"A den of thieves is all it is...thieves dressed like princes."
- —Chartist Captain Alron Gizmick
Located in the Diomedea Stella System along the far edge of the Cyclopia Sub-sector, Port Aquila is one of the major hubs for trade in the Askellon Sector and acts as a launching point for goods entering from the coreward and spinward systems of the sector. Getting there is not, however, a journey for those without skill or courage. The passages to Port Aquila are treacherous, due less to the lashing tendrils of the Pandaemonium than to the shadow cast from it. For those who make it through, however, opportunity abounds. Diomedea Stella is a blue supergiant surrounded by a huge asteroid field, the size and scope of which far surpasses any known logical parameters. It forms an almost perfect ribbon, with narrow bands of denser formations in different areas that cannot yet be explained, making this a source of inquiry for the Askellian Mechanicum. Individual asteroids also seem to relocate, causing havoc as the belt seems different every time it is mapped -- to this day no one has a complete or accurate map of the field.
Port Aquila is not a single world, but a belt of asteroids orbiting the star Diomedea Stella. The largest of the rocks are almost planets in their own right, and many host a wide range of shipyards, void docks, and storage facilities. Many smaller asteroids are also inhabited, forming the private fiefdoms of numerous trading concerns, Chartist Captains, shipwrights, and others. While many of these groups compete against one another, they are surprisingly adept at cooperating for the mutual benefit of all. It is common for the different bodies to ally with one another in the defence of Port Aquila, but their cooperation goes much further than self-preservation. When acting in concert, this Greater Askellon Trade Combine has interests in markets across the length and breadth of the sector, and has of late cast its acquisitive eyes still farther afield.
While Port Aquila has existed for many centuries, it has not always been the centre of commerce it is today. In earlier times, when grand Terminus ruled commerce across Askellon, the system served as a den of pirates, slavers, and Renegades. Some claim that the stain of recidivism still lurks, and that any who settle there soon succumb to sin and damnation. Certainly, even the many outwardly respectable trade concerns that have sprung up in recent solar decades are especially brutal in their dealings with those outside of the Combine, employing mercenaries and assassins at whim. Newly-minted merchant princelings along the belt adorn their strongholds with crude grandeur in an effort to emulate how they imagine the palaces of the great houses of Terminus might have appeared in ages past. They amass signifiers of their imagined status, quaff rare amasec vintages, and hunt xenos species to extinction, all to prove their newfound pedigree.
Many of Askellon's noble houses, especially those claiming descent from the original settlers, regard the commerce-lords of Port Aquila with undisguised disgust. They refuse to deal with them openly, though with the decline of the great houses of Terminus, they increasingly have little choice but to do so. It is now said that the majority of vessels plying the trade routes within the sector do so under the flag of the Combine, the power of Port Aquila insinuating itself into ever more markets. Other factions, including the House of Roth, have insinuated themselves into the Combine, joining the numerous princelings who have enjoyed a meteoric rise to wealth and power thanks to membership. Amongst these are several secret pleasure sects and xenos-worshipping cults, as well as a great many individuals willing to use such groups to grow unfathomably wealthy. The latter use their new connections to gain access to the Faceless Trade in smuggled alien artefacts, selling on what they can to those members of the Imperial nobility with illicit and unconventional tastes.
Much of the history of the first settlers has been lost. At the high point of expansion in Askellon Sector, Diomedea offered little. There were no planets to colonise and no immediate resources to capitalise on. The field provided a fair amount of shelter, and the bravest of the initial explorers built liveable, self-contained homes out of the rocks. Many began mapping out the field, occasionally finding valuable mineral deposits. Even then, the initial scans showed strange things. The estimated mass and density of the belt far exceeded any other known fields, as if several planets had been destroyed and their remains kept in loose orbit. As people settled in, more odd reports began to filter in. Mineral deposits would change from one scan to the next. Asteroids marked for future mining would be rediscovered solar months later far from their projected orbital location. The belt became widely occupied, though, as the lure of profit throughout the belt exceeded these frustrations.
Where there is profit, there is also greed. Word of opportunity reached the ears of more people, many hoping to start a new life, others hoping to take it from someone else. Raids against the settlers became more commonplace, with many of the families slain or driven back out of the system for good. Piracy and violence became the new norm. A few groups banded together and fortified, finding ruins among some of the larger asteroids and reinforcing existing defences. Trade routes that had started forming from the rest of the sector were attacked and pillaged, and quickly evaporated as the risks were too great. The system stayed like this for many standard centuries, with little hope of change -- until the Orks came. The fighting between the original settlers and raiders proved fruitless. Little by little, both sides were finding themselves unable to maintain their voidcraft or support their own, yet they knew no other way. That all changed when WAAAGH! Oggrim appeared near Diomedea Stella and began hunting for people to fight. Many of the initial contacts were devastating; the Orks were hungry for battle, while both the Aquillans and pirates were exhausted and ill-equipped. Still, all of the humans knew that none of them would survive unless they united against the xenos. Using their knowledge of the field, they began to chip away at the flanks of the Ork fleet, but even then it was not enough. It took the coincidental arrival of the D'Amitri trade fleet to turn the tide.
The D'Amitris were a merchant family on the decline in the neighbouring Ixaniad Sector. Seeing contracts and resources drying up, the matriarch, Leah Venria, made a bold move to leave with their remaining voidships and fortune and try to rebuild in Askellon. Coincidentally, their entry point was Diomedea Stella, on the outskirts of a major skirmish. Hearing the calls for aid, they responded quickly and decisively, routing the Orks and saving the locals. After hearing what had been happening, the D'Amitri trade fleet offered their services in exchange for the right to conduct commerce in the system when the threat ended. There are many accounts of the battles for the Diomedea Stella system, most of them highly fictionalised to highlight a specific family's contributions to the defeat of the Orks. The two things that are consistent in all of them, however, are the resolve of all who fought for humanity, and that without the D'Amitri family's aid, they would have fallen. That universally accepted truth enabled the D'Amitris to unify all factions into a single entity that would shape the system and later the sector: the Greater Askellon Trade Combine.
The Combine did not start off successfully. Uniting all of the prospecting families, pirates, smugglers, and merchants was not an easy task, but Venria took to it with an almost religious zeal. She set the Four Principles for the Combine, making sure that individual captains could negotiate contracts, but that they would require approval to confirm routes and the Combine's share. She made sure that all ships were able to defend themselves and capable of transporting cargo. Venria made sure that her captains knew they were partners in the organisation, and she commanded fierce loyalty from those in her employ. Breaking into the trade dealings of Askellon was another issue altogether. Because the main base for the Combine operated in one of the most remote places in the sector and half of her captains were former criminals, Venria knew she would have to establish the Combine's presence in Desoleum. Bit by bit, she found contracts with smaller trade houses, building a solid reputation. The proceeds went to expanding the operations; by the time of her death, she had established footholds on all of the Processional Worlds and fortified the main fleet hub in Port Aquila.
As the organisation grew, however, more and more of the profit was being turned over to the Combine, rather than staying in the hands of the captains who made the routes. The D'Amitris, anxious to protect their legacy, sided with the captains and were largely removed from the governance of the Combine. This act sparked a small rebellion among the captains, who began doing work on the side -- and endangered the good standing of the Combine by getting caught with illicit goods in their holds. Rather than see the Combine splinter and fail, its leaders re-dedicated the organisation to Venria's original edicts. Captains were entitled to a larger share of the fruits of their labour, and from those profits a portion would be paid to the Combine for support and resupplies.
Diomedea Stella Reborn
In more recent times, Port Aquila has grown despite its shadowy past. The Warp routes to and from Diomedea Stella -- while not easy to navigate -- are stable enough for regular traffic, and as a result the population has increased dramatically. The entrepreneurial spirit has found its way back to the system as well, with prospectors and explorers once again seeking fortune amidst the thousands of asteroids. That spirit has also re-awakened some of the darkness that has always been here, seeking new ways to manifest. Governance of the star system is nominally under the Cyclopian Sub-Praefectorate, but in reality, most acknowledge that the only group willing and able to promote law and order is the Greater Askellon Trade Combine. Though the Imperial Navy has the most direct ties to Imperial law, it does not have a large enough fleet to police the system in the way the Combine can. As a result, the Imperial Navy often acts as an auxiliary to the trade fleets, though officially the relationship is reversed. While minor confrontations are constant between smugglers and prospectors, the Combine and the Imperial Navy usually only get involved when their immediate interests are in jeopardy. As a result, frontier justice is often used and accepted among the floating rocks of Diomedea Stella.
Psychic phenomena are also on the rise through the system, as the tendrils of the Pandaemonium have moved closer to the system in recent years. Multiple sites in the star system have reported hulls bleeding thick red liquids, gusts of chilling wind blowing through ships' corridors, and ghostly images appearing outside of viewports. Some natives at local watering holes have claimed that they saw faces forming in the nearby asteroids, but most of those stories have been chalked up to cheap imported tafywater or even cheaper local voidsweat. Though usually no larger harm is done, there have been incidents that lack an easy explanation. All have heard reports of those refusing to leave establishments because of what they say they see out among the asteroids. Others tell of settlers and smugglers who have spaced themselves, calmly walking into airlocks without a suit and opening the outer hatch. The tale of the veteran void-master who stranded his crew when he took the shuttle and rammed an asteroid with it still quiets rooms; they say he screamed incoherently through the Vox until the impact silenced signal and pilot alike. These incidents are not the norm, however -- but they do seem to be growing.
Lifestyles of the Insanely Wealthy
The merchant princes in Port Aquila, despite their cravings for respectability, often behave exactly like the smugglers and pirates they once were. The traditions of Juno and the oath-cogs of Desoleum allow for little deviation, and thus decorum is preserved in the Processional Worlds. The nouveau riche in Port Aquila, though, wield their wealth like a blunt instrument, believing that it can buy respectability and clear any obstacle. When that fails, however, they often fall back to violence and intimidation. Most easily change their tactics from seemingly measured negotiations to backroom thuggery without missing a beat. Aquillan traders deal from positions of strength whenever possible, using their wealth to get information, resources, or "collateral" to help swing the best deals they can. Many of these act as functionaries for the Combine, but some still operate independently. Regardless of their affiliations, they act as a brotherhood of sorts if the Port is threatened, and those rare souls who have tempted fate and made those threats are now cold and lifeless somewhere among the rocks.
The Greater Askellon Trade Combine
The Combine is still the trading force that it has been since its origins, but with the D'Amitri family largely out of the command structure, there is less talk of the past and more talk of the future. The head of the Combine is now Zadori Whelk, a former smuggler captain who "saw the error of her ways" after being caught and has renewed efforts to eliminate the criminal contingent in the system. Following her reformation, she undertook a purge of smuggler hideouts located near Combine facilities. Those who would not convert to more honest work were jettisoned into space, their safe houses destroyed. Since her inauguration as Trademaster-General, she has opened up dialogues with the Prospectors' Guild and begun working more closely with the Imperial Navy to balance out the influence of House Surena. These negotiations strengthen her position as a law-abiding businesswoman, while moving towards greater and greater shares of Askellian commerce.
Whelk has also instituted a policy of open enrollment for captains. Those who sign with the Combine come and go as they please, so long as they adhere to its simple but strict Principles. The result has been a constant stream of new talent trying to make their fortunes and an increased stability in the region, as the Combine has refused to hire anyone wanted by the Imperium. With independent trade very much on the wane, it is smart business sense to not run afoul of the law -- the enforcement of which the Combine largely handles. The Combine now controls a healthy portion of the trade across Askellon, and is even trying to expand into the neighbouring Scarus Sector and Ixaniad Sector; early forays into the Calixis Sector, though, showed that the risks were too high, given the current turmoils there. Many of its contracts are long-term exclusives to ensure consistent income, and were brokered under dubious circumstances in most cases.
Many of the larger independent traders, in turn, mark these dates, and have begun currying favour with the producers of goods for solar decades prior to those termination dates to engender a level of trust -- and hopefully get the new contract. Very few do change over to an independent, however, amidst rumours of special "negotiators" being sent by the Combine. No one has overtly levelled accusations at the Askellon trade juggernaut, but most know the dangers of trying to cross it.
The Four Guiding Principles of the Greater Askellon Trade Combine
- The Combine approves all contracts.
- Do not violate Imperial Law.
- Fulil your obligations of the contract.
- No work is allowed outside the Combine. Ever.
The Imperium within the Port
In most Imperial star systems, there is a centralised location for the functionaries of the Adeptus Terra to set their camp and branch outward. The inherent difficulty in finding a safe singular location to do that in Port Aquila limits the ability of the Imperium to do its work. As a result, the presence of Terra mirrors the reach of the Astronomican to Diomedea Stella: relatively weak and tenuous at best. Stationed in the Pride of Askellon, a Ramilies-class station outside the asteroid field on the edge of the system, the small Imperial Naval garrison and the other Adepta representatives sit and let the inhabitants live their lives, largely left alone.
Unbeknownst to most, Port Aquila has an Imperial military governor who is, at least on paper, in charge of the system. The current one is Severine Cantrella, once a bold voidship commander, but now seldom ever seen outside her offices and living space on the station. Her arrival to the station brought with it a sense of hope and renewed purpose for those who yearned to take Aquila by the reins and tether it to Imperial law. The previous sixteen governors had lasted a total of only 28 standard years in service, the longest for 19 solar months, the shortest for five solar hours. All sixteen of them had died while in office and on active duty in the system.
To a person, unexplained events were the cause of death. From a spontaneous explosion of an asteroid under one governor's landing party to having a malfunctioning thruster launch another governor toward Diomedea Stella, strange things have happened to those who tried to strictly enforce Imperial law. Severine apparently read the accounts, and made a different plan. She courted the Combine's favour and allowed them to act as the eyes, ears, and hands of the Imperium. The result has been a marked decrease in the amount of violent crime, and Governor Cantrella has been in office for more than eight standard years. She has had her share of close calls, however, likely a reason for her staying aboard the void station. She gives most of her orders through communiqués, and only emerges from her offices to walk among the troops once every standard year.
Other branches of the Adeptus Terra are not represented equally on the station. The Imperial Navy has a patrolling force of a Battlecruiser, a Light Cruiser, and six squadrons of five Escorts -- nowhere near enough to patrol the system, and too much to just sit at a base. Governor Cantrella has them run training missions and provide support for the Combine when they engage any unruly traders. On board the Pride of Askellon, aside from the fifty-men strong Adeptus Arbites precinct, there are very few other branches of the Adeptus Terra. A small Adeptus Mechanicus contingent studies the unusual properties of Diomedea Stella, and chart the ebb and flow of the Pandaemonium across the area. The Astropathic choir consists of ten members who are rotated out yearly, rare for such posts. Residents on the Pride have noticed that many of the psykers seem worn and almost sapped of their vitality by the time they leave. Overall, though, the Imperium largely stays away from Port Aquila except for its regular tithes, allowing the Combine to maintain internal justice.
Powers of the Port
The Imperium and the Combine are not the only factions of note. As in the past, the asteroid field holds many mysteries and secrets that others are all too happy to discover and exploit. Smaller -- but still influential -- groups have found their ways into Aquillan politics. While these do not have the reach of the Combine, it would be foolish to underestimate their usefulness or their connectedness within the system, for here they hold more sway.
The stabilisation of Diomedea Stella has allowed the more adventurous pilots and explorers back into the system. The asteroid fields are colossal in scope and extremely dense; between that and the occasional odd moving cluster of planetoids, the fields to this day still remain largely uncharted. The Prospectors Guild entered Port Aquila a few centuries after the WAAAGH! was defeated and began a simple existence among the rocks. While the majority of its business is in the extraction of desirable ores and minerals, part of its continued business is in locating asteroids suitable for habitation, industry, or refurbishment into new void stations. Each team of prospectors is allowed to handle its own jobs and set its own contracts. There is no centralised location for the Guild that has been located, but that may be by design. What is known is that all teams have a strong knowledge of where their other teams are at all times, so if they cannot perform the job that is asked of them, they know where the people in the Guild are who can.
Many of the smuggling rings in Port Aquila have used the Guild's services at one time or another. The Guild's teams excel at locating, setting up, and masking new sites, and reputedly are paid handsomely for it. The Combine has sought to use them, but thus far no contracts have been drawn up between the two organisations, primarily due to the amount of direct oversight the Combine requires. Once hired, the Guild tends to work without outside connection or input until the job is done. Smugglers such as the Pale League and Darriel's Blackholds actually prefer it that way, for the lack of contact with the location helps retain its secrecy. The Combine, however, has its bureaucracy to maintain, and any plan for building or expansion requires official representatives to be present at all times. The Prospectors Guild claims it uses "proprietary methods" to complete its contracts, so no one outside the Guild is allowed. The Combine refuses to concede this point, and thus has to rely on non-Guild independents to work for them. If the stories are accurate, the Combine once hired several groups of the independents to track the Guild's diggers, only to have one whole mining team return catatonic. No one else in the Combine's employ has been foolish enough to try.
Part prospectors, part tradesmen, part explorers, these individuals understand that their freedom is only won by their own hard work. Unafraid of the dangers of space, they stay afield longer than most, only coming back to a "civilised" establishment for supplies and to sell their finds. Many have tried to find a place within the Prospectors Guild, but have been rejected for one reason or another. Others have come to Port Aquila and stayed independent, and these have been known to sell their ability to locate suitable asteroids to establish bases to a less discerning clientele. The Combine reputedly keeps a cadre of some of the best freelancers in Port Aquila to find suitable nooks and crannies for its meetings. Whether working for the Combine or themselves, Aquillan miners are some of the toughest souls in the star system.
