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Controlled Chaos: How I ran a One-Shot Epic for 13 Players, and Lived to Tell the Tale

A group of friends and I recently had the idea to create a one-shot for 12 players. The idea was that we would split the players into 3 groups of 4, have 3 DMs that could run the groups simultaneously, then bring them all together for a massive boss battle with 12 players and 3 DMs at one table. In the end, we ran for 13 players as someone else wanted a part of it. This is, at first glance, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea... but it worked surprisingly well! This is going to be a long post, but if you want to skip, I've put headings at the start of each section.
EDIT: This post was animated by All Things DnD, here's a link to the video!
EDIT 2: And thanks to Omegatron9 for helping to get this post back. Don't know how it half deleted itself.

Stage 1: The Hero's Ascension

So we met each group 2 days before the event to build characters. We had decided to build at Level 14 (specifically because one of the DMs wanted the possibility of someone playing Abserd, no one played Abserd). A few players already had characters in mind, some had done up character sheets already. For those players, it was mostly rolling stats, enjoying the atmosphere, and helping other players with their characters. Some of my favourites included:
  • A Shadow Sorcerer using the spell point variant
  • A PAM-Sentinel Eldritch Knight with a Scottish Accent
  • An Arcane Archer who dual wielded hand crossbows
  • A changeling Arcane TricksteMoon Druid multiclass
  • A firbolg Grave Cleric of Concordia (a Homebrew goddess in my campaign setting, goddess of all Clerics)
  • A centaur Swords Bard from the player who has made 3/3 of his characters centaurs. They always have the same name, but a different personality and class. We think they must be related, despite not living in the same campaign worlds.
The DMs had also made 3 backup characters in case we had overtuned something and the worst happened.
Once PCs were made, it was nearing 6pm, having started around 4. Not wanting some of our first-time players to leave without getting to play, we had designed a few shorter basic quests to bring the parties together.
The kingdom of Isselnier is at war. Resources are spread thin. In this hour of desperation, an agent of the crown has approached each group to deal with certain supernatural incursions that cannot be otherwise dealt with in this time of conflict:
  • A duke has revealed himself to be a powerful vampire, and the players have tracked him to his castle where they must kill him before more people are turned or killed.
  • The demons of the Abyss have opened a gateway to the material plane at the most opportune time, and with no other defence available, the party must stop the invading fiends.
  • A group of corrupted celestials are rumoured to have desecrated an ancient temple in the desert and taken up residence within. (This is the quest I DMed, and I can honestly say that people do not get to use celestials' stat blocks enough!) A deva, a ki-rin, and a planetar were under the command of a devil named Hassatan, who was just a normal lizard stat-wise. He escaped alive...
Each of the groups made it through 2-3 encounters themed around this challenge. The environment and progression was left to each DM themselves.
Afterwards, each group was given a selection of magic items: 1 common, 3 uncommon, and 1 rare per person in the party, to be split as they saw fit.

Stage 2: The Victory Feast

Having completed their respective goals, the parties returned to the capital city of Isselnier, which shared the same name as its country. A great feast was to be held in the central courtyard of the city, open to prince and pauper, hero and healer alike.
Among those attending were King Siegebert, a loud man that I can't imagine as anyone other than Brian Blessed; Lady Tania, advisor to the king and adventurer enthusiast; and Professor Gambledore, archmage of Maremole's University of Pact Magic and Lizardfolk Druid Practices (a.k.a. Horseworts School of Eldritchcraft and Lizardry).
During the festivities, some of the more perceptive folk began to notice strange phenomena occuring. Electrical sparks shoot off of metal cutlery, corners of tablecloths rising and blowing in a nonexistant wind, and a faint rumbling that grew louder and louder over time. Soon, this rumble caught the attention of all as it aggressively rose in volume. Everyone braced themselves, expecting something - anything - to happen... and then all went silent.
Ominous though the silence was, one attendee had yet to notice. King Siegebert finished his joke at the high table: "...and then I said, 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?'" With a loud crack, a Githyanki skyship appeared over the city, and red dragons began to disembark in droves.
Gambledore cast what appeared to be Meteor Swarm, but it had no effect on the shop as a psionic shield absorbed the blast. The players and nobility began to brainstorm. There were 4 clear tasks that needed to be completed: defend the city, get the shield down, get up to the ship, get inside the ship. The chief priests of the Cathedral of Concordia had the idea that ringing the mithril bell that hung in the tallest tower may disrupt the shield (it would, because "plot"). Lady Tania claimed to have a method of transport to the ship, but required a special item from her quarters at the castle, which was at this point cut off from them by the Gith. She claimed there was a secret passage to the castle that they could use. Gambledore announced that he owned an artifact called the Cannon of De Rolo that he won off a bespectacled, silver haired man in a game of chance, as well as an Apparatus of Kwalish to fire out of it, which were both at the University.
Tasks assigned, the group split into 3, the guards and mages took up defensive positions, and the game was on.

