“The dinner-table is often the terrain of critical conversations, for it is there one has the better of one’s interlocutor. There is no escape without scandal, there is no turning aside without self-betrayal. To invite a person to dinner is to place them under observation. Every dining-room is a temporary prison where politeness chains the guests to the laden board.” – Maurice Renard, The Hands Of Orlac
The ship’s boat from the Dromedary deposits Arion at Ria starport and he walks out into the muggy heat with the clothes on his back (Great Archive Surveyor coveralls, indifferently laundered aboard ship) and a spacesuit. Neither the ship’s boat nor the laser turrets are standard fittings on a subsidised liner fresh out of the yards, so Arion surmises that the Dromedary is intended to trade with backwater planets in hostile space. Ria seems to tick both boxes.
Looking at Solo p.53, I need to make a world encounter roll (p. 58), which will lead me to other rolls as appropriate. I roll 3, 2 and learn that the local community is either not what it seems, or very welcoming.
The starport is about as basic as you can get and still be an actual functioning starport, a decrepit set of landing pads and a few buildings. Arion needs to find passage back to Mizah, or at least Hasara where an Archive ship will eventually turn up, and suspects he’ll need money for that – lots of it. Before making any decisions, he needs more information, and the best place to get that is at the starport office, a mouldy-looking edifice with a couple of soldiers (armed with what look like simple chemical slugthrowers) and a man in a suit loitering outside. All three have luxuriant moustaches, which Arion will shortly learn are the local fashion. The suited man waves at Arion to attract his attention, then walks briskly up to him, with the soldiers ambling along behind, as if their presence were more for show than because of any real threat.
“Senor Metaxas? I heard from traffic control that you were arriving. I am Luis González, pleased to meet you.” González is speaking accented English, the lingua franca of spacers across the sector.
“Likewise, I’m sure. Yes, I’m Metaxas. How can I help you?”
“We don’t often see anyone from outside this system, especially not a Surveyor from the Great Archive. King Adriano Talamantes invites you to dine with him tonight, and bring him news of the outside galaxy.”
Arion thinks for a moment, covering his indecision by lowering his heavy spacesuit to the ground. He’s not likely to get a better offer than this, and while he is wary of local despots, the soldiers can likely shoot him if he runs, or overpower him if he doesn’t. Might as well go without the handcuffs, then, and eat a fine dinner instead of prison slops. Since Arion knows Archive ships don’t normally go as far as Ria, and individual free traders haven’t got the range for this run, the King must be getting all his external information from the Combine, and the implication of the invitation is that he doesn’t entirely trust them; Arion may be able to turn that to his advantage.
“I would be delighted to accept your kind offer, Senor González,” he says. “When am I expected, and what is the best way to the palace?”
“Don’t worry,” smiles González, “We will take you there right away.”
A few hours later, Arion finds himself clean-shaven (except for the beginnings of a local-style moustache – may as well fit in), showered, dressed in borrowed finery rather than a tatty surveyor’s coverall, and at table with Luis González, King Adriano Talamantes, Queen Delfina, and Princess Isabella, the ten-year old heir to the throne. Waiters bustle in and out with various courses, and discreet guards in dress uniforms stand behind the King to either side of him.
By the time they get to what passes for coffee locally, the ice has been broken and the five of them have moved past the polite small talk, including Arion’s descriptions of life across the handful of worlds in the Fastnesses and the family’s explanations of local history, geography and crops.
“I must tell you, Senor Metaxas,” the King begins, gesturing with his coffee cup, “that Captain Anderson tells me we should fear the Archive, that it is dominated by people with a liberal socialist agenda, hostile to our way of life here.” Arion frowns, considering his next words carefully; the prison cell is still a possibility.
“There is rivalry between the Combine and the Archive,” he says, “And a wise ruler wouldn’t take anything either of us says at face value. Captain Anderson has given you the Combine view of things; allow me to present the Archive’s. You know, of course, that before the Interregnum, a great human empire controlled this region of space, with its capital on mother Earth. Before that empire fell, it established centres of learning on major worlds, to ensure colonists had access to a basic knowledge of technology, culture and history. One of these was the forerunner of the Great Archive on Mizah; after the empire fell, it worked with the planetary government to save as many people as it could, and rebuild.”
“Captain Anderson tells me that the Archive has taken over the government of Mizah from within. Like some kind of parasitic wasp, he says. Whatever a wasp is.”
