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The Black Bird

A Space: 1889 Adventure

by James L. Cambias

"Smithers, old chap! Who was that exceedingly charming creature I saw you taking tea with this afternoon? Another of your conquests?" Captain Goodman dropped into a chair across from me in the reading room of the Geographical Society. One of the Martian attendants glared at him.

"If you are speaking of Mrs. Preston, I must ask you to keep a civil tongue, Goodman. She is a recent widow in great difficulty, and was asking me to help her."

"Didn't mean to offend, old boy. What's the poor lady's problem? Stuck here without passage back to Earth? I'd be happy to pass the hat at the club."

"No, it's a bit more complicated than that. Her husband was apparently one of these mechanical fellows, and was building a fantastic new sort of aerial flyer. She wants me to help track it down."

"You fascinate me, Smithers. If you have need of a ship, the Lady Mornington is yours for the asking."

"Er -- thank you, Goodman. In point of fact I've already spoken with your first officer; we're leaving this afternoon just after lunch."

He beamed at me. "That's it, Smithers! You're learning -- it's far easier to apologize afterwards than to ask for permission. But I will inflict one punishment on you: Mrs. Preston gets the cabin next to mine."

The characters are contacted by a lovely woman dressed entirely in black, who introduces herself as Rowena Preston, widow of the late inventor Claude Preston. She has heard of the player characters through a mutual friend, and is desperate for help.

Mrs. Preston has only recently arrived on Mars. She came out to join her husband, who was developing a new type of steam flyer based on his study of ancient Martian carvings. Unfortunately, he was found dead in an alley in Parhoon only days before Mrs. Preston arrived. Worse, there was no sign of his new flyer in the shipyard. She wants someone to help her find who murdered her husband and stole the flyer; she has little ready money but can promise a share in the profits from the invention.


Sergeant Klahaan of the Parhoon Constabulary can provide the players with information about the death of Claude Preston. He was discovered in an alley near the Parhoon landing-field, dead from a knife-wound in the back. Despite extensive questioning of the inhabitants of the neighborhood, nobody would admit to having seen the killer. The only clue to his assailant was that Preston had scrawled the words "Black Bird" in the dust before dying.

On an Easy Intellect roll any Cloud Captain or Royal Navy officer will recall that there is a pirate ship called the Hawk which features a black bird design painted on the hull. Other characters must do a little legwork in the taverns around the landing field to learn the same thing. (If they bungle things badly they may learn that the "black bird" is a Martian sculpture said to be of immense value which was lost in the Third Sack of Meepsoor, and that it is rumored to be in the hands of a Russian general named Kemidov in Herculis. This happens to be true, but has nothing to do with the Preston case.)

Background information about Preston is readily available. He was an English subject, resident on Mars for just over a year. He had leased space in the Parhoon shipyard and was constructing a flyer there. Most of the hull was made locally, but the engine components were shipped in from Earth.

Preston had four Martians working for him, named Haarph, Zepaa, Zhikku and Geraasha. Harph and Zhikku have fled the city since Preston's death, fearful that they will be accused of the crime (they had nothing to do with it, but Martian police are often more interested in making arrests than in finding the guilty). Zepaa and Geraasha both were working on the flyer at the time of Preston's death. The machine was nearly complete, needing only a final paint job and the cabin fittings. They can report that a band of armed cloudship sailors came to the ship and took it.

According to tavern gossip around the landing field, the captain of the Hawk is a pirate named Graasth, a hybrid born to a Canal Martian slave girl in a High Martian kraag. Graasth combines the cunning and greed of a Canal Martian with the ferocity of a High Martian. He has only limited flying abilities, but his fighting skill is unrivaled. Graasth has recently been operating out of Karkarham.


While it would be the mark of a cad to doubt the word of a lady, some particularly paranoid PCs may in fact want to check up on Mrs. Preston's story. Heliographic inquiries to Earth can confirm that Rowena Preston is indeed the wife of Claude Preston, and that she left Croydon aboard the ether-flyer Comet. (If the characters think to check will they discover that the Comet has not yet arrived at Syrtis Major; it is due in two weeks.)

Mrs. Preston's reaction to any accusations depends on the situation. She may try to influence male characters with her looks and charm, or confess tearfully that she is actually Preston's discarded mistress, with nothing left but the flyer she helped him build. If she is in any real danger of being handed over to the authorities, Mrs. Preston and her "maidservant" Rose Kelly will try to fight their way clear.

In Karkarham

The city of Karkarham is described in detail in the supplement Cloud Captains of Mars. It is a notorious hive of scum and villainy, a mecca for pirates, privateers, smugglers and mercenaries. British influence in Karkarham is limited, and the local authorities really aren't interested in finding someone who killed a Red Man hundreds of miles away.

Graasth has taken up residence in a ruined fort on a rocky hill near the city. Inside it is furnished in barbaric splendor, with choice loot from ships he has taken. Graasth is guarded by his squad of oath-bound marines, and there are usually at least a dozen of his pirate crew staying at the fort when the Hawk is in port. The marines are all Elite NPCs armed with swords, while the pirates are Veteran characters with large knives. Graasth also keeps half a dozen slaves to keep up the household, and some concubines; they are all Green NPCs and are unlikely to fight unless cornered and unable to surrender.