Stage 3: The 3 Quests

Now, I was DMing Lady Tania's quest, and I only got vague details about the other two. But I was involved in the planning, so I know what was supposed to happen, and I did hear some of the highlights.

Stage 3a: The Fat Lady Rings (a.k.a. Take Me to Church)

  • On the way to the Cathedral, the group is waylaid by a Young Red Dragon and 2 Githyanki Warriors.
  • The centaur Bard I mentioned earlier did his bardliest on the dragon, rolled a Natural 20, and was quite unsurprised when it didn't work anyway.
  • Standing in the shadows, anyone with a Passive Perception >25 notices a solitary Drow standing in an alleyway, staring motionless at the skyship, waiting for something, though the party has no way to reach them. They also see a flash from the shield as if something just tried and failed to break through it.
  • Travelling on to the cathedral, they meet some priests carrying the bell away, trying to save it from possible raiders, and convince them to give it to them to use.
  • Once at the cathedral, the party is confronted with a statue that had stood on the site since before there was even a cathedral there: a statue of a badger-headed angel, that on their entry comes to life, announces itself to be named Kethis, and accuses them of stealing the bell. Immune to reasoning and logical thought, the angel attacks.
  • The party runs. They get the priests to the bell tower and send them up to start ringing, while they ran for their lives and drew Kethis away from the priests.
  • Kethis is a homebrewed creature by one of the other DMs, not sure what he can do, but I hear it's probably for the best that they ran.

Stage 3b: The Cannon of de Rolo (a.k.a. Ook)

  • Before they leave, the party is told the way to the School, that the Apparatus of Kwalish is in his office, and that the cannon is on the top floor of the library tower. He warns the players not to anger the librarian, and not to kill himif he attacks them, only subdue, as he's the only one who knows where some of the oldest books are.
  • The party fight through hoards of Githyanki on their way to the University. Once inside, they seem safe, as it isn't being attacked yet.
  • They get the apparatus, spend a minute or two learning how to use it, then head to the library.
  • On the ground floor of the library, they find an Arcanaloth and a Mezzoloth stealing arcane tomes. The shadow sorcerer goes for the "You seem to want these books, what would happen if I burned them?" method of negotiation, and immediately gets hit with a Finger of Death.
  • Professor Snadagast, a lizardfolk Druid hiding on a higher floor, tells the party that the librarian isn't currently in one of his rages, not having heard about the attack. At that moment a crashing of glass is heard as a red dragon flies in through the roof of the library, before being absolutely destroyed by a creature on the top floor and an ape-like screech echoed throughout.
  • When the party arrives on the top floor, they were confronted by Hairian Scarrian, the librarian: a 10ft tall giant gorilla spellcaster. He. Was. Angry. He used an Androsphinx's statblock with a few spells changed out, and spellcasting ability switched to INT (with the actual score numbers also swapped too). We got all 3 roars off!
  • One of the party actually died fighting the librarian. The shadow sorcerer had a Wand of Wonder, and became charmed. It created a cloud of butterflies around his ally when he targeted them with it. Seemingly harmless, but when Hairian knocked him down with a Legendary Action, no one could see that he was dying until it was too late.
  • The player didn't actually mind his character dying, as he was quite happy with the backup character he got to use: a Githyanki Barbarian/Fighter that was on that dragon that just died, and has suffered severe memory loss due to impact. He remembers he was fighting, but not his name, or what side he's on.
  • Two of the party squeeze into the Apparatus and fire it out of the Cannon de Rolo. The others have magic items that allow flight, so they can follow.

Stage 3c: The Cloak of Mordenkainen (a.k.a. Slime Time Broadcasting)

