The tunnel ran smooth and deep, a gullet boring down into frozen ground, beckoning explorers into its belly. Ariad-N5 planned to accept its invitation. Nifri joined Ariad at the edge of the chasm.
“This is it,” the kasatha said, cross-referencing the coordinates displayed on his datapad. Together they peered down at the decrepit ramp that curled nautilus-like within the tunnel.
“I’m ready to get out of this cold,” Talla grumbled. The quorlu trudged through the deep snow, her movements slowed by the thermal suit she wore to protect her sensitive skin from the frigid temperatures. This was a first; in all their years working together, Ariad had never heard her complain.
“Construction’s delayed until we survey the ruins, so AbadarCorp wants us in and out.” Talla explained.
“What’s our timeline?” Ariad asked. “We need a few weeks to—”
“The corp gave us 12 hours,” Talla snapped. Ariad and Nifri exchanged concerned looks, but their leader appeared unphased by the impossible deadline. She studied the ramp and shook her head decisively. “Looks unstable. We’ll rappel down.” Nifri helped her create an anchor using two ice screws connected by a sling, then ran a cable line through it. The three explorers clipped in with practiced technique. Nifri rappelled down first, the crunch of boots against ice echoing through his open comm channel. Then, he looped his cable through a belay device to assist Talla, leaving the android alone in a swirl of snow at the edge of the ruins.
“Your turn,” Nifri said finally. “I’m on belay.”
“On rappel.” Ariad gripped their cable and kicked off from the ledge. They watched the sky shrink as they walked down the side of the tunnel in a controlled descent. Suddenly, their toe caught a patch of ice, and they plunged downward. Ariad grabbed for the nearby ramp, but it crumbled in their grip. The cable snapped taut as Nifri caught them, and a chunk of debris plummeted toward their teammates below.
“Rock!” Ariad shouted. Nifri sidestepped and the rubble shattered harmlessly on the ground beside him.
“Close one, thanks!” He yelled.
When the android reached the end of the cable, a dim halo of light was all that remained of the world above. Their eyes roamed over the alien architecture surrounding them. The walls were mottled red and purple like the exposed intestines of a great beast. Brown, scabby patches festered in places, but there was no scent of decay. Metallic panels embedded into the fleshy walls reinforced the structure, and a glowing blue pillar towered at the center of the cavernous chamber. The wall rippled as a constellation of arcane symbols flashed across its surface.
“Did you see that?” Ariad whispered. Talla gasped as the same symbols wriggled into view across the room.
“Fascinating,” she breathed. “There’s magic all around us.” Nifri, transfixed by the blue pillar, ignored them.
“Old wards, perhaps, or maybe this peculiar building material is magical,” Ariad observed, peering at the wall where the symbols had appeared. They avoided touching the nonmetal parts during their examination; the spongy reddish substance made their dermis crawl.
“Let’s move on,” Talla directed, and motioned toward an aperture on the far side of the room. Before she stepped through it a deep, percussive boom reverberated through the ruins. A shape charged out of the shadows, and Talla instinctively reached for the pistol holstered at her belt. She relaxed when she recognized Nifri, all four of his arms flailing as he sprinted toward them.
“It…shocked…me,” he panted, skidding to a halt.
“What shocked you?” Ariad asked. They peered into the kasatha’s eyes, examining him for pupil dilation and other signs of trauma. Then they noticed his bare hands. “What happened to your safety gloves?”
“I took them off before I touched the pillar,” Nifri admitted. “I know it’s against protocol, but I wanted to gauge its temperature.”
“You should have used a thermal scanner,” Ariad scolded.
“Enough,” Talla pronounced calmly. “Once, I got so enthusiastic about an excavation that my team leader had to pry me off a trapped statue.” She chuckled at the memory. “Not my finest hour. Are you hurt?”
“Only my pride,” Nifri said sheepishly. Talla smiled at him.
“Remember your training, and stick with safety protocols from now on,” Talla commanded. With the incident dismissed, they emerged into a hallway studded with valve-like openings that hinted at a vast network of chambers within the ruins. As they passed the abandoned rooms, Nifri’s flashlight illuminated the silhouettes of machinery somehow both antiquated and advanced, now immortalized in disrepair.
“If you’d purchased those retinal reflectors I recommended, you wouldn’t need that.” Ariad nodded to Nifri’s flashlight.
“I’m saving my credits for a tropical vacation. I got more than enough hands, so don’t worry, Ensie.” Nifri retorted, but his voice lacked its usual confidence. Ariad often struggled to read others’ emotions, but they had no problem interpreting their colleagues’ behavior. Nifri’s shallow breathing and Talla’s frantic heartbeat betrayed their fear. Ariad noted the prickle of adrenaline in their own system. They knew the source of these symptoms—the hideous decaying walls, unidentified magic crawling through the air, the ruins’ reaction when Nifri touched the pillar—this was not a routine survey.
Talla’s authoritative voice broke the silence. “Let’s split up to cover more ground. Nifri, the gloves stay on this time, please.”
“You got it, boss.,” Nifri nodded and disappeared around a bend. Determined to master their own unease, Ariad followed Talla’s directions without comment. They chose a room close to the entrance that housed rows of gyroscope-like contraptions. Strangely, each device contained a seat designed to accommodate a small creature. Ariad had only completed a cursory inspection of the machines when their comm unit crackled to life.
“Ari, come take a look at this.” Talla sounded calm, but she must have found something interesting. Talla stood in front of a hexagonal column they hadn’t noticed before. Unfamiliar pictograms studded its seamless obsidian metal surface, forming an incomprehensible cipher.
“At least this text is stationary.” Ariad said. They scanned the symbols, cross-referencing their own internal database of language and magical code. Unfortunately, their cybernetically- enhanced eidetic memory proved no match for the strange writing. Talla waved a chemalyzer along the length of the pillar. The device beeped and Talla’s eyestalks craned eagerly toward the readout. The knitted thermal cap she wore to protect her delicate organs bobbed comically as she shook her head in confusion.
“Strange, these isotope levels look…pre-Gap?” Talla gave the device a solid tap to ensure it was working properly. “Yeah, probably pre-Gap.” Talla sighed, clearly frustrated. With hundreds of successful excavations under her belt, she was team leader for good reason, and not used to being thwarted like this. “This writing isn’t in any language I’m familiar with.”
“I don’t recognize it either,” Ariad confessed.
“Too bad. I was hoping you could translate,” Talla said in a muffled voice as she rummaged through her pack.
“Where’s Nifri?” Ariad asked. Concern for their absent colleague suddenly gripped them. Nifri was a competent, though inexperienced, professional. His earlier judgment lapse was uncharacteristic, but what if he ran into more trouble?
As if on cue, Nifri’s voice exploded from Talla’s comm unit. “Boss, I don’t think we’re in a tomb. This room has cryo-storage and an operating theater. I found some partial specimens that look like—no, that can’t be.” Nifri’s voice trailed off, distracted by his latest discovery.
“Roger, Nifri,” Talla responded. “Ari and I are finishing up here. Take samples while you wait for us.” Ariad wondered how she could sound confident when they weren’t any closer to unraveling the mystery of the ruins.
“We need an icebreaker,” she declared, and produced a glob of iridescent putty from her pack. She attached it to the pillar the way a child might stash a piece of gum beneath a desk for safekeeping. It rolled slowly over the object, seeking concealed edges and mechanisms invisible to the naked eye. Talla grinned when it settled and revealed the outline of a control panel.
“What is that?” Ariad wondered. They gasped when the panel popped out from the pillar as though activated by their voice. At this angle, they realized it housed a keypad labeled with unfamiliar pictograms.