“It’s true that the Archive and the government have worked closely together for centuries. What Anderson may not have told you is that the Combine was once a faction within the Archive. We are essentially a quasi-religious academic organisation, focused on humanitarian aid and research, sharing our knowledge freely with other worlds. Some time ago, a group of the Archive’s Adepts started saying that we should sell our tools and knowledge rather than giving them away, and that since what other worlds most wanted to buy was weapons, we should sell those. That led to a schism between the academic and commercial interests in the Archive, with the commercial elements leaving to form the Combine.”
“I see. Captain Anderson argues that what people are freely given, they do not value, and that the Archive imposes its will on other worlds over generations, by insinuating its ideas into the minds of the young.”
“The Archive’s eventual goal is to uplift every system in this region to the Rule of Man’s level of technology, thus eliminating hunger, disease and oppression. We hope this will lead to harmony, to a voluntary association of free worlds.”
“With crystal spires and togas for all, no doubt. The rebels in the swamps say I oppress them. Captain Anderson says that emissaries of the Archive are spreading sedition and firearms among them.”
“Then why invite me here? Why not just arrest me?”
“Because all I know about the Archive, about the whole galaxy since the Rule of Man fell, is what Captain Anderson has told me. Asking him if it is true gains me nothing. But you…” The King waggles a finger and smiles. “You do not know what he has told me. So where both of you agree, I can take that as the truth. Where you disagree, one of you is lying. So I hope you will accept my invitation to stay for a while, and understand that the guard outside your room is there for your protection.”
Arion considers his options, and comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t really have any.
“How could I refuse such a kind offer? I can think of no better place to stay during my time here.”
This week I’ll talk a bit about how the map and worlds of the Nebula were created.
I’ve been using the same technique with the map since 1998; shrink it to one parsec per hex, rotate it 180 degrees so Maadin and Kuzu are in places that match canon better, and drop the less interesting world in double systems.
For worlds, I start with the number of charted jump routes. That gives me the starport type – one route for E, two for D and so on; the two exceptions are Maadin, which as a faction capital should have an A class starport, and tertiary systems, which have no planets and therefore no starport. Ria, with two routes, has a class D starport. I assign bases by hand to match the overall strategic situation; this means Ria has no bases.
Population level is the number of charted routes, plus one per secondary world, plus three per primary world. So Ria has a population of 6; 2 for the routes, 3 for the primary world (Ria) and one for the secondary world (Alis) which doesn’t show up on the map, but still affects the statblock.
Then I use Google translate and other sources to find out what the name means, and in which language. Ria is interesting as it means a number of different things; a drowned river valley in English, “river” in a number of Romance languages, a corn-drying kiln in Swedish, a moustache in Vietnamese, or “blood” in Woi (spoken in Indonesia). I muse on that for a while and imagine the kind of world that would be an appropriate name for. This also tells me which culture or cultures originally settled the place, giving me a ready source of names, traditional foods and customs, and so on.
In the case of Ria, the image that comes to mind is a rural, agricultural planet, primarily focused on growing corn along a river valley, with one major town just upstream of a tropical river delta, split politically between a Spanish-speaking ruling class and a mixed bag of farm labourers from other cultures, and a group of flatboat-mounted guerillas hiding in the delta’s marshes and seeking to overthrow the rulers. Possibly the first thing a visitor notices are the impressive mustachios sported by all adult males. (I like the Mongoose Traveller faction and cultural rules, but sometimes you just don’t need ’em.)
The rest of the world profile is either assigned (if it’s obvious from what I have so far) or diced randomly, except that primary worlds must have atmosphere 5, 6 or 8, and secondary ones may not.
I give each world the lowest tech level possible, to fit the concept of a region returning to space after centuries of the Long Night, except for Maadin and Kuzu which get a 12 so they can build jump-3 ships. The boardgame says all worlds have antiship defences; if these can be built locally (say, TL 7+), they are, otherwise someone from outside must have installed them – who, exactly, is a potential scenario for later.
Although I’ve been using this sector on and off since the late 1990s, the shift to Mongoose Traveller made some changes. Chiefly, TL modifiers have changed, and some environments have minimum TLs; the overall effect is to push up the average TL slightly. Temperature now affects atmosphere and thus indirectly TL. The rules for government factions, cultural divergence and trade don’t affect the profile directly, but they are pretty good.
Overall, diehard advocate of the 1977 Little Black Books that I am, I must admit that in some areas, later editions have improved the game.