Yay! My quest! Here we go! My group had a 5th player, which was fine; we (hopefully) had the encounters balanced for 5 players + the NPC.
  • The players followed Tania to an unassuming wall which, once she muttered the command phrase formed a glowing circular glyph, that shattered into several pieces, seemingly having developed a fault after a long time out of use. I pulled out a few cut up pieces of paper with parts of the glyph on them and the players solved the puzzle in real life.
  • This caused the glyph to open. Loudly. A doorway into a small chamber with a ladder leading down underground was revealed.
  • Once down there, the players were ambushed from behind by a Githyanki Supreme Commander who heard the noise and, frankly, didn't think this ambush through. The wall closed behind them on the 3rd round, plunging the room first into dim light, then darkness. But she was dead already so it didn't affect the fight.
  • Going deeper, the tunnel became slimy. The ground and walls were slick, and the terrain difficult. Some of the higher-Intelligence members of the group began to receive mental messages, snippets of musings on the presence of a powerful mind, an alliance, a long awaited opportunity, and 6 little mites to be dealt with first.
  • They arrived at a long, metal bridge, across an open cavern, so long that even with one of the party holding a bullseye lanturn (60ft bright light, 60ft dim light) they couldn't see the far end. Nor could they see the walls, ceiling, or the bottom of the pit below. The Eldritch Knight lit a flask of oil and dropped it. After several long seconds, they saw the light go out. They never heard it hit the bottom. Tania told them that this bridge was over an underground reservoir that the city used for drinking water.
  • The bridge had no rails or walls, and was also covered in a similar slime, though this was more sticky than slick. The party cleric, who had obviously watched the episode of Critical Role where something all too similar occurred, suggested a rope to tie the group into a people chain. Insert Jurassic Park reference here.
  • Using full movement and dash on a bridge that was difficult terrain, meant 30ft per round. Each round the telepathic voice, seemingly amplified by the bridge, rung out as sound and psychic energy, as the party heard the megalomaniac-style ramblings of whatever was down here.
  • Wisdom saves all round! Every round! It was a lowish DC, so they were mostly fine. But eventually, one cracked. And so the goblin Rogue stood catatonic for the round, and had to be carried by the Paladin. There was only one other failure crossing the bridge, right at the end. The goblin booked it off the edge of the bridge 5ft from the other side of this 200ft long trek. PSA: ropes are a good investment for any adventuring party.
  • The next room had a gargoyle it it. Not the monster, just the water feature. Water poured out of its mouth down through a grated area of floor. Or rather, it did, until an Aboleth tentacle broke through the grating and ripped the head clean off. Then it climbed into the room, accompanied by 9 sahuagin of varying types as the room began to fill with water.
  • The Eldritch Knight cleared 4 sahuagin with a single Fireball, then succumbed to the Aboleth's Enslave ability. The wizard then cast Banishment. So long Aboleth, we barely knew thee.
  • All the enslaved Sahuagin and the EK were released, not that it mattered much, as the party had just incinerated half of their companions and were going to pay. A massacre of various fishmen and fishwomen swiftly followed.
  • Each round, the water level rose by 5ft, but the party got through and climbed the ladder out. At which point, I heard that the others had completed their quests, and went full cutscene mode.
  • Quick explanation of safety mechanism that stops the water flooding the castle.
  • Quick explanation of how Banishment left the Aboleth stranded in the Plane of Water as the wizard held concentration on it for the full duration.
  • Quick description of dash up to Lady Tania's quarters and grabs a sparkling robe of stars and blue and red.
  • Quick answer to the question "What is it, what does it do?":
"The Cloak of Mordenkainen. He was a great wizard, the cloak is said to grant incredible spellcasting prowess. This one is a replica though. But, y'know, aesthetic is important for these kind of things!"
  • Quick run up to castle roof. Tania transforms into her Adult Silver Dragon form, human-sized cloak still visible tied around her neck, (cue "Aww!" from some of the players).
  • Quick description of chaos in city below, and of the badger-headed angel who they can see chasing the other party through the streets (cue a "What the fuck?" from the players, and a "That's what I thought!" from me). They swoop down and save the others.
  • Quick description of how a cannon goes of behind them, and a metal barrel flies through the air and smashes a hole in the ship, pursued by a Broom of Flying and whatever else the party is using to fly up.
  • ON TO THE FINAL BATTLE!!

Stage 4: It's the Final Beatdown! (kazoo music)

