Thousands of years in the future, human technology has become so miniaturized and pervasive that it is considered a natural part of the environment. It’s just one more bit of the air and the earth and the water. It’s woven into the DNA of every living thing. It makes the universe bend to human will.
The First Emperor was the last person to fully comprehend this technology. Enlightenment allowed him to rearrange the stars themselves and forge an interstellar empire that has endured for centuries. His masterwork was the Forbidden City, a palace whose wings sprawl across dozens of worlds, bound together by portals whose inner workings were known only to him. For the residents of these dynastic worlds, interstellar travel is as easy as walking through an open door.
He left to his descendants an artificial plant whose fruit grants eternal life. These Immortals live isolated lives of leisure and excess. When they do get involved in events beyond the Forbidden City’s walls, it is solely for their own amusement. Common folk have learned to cover their heads and wait for the madness to pass.
Real power lies in the Celestial Bureaucracy, an AI “spirit world” built upon the nano-computer network that permeates the empire. The Jade Emperor, master AI, was built from a neural map of the First Emperor’s brain shortly before he died/ascended/disappeared/whatever. In all the ways that matter, they are one and the same. Similar neural imprints are made of every citizen who can afford the burial rites.
Through the Celestial Bureaucracy, one’s virtual ancestors can be consulted at any time, day or night. Of course, no system is perfect and ancestor programs do occasionally run on their own. These “hungry ghosts” tend to show up as sensory illusions in their descendants’ homes and get rather upset if there’s not a place set for them at the head of the dinner table.
The First Emperor lives on in one more way: The Corpus. Poets like to characterize the imperial army, navy, and administration as the Hands, Feet, and Voice of the Emperor. (There is a fourth branch, a secret police called the Emperor’s Eyes, but wise men speak of it only in whispers.) The Corpus is responsible for enforcing the law throughout the empire, but they rarely project considerable force beyond the dynastic worlds.
Holograms dance over the navigator’s geomantic compass. “Another ship is moving to flank us, General.” Wei’s soldiers are already busy holding off the main fleet. If this ambush breaks their blockade, all is lost.
“Maintain course and await my return.” He spins on his heel, plucks his farblade off the wall, and steps out onto the deck. The stars rush past like a river, serene in a nebula’s blue glow. Wei closes his eyes and meditates, expanding his senses through the nano-computer network until he can feel the approaching ship’s inertial dampeners. Then, he refocuses on the Fire nanites that infuse his body, bends slightly at the knee, and leaps into space.
Immense force fields envelope him, propel him forward. The rebel ship opens fire with its beam weapons, but Wei’s farblade is ready. His arms move in a blur, deflecting hundreds of energy bolts as he closes the distance. Then, he extends his weapon’s planar force field and draws it down in a perfect stroke that splits the hull open.
Moments later, Wei lands on the foredeck and swings his sword again, cleaving the ship in half. Sailors and soldiers rush forward with murder in their eyes, but the General is already gone. He pushes off the wreckage and flies back on invisible wings as the rebels are reduced to cosmic dust.
Away from the hallowed halls of the Forbidden City, people use the River of Stars to get around. Via the lost art of galactic feng shui, the First Emperor created a branching region of space-time wherein starships can travel much faster than light. The prosperous planets along the river’s main branches are commonly called the Merchant Worlds.
Here, the empire’s influence is felt primarily through the Resplendent Carnival, a flying city built by the Immortals. Its primary purpose is to collect taxes, but it also plays several political roles. First, it is a grandiose display of the dynastic worlds’ wealth. Second, it acts as a mobile base of operations for the Corpus. Finally, it allows the Immortals to visit their far-flung subjects in person. (They take turns, as leaving the Forbidden City is considered a profound imposition.)
In the carnival’s absence, daily life is dominated by the trading companies. There are hundreds of them and each wields varying degrees of power over different star systems. As commerce carried people away from their home planets, usually to seek employment in trade centers, the companies emerged as an extension of familial clans. As such, their members tend to share the same last name. Some are fleets of merchant vessels, others are professional guilds, and a few are bands of mercenaries. (Soldiers who used to be the Emperor’s Hands, but deserted or were cast out, are colloquially referred to as “demons.”)
Religion plays a much larger role along the River of Stars. On dynastic worlds, life is structured by a form of legalism that venerates the empire and its laws. On merchant worlds, the First Emperor is often deified and one's ancestors are the main authority. Members of the middle class adhere to strict codes of conduct, for fear of being ostracized from the trading companies, their surrogate families.
Cults also drink deep from the River's metaphorical waters. The Clavigers believe they carry the keys to lost technology within their bodies. They await the First Emperor's return, for he will remake the galaxy in their image. The Reclamation seeks to follow in the First Emperor's footsteps by unlocking the secrets of advanced technology. Enlightenment through science.
The First Emperor's final miracle was a vast region of impassable space-time, a cosmic wall erected against an enemy known only to him. The star systems along the edge of this void are called Fringe Worlds. They are the backwater havens of criminals and outcasts.
The underworld of heaven is ruled by a loose confederation of gangs known as the Family. They are the remains of ruined trading companies and failed rebel clans. Young people, far from their home planets and desperate for cash, are lured into the Family with promises of wealth and power. Most find only an early grave.
Though fiercely independent and notorious for their rivalries, the gangs are united by a blood oath to the Fathers. These overlords pull imperial strings from the edge of space, trading favors and blackmail with power players from the River of Stars to the Forbidden City. The fringe worlds are their fortresses and fiefdoms.
