of Solomon Thorov and offers them a high-paying job of, frankly, considerable risk. The exact approach and the negotiations must be adjusted by the GM to suit the players; Thorov won't go into too much detail until he is fairly confident that the PCs will take the job.

The Job

Plague Planet

Thirty-three years ago, in 1084, during the 4th Frontier War, the Zhodani invaded Grant. At the time Grant was a thriving world mostly populated by Imperial humans and assimilated Vargr. During the ensuing battle the Zhodani released a biological warfare agent that caused the death of untold millions and forced the Imperial Navy to evacuate the survivors. After the war the IN began using the now-empty system for testing planetary bombardment weapons and put the whole system under interdict. Thorov represents a commercial organisation of considerable means (ie. a megacorporation) that suspects that the germ or virus would not have been tailored to last forever. If this is true and if it can be proved, the organisation can squash any charges arising from the illegal entry into an interdicted system. The IN would be embarrased over having used a Terran-prime planet for bombardment tests and would be eager to cooperate. (By the same token, however, the IN would want to stop any investigations before they bore fruit if they learned of them too soon.) Furthermore, the organization would be very favorably situated to gain ownership of Grant, which would be worth many billions.

Thorov offers each PC Cr100,000 just for going to the planet and test the theory, regardless of results. Should the expedition eventually lead to the opening of Grant under the auspices of the corporation, each PC would further recieve a share in the venture worth Cr1,000,000. If they are caught and imprisoned, they will each recieve Cr25,000 per year they serve. Any human and Vargr PCs will additionally recieve another Cr100,000, since they will be at extra risk if the BW agent turns out to be active still. Thorov explains that the expedition will carry several terrestial test animals, including a chimpanzee, and makes it plain that if the test animals survive exposure to the planetary air, the PCs are expected to risk it too; live survivors will be of great value to the corporation.

Through unspecified sources Thorov is aware of the IN deployment schedules for Grant for the next few months and knows of a window of opportunity during which all IN vessels in the system will be on maneuvers in the outer asteroid belt. Thorov will furnish a small 200 T Free Trader and undertake to smuggle the PCs down on the planet. They will be detected by surveillance sattelites, but they should have a minimum of 8 days to conduct their tests and get away before a navy ship can get there.

A library data check will produce the following information:

1607 Grant (Imperial) Red Zone

    Starport: Class 0.
    Diameter: 6,339 miles (10,200 km). Atmosphere: Standard oxygen-nitrogen. Surface Water: 41%. Climate: Normal. Population: No permanent residents. Government: None. Control Rating: None. TL: None.

Grant was a thriving world until it was depopulatated by a bio-warfare agent during the 4th Frontier War and turned into a naval test area for planetary bombardment weapons. It is rumored that some non-humans were left behind in the evacuation and that some still survive. The navy categorically denies this. The entire system is under interdict.

Referee's Information

As usual, things are not exactly as they appear. The Zhodani were not responsible for the release of Artificial Pathogen R-89-Y-9378, Series 8495; at least not directly. Imperial Research Station Beta, at that time located on Grant, was ostensibly dedicated to agricultural research; secretly a part of it was engaged in biological warfare research for the IN. A Zhodani strike team captured the research station and the local IN commandant panicked. In the ensuing battle security was breached and AP R-89-Y-9378/8495, an artificial organism lethal to Earth-descended mammals, was released into the air. Within a week millions had died; within a month the figure rose to tens of millions, not all from the pathogen but also from the ensuing panic and break-down of society; and within a year it had become hundreds of millions. The Navy did its best to evacuate the population, but the logistics of space travel and the necessity of quarantining the rescuees made it impossible to save more than a few tens of thousands humans and Vargr. Another few thousands belonging to other races did survive (though many had been killed in riots) and were likewise evacuated. The ensuing investigation was complicated by the fact that the covert research was a secret even from most of the Imperial Navy. Only a small segment of it, a since-defunct "Department of Dirty Tricks," knew of it and did their best to cover up. The best they could do was to get the planet completely evacuated, prevent an on-site investigation, and get the system temporarily interdicted. They were unable to arrange for the destruction of the on-planet evidence and eventually had to settle for getting the system made a test area for planetary bombardment weapons.

The patron could be any one of a number of different persons. The GM should select one of the options below and select one of the other options to represent a rival expedition (or more than one if he likes complications).

Other possibilities include a journalist on the track of a good story or a naval historian tracking down leads from some declassified papers. In these cases the patron would propably not offer so much money and if he did he could not pay up afterwards; the GM must adjust the initial job offer as appropiate. If the patron does represent a megacorporation then all promises will be kept; if he is on his own, the up-front money is propably all he can afford unless he has a very substantial private income.

Down on Grant

The PCs should constitute about half the expedition; the other half should be mostly scientific types with perhaps one or two bodyguards or faithful retainers for the patron. The patron himself will captain the ship. Once safely arrived on the planet he will turn his scientists loose on the biological tests and ask the PCs to locate the remains of the former Research Station Beta. (He won't make a point of it unless pressed, but he is the only one who knows the access codes to the ship's computer, and once down on the planet the PCs only options are to do as he says or hitch a ride with a passing Imperial Navy patrol.)

Grant is a medium-sized, Earth-like planet with standard atmosphere and 41% surface water. Strictly speaking the atmosphere ought to be coded as tainted, but since no IISS ship has been allowed access to Grant since the accident, the matter has been forgotten.