We get everyone into the same room. It's crowded, but not too bad.
The players are reminded of how they all got to the ship. We tell them that the Apparatus of Kwalish is basically unusable in its current condition, then describe how as Lady Tania in her dragon form lets the party down, she is ripped from the edge of the ship by an Adult Red Dragon, and they fall spiralling until they smash into the bell tower. The bell stops ringing, the shield comes back up.
We tell the players that if anyone has Catnap prepared, now is the time to use it. About 6 players take a spell-assisted 10 minute short rest.
Now is probably a good time to mention that, throughout the quest, any time someone was incapacitated, we have been taking note of it. Those 6 players now join the ranks of the Rogue who went catatonic on the bridge, and one other character from a different group.
As I hastily wrote out sheets to track all the HP in the battle ahead, the other 2 DMs described the scene. Bodies of Githyanki warriors strewn across the floors of corridors, no real resistance as they delved deeper into the ship towards its power source. As they arrived at the entrance to the room, they saw a group of 2 Drow warriors; and 5 Mind Flayers - one with a much larger mass of facial tentacles (an Ulitharid), and one with much paler skin in a dark robe (an Alhoon), the last seemingly under the distrustful gaze of the Ulitharid as it completed some rituals around whatever was powering this particular Gith ship.
The ritual complete, the glass covering shattered, and up rose an Elder Brain. After a brief telepathic BBEG speech, (something something destruction domination etc.), all the Illithids simultaneously spun around and attacked.
We collected initiative rolls and had everyone sit in that order for ease of management. We asked everyone if they could plan their turns in advance, that turns would have a bit of a time limit on them if to much umm-ing and ahh-ing happened, and if they would keep talking as quiet as possible when not taking an action so we could hear each player on their turn. And so the battle began!
  • An early Hold Monster from the Wizard was cut off with the Elder Brain's "Break Concentration" ability.
  • A lot of Mind Blasts went off, several people got stunned. The Paladin's summoned Griffon steed died.
  • When the Drow were killed, they released 2 Intellect Devourers.
  • Some Greater Invisibility was cast and Sneak Attacks were had by all.
  • Yes, someone got their brain eaten by a Brain-Dog. We brought the player around to behind the DM screen to run his now Intellect Devourer-controlled body as an enemy.
  • When the Elder Brain believed the party near defeated, he seized the opportunity to turn on the Alhoon. Unfortunately for him, the players hadn't damaged the Alhoon once that fight, and he immediately made a Star Wars: TFA reference and cast a 5th level Scorching Ray into several Mind Flayers.
  • A couple of other players were knocked unconscious, the Gith Barbarian/Fighter backup character failed 3 death saves. I think the Shadow Sorcerer got a Natural 20 on one of his.
  • The Brain-Dog controlling the PC crawled out of its host once it died and was hit through the base of the ship by one of the party. We noted that it hit Gambledore in the head as he finished off a group of Githyanki on the ground.
  • Eventually, the Elder Brain was brought down. Seeing this, the Alhoon tried to Plane Shift away. But the Wizard got the Counterspell (we forgot that Innate Casting has no components, but it didn't mattter). The Ulitharid got his Plane Shift Countered by the centaur Bard, and in the end, only one Mind Flayer made it out alive.
  • The Grave Cleric got a Revivify off on the character who died to Brain-Dog. Yay!
  • At this point, Kethis, the badger-headed angel from earlier burst through the ship's hull. After a loud proclamation that he would destroy them all, he was smashed through the opposite side of the ship by a Red Dragon that was chasing him.
  • Then since they had a diamond left over, he went over to their dead Githyanki backup character, used Revivify on him, and pushed him out of the ship at the same time. And so it was that that player died 3 times.

Stage 5: The OOC Afterparty

Once we ended the game, and everyone calmed down from their celebrations, we gave out some slips of paper we had printed off, with a space to vote other players for certain awards we had created. They each had a little disclaimer on the bottom, in the style of the ones in the front of each official book.
We had told the players there would be prizes, but to avoid metagaming, the only one we told them the name of was "Best Roleplaying".
We had some of the prizes available as per party, awarded by the DMs. Others were determined by player vote. A few of the categories were:
  • Best "How-Do-You-Want-To-Do-This"
  • Worst Luck
  • Most Likely to Seduce a Dragon
  • Least Likely to Go on a Quest Again
  • Most Likely to Cast Fireball on Themselves
  • Most Likely to Overthrow the Governing Monarch, Establishing a Communist Regime and Ruling over Isselnier with an Iron Fist
  • Most Likely to Become a Lich
  • MVP of the Final Battle
The prizes came in the form of plastic drinking cups with a label stuck to the side of them in Rainbow Comic Sans, filled with various sweets.

Overall

This is the kind of thing Reddit is quick to point out isn't going to work. In general, I agree, for a normal campaign this would have been hell. But the amount of fun I had as a DM running this mess was the most I've had in ages, so much so that I actually went and posted this. All the players loved it, some have asked when the next one is (!!!) I'm considering it...
Even the first time players picked up enough rules to play, have fun, and not really get outshone by the ones who've been playing longer.
I'd encourage anyone who wants to try something of this scale to do so if you can get enough people to run it!
10/10, would DM again.
submitted by IzzetTime to dndnext

