The chilly north, in an isolated crater/island in the Metis region of Venus
This is a series of articles breaking out one part of a campaign/adventure, “Pantheon, Inc.,” built around high-level Pulse executives transformed into ancient monsters. This particular mini-setting focuses around prison, life on camera, and a descent into social horror that’s some of the worst humanity/vector society has to offer. Have fun!
The prison: “Jailbreak” has been running for 20 years. Over that time there’s been a dozen protests (or “free publicity,” as the executives say). The concept is simple: when a criminal with a particularly compelling face, body, and/or backstory would be sent to an IRPF prison or given a mind-altering surgery, Pulse offers a special contract. Go to the Korae Prison on Venus, trade your fate for a destiny.
Not everyone gets the offer. For the most part, it’s only given to Pulse citizens, or crimes against major Pulse subsidiaries, situations where Pulse has clear jurisdiction over a criminal. And they have to have that certain something that draws the camera and the audience. Maybe simple charisma: attractive, a natural leader, unusually persuasive. Maybe they have a good story: a particularly spectacular crime, a family that’s going to go hungry, “powerful and wealthy brought low.” Maybe they’ve got some potential as a natural villain, someone the audience will love to hate. Maybe there’s a game-changing secret, an unusual surgery, an allegiance that might lead to an exciting rescue down the road.
The Iron Maiden is without a doubt the largest prison complex in Sol, and one of the largest film sets. It’s a “natural” cave system in the Metis region, where the terraforming processes created a basin riddled with tunnels and sinkholes. When programming Exec &@@$$Thorn$28876 “On Five” got his Platinum Plan retirement around 640 AE, he settled on a large island near the Arctic reaches, and spent a very long time exploring and reshaping the land. After 15 years and two long sessions with a loaned geomat unit, On Five had built the set for his ultimate program: a ring of networked caves, up to a kilometer deep, in a rough circle 40-50 kilometers across. It’s likely On Five is the only entity with a map of even the upper levels, and they’ve changed dramatically since they were surveyed in 470 or so.
While the Iron Maiden is equivalent to a death sentence, it isn’t necessarily fatal. Twice in a Martian year, new Korae inmates are offloaded at one of the lower caverns, sometimes with equipment, sometimes with nothing but a standard uniform, sometimes even a uniform would be welcome. Unfortunately a vector getting a bedroll or some tools or a few tradable items with his drop has a target painted on him, particularly if he’s dropped in one of the more common spawn points. Nothing is random, though. Physically weaker inmates are often given more tradeables and a friendlier drop zone. Dangerous and physically enhanced drops can look forward to a fight in their future, or being dropped into the Korae with little more than their claws.
It’s all down to whatever makes the best programming. Three so-very-different inmates have to work together to survive? Great, drama is always a strong sell. A wealthy exploitative tycoon gets six crates of ammo and a bag of puffer stims, and a drop point next to an encampment, not knowing that his picture and his crimes are showing on screens across the complex? Roll camera. A disgraced athlete wakes in a dark cave with nothing but a few ration bars? Cue close-up, keep it classy. Everything in the Korae is on camera. That’s part of the contract.
And it’s not a bad contract, if the alternative is life in an IRPF cell. Pulse knows what entertainment is worth. If you’re on one of the dozen or so shows that get spun off from what’s filmed in the Korae, you’re getting residuals of some kind. If you’re there for a short stay, maybe five years, you might have that sum added to your ledger, a nice little payout to reestablish your life when you’re out of jail. Or maybe it goes toward your kids, family, or some other loved ones, or toward paying off the huge debt that got you exiled in the first place. And really, for many vectors, the path to Pulse greatness forks at “on camera” and “six feet under” anyway. It’s not so different from an arena game, and more people know your name, your story. You might just come out of the Iron Maiden with fans, a contract, even a better life. Not everyone in the Korae was a criminal, but someone who signed their freedom away for a chance at publicity is likely to get eaten alive by the inmates that didn’t choose their fate.
The Korae is about drama, horror, personal story, tragedy, and violence. It absolutely caters to the worst impulses of the audience. Death, rape, humiliation, anything that draws the audience and holds them there, if it’s the worst impulses of nature or acts of sacrifice and heroism, wins views, and in the Korae, the audience is life. That said, there are some immutable laws of favoritism. A villain’s natural ending is a fall, and a hero tends to get their reward…eventually.. Everyone loves an underdog. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again (and it’s that third try that’ll pay out.) Let’s not call these laws, really, but they’re patterns that pay out for audience, producer, and inmate.
The Korae is a ring-shaped cave network about 50 kilometers/30 miles across, with any given ring segment perhaps 4-8 kilometers wide, though in some places the upper level narrows to a single broad cavern. This maze of natural and unnatural tunnels and chambers extends up to a kilometer underground…at least, that’s as far as anybody’s journeyed so far. Much of the caverns are natural and unfinished, but there’s some reinforced areas, some rubble, some smooth tunnels obviously carved by a Geomat, underground lakes, unstable death traps…it’s a huge complex and areas that haven’t been explored in a few years may change over time.
Taking a page from Spyglass, On Five has sprinkled the Korae caves with resources…reinforced chambers with enough siderooms to form a little village, fresh water, a few very rare communication stations that allow irregular and highly limited access to Solnet, or security stations with views from certain key cameras nearby, carefully chosen for conflict and drama. There’s payout for exploring, and risk, too. Range too far from your safe space and you might find another encampment, some of that famous Venusian wildlife, an area warded by “an old and badly damaged drone,” a potential cave-in or pocket of dead air or explosive gas. Then again, you might find new territory, or a stockpile of fuel, food, or construction material. It’s a gamble, one of dozens.
