The Tempering: a time of travel for any kasatha reaching maturity, when the young adult seeks out new experiences, and in doing so, discovers himself. Some accept exciting internships, and others join crews to travel beyond the stars—proud, noble, traditional stuff. It was lost within this wistful self-reflection that Tahja gradually regained consciousness following his accidental dive off a skybridge, his fall unceremoniously broken by a dumpster. In his dawning lucidity, he gazed about and wondered.
“How did you end up here?”
Tahja reflexively jumped, or tried to, instead slipping on a lumpy trash bag below. The question mirrored his own thoughts, yet it wasn’t his own. In his scramble for stability, he looked up and locked eyes with a shocked shirren, her compound eyes bulging slightly in alarm at his sudden movements.
“Whoa, hey, hang on, calm down! Too much telepathy? Fine, hey—unarmed, see?” She raised her two main arms, splaying her three fingers and rattling her neck barbules in alarm. After a few tense seconds, she continued with her reedy voice. “That was quite a fall. You okay? Need an ambulance?”
“No. No authorities,” Tahja gasped, using his lower arms to sit up while his uppers straightened his mouth scarf. “I need somewhere to hide.” With a glance upward toward the twisting, towering skyscraper cast in late afternoon light, he added, “Just for a few hours, until sundown.”
The shirren’s antennae bobbed with amusement. “Oh wow, you really hit your head. Sundown? You know you’re on Verces, right? Tidally locked? Always the same time of day?” She cocked a claw toward the nearby skyscraper as Tahja’s eyes widened in confusion. “Hell, this is Building 5 for the Nabokon Broadcasting Network.” She punctuated the announcement by tapping the sewn patch on her coveralls. “It’s been late afternoon here since the Gap—perfect hour for filming drama.”
Verces. Nabokon. Tahja tried to remember his cultural training. That put him somewhere in the nation Kashak, known for its cybernetics research and heavily augmented populace. That also put him a long way from Absalom Station. The last he remembered, he’d been early in his Tempering on the station, short on credits, and several pages deep into the contracts for a short pharmaceutical testing gig. He figured he would get a few shots, earn some money, and then depart for new adventures. Instead he’d woken up from surgery less than an hour ago, his body no longer entirely his own. He dimly remembered doctors trying to calm and sedate him before he panicked, broke free, and started to run. His fall had just been his latest gamble in escaping his pursuers.
The shirren eyed him sadly. “C’mon, you’re clearly not doing well. I’m just coming off duty and can put you up for a bit. Name’s Estrik.” She reached up and clasped his hand, pulling him up and out.
“Tahja Maur of Clan Estu, House Truyark, Essence of Ipu—and thank you,” he responded while twisting his leg free from where it had punched through the dumpster lid. “But I’m being chased by dangerous people.” With that, he extracted his left leg, a cybernetic limb of hex-plated skin covering powerful joints and pistons.
Estrik’s barbules quivered with admiration as she inspected the limb with interest. “No kidding! Dermasteel weave?” She flicked the knee. “Is that adamantine? I bet it’s the debt collectors after you, with this thing’s price tag. Weird that it doesn’t even have a maker’s mark, though.” The shirren’s antennae suddenly twitched and she straightened with fear before pushing Tahja behind cover and pathing a silent warning into his mind. “We have company!”
“That’s because it’s stolen,” remarked the alley wall as a hidden figure’s skin dropped its camouflaged pattern. Eight feet tall with bulging all-black eyes and pale, chameleon-like skin, he was a verthani, the planet’s native humanoid species. His mostly nude frame had allowed his chromatophores to hide his approach, but it did little to hide the artificial muscle fibers and untold other augmentations that bulged under his skin. “This is NextStep business. Move away from the subject, bug. This doesn’t concern you.”
“Rude!” Estrik wailed before telepathically gushing to Tahja “You’re a criminal? Wanted by a real bounty hunter?” Her eyes developed an admiring sheen. “It’s just like in the stories—like Astral Eternities or Galaxy in your Eye? I’m such a fan! So. Cool.” She paused in hearing his wordless response before adding “Oh yeah, I know another way out of here, why?” His response came in the form of a swift kick that sent the dumpster careening across the alley, powered by his leg’s mechanical strength. It slammed into the verthani and threw him against the nearby wall, stunning him.
“The escape?” Tahja insisted. Estrik goggled at the dumpster for a second before whipping out a keycard, running to the far end of the alley, and swiping open a service door. The two slipped inside before slamming it closed. “Where to from here?”
“Zakol, one of the camera operators,” Estrik wheezed through her flaring facial spiracles. “He has a bunch of family near Darkside. It’s a trek, but maybe they could get you out of here?” The shirren mentally conveyed a vague map interspersed with halfhearted assurances and excited squealing. The chatter ceased as the door shuddered from a gunshot outside and the blaze of a plasma torch punched through the lock. “New plan: we run.”