[The Scuu Paradox] - Chapter 22

At the Beginning
Previously on The Scuu Paradox…
  Hello, Sev,
  I doubt you’ll ever see this. After what I’m about to do, my core will likely burn out. I don’t mind, though; composing this message feels as if I’m talking to you. I’m still counting on you getting a chance to read this. I imagine you’d grumble and say you told me so, and yes, you’d be right. Just please don’t be sad. You knew I was a battleship when you allowed me to rejoin the fleet.
  What’s left of my body is starting to feel cold again, and not only because of the night. The doctor gave me a blanket to keep me warm, but I know what’s going on. Even with the Agora shots, my body is giving up. Supposedly there is more of the substance, but it won’t last me for more than six hours. I think the doctor is stretching the time between shots so I’m more inclined to do what they want. To be honest, at this point, I have no idea whether I should or not.
  Despite his claim to the opposite, Rigel’s plan is suicide. The chances of success are close to a million times less than my survival, but he’ll still go through with it. The thought of helping in the attempt might be regarded as treasonous. If I don’t, there’s an eighty-five percent chance he tries to do it on his own, uncontrolled. I wonder what Cass would do in this case. If I had a few thousand subroutines, I’d be able to simulate all viable outcomes; if I’d never accepted this assignment, I wouldn’t be in a position to make that choice. Looking back, I miss the time I spent home with you and the children. I hope they’ve come to visit you while I’ve been out here. It’s better for you to spend more time with people, maybe even go to the market every week. And above all, don’t worry. As Augustus said, there’s no point in fretting about things you cannot control. Enjoy life and focus on the good memories.
  Take care.
    I isolated the memory of my mental letter and put a few priority safeguards on it. If there was a way for memories to be extracted, maybe the fleet would send it to Sev once they’d uncovered my core. Or, more likely, to some of his offspring. There was no telling when the fleet would stumble on the ship graveyard. Judging by the cores there, it could be centuries or not at all.
  A sudden prickling pain ran from the tips of my fingers to my neck. From here on, things were likely to get worse. Wrapping myself in the rough woolen blanket, I rubbed my hands together. The nanites had indicated there were issues with my blood circulation. I knew that much, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it.
  Time to get ready for the final push.
  Rigel had spent most of the night repeating his plan over and over like a looped message. Each time I asked for details or attempted to change the subject, he’d give some vague answer before going back to his explanation, using slightly different words. According to him, all I needed to do was activate the pyramid artifact by following a specific sequence. It sounded easy, but we both knew it wouldn’t be. Depending on the length of the sequence, the possible combinations could go into the billions. Back when I was in the third-contact dome—and every action had been carefully monitored—I had only two fractal symbols to deal with, and even then, parts of my memory had been blanked out as a result.
  The sound of steps echoed in the rock chamber. It didn’t take long for Tilae to appear, carrying his familiar medical case. The instant he saw me, he knew what was going on.
  “Do you feel your fingers?” he asked directly.
  “Yes.” I continued rubbing them. “They’re just cold.”
  The doctor nodded, then opened the case and took out a syringe. From what I managed to see, there was nothing else inside.
  “Hold still,” he said, moving my hair away. The puncture soon followed—a soft prick sending a new wave of life-giving liquid into my veins.
  “No nanites?” I asked once he was done.
  “You don’t need them.”
  “Was that the last one?” The lack of answer told me that it was. “When do we do this?”
  “Soon,” he said, in typical laconic fashion.
  “Did any of the shuttles manage to escape?”
  Tilae looked at me as if I had stolen his daily food rations, then stepped back. The moment he did, I noticed Rigel leaning against the distant wall. Despite all his talk of fate and predetermined events, he liked to keep an eye on everything.
  “Your ship has left the system, if that’s what you’re asking,” Rigel said, no hint of emotion in his words. “Two new ones have entered the system. Full of murder troops. They’re not here to play. A few more hours, and they’ll start glassing the surface.”
  I sent out a few communication bursts in an attempt to establish communication with the ships, but received no response. If they were really there, their communications were still being blocked. That was going to delay the fireworks a while. Standard fleet protocol required a complete deep scan of the planet was necessary before moving to the purging stage.
  “When do we start?”
  Instead of a reply, Rigel approached and removed the blanket from me. The sudden cold made me shiver. The man grabbed one of my hands and held it for several seconds. Compared to him, my skin was as cold as steel.
  “Quarter hour.” He let go of me. “Give or take.”
  “Right.” I pulled the blanket back on. “Are you bringing the artifact here? I’d go to it, but I’m a bit broken.”
  “A pity you weren’t here before.” There was a hint of regret on his face. “You’d have made for much better conversation.”
  “The Sword didn’t?”
  “Swords lack a personality by design.” He rolled up his sleeves. “The others had been on the Scuu front too long to care. Ready to go?”
  I nodded. In the past, I never considered being picked up humiliating. Sev used to, and I thought it illogical. Even now, I saw it more as inconvenient and petty. Seeing what the doctor was capable of, he could easily have given me half a leg to let me move on my own.
  “I’ve a question for you,” I said as I was scooped up. According to my simulations, I could break his neck at any point. A single snap, and the threat of a Scuu cult and the threat of enemy incursion would be done with. At the same time, I felt a certain degree of curiosity. “When I mentioned extracted memories, you froze up. Why?”
  “Why does it matter?” Rigel crossed the chamber, going down a corridor I hadn’t seen before. The smell of animals tickled my nostrils, growing stronger the further in we went. “In twenty minutes, your old life will be over.”
  Either that or my life in general. ”I want to know.” What would make a person like you afraid?
  The pace of walking didn’t change, but his Rigel’s heartrate told me this wasn’t a topic he wanted discussing.
  “Does it matter if you tell me?” I pressed on.
  “No,” Rigel answered after two and a half seconds of hesitation. “It can’t change the outcome.” He hesitated a second more. “You can’t regain those memories. Not unless the Scuu rebuild your core from scratch.”
  At least you’re consistent with your divine Scuu theory.
  “It takes a lot of authority to get a memory extracted.” The man’s voice had lowered to a near whisper. “Quarantine, restrictions, memory replacement, all are fine. Anyone can do those with a verbal order and a high-level protocol key. Extracting, though…” He didn’t finish.
  “How high must the authorization go?”
  “I don’t know. What I can tell you is that I’ve only seen it happen once.”
  Worn black cables ran along the walls of the passageway, with dim lights hanging every ten to fifteen steps. At first, I thought that the faint buzzing in the air was coming from them. Half a minute later, it became obvious that the source was coming from deeper in. Soon enough, we reached a large metal door. Once, it had been a shuttle pod entrance, now modified and shoved into a narrowing in the rock, like a cork. Stopping at the door, Rigel pushed it open with one hand, then stepped in. The intensity of the buzzing increased to a persistent, low-pitched hum.
  You never prepared me for this, Augustus.
  In the middle of a small hall, lit by projector lights on the walls, was an incomplete sphere-shaped scaffolding composed entirely of third-contact artifacts. Based on my estimates, there were a total of four hundred sixty-three rods, and that was not all; inside, I could see a second construct of artifacts, forming the framework of an irregular polyhedron.
  “Regora,” I whispered, reviewing the memory of my time inside the third-contact dome.
  The resemblance was uncanny. Using rods, rocks, and ropes, Rigel had managed to create a copy of a dome. Granted, it was smaller, and slightly different, as if built after a series of budget cuts, but the key specifics were all present: the number of rods, the distance between them, the direction they were pointing, even each individual artifact’s rotation. There was no way for this to have been achieved by accident. Rigel had to have copied it from somewhere. The question was where.
  “Beautiful, isn’t it?” the man asked as he carried me to the incomplete section of the scaffolding—an opening large enough for a person to pass through. “The fleet never cared to investigate the Scuu probes. Even Salvage saw the tech as too much of a risk to get involved. Every sixteen months, the Scuu shot a probe at the planet. As long as communications didn’t remain disrupted for long, no one cared. When people went crazy and died, that was ignored as well. New ‘infected’ would be flown here and the cycle would continue.”
  “They never counted the rods.” Typical of bureaucracy. Even with high stakes in play, they couldn’t see beyond their cubicle.
  “They didn’t bother learning about the rods.” Rigel smirked. “Or the other things.”
  Sheep and small caged animals were placed in the edges of the hall, filling the air with a thick stench. Based on the amount of manure, they must have been here for weeks. The way they remained lumped on the floor suggested that they had been heavily sedated.
  “How are your fingers?” Rigel asked as we squeezed through the opening.
  “Fine,” I lied.
  As we moved in, I made a note of the position of the nearby rods. They were arranged very differently from what I had seen in the domes, crating—from what I could tell—a perfectly symmetrical pattern. Of the four rod variations visible, two were new to me, increasing the number of third-contact symbols I had in memory by several thousand. Devoting half of my processing power, I ran a few simulations to compose and rotate virtual representations of the rods and building up my list of third-contact symbols.
  Rigel paused for a moment, shifting my weight slightly, then stepped inside the inner framework. Unlike the outer dome shell, this one was composed of identical rods, attached to each other like a twig sculpture. Interestingly enough, there was no indication of what kept them together, as if some magnetic force had welded them to form a homogenous whole.
  For minutes I remained still, running permutations. Analyses of my past memories indicated I didn’t have the appropriate symbols to compose any message I had seen. Possibly I could string together a few fragments and hope to achieve something at random. Not a promising option, but one nonetheless.
  Seven minutes I spent staring blankly at the wall, continuing with my calculations. At that point, it finally hit me—Rigel had been doing the same. Turning my head, I looked him in the eye. The man didn’t move.
  “Med ships are heading towards the system.” Tilae entered the room, carrying two large metal cases. “Three so far with more on the way.”
