The Legend of the Stygian Expanse and the Tomb Ships
Spacefarers speak of the Stygian Expanse like it is a defined place, but one which no star chart can show you, no drift route takes you to. The Stygian Expanse is, if anything, more of a concept…it’s the place between star systems, the area off the grid, beyond the edge of known space. It is the dark between the stars.
One of the phenomena attributed to the Stygian Expanse are the dreaded tomb ships. These immense, ancient vessels have manifested in human space over the ages, and the earliest recorded encounter with a tomb ship predates the Old Karthan Empire by nearly five thousand years. The tomb ships are usually encountered alone although in 7,791 a dozen tomb ships appeared in the Qualien system, leading to a total quarantine followed by a dedicated glassing of the entire planet by the Karthan Navy. This, unfortunately, is a distinct possibility even with one tomb ship; the arrival of such a vessel can spell almost certain doom for a planet if these horrible ships settle in to orbit.
Tomb ships are ancient vessels, often of different design or origin, and sometimes equipped with FTL drift drive and other times containing no FTL drive, or on rare occasion some other means of FTL travel, usually in the form of unknown alien technology. Many of the recorded tomb ship encounters demonstrate that human or human-like entities must have crewed the ships, while other vessels were clearly alien in origin. The smallest tomb ship recorded was a quarter mile long, and the largest was an amazing thirteen miles in length.
The mystery of the tomb ships is exaggerated by the horror of its inhabitants. All tomb ships are ultimately devoid of life, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t crewed. Some tomb ships are completely empty, containing only a hint of mystery or displaying evidence of some ancient carnage, frozen in space, suggesting the catastrophic final battle of the crew, long ago. These ships aren’t without risk, for all ships contain the necrophage virus, a virulent necrotic reanimating virus that is incredibly difficult to capture and study in any safety. In such dead ships the virus is dormant, or mutated and no longer highly virulent and transmittable.
When the necrophage is active, such tomb ships arrive in system with a horde of reanimated dead. The crew of the ship may or may not be conscious of their own undead state, but those who display consciousness are the most dangerous, capable of scheming to carry out an insane compulsion to destroy or subjugate all life, and to spread the necrophage in their wake. The incident at Qualien was such a situation, with a dozen such ships disgorging an army of millions of undead warriors on the planet.
The Karthan Imperial Research Division (KIRD) has worked closely with the Imperial Navy to find a way to capture and study a tomb ship. They have considered targeting one of the vessels that is moving at STL speeds on its transit between solar systems, out in the void where it is safely removed from living solar systems. The intent is to identify the origin of these ships, and to gain a chance to properly study their construction, crew, and origins as well as the virus itself. So far these efforts have had mixed results and more than one KIRD team has perished in the process.
Despite the difficulty, KIRD teams along with more conventional historical research have identified the following interesting pieces of information about the tomb ships:
Tomb Ship Crews
Most tomb ships tend to carry undead crew that match the dominant species of the worlds they descend upon. A vesk world visited by a tomb ship will contain undead vesk, for example. It is presumed that this means that the ships have a directive to pursue the conversion and/or destruction of the initial species of the necrophage. No one has found a ground zero example to study, however (origin of a tomb ship, and origin of its first choice of species for “crew.”)
Tomb Ship Designs
Tomb ships do not have consistent uniformity of design, but they do reflect the technological and sometimes cultural and architectural norms of the species that inhabit the ship. A tomb ship of undead vesk will look different from a tomb ship of undead humans, for example. All tomb ships seem to integrate the funerary or ritualistic elements of the culture of origin for its crew, however, often with thematic elements of ancient origin. Many tomb ships of human origin seem to glorify interment in sarcophagi, coffins, or actual tombs and crypts, for example; these serve as a maze of architectural anomalies riddled throughout the hull of the ship, writ large as if serving as a monument to the concept of death.
Most species to date appear to be at risk of infection by the necrophage once exposed. The necrophage appears to have at least three states: an early, highly virulent and transmissible state in which the virus can be exposed through air or touch; a second state in which it is in the infected victim, dormant until the individual dies at which time he or she returns as an undead animated creature; and a third state in which the necrophage transmits to victims of the undead through scratches and bites. Not all undead types recorded so far transmit the necrophage, however, and no link between undead who remain intelligent and free-willed and those who appear to be mindless has been identified as of yet.