Conditions on Grant are downright eerie. Only bones remain of the many millions who died here thirty-three years ago. Dotted across the surface are areas that have been turned into lunar landscapes by planetary bombardments. The total percentage is not very large, but the total devastation is as disturbing in its own way as the empty cities are in theirs, and made even more poignant by the lush countryside that surrounds them. This was a beautiful, vibrant planet once.

The average tech level of Grant before the tragedy was 11. Three decades of neglect has caused many buildings and artifacts to crumble and decay, but some remain in reasonable order. About 10% of buildings and artifacts are in sufficiently good shape to require only a minimum of care to function properly (though the absence of power will preclude a number of functions no matter what). Another 20-30% may be restored with varying degree of effort. Much depends on the degree of exposure to the elements, of course. If in doubt, roll on the table below.

Die roll    



Broken beyond repair.


Major repairs needed. (1D days of work with special tools)


Medium repairs needed. (1D hours with adequate tools)


Minor repairs needed. (1D*10 minutes with improvised tools)


Minor adjustments needed. (1D minutes of fiddling)


Working, assuming any necessary power or loads are available.


Fully operational. (charged batteries or full load if appropiate)


Pristine; could be sold as new.


DMs: Completely exposed to the elements: -3; partly exposed: -1; specifically protected: +1 to +3; sturdy equipment/construction: +1 to +3; particularily sensitive equipment/flimsy construction: -1 to -3.

Characters with an acquisitive streak will be able to find many nice trinkets left behind with the bones. The referee could include some grisly finds of mummified remains of hapless victims to suit the ghoulish nature of such activities.

Of special interest are the local computers. None of them are active, of course, and many of them never will be again. Almost all data storage was non-volatile, however, so with some ingenuity the PCs should be able to get any information they need. Eaxmining news bulletins from the first days of the epedemic, before everything broke down, would allow them to locate the epicenter. Another way to find the research station is to examine the records of the Count of Grant's office or the Imperial Navy base (The patron can supply then-current Imperial passwords, both civilian and military). Remember that neither the Count nor the port admiral knew of the biological research part of RS Beta, but they did know of the station's existence and location. If all else fails, the PCs can spot the rival expedition and track it to the station.

The exact events on planet will depend on the particular roles the GM selects for the patron and for the rival expedition(s). Here are three possible complications:

* * *

The test animals will thrive in the beginning. This is logical, given the theory that the BW agent was a fully developed product used by the Zhodani; it's almost unbelievable that they would use something like that and not make sure that it would have a built-in expiration date. On the other hand, it is also difficult to believe that they would use something like that in the first place and that it would have had a programmed life of over a year, which is the current theory. Unfortunately the theory is wrong and AP R-89-Y-9378/8495 was not fully perfected. Over the years it has decreased considerably in virulence, but there are still patches of a mutated version lurking here and there. If the the decision is made to ditch the protective suits, the GM have three options: He can decide that someone will catch the disease, he can leave it up to a daily die roll for each character, or he can decide that no one catches anything.

If someone does catch the pathogen, he will initially feel no ill effects except for a slight fever. The expedition's scientists are alert for just such an incident, however, and tests will quickly establish that both he and whoever he has been in contact with is affected. The pathogen turns out to be an artificial construction combining the worst elements of germs and viruses and though the mutation evidently works a lot slower than the original, the infected persons are still under a death sentence in a few weeks.

Three possibilities of survival exists: finding a still active serum that will effect a cure in the research station, finding detailed specifications of the pathogen in the research station and have a major research lab find a cure (which would be a race against time), or treatment with massive doses of metabolics at a major hospital (which would still require a survival roll against HT).

* * *

The Scouts believe that a number of non-human/non-Vargr citizens were driven into hiding by the hysterical persecutions caused by the epidemic and left behind in the evacuation. (The Navy vehemently denied this.) How many (if any) were in fact left behind, and how many of those survive after thirty-three years is a matter of pure conjecture. The Scouts estimate that as many as twenty may still be alive. The GM may wish to introduce one of these survivors. After thirty-three years any such is bound to have been affected mentally. A crazy, but cunning, homicidal old Aslan or a berserk Virushi can liven up any otherwise dull day. . .

* * *

Eventually the Imperial Navy will enter the scene. The GM should throw a die each day after the 8th with a 50/50 chance that a patrol vessel will arrive in orbit. They will have observed how many ships have set down on the planet, but will not know exactly where they went down. They will start looking immediately, and surface travel by grav vehicle will become hazardous. As time goes by more and more ships will arrive (50% chance per day of another ship). Eventually they will find the ships unless they are completely powered down. As long as there is only one ship on patrol there's a good chance of waiting until it is on the other side of the planet and making a run for the 100 diameter limit and an even better chance of at least reaching the 10 diameter limit; if even one more ship arrive the chances go down drastically.

Future Developments

Whether any of the expeditions are caught by the Navy or not, the stir made by the affair will cause a reevaluation of the interdict. In 1119 it is lifted. On the same day, to everybody's surprise, the Scouts, backed by an order from Grand Princess Iphegenia, impose a new interdict of their own on the planet itself. No explanation is forthcoming, but a few months later the Scouts set up a small orbital base to monitor the world. If the PCs have earned shares in a prospective "Grant Venture," they may be tempted to try and find out what secret agenda the Scouts are pursuing.

Article publication date: August 25, 2000

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