Graasth has been careful not to commit any crimes in Karkarham, and he respects the city's rules about not preying on shipping nearby. He is also careful to give lavish gifts to various officials in the government and the navy of Karkarham, so that any attempts to get him arrested or extradited are sure to fail.

The pirate chief does have one weakness the characters may exploit: he is a frequent patron of Karkarham's bordellos, coming into town at least twice a week for a night of indulgence. On these forays he is accompanied by a pair of his Marines. The heroes may try to kidnap him on the way home, or perhaps try to storm the fort while Graasth is otherwise engaged.

Characters who have their own ship may try to intercept Graasth in the air. His ship the Hawk is described in a sidebar; he is a canny opponent and knows when to run away. In particular, Graasth is very reluctant to engage any steamer, since they are almost all warships of one kind or another. A solitary kite may well attract his interest, however.

Graasth does have the Celeritas at his fortress-home, and is learning how to operate it. In combination with his pirate ship, the flyer will make him a very formidable opponent indeed. His chief trouble is getting coal gas for fuel -- though he is negotiating with a supplier in Syrtis Major, at present he is limited to what the flyer has on board (about half its full fuel load). Graasth was hired to get the flyer by the beautiful international spy Olga Polovsky, but he decided the flyer was worth more than her pay, and kept it. Since Olga Polovsky is currently masquerading as Mrs. Preston, she will do her utmost to keep Graasth from revealing that -- preferably by killing him at first sight. Polovsky and her maidservant Rose will maintain their fake identities only until they can get aboard the Celeritas and flee.

Rewards and Consequences

The government of Karkarham generally turns a blind eye to feuds and brawls among the cloud captains, so a raid on Graasth's fort will not cause much trouble. Fights or shootouts in the city itself are likely to result in arrest, though a bribe in the right hands can keep the characters out of jail (it costs 5 if nothing was damaged, 10 if property was damaged, 20 if anyone not involved in the battle was injured, and 50 if anyone was killed). While Graasth is a citizen, he is not especially well-liked by the government, so there will be no extra effort to protect or avenge him.

Graasth's marines are all Hill Martians bound to him by a blood oath. They will fight to the death to protect him, and if he is slain by foul means they are honor-bound to seek vengeance on his killers. (To the Hill Martians, "foul means" would be if Graasth was unable to defend himself -- shooting him from a distance, stabbing him while he is unarmed or asleep, poisoning him or burning down his home.) It may take them weeks or months to track down the PCs, but they will eventually find them. The marines are cunning warriors, and will choose the moment to strike carefully.

If Olga Polovsky gets away with the flyer, the characters will certainly not see it or their reward ever again. Miss Polovsky herself may turn up in future adventures; her loyalties are very flexible, and she is willing to work for just about anyone if the price is right. She would make a good recurring adversary or unreliable ally, especially if a handsome gentleman PC stirs her heart.

The Hawk

The Hawk is a pirate kite, notable for the stylized black bird that adorns its hull. One feature of the ship which makes a great difference in combat is its large crew. The Hawk carries enough extra men to replace all the crew. The ship carries lots of antipersonnel weapons, and the tactic favored by Graasth is to pepper the enemy with sweepers and light guns, then board.

Hull: size 4 (designed on 333 tons to allow Very High altitude).
Propulsion: kite.
Armament: 2 Heavy guns in forward wing mounts; 2 Light guns in aft wing mounts; 2 Sweepers each at bow and stern.
Quarters: Space for 36 passengers.
Cargo: 43 tons at Very High altitude; 109 at High; 209 at Medium; 375 at Low altitude.
Altitude: Very High
Crew: 24 gunners, 8 topmen, 8 deckhands, 10 officers, 10 Marines
Price: 26,720.

The Celeritas

The Celeritas is a fantastic flyer built by Claude Preston. It combines his own high-powered engine design with ancient Martian principles of streamlining and all-metal welded hull. He constructed it as a demonstration vehicle, which means it isn't really a warship or a merchant vessel. It would, however, be an excellent craft for a small party of explorers or adventurers. The Celeritas combines two major inventions: welded steel construction and a gas turbine engine.

Hull: Size 1 steel hull (load capacity 83 tons at Very High altitude)
Propulsion: Gas Turbine engine; power value 6
Speed: 21
Fuel: Bunker Size 36, giving 60 days' endurance
Armor: welded steel, armor value 3
Armament: 1 pivot-mounted 3-pounder HRC, forward
Passengers: 8
Cargo: 18 tons at Very High altitude
Altitude: Very High
Crew: 1 Engineer, 1 Deckhand, 1 Gunner, 3 Officers.
Price: Claude Preston built the Celeritas using his own money and a great many hand-built components, so it has no set price. The Royal Navy would probably pay at least 30,000 for it.

"Mrs. Rowena Preston"/Olga Polovsky (Veteran NPC)

Olga Polovsky is a very beautiful and completely ruthless international spy. She specializes in winning the affections of key men and then making off with their secrets. When Europe got a little too hot for her she came to Mars, and quickly learned about Claude Preston's amazing flyer. She hired Graasth to steal it, and is now determined to get it back. As "Mrs. Preston" she dresses in mourning clothes and a veil, but on her own she dresses in stylish outfits of the highest quality.

STR: 3 Fisticuffs 2, Throwing 1; Close Combat (Edged) 4
AGL: 3 Stealth 2; Crime (Pick Pockets) 3; Marksmanship (Pistol) 4
END: 1
INT: 5 Observation 5
CHR: 5 Eloquence 5; Linguistics 4 (English, German, French, Turkish); Theatrics 6
SOC: 4 Riding (Horse) 3; Leadership 2; Pilot (Steam Flyer) 2
Motives: Ruthless, Adventuresome, Stubborn
Equipment: concealed pistol, concealed dagger, corset (armor 1)

GURPS Stats: ST 10 DX 10 IQ 14 HT 8 Move 5
Advantages: Beautiful appearance, Charisma +2, Status +1, Strong Will +1
Disadvantages: Secret (Spy), Social Stigma -1 (woman), Stubborn
Quirks: Loves adventure, Ruthless, Will work for anyone.
Skills: Acting-16, Brawling-10, Guns (Revolver)-14, Fast Talk-14, Knife-12, Pickpocket-12, Piloting (steam flyer)-10, Riding (horse)-10, Running-6, Sex Appeal-12, Stealth-10.
Languages: Russian-14 (native), English-14, German-12, French-12, Turkish-12.

Rose Kelly (Veteran NPC)

Rose Kelly is Olga Polovsky's servant and accomplice. As a ladies' maid she can learn a great deal simply by talking with other domestics, but she is also a crack shot and expert thief. Rose is strongly anti-British, but she is very good at hiding her true feelings. She usually wears a maid's uniform, but in combat she prefers to wear trousers.

STR: 3 Fisticuffs 2; Throwing 1; Close Combat (bashing) 4; Trimsman (Steam Flyer) 2
AGL: 3 Stealth 2; Crime (Pick Locks) 2; Marksmanship (Pistol) 1
END: 4 Wilderness Travel (Mapping) 4
INT: 4 Observation 4
CHR: 4 Eloquence 3; Linguistics 4 (Parhooni, French, Russian, Koline); Theatrics 2
SOC: 3 Riding (Horse) 2; Medicine 1; Pilot (Steam flyer) 1
Motives: Steady, Hatred (of England), Frugal
Equipment: concealed pistol, umbrella, corset (armor 1)

GURPS Stats: ST 11 DX 12 IQ 12 HT 12 Move 6
Advantages: Combat Reflexes, Toughness (DR 1)
Disadvantages: Miserliness, Social Stigma -1 (woman), Status -1
Quirks: Hates England, Prefers wearing trousers
Skills: Acting-12, Bard-12, First Aid-10, Guns (revolver)-13, Holdout-12, Pick Locks-10, Piloting (steam flyer)-10, Riding (horse)-10, Stealth-10, Survival (moors)-14.
Languages: English-12 (native), Parhooni-12, French-10, Russian-10, Koline-10.

Graasth (Veteran NPC)

Graasth is a strange-looking hybrid of High Martian and Canal Martian. He has only rudimentary wing-flaps, and his feet are less dextrous than a High Martian's. However he is quite intelligent and has risen to leadership of his own pirate band. He can fly, though only at half speed and only for short periods, as his lift gland is underdeveloped. His motives are fairly simple: he wishes to get vastly rich, surround himself with beautiful slave girls, and enjoy his victories.

STR: 4 Fisticuffs 3, Throwing 2; Close Combat (Polearm) 4; Trimsman (Cloudship) 4
AGL: 4 Stealth 3; Marksmanship (Rifle) 4
END: 6 Wilderness Travel (Foraging) 5
INT: 4 Observation 3; Gunnery (MLC) 2
CHR: 3 Eloquence 2; Linguistics 4 (Koline, Parhooni, English, Hellan)
SOC: 2 Riding (Gashant) 1; Leadership 3; Pilot (Cloudship) 4
Motives: Greedy, Aggressive, Lust

GURPS Stats: ST 12 DX 12 IQ 12 HT 18 Move 7
Advantages: Ally Group (marines), Combat Reflexes, Flight, Toughness (DR 2), Wealth (comfortable).
Disadvantages: Bloodlust, Greedy, Lecherousness, Social Stigma -2 (High Martian).
Quirks: Hates riding, Desires Canal Martian women, Social climber.
Skills: Black Powder Weapons-12, Brawling-12, Gunnery (muzzle-loader)-12, Leadership-14, Navigation-12, Piloting (Cloudship)-14, Riding (Gashant)-8, Spear-12, Stealth-12, Survival (Martian mountains)-14, Tactics (Cloudship)-12.
Languages: High Martian-12 (native), Koline-12, Parhooni-10, English-8, Hellan-8.

Last Updated Monday, 04-May-2009 19:54:40 EDT

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