Tomb Ship Invasions
Tomb ships move through space, sometimes slower than light, sometimes using obscure and alien warp drives, and sometimes through the drift, though at least one scout vessel which tracked a tomb ship in the drift discovered that the tomb ships appear to enter a region of the drift distinctly different from the more conventional “space lanes” most normal vessels travel through. Indeed, it is suspected that there may be tomb vessels traveling indefinitely in the drift, waiting for centuries or more before dropping out in to a suitable habitable world.
When a tomb ship does target a world, it have a number of unique approaches. Some ships have been recorded to arrive and immediately fire what are known as Cenotaph Clusters, smaller drop-pod like ships carrying anywhere from one to an entire squad of undead invaders. There is no consistency here; the invaders might be armed with heavy weaponry and armor, or they might be unarmed and unarmored, set only to spread the necrophage through their bites and scratches.
Some vessels arrive in-system and take up orbit with no hostile action….until the locals poke their nose in to the ship and decide to board it, thinking they’ve stumbled on a salvage boon. Despite the reputation of these vessels, there are still thousands of systems that have never heard of the danger of tomb ships.
A few tomb ships are especially dangerous, and are equipped with active defenses as well as snub fighters and drop ships, along with devious, free-willed undead who express their intense desire to destroy or subjugate all life. The Qualien incident was headed by one such undead, a lich called Karidais the Eternal, who claimed he was the chosen priest of Death Incarnate. Unfortunately his recorded exchanges provided little detail on his origins, though the fact that he spoke the standard galactic basic of the Old Karthan Empire with just a trace of an unknown accent was telling.
Folklore of the Tomb Ships
Spacers are known to fill in the blanks when they lack information, but a few of the legends, rumors and folklore of the tomb ships tend to get repeated often enough that KIRD investigators have taken that as a sign that there may be more than a grain of truth to some of it.
One of the most famous stories is one in which a famous freighter captain, who name changes from one tale telling to the next, stumbled in to an unknown world on a drift jump failure and found a dead planet with hundreds of tomb ships in orbit around it. He escaped, but not (so the story goes) before seeing dozens of tomb ships leave to chase him. As the story goes, when this mysterious captain appears in your system, telling his story, then the tomb ships will soon arrive.
A scholar and madman named Erintos Pathaer, who is recorded as being a famous astrophysicist and xenocultural researcher back in the pre-empire days, wrote many books on the subject of the tomb ships. He claimed that the source of the tomb ships might be an actual entity from beyond the edge of the galaxy, which creates the necrophage and then utilizes its dark energy to manufacture the ships and send them in to living space specifically to subjugate and destroy entire civilizations. This entity, which he never identified the name of, had decided that it was literally “death, the destroyer or worlds,” and had chosen the necrophage as its tool.
A third popular story is that the necrophage originated with an ancient human empire, one founded at the dawn of the space age nearly eight thousand years ago, and that this lost empire rose to power but was destroyed by its enemies with the necrophage. The unintended side effect was the rise of a powerful undead army seeking to slay all life and make the universe a tomb for all beings. The planet of origin is a cenotaph world somewhere out beyond the galactic rim…or according to some stories just next door….but cloistered away by the ancient tech used by the old empire’s enemies to hide the evidence of what they had wrought on the universe.
Adventures within Tomb Ships
Adventurers who encounter tomb ships may well find one entering some region of inhabited space, perhaps threatening a local colony. The colonists may have few resources, or be located in the Vast, such as the region of the Conarium Expanse, where the hope of Imperial intervention is nonexistent. In these cases their first choice may be to hire expendable mercenaries such as the PCs to see if something can be done about the tomb ship before it becomes too late.
Escaping a tomb ship can be as simple as infiltrating the vessel and finding a way to destroy it before becoming infected to as complex as evacuating an entire colony or station to the safety of another system. If the colony is too large or has grown world-wide then this pay not be a feasible option. Direct confrontation with a tomb ship could be a viable option if it is a lesser ship with few defenses or assault capabilities, but a well-armed tomb ship could be capable of handling its own against an entire flotilla of the Karthan Navy.
Spacers could encounter tomb ships in strange locations or trajectories, too:
Chart I: Appearance of the Tomb Ship (D12)
1 – one tomb ship floating, seemingly powerless, in an asteroid field where belters are active and mining for ore (roll on chart II)
2 – one tomb ship seemingly resting, frozen, at the edge of a star system in the Kuiper Belt region
3 – on tomb ship captured on a slowly decaying orbit near a local gas giant
4 – one tomb ship drifting in a sling-shot effect around a local star, seemingly uninterested in approaching any nearby colonies
5 – one tomb ship moving through the plane of the ecliptic in a strange angle that would seem to suggest it’s heading out of the local galactic area
6 - the tomb ship sets up orbit around the local inhabited world but then proceeds to power down and take no action
7 – the tomb ship appears with a bang, plowing in to a major orbital station or L5 colony and plows in to the station, lodging itself in the process
8 – the tomb ship appears in orbit over the habitable world or in a parallel flight with the local station and immediately attacks using cenotaph drop ships.
9 – 1D3 tomb ships appear in orbit and begin an immediate invasion using shuttles, cenotaph drop ships and fighter craft
10 – A flotilla of 2D8 tomb ships appear! They begin a full scale invasion of the system
11 – a tomb ship appears, unchanging in its trajectory, and appears to be on a dangerous collison course for the nearest inhabited world
12 – a single tomb ship that has crashed on a local world, but which remains mostly intact, has been discovered; it is either buried in a desert, in a frozen sea, or possibly largely exposed on an otherwise dead world
Chart II: Contents of the Tomb Ship (D8)
1-2 – the vessel is empty, but contains the nanophage; only hardsuits will protect from exposure
3-4 – the vessel contains evidence of a massacre, many dead bodies, but no evidence it is infected with the nanophage; 25% chance the bodies in the vessel reanimate after awakening from a deep torpor after 1D6 hours
5-6 – the vessel contains an undead horde, but the horde is small (2D100 undead of various types) and sequestered away in deep holds within the ship
7 – The vessel is fully crewed by thousands of undead, and has a 40% chance that there are one or more free-willed, intelligent undead directing their actions
8 – the vessel is a worst case scenario, packed with an army of the undead, both intelligent and malign as well as mindless infectors and soldiers
Exposure to the Necrophage
Exposure to type I necrophage means that the individual comes in to physical contact with an object on which the necrophage rests (the dust on the ship’s hull, a computer console, etc) or breathes in the air after the dust has been disturbed. Exposure requires an immediate DC 15 Fortitude save which must continue every round until medical treatment can vacuum the contaminated dust out of the individual’s system (if breathed in) or decontaminate his or her skin (if touched, or both). Proper treatment can save the person from conversion to the undead.
One save failure leads to infection and a progression to the Type II virus. The person will now be at risk of spreading the virus and also will turn in to an undead (usually a zombie, but there’s a chance of a ghoul or worse) on death. If the save was critically failed then the person sickens and dies within 1D10 minutes, returning as an undead 1D6 rounds thereafter. While a living person is carrying the type II necrophage anyone who remains present around the infected has a chance per hour of becoming infected as well. If a person spends more than 10 minutes within 15 feet of an infected living they must make a Fortitude save DC 15 or also become a carrier. The moment any carrier dies, they become an undead infected with the Type III necrophage.
Exposure to Type III necrophage means being bitten or scratched by an infected undead or an infected living being with the Type II exposure who is a carrier. As above, a DC 15 Fortitude save can protect against the necrophage, but the target must make 3 successful saves in a row (one per round) to be free of risk, otherwise the necrophage enters the system. In Type III then the effect is more dramatic: the necrophage will convert the infected within 1D6 hours to undead unless the individual is killed, at which time conversion is immediate (1 round after death). Conversion is usually to a zombie or ghoul, at the GM’s discretion. Ghouls are intelligent undead. Individuals with arcane potential are much likelier to convert to more advanced forms of undead, as are more prominent and powerful individuals (of level 5 or higher).
Suggested undead denizens of the tomb ships can include skeletons, zombies, ghouls, mummies, grave knights (armed with suitably powerful solarian technology), liches, wights and even wraiths and vampires.