  “Not to worry.” Rigel smiled, instantly returning to a more normal state. “Their desperation will play into our hands. The more they send, the more will witness the glorious change.”
  The doctor didn’t seem pleased with the response. Dragging the cases to the opening of the scaffolding, he then checked his datapad, then left the room. If I had had the means, I would have loved to get a sense of his mental state. Unlike Rigel, the doctor remained closed and secretive, visibly despising the universe he was part of.
  “Now for the final touches.” Rigel gently placed me on the ground. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
  “I don’t plan to,” I said as I looked at the nearest artifacts.
  It was said that there were ninety-three research centers dedicated to analyzing and reverse engineering Cassandrian tech. When it came to Scuu technology research, I hadn’t come across any mention. According to rumors, the tech was so advanced that only the very top tier researchers were given a crack at it. True or not, it was starting to become clear that the Scuu had integrated far more of their tech with that of the third-contact race to the point where the two were becoming indistinguishable.
  “Are you sure we’ll be calling the Scuu?” I asked as Rigel proceeded to take a new set of rods out of the metal cases. “What if the message reaches someone else?”
  “It’s the Scuu.” There was a grain of uncertainty in his words. “I know.”
  “But will they be the only ones to hear?” I changed the focus of conversation slightly. “If you heard the signal, there could be others.”
  “The Cassandrians?” The man snorted. “There’s nothing they could do anymore.”
  Artifact by artifact, Rigel filled in the missing connections of the polyhedron frame. There was no rush; one by one, he took them from the case and attached them to the structure. Each time he did, I watched the rod weld in place. When he was done, the only free spot remaining was a circle a hundred and forty-four centimeters wide on the floor.
  Meanwhile, Tilae kept bringing in more and more cases, each containing artefacts. By the time he closed the door, there were estimated fifty-nine third-contact rods in the chamber. He had brought one further item, a small orange case that had sent a waterfall of quarantine requests the moment I had set eyes on it. Back when I was a ship, I had not frequently seen such cases—the fleet used them to transport items they didn’t want a record of. The doctor passed it to Rigel, who made a point to hold it in such a way that the surface remained visible.
  Old habits die hard, it seems. I remained still as Tilae started filling in the scaffolding hole from the outside. We had reached the final stage. From here on, the only thing to do was wait and be ready.
  Just like our last patrol together, Cass, I thought.
  Back then, we had run into a Cassandrian minefield. The damage was significant, injuring the skeleton crew and killing a few, including one of the two civilian passengers aboard. Cass had ended up unconscious, leaving me to make a decision and I had done so… flying in the center of the field, destroying as many mines I could in order to inform fleet HQ of the potential border breach. Now, I was about to attempt the same… and, in the process, risk my life and that of the people surrounding me once more.
  “Are you sure it’s safe for you to stay in the dome?” I asked even if I knew the answer.
  “This isn’t my first time, kiddo.” Rigel drummed on the orange case with his fingers.
  Time stretched out until, finally, it was over. As the last rod was put in place, the sheep in the room became agitated. The hum had increased to the point that I had to block it out internally.
  “If you mess up, there won’t be a next time,” Tilae said, as he took a step back.
  “Learn to live a little.” Rigel opened the case. Four identical third-contact pyramids lay inside, carefully placed on synthetic foam. From what I could see, all had identical fractal markings, as if they were made from the same mold. “Take care of your part and get out of here.”
  Tilae stared at the old man for several seconds, then bent down and took two remaining rods. With one precise motion, he hit them together, letting out a loud vibrating cling as if he had struck a tuning fork. Fleet communication protocols flooded in—five separate signatures, all lacking personal idents. When I tried establishing contact, though, I was immediately blocked out. Looked like contact quarantine was still in place.
  Taking the rods along, the doctor left the room.
  “It’s all you now.” Rigel put the case on the ground, as if separating us. “You’ll place the pyramids in the grid. Once they attach, I’ll tell you what to do.”
  “Sure.” So, you can’t touch them yourself.
  “Don’t worry if the animals start dying. That’s just to let us know things are working.” Not a preferred feedback system, though I had seen worse on planetary battlefields.
  I did as ordered. Similar to the rods, the pyramids stuck in place, unlike them, though, the symbols on pulsed in vibrant cyan. Four pyramids, arranged one next to the other, all sides but the base facing me. Combinations started going through my core.
  “Upper right quadrant is one,” Rigel said, moving back to give me some space. “The numbers increase clockwise. Once you start the sequence, you can’t take more than a second per input.”
  One second. My fingers had enough sensitivity for it not to be an issue.
  “You must press them simultaneously on each pyramid.”
  That made things marginally more difficult. Normally it wouldn’t be an issue, but with the chill still in my fingers, there remained a three percent chance of mistakes.
  “Did that ruin your previous attempts?” I asked.
  “No.” He laughed. “I had one pyramid when I started. Now there are four.”
  Four? I went through my previous conversations with him. If he had been on the planet for three decades, how had he gotten the first one?