Truly remote planets are inhabited by outcast races of transformed animals. Granted sentience by Wood geomancers (see below) whose ambition exceeded their wisdom, these "pariahs" have been exiled from every star system in heaven. Most are humanoid with feral features, but some are animals with human traits (large brains, opposable digits, etc). Foxes and monkeys are by far the most common, but the entire zodiac is represented: roosters, snakes, oxen, tigers, rats, you name it.
The First Emperor created five kinds of nanotechnology, each identified with one of the Taoist elements. No one since has mastered them all. In fact, most people master just one and have rapidly decreasing skill with the others. This is a matter of social class, determined by birth, and it defines almost everything about a person.
Celestial characters have five Traits: one for each Element. Rank order them from 1 to 5 and you’re ready to play. Your lowest element is considered your Weakness. (Minor Nemeses should default to 2’s in most Elements and 3-4 in their primary Element.)
These Traits cover a lot of ground. First, they allow you to manipulate nanotech of a particular kind (see below), a practice known as geomancy. Second, they include at least a working knowledge of any skills associated with its traditional occupations, as well as social interactions with members of that class.
Finally, each Element has its own type of kung-fu. That’s right, everyone in Heaven knows how to fight, even the cooks and calligraphers.
Farmers and doctors specialize in Wood. These nanites bind to living tissues; they fight disease, heal injuries, and prolong life. By learning to control the nanites in other organisms, Wood geomancers can facilitate agriculture, control animals, create new species, heal the sick, and inflict illness upon their enemies.
Masters of Wood kung-fu learn to harden their flesh and increase their strength. They turn their bodies into living weapons. Their signature attack is called the Poison Palm; with a touch, it can shut down an opponent’s entire nervous system.
Craftsmen specialize in Earth, the industrial nanites that build everything from tea cups to starships. They remain a part of all objects even after manufacture, so Earth geomancers can reshape, repair, or destroy just about anything.
Those with a mind for combat often learn to transform common objects into lethal weapons. They are known for breaking swords and shields with their bare hands. Their signature weapon is the Teeth of the Dragon, a whip of micro-serrated chain that can slice through steel.
Priests and bureaucrats specialize in Metal. Unlike the other elements, Metal does not have its own class of nanite, but represents the computing network created by all nanites. This is the home of the Celestial Bureaucracy. Metal geomancers often act as messengers for AI and advocates for citizens.
Masters of Metal kung-fu use the network to expand their senses and quicken their reflexes. Many specialize in a weapon called the Scholar Sword. Its nearly microscopic blade is designed to keep up with their lightning-fast movements.
Soldiers specialize in Fire. They learn to use power-generating nanites to project fields of unimaginable force. The offensive applications are obvious, but Fire can also be used to levitate objects, deflect projectiles, and leap incredible distances. Masters of Fire are limited only by their ability to comprehend and control these forces.
Hands of the Emperor are issued “farblades” as badges of office. These devices look like blunt practice swords, but they are infused with billions of Fire nanites. In the hands of a master, they can project two-dimensional blades of energy that span miles.
Sailors and thieves specialize in Water. Named in honor of the River of Stars, its most famous application, Water geomancy can stretch and warp space-time itself. Sailors use it to provide artificial gravity and to propel their ships. Thieves use them to fly over walls and walk on ceilings.
Water kung-fu’s only signature weapon is a curiosity called the Other Oar, as in "go get the Other Oar." It’s a gargantuan sword, far taller and heavier than any real oar. Masters manipulate its Water nanites to make it light enough to swing, then increase its effective mass at the moment of impact!
Estranged relatives come together when a family elder falls ill. To save his life, they must infiltrate the Forbidden City and steal a peach of immortality. Their journey starts with the Resplendent Carnival and takes them through the back alleys and ivory towers of the Dynastic Worlds. They will have to contend with the Emperor’s Eyes and sophisticated security systems devised by the First Emperor himself. Then, it’s a race against time to return home with the entire Corpus hot on their heels!
Resplendent Fight Locations:
Forbidden Fight Locations:
A fringe world is being held hostage by hungry ghosts. Clavigers don’t venerate their ancestors, which makes those ancestors a little testy. One of them has seized control of an orbital weapons platform called the Eye of the Dragon. Unless the Clavigers renounce their faith and build a gargantuan temple in his honor, he’ll start turning cities into sheets of radioactive glass.
Solving this problem will mean a sojourn through the AI spirit world. Heroes will have to contend with an army of hungry ghosts, track down the Eye of the Dragon, and tame its ancient (and possibly insane) self-defense AI, before confronting the rogue ancestor program who started it all. Sending someone into orbit to physically disable the weapons platform might not be a bad idea either.
Heroes of the Fringe:
Great Places to Fight in Heaven:
A Reclaimer studying the Great Wall has made contact with... something on the other side. It taught him how to merge his consciousness with a nanite swarm and “uplift” himself to a cybernetic intelligence. Now, he thinks everyone else should do the same, so he’s on his way to the Forbidden City, to kill the Jade Emperor and uplift the rest of the human race.
His starship is a nanite swarm the size of a city. With a thought, he can create soldiers and weapons by the thousands. The Jade Emperor has cut him off from the Celestial Bureaucracy and sent a Corpus armada to intercept him. If they can’t stop him from assimilating the Forbidden City, the empire will blow away like sea foam in a gale.
Sites to See in the City of Glass:
Simulacra to Smite in the City of Glass: