Saturday, July 1, 2017

War Orphans: Planet of the Cybermen (Doctor Who)

So I've been writing this in fits and spurts during quiet moments at Anthrocon to try and get it out there before I forget too many details. (You'll see how well that's worked out, which can probably be chalked up to all manner of distractions at said convention.) In addition, I'm posting this from a computer not my own just to get it out of the way. So if anything seems a little off, that's why. (And please let me know if anything looks really off)

Before I started the session, I did a couple of things with my group. First off, I passed out some index cards and had everyone write down three historical figures or creatures they'd like to see turn up. See, while I do have an overall plot, I also like the idea of doing a series of episodic short stories with a larger metaplot with some room for bouncing around the universe getting into trouble. So I decided to solicit suggestions from the group. And some interesting stuff came up (and only a couple of things I would have done something with anyways).

Second, this past week's episode of the series got me thinking about the evolution of the Cybermen over the years on the show and it made me realize that while I'd explained to my players that the newer 'armored' Cybermen would be new to them (as they entered the universe from another dimension after the Time War), it might be better to show rather than tell. So I dug up a clip from the old show giving the players a glimpse of just what they are used to with regards to the Cybermen. (Of course, I wish I'd known that was on Youtube first before doing a search during this write-up, because I actually dug out my DVD of The Five Doctors and spent 20 minutes the night before finding the clip in question.)

Ah well.


Soren, in the TARDIS engine room: "A ship crashed a couple of days ago. People have gone missing."

The operator of the Space Traffic Control tower: "Someone set up a beacon sending out a Cyberman distress call but they flew too close to a Cyber Defense satellite and crashed."

One of the three Cybermen in the tunnel: "Presence of gold in atmosphere detected. Upgraded filters holding. Delete. Delete. DELETE!"

So just when the Cybermen are about to open fire, Galaxion tells them that he has a photonic singularity bomb wired to a dead man's switch that will got off if they kill him, in an attempt to con them into backing off. However, this does convince one of them to stop and scan him rather than open fire, so he uses his sonic screwdriver to give them the impression that he is carrying some sort of detonator.

Meanwhile, Eska dives behind some rubble to use as cover and gets ready to trade fire with them. He blasts one, taking it out while the other shoots back at him but can't get through the cover.

Knowing full well that his ruse won't last long, Galaxion makes a run for it while Eska lays down some cover fire. But rather than fire back, the Cybermen proclaim "Upgrade in progress" and his next shots at them that do connect... are absorbed harmlessly by the armor.[0]

Oh shit. Sorry, this is the BBC. Oh crap.

So Eska makes a run for it as well, firing at the ceiling on his way down to bring enough rubble down to stop them from giving chase or at least slowing them down.

Meanwhile, back in the Space Traffic Control tower[1], the guy at the terminal (Mark) is having trouble reaching the Cyber Defense Network, a bunch of local paranoid descendants (both literal and spiritual) of the last few veterans of the Cyber Wars a few centuries ago. Apparently they don't keep open communications for safety purposes, air-gapping as much as possible. Their modus operandi is to be on the constant move with a 'rocket car' (described as the Calibris equivalent of a railroad handcar) and that they send and receive messages through communication nodes spread throughout the planet (not entirely unlike the old police phone boxes, which is an unintentional coincidence), and Mark has been sending them messages but hasn't received any replies.

As he explains this, the Magpie and the Dreamcatcher see Galaxion come out of the tunnel. He comes into the tower and tells them what they found, and that the gold didn't work. Everyone's freaked until Galaxion informs them that Eska managed to shoot and kill one with his blaster rifle and they're relieved...

...until Eska comes out of the tunnel a few seconds later, yelling that he can't kill them.

He catches up and explains that they adapted to his weapons and now they're immune to his blaster, so he dumped a bunch of rubble on them and fled. So they're even more freaked out. He also points out that the ship the Cybermen crashed in should be able to hold about a dozen Cybermen troops but they only saw three and nobody's foolish enough to hope that his electrical stunt last session was enough to take out nine more.

While they talk about what to do next, a ship lands outside the tunnel and a squad of soldiers in something like riot gear head into the tunnel. Mark warns them about what they're up against, but whomever it is seems to be ready to deal with it.

At one point (I'm blanking on the wording of the conversation) he asks about what was left of the train car that was in the tunnel, confusing the group as there was no train car nor enough wreckage to account for one.

There's some brief confusion as everyone assumes this is the Cyber Defense Network, but Mark clarifies that the guys who went in are an independent defense company called Containment and Salvage Solutions. So they talk about what it would take to track down the Cyber Defense Network, and Mark suggests they take a rocket car into the tunnels and track them down personally. Because if the Cybermen have taken a train car for themselves, likely enhancing it with parts from their ship, that means they must already be on the hunt.

At some point during all this (I forgot to write down the relevant moment in my notes, apparently) a series of explosions came from the tunnel, presumably from a fight of some sort, but regardless they couldn't think of a way that the Cybermen could adapt to kinetic attacks or explosions so they try not to panic.

Meanwhile, Mark brings up a holographic display of the planet and based on places where he knew the Cyber Defense Network wouldn't be or couldn't be, narrowed down a good spot for the group to go looking for them. He arranges for them to commandeer a maintenance car (so Eska will have the tools he needs to modify his blaster) at the next station over to use.

Before they leave, though, they talk about the stakes of this... Calibris is a mechanical planet. If the Cybermen can crack the Cyber Defense Network's defenses or even capture them and acquire what they need directly, that means the planet itself will at best become a Cyber-ship or the center of a new Cyberman fleet. The Cyber Wars would begin again. Ending the Cyber Wars before required destroying an entire galaxy, after all.

So with a proper sense of perspective, the group hoofs it to the next station over where the rocket car is waiting for them, floating about the tracks maglev-style. The Dreamcatcher, the only one of them even vaguely competent with vehicles that aren't TARDISes, hops in the driver's seat and upon their clearance to launch begins navigating the tunnels on the planet in an attempt to find the CDN shuttle, the Cyber-train (as I'm now officially calling it), or both. While they're on the way, Eska tinkers with his rifle and manages to adjust it so he should be able to get off a few shots before the Cybermen adapt.[2]

While they move through the tunnels, and just when they think they've found the CDN rocket car the Dreamcatcher has to swerve to dodge a train coming up behind them at high speed... and it's the Cyber-train! Eska manages to scan it to confirm Cybermen 'life signs.' So the Dreamcatcher guns it, while Eska leans out the window and blasts the rockets on the train. He gets such a good shot that not only does the Cyber-train slow down, but they have to swerve into another tunnel to keep from wrecking.

They get close enough that the CDN are able to hail them.[3] Magpie explains that they're there to warn them about the current breed of Cybermen, saying he needs to tell them things they won't want to hear but would need to hear. They get scanned and then they're invited to pull up alongside and dock with the rocket car, and they do so.

They're invited aboard where they find that the Cyber Defense Network consists of four people: an older human man named Cortland, a human woman in her mid-30's named Gupta, a human guy in his late-teens named Mag who's driving the thing, and a Nilbek woman named Lakin. Introductions all around.

So the Network explains that they keep Calibris' digital defenses upgraded in case of the occasional Cybermen incursion -- which is extremely rare, rare enough that very few of any given incarnation of the group have had personal experience fighting one. After all, the Cybermen were basically wiped out during the Cyber Wars a few centuries ago. But their software should be capable of keeping up with Cybermen attacks for at least a while, but to come up with something to properly take them out will require a chunk of a Cyberman to analyze the code and circuits -- preferably the head, but they could make do with a chest.

I can't remember exactly when, but at some point during all this Cortland just casually says 'hold onto something.' He and the rest of his crew just reach out to grab handles. The rest of the group reflexively does so, though the Magpie isn't quick enough or close enough to one so he goes flying across the sitting area when the rocket car makes a sudden sharp turn. 

(Just for the record, this continues on and off any time the group is on the CDN's rocket car, and it's always the Magpie who's slighty too far from the handles.)

The group remembers the team going after the Cyber-ship back where the wreck happened in the first place, and ask the CDN to help take them back that way. They talk about methods of getting past the Cybermen's upgrading ability, how to disconnect them from each other, and so forth. The CDN reveals an old anti-Cyberman weapon they have, a crossbow that fires a bolt that can temporarily disconnect the Cyberman from their network through something not unlike a targeted EMP.

So the group and their rocket car get dropped off with instructions to send a signal out to the communication nodes and they'll come back to pick everyone up.

They walk back to where Containment and Salvage Solutions is hauling a bunch of stuff out of the tunnel. They're all wearing feature-disguising suits and helmets and Galaxion is very concerned when he yells to get their attention and they all stop and turn with near-mechanical precision. He scans them with his sonic screwdriver and determines that almost all of them are made out of... leather?