“Let’s find out,” Talla flashed them a mischievous grin. She reached toward the keypad, then jumped back as the panel immediately retracted. A loud whirring sound filled the room and the column’s six faces began to rotate. The object lowered, spinning, into the floor as its exterior surfaces unfurled, revealing a central core of blue plasma. A hologram depicting an unknown species materialized in the glow. The plasma flickered and warped, forming distorted images that hinted at the creature’s anatomy. It stood atop four overlapping tentacles, its segmented neck arching forward from the far side of its body like a striking serpent. Three sets of clawed arms protruded from its ribbed belly. Its only discernable facial features were two pairs of mismatched eyes that blazed with inscrutable intent. Its mandibles twitched in synchronization with its vestigial front arms as it vocalized. A roar of growls and glottal stops that Ariad’s linguistic processors registered as noise filled the corridor. Suddenly, an arc of electricity shot out from the panel.
“Watch out!” Ariad screamed, shoving Talla out of the way. The bolt surged and struck the floor where she had just been standing. Residual static pulsed through the android’s synthetic skin as they stared at the charred spot left behind.
“Thank you,” Talla gasped. “I thought—” A howling klaxon from the ruined complex’s core interrupted her. This warning needed no translation, and the two researchers fled toward the entrance. A magnified voice boomed overhead as they ran, speaking the holographic creature’s dissonant language. A series of crashes chased them down the hall as shutters lowered over doorways they’d planned to investigate. A metal slab slammed down in front of them, blocking the exit.
“Over here!” Nifri called from behind them. He stepped into the hallway and waved his team toward an accessible room. Ariad and Talla sprinted through the doorway seconds before it sealed itself shut.
“I think we’re safe in here,” Nifri said. Ariad wasn’t so sure. Their refuge was a control room crowded with dusty consoles and machinery. A hundred orange eyes blinked awake as the ancient equipment rumbled and whined, booting up for the first time in millennia.
“I can’t find a signal in here.” Talla paced while frantically typing into her comm unit, but her companions’ attention snapped back to the room’s central console. A holoprojection of a planet floated above it. A beacon at the center of the topographical map radiated veins reaching across its mountains and valleys. The two watched in horror as the tendrils elongated and writhed out from the beacon, infesting the planet’s surface. Ariad recognized the planet. It was Jedarat.
“What have we done?” Nifri gasped.
“I have a signal!” Talla exclaimed. “Talla to HQ. We’re trapped. Do you copy?” Only a burst of static answered her.
“Keep trying,” Ariad urged. There were hundreds of workers on Jedarat’s surface. Ariad’s team was trapped, but they had to warn the others.
Eisyfina Nott stood in the chalet’s doorway. Outside, a shroud of snow concealed the world, obscuring a picturesque view of the alpine landscape. The storm had appeared out of nowhere, right when all the terraforming equipment in the valley went haywire.
Eisyfina’s datapad pinged with an incoming message, a video file from the xenoarchaeology team contracted to explore Jedarat’s ruins. She watched silently, transfixed by the video’s disturbing contents. She shut it off with a decisive tap of her finger, but the message’s final words echoed in her mind: we woke it up.
“This is Nott requesting immediate support to New Horizons headquarters.” She barked into her earpiece. “We need help. Now.”
About the Author
Jenny Jarzabski is a freelance writer, sommelier, and nature enthusiast. She writes adventures and rules for Pathfinder and Starfinder, in addition to some weird fiction of her own. She is just as likely to be found on the trails or at the climbing wall as delving the word mines or gamemastering at a convention. You can follow Jenny’s real life adventures on Twitter at @jenjski.
About Devastation Ark
In the Devastation Ark Adventure Path, the discovery of a series of millennia-old ruins sets off a chain of events that puts an ancient titanic spacecraft on course to the Pact Worlds. Will the heroes be triumph in stopping the dreadnaught? Or will the alien species take the Pact Worlds as its new home and conquer the galaxy? This three-part Starfinder campaign is designed to take player characters from level 13 to 20 and can serve as a sequel to any previous Starfinder Adventure Path.