Meanwhile, on the surface, toward the center of the crater ring there’s a small town set up of folks who’ve managed to escape the maze below, though even that’s not the safest place on the planet, since there’s regularly raids for supplies and such. It’s built up around the monolithic lighthouse-style tower called the Panopticon, its single searchlight methodically sweeping the grounds for escapees who haven’t earned their escape. The village is supposedly a reward for fighting or finding a way out of the Korae, but in practice, it’s just one more prison, if one with nicer beds.
The Panopticon hosts a number of security guards, and a portion of the studios and staff that produce the Jailbreak spinoff series. It’s a tempting target, ransacked every three or four years, destroyed twice now. But it always gets rebuilt after the chaos settles down.
There’s one large entrance to the Korae caverns, and a few hidden ones. The big entrance may just be there for the cameras. It’s a reinforced tunnel with a straight drop of 200 feet, with a massive statue of a female tiger or panther, no eyes, covered in rust and cruel-looking spikes. One hand is holding a sword, the other hand was taken off by an explosion years ago. Around her, a rough and well-armed camp has built up to prey off of people trying to enter or leave the caves.
The Korae is a world that’s continually on film, and subtly shaped by audience favoritism. There’s generally food and water, maybe not enough to thrive on, but enough to scrape together something like subsistence on. But folks who draw extra viewers tend to get the occasional something extra. And it’s not always fair. The rugged band of survivors who’ve been together for a year through thick and thin stumbles across a crate full of ammo, a few knives, and a stash of a brand new candy bar that’s being cross-promoted. At the same time, a wolf in black robes approaches the local despotic warlord who tortured a popular character to death last month, and gives his camp a fistful of power cells, enough food and drink to give his followers a wild party, the location of a rival’s base…and a stash of a brand new candy bar that’s being cross-promoted.
Popular prisoners and the kind of villains the audience loves to hate both tend to get just a bit more of everything. Maybe not in the short run–particularly for a hero, suffering builds character–but they’re not likely to die of starvation or wander into a pointless trap.
Many of the cameras in the Korae are hidden. Most though are not, particularly ones that show off large chambers well. In fact, they tend to have red power lights that show when they’re in use. Being on camera is a chance for more views, more resources, and some weird changes in dynamics. During critical, pivotal moments, when the enemy is circling, a red camera light means audience attention, and stretching that out for as long as possible can buy valuable minutes. If you’re hiding from the enemy, telling someone your tragic story is as good a way to get 10 minutes of safety as actually being quiet (and rumor has it that no-one has ever been ambushed during a sex scene, but that may be wishful thinking.) The system rewards compelling content. But gambling on the power of the red light is risky, particularly as the season draws to a close.
Many contracts have an escape clause, and for many lesser crimes, “just” getting out of the caves is sufficient to the relative safety, privacy, and comfort of the village. And yet, not everyone who’s earned the safety of the village stays there. Being in the village means much less camera time, fewer audience favorites, and some resources (like those very rare communication points) simply don’t work on the surface. Everything in or above the Korae is there for the audience, not the inmates, and if you’ve retired from the game below, you’re not pulling in money for the producers. Depending on the contract, it’s almost always better for an inmate’s ledger or royalties for them to stay in the game. They might even get a bonus for coming back as a recurring character.
The true name of the great beast known as The Warden is not generally known outside Pulse’s inner circles. He is young enough that he has rivals he has yet to outlive, and he keeps a low profile so outside interests leave him to his projects and prisoners. Originally his sign was &@@$$Thorn$28876, but he started going by “On Five” as his career as a television producer took off. Now, after 50 years in the business and 120 or so years of ongoing existence, he’s become one of the younger of the great beasts…not quite in the endless Valhalla of Pulse’s most glorious retirement plan, but off of most of his projects…except the one big one.
On Five’s most common Vector form these days is a large bull, towering, shaggy, and usually stained with soot, grease, and a lot of misc. He was originally a raccoon with a stark black and white coat, and will usually take that shape when summoned to a meeting.
On Five’s “dragon” shape is a massive 70 foot long serpent, weighing in at just under a ton. Its scales are a rippling, shadows-on-stones pattern of dark and light grays. No suprise from his shape and size, On Five is bone-crushingly strong. He also has a nasty knock-out venom which wipes out a few hours of recent memory as well. He can see quite well in the dark with thermal vision, but it rarely comes up as he also perceives the entire compex through its many cameras. His temple is in one of the lower rooms of the cave, a difficult to find sanctuary behind a partial cave-in, and it would be almost impossible to get to unless you can shape-change to something huge, something fairly small, climb a ceiling, and see in the dark.
Finding On Five, in or out of his temple, is challenging: once he’s aware that he’s threatened, he has powerful surveillance tools, and can pull mobs together with reward drops, video screen messages, and any number of promises. He has access to a large number of concealed molecular printers scattered throughout the complex as well, and a bioprinter in lowest level of the Panopticon.. But simply finding him and his temple is next to impossible, as he rarely comes to the higher levels of the prison, perfectly happy to work through cameras, droids, and carefully placed murderers.