By the time the outside door clattered open, Tahja had already bounded down the service hall, up two flights of stairs, through a cluster of interns, and into a studio—all while Estrik apologetically struggled to keep up with the kasatha’s cybernetically enhanced strides. They caught their breath for a moment before Estrik telepathically buzzed, “No, no, we can’t stay here.” Tahja stared back blankly, prompting the shirren to continue. “Hear that? They’re filming Galaxy in Your Eye, only the premier verthani serial romantic drama. You know, the star-crossed lovers forbidden to marry by caste, all set during the Gap? Thing’s practically a religion for some folks. Like, I’m not even allowed to clean within a floor of this place!”
“No other choice I see,” Tahja muttered, looking for a concealed means of crossing the occupied set being watched by a live studio audience. He tiptoed toward the ongoing scene featuring fantastically beautiful actors.
“Zfezar,” demanded the Augmented verthani woman, her steely arm and reinforced spine belying the melodramatic intensity in her voice as she wilted in her partners arms. “Were our families to find us so, what would they say?”
“To hell with families, traditions, and castes, Apsoria!” responded her masculine counterpart, his chest emblazoned with Ibra’s divine constellation, marking him as a God-Chosen. “Too long have we danced to their wishes yet denied the duet sung by our hearts alone! Here, just the two of us, nothing can stand in our way.”
The stage door shuddered, signaling the bounty hunter’s arrival. As Estrik worriedly looked back, Tahja pushed forward onto the set, wasting no more time. The actors, interrupted on the cusp of embrace looked up with shock, the director off-screen seemed ready to shout, and the hundred-strong audience gazed hungrily at this new development with an audible gasp. Tahja took to one knee, showing his cybernetics openly. “My lady, I come with dire news. Your family has learned of your actions.”
“Ha, they dare not intervene!” laughed Apsoria, improvising, though her narrowing eyes conveyed how suspicious she was of the kasatha’s sudden appearance.
“More dramatic!” Estrik mentally insisted from her hiding spot.
“And...they have sent assassins, my lady!” Tahja added quickly. “By slaying your love, ah—“
“His Occult Eminence Zfezar”
“—his Occult Eminence Zfezar,” Tahja continued, silently thanking Estrik for the prompt, “you will be bound to honor your arranged marriage!”
The audience’s gratifying gasps mollified the director, who sat back to observe this strange turn, and the actors adapted flawlessly to the changing script. “Villains!” growled Zfezar with a flourish of his cape.
Just then, the stage door fell open, and the bounty hunter stepped into the lights, at first with menace but then with quizzical uncertainty. As Apsoria and Zfefar berated the supposed assassin, the bounty hunter struggled to push past them, shouting. “Brightside blind you all, stand aside!” His throat swelled as his head tilted back before he spewed a bolt of electricity from his biotech dragon gland. Tahja’s cybernetic leg kicked into action—literally—flinging him out of danger’s path.
The audience shrieked with delight as Zfezar attempted a stage punch that the bounty hunter easily dodged before hurling the actor aside. He was just beginning spit another attack when Apsoria struck in earnest, hitting him in the throat as his dragon gland built up charge. The hostile verthani’s eyes went wide as the gland fired prematurely, shocking him and sending coruscating lightning ringlets dancing over his body. Smoking slightly, he dropped to the ground.
Without hesitation, the two actors took each other in their arms. “My family has spoken its peace, and I have delivered my answer, Zfezar. No matter what lies ahead, we will face it...”
“...together,” he finished.
“And scene!” cried the director, punctuated by the audience’s applause. She hopped off her chair and snagged Tahja by an arm. “You know that there weren’t kasathas in this system during the Gap, right? And that makes what just happened more than a little anachronistic?”
“Um, yes? About that?” stuttered the young kasatha.
“Ha! Soesn’t matter! The show’s set in the Gap for a reason: can’t historically disprove anything we film! And now this is just what we need to shake up the story: aliens! I’ll get those damn writers to revise whatever sorry script they had in store. Let’s talk numbers—got an agent?”
Tahja desperately looked around for any help in salvaging this awkward moment, but he saw only Estrik. Her arms were quivering with excitement as she pathed emphatically to him one more time: “So! Cool!”
About the Author
John Compton is the Starfinder Senior Developer at Paizo, Inc., having recently joined the team from years creating organized play adventure content. He has written extensively for Pathfinder and Starfinder, including adventures, setting content, and rule books, and before working for Paizo, he was a teacher, practicing archaeologist, and archaeometallurgist. You can find John on Twitter and Paizo-facing Discord servers @Archaeotagh.
About Tales from the Drift
The Tales from the Drift series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into the setting of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by members of the Starfinder development team and some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction, the Tales from the Drift series promises to explore the worlds, alien cultures, deities, history, and organizations of the Starfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.
Tales from the Drift: Improvisations
Thursday, December 26, 2019