At this point the leader of them steps up and asks "What, you Time Lords never seen a bunch of Slabs before?" before lifting up his visor to reveal that it's Veris, from the German lab. He tells them that this is what he does when he's not doing infiltrations to swipe alien or future tech. That his people have a couple of companies who specialize in cleaning up wrecked spaceships for the 'fee' of being able to keep anything valuable they find.

They ask if he can handle Cybermen, and he explains that he's got guns loaded with bastic bullets, rounds capable of piercing a Dalek's armor. They're from about 800 years in the future, so there's not a whole lot that 'modern' Cybermen can do against them. Not that they'd be difficult for Time Lords to get, but he tosses them a gun with a clip anyways just in case. But when they explain what they need it for, he goes ahead and gives them a spare head from the wreckage they've been breaking down (establishing that there was a dead Cyberman on the ship and that they took out the two that Eska slowed down earlier).

He wishes them well at that point and says he hopes that the next time they see each other it's in the right order. They ask if they've met him out of order, and he says that usually time travelers meet in the right-ish order, and even if he'd met them out of order, he couldn't tell them anyways. He wishes them good luck and leaves, and while the group is waiting for the CDN to show back up they have a conversation about certain basic laws of time stopping things from people crossing their own timelines and how the Time Lords were usually responsible for egregious breaches. And about how those breaches may have led to the Time War, between their hubris and just toying around with things they shouldn't have.[4]

The CDN shows up, they dock rocket car with them, and share the head. The CDN analyzes the head and is pretty sure they can put together something that will basically lobotomize the squad of Cybermen that's trying to set up shop on Calibris. While they're doing that, the Magpie analyzes the metal the Cyberman's head is made from and tries to make a corrosive gas that should help disable them and they should have a lot of trouble (at the very least) adapting to.

The CDN manages to weaponize the head -- just get it close to one or more Cybermen and hit a switch, and it'll send out a burst transmission virus that should not only knock out the ones immediately there but transmit across the short-range network to get the rest. The trick is getting close enough to deal with them without getting killed. They decide to use the CDN as bait. They stop moving around so randomly and give the Cybermen the chance to catch up. The Time Lords will get back in their own car, drop back a ways, and come up behind the Cyber-train once it takes the bait.

And take the bait it does. So the Dreamcatcher pulls their rocket car up alongside the Cyber-train and manages to dock with it. Eska insists on going across alone, so he grabs the head and climbs up onto the train. He heads towards the cockpit where he squares off with one of the Cybermen... and discovers that bastic bullets can indeed punch through their armor. He keeps going, and in the last car before the cockpit he finds three Cybermen guarding it. He just lowers his head and tries to run past them, timing the activation of the head so that he's in the middle of all three. He hits the switch, knocking out the trio of Cybermen, and pushes forward into the cockpit where the last four are collapsing.

So that's one problem taken care. The other problem? The runaway train. Fortunately, the Dreamcatcher is able to talk him through it (though comments over what color various lights and switches are does eventually derail -- so to speak -- into a debate about what color vomit is supposed to be), and he slows it down without killing himself or anything else.

And then it's just wrapping up, at that point. The CDN claim the Cybermen for analysis and the group gets to do what they want with the Cyber-ship parts incorporated into the train. So they call Soren down and turn him loose on the train to pay him for sourcing parts for their TARDIS.

And we leave off there.

[0]-- These Cybermen are in sort of a liminal state between the Cybermen we saw a couple of seasons ago and more recent models. They've got the self-upgrading, but as a 'species' they haven't developed Cybermites yet and they don't have that weird speed power the new ones have.
[1]-- By the way, just as a reminder... Calibris comes up in one of the Big Finish audio plays and gets very little detail other than 'travel hub,' 'no government,' 'rocket trains,' and 'roughest bar in the universe.' So I make up a lot of details regarding how the planet works.
[2]-- From a mechanical perspective, in case anyone's curious, I had him make an Ingenuity + Technology roll and based on his level of success gave him a few 'free' shots and beyond that, he could spend a Story Point per shot to keep the effect going.
[3]-- The network, to keep things air-gapped, don't carry transmitting equipment beyond a very short range and don't turn on receiving except in very specific circumstances. When they send and receive messages, it's by drifting close enough to the walls that the communication nodes are in range.
[4]-- Like sending the Doctor back in time to stop the Daleks' creation, which in turn provoked the Daleks' hostility towards the Time Lords in general and resulting in their retaliation which results the Time War which is why the Time Lords sent the Doctor back in time and oh no, I've gone crosseyed.

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