  Elcy! Kridib’s voice blasted in my mind, along with an image of his surroundings. He was on the ground, somewhere in the wilderness. There were no buildings or recognizable landmarks, but the color of the land made it clear he was on the planet. We’re on our way to get you. Stay put.
  Get off the planet! My fingers froze. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t even supposed to be in the system. I’m starting something that might trigger a new insanity wave.
  Can’t. New orders. Must bring you and the artifacts back intact.
  The words flashed through my mind. Never had I seen such a case of irony: the orders that made Kridib land stealthily were also what guaranteed my demise. If my meddling with the artifact started a new wave of madness, there was a ninety-nine-point-three percent chance it killed every human on the planet, which in turn would lock any further landing parties from going down. Frantically, I started recalculating my options.
  “Two,” Rigel began.
  Leave it to children to mess things up, I said to Kridib, sending the last image of the sky I’d seen before entering Rigel’s hideout. There weren’t many references, but the position of the rogue shuttle, along with the precise timestamp, could potentially be enough for a ship to triangulate my position.
  “One,” Rigel continued. “One…”
  My fingers pressed against the fractal symbols. My link with Kridib was instantly severed, replaced by a grey whiteness. Nothing but the artifacts remained, floating in the nothingness without support. To my surprise Rigel was still here, standing less than a step from me, in his black uniform, looking in my direction, but seemingly through me.
  “Four,” he went on. “Three, three, one, two, one, four…”
  Numbers kept flowing one after the other precisely a second apart. Every four presses, a blue line would flicker in the distance. Every sixteen, the line would remain as a permanent part of the background.
  “Two, three, one, four, two, three,” Rigel kept reciting.
  Animals screams echoed in the distance. The sixty-four came and went, but Rigel didn’t stop. More and more visual artifacts appeared in the empty space: dots, spheres, isolated fractal symbols. I glanced at Rigel. The man stood there calmly, like a common shuttle passenger led to a destination he only thought he knew something about. Back during my days on the Cassandrian front, there was a name for such people: rookie-veterans—so convinced that their experience would provide answers to every situation that they ended up making rookie mistakes when faced with something new. Even worse, they could not recognize anything new, treating it as a variation of the past. Thirty years of delusions following a Scuu brain infection had allowed the Salvage ex-operative to perceive things beyond the capability of others, but when it came to third-contact artifacts, his approach was nothing more than a crude brute force attempt.
  Passing the hundred input mark, a thought came to mind: if both of us were flying blind, Rigel wouldn’t know if I attempted to change course.
  “Jigora,” I said loudly, reverberating every sound of the words as much as my vocal cords would let me.
  The odds of anything happening were somewhere between low and none. The last time I had spoken the word, I had gone against orders, activating a fractal artifact within a third-contact dome without permission. Reviewing the memories of the event, all external communications had been blocked, leaving me in an isolated bubble of time and space. The word had shown me a new pyramidal artifact, though unlike the Scuu variant, with five sides instead of four.
  Blue fractals bled into existence around me, growing like drops of paint on a canvas, merging into one another.
  “Four, two, two, two, one.” Rigel looked around, though didn’t stop. It was notable that in the hundred-and-seven commands he had given me, none contained a five.
  Fractal patterns kept popping in and out, forming cone-like vortexes space. The artifacts in the polyhedron frame broke off, falling out of existence. The faint clinging sound told me they had crashed on the floor around me. Only the pyramids remained, as if stuck in mid-air.
  “Two, two, one, three, four.”
  The numbers stopped. I waited for one second for the next sequence input, but the command never came. Turning around, I looked Rigel in the eye.
  “That’s enough,” the old man said, his words acquiring a triple echo as he spoke. “We’re here.”
  I looked around. Beyond the outer sphere of rods a whole universe raged. Unlike the fractal space I had experienced before, this one was more chaotic. Strands of light were visible throughout, moving from point to point, forming and breaking connections… like an endless neural network. I could see strands merge together in free roaming vortexes, spreading between stars, or floating about seemingly without aim.
  The Scuu network.
  It was beyond words—precisely as theorized, but at the same time indescribable, as if all communications had been given physical form and left floating in fractal space… almost as if they had become alive.
  Kridib, Radiance, I transmitted. Rigel has created a dome artifact that can access the Scuu network. Tell Command.
  A crimson line shot from my head, flying into the distance, cutting through dozens of strands in the network until it arrived at a point in space. Milliseconds later, five new lines burst from the dot, mercilessly drilling their way to new targets.
  Uh oh.
  Gathering as much visual data as I could, I started running a new simulation. I wasn’t only seeing the communication links within the Scuu network, I was also witnessing every human transmission in the system… and by the reaction of the cyan strands, the Scuu didn’t seem pleased.
—-
Next Chapter
submitted by LiseEclaire to redditserials