Smugglers have maintained a niche market here, and are probably some of the most resourceful captains and pilots in the system. Most of them work in the trade of items the Combine refuses to touch, in order to limit contact with what passes for the law. The emergence of Trademaster Whelk makes them a target, though, and that is bad for business. Most of the smuggling rings are local, and handle moving items within the system from one source to another for a reasonable fee. The vast majority of these groups are skilled enough to avoid detection, or are small enough to not warrant investigation or apprehension. Those with the ability to leave the system, however, are careful to kit out their voidships with hidden holds and airtight reasons to depart the system, in case the Combine or the Imperial Navy decides to stop and search them.
Many of these Warp-capable rings have begun talk of banding together, but as yet have not generated any noticeable cohesion. The Pale League is a new arrival to the port, though no one can say where it comes from. While it may be a home-grown entity, it is more likely being funded from outside the system. The League operates in the Faceless Trade of forbidden goods, specifically in xenos artefacts and other illicit materials. Its members are seldom caught or spotted, and often leave traps behind for their pursuers to stumble through. This bears the mark of seasoned professionals rather than fresh amateurs, and it is this level of sophistication which has brought much outside attention. Askellon's many other syndicates, especially the Trade Sable centred on Desoleum, do not like competition, and through their agents has begun working with the Combine to help quash these rock-runners. To date, only one member of the League has been captured, and that one chose death rather than divulging information.
Large or small, one thing is clear: the combination of Whelk and the Prospectors' Guild has created a problem for all smugglers. As a result, smaller groups often work together to eliminate Guild resources whenever they are found. Several exploration units have gone missing recently, and a surveying unit was found dead at its last known location, clearly victims of foul play. If rumours are true, the two attempts on Trademaster Whelk's life were also plots of local smugglers, though she has made quite a few other enemies in her time at the post.
With trafficking of illicit substances and trinkets on the rise, the need for discreet transportation is likewise growing. Though the accommodations leave much to be desired, shuttle smugglers can offer discretion and silence if paid enough. As they only work within the system, most of these pilots know the local environs as few others do. Regardless of the cargo, they can move it or know someone else who can. Aside from their ability to move largely unseen across the system, they are also extremely knowledgeable about the major Aquillan players -- with whom to work, and whom to avoid. Smugglers work with many types across the star system, and for solid compensation and some smooth talking they have been known to share their knowledge. Their bottom lines are profit and odds of survival -- anything else is a bonus.
The Shadowed Factions
Aside from the individuals who come seeking fortune, there are a few other people who cling to the rocks of Port Aquila. The normal adventurers and treasure-seekers are common enough closer to the independent outposts and watering holes. Some of those with a penchant for risk-taking have formed a portable refuelling service called the Fyceline Flotilla, a sharp contrast to the Imperium's fees and regulations at the Pride of Askellon. The quality of their plasma fuel is sub-par, but for many on the wrong side of the law, it is the only way to keep their voidships running without making their presence known. Recently, some of their secret meeting places among the rocks have been compromised in a series of sneak attacks by the Combine, in an effort to curtail illegal activity not part of the Combine's grasp. Whether it has a mole in place or another way of detecting the lawbreakers is currently unknown.
Though well-known through their recent inclusion in the Combine's governance, the House of Roth is not currently known to have any established facility within the system. This may be changing, as voidships bearing the Roth family crest have been spotted lurking in some of the darker areas of the asteroid field. Most of the areas they have scouted have been largely uninhabited and, thus far, the House of Roth has not begun any known construction. There have also been several reports of upheaval and violence at many of the way stations and trading holes, the perpetrators bearing a set of mysterious marks on their wrists. They call themselves Anointed, and disappear soon after the violence is over. Thus far, no deaths at their hands have been reported, but they leave behind them a wake of continual unrest that often lasts for solar weeks afterward.
Of great concern to the Imperium's forces in the region are the growing rumours of Chaos Cult activity and an influx of new players in the Faceless Trade. Some of the independent explorers in the region have found multiple sites used in what appear to be blasphemous rituals. None of them seem to be related to each other, as the rituals all seem different, and no set of markings or messages left behind indicate a pattern, but all of them are gruesome. Several guildsmen at one site were driven mad at the sight of the human remains, and the arcane runes carved into the walls of the asteroid caverns at another site allegedly inspired a blood-soaked mutiny on one vessel. If the rumours are true, no less than fifty different cults could be operating within the belt, and that might only be the beginning of the problem. Thus far, some of the sects that have so far claimed responsibility include the bloodthirsty Disciples of Konos, the chem-worshipping Omnipresent Awe, and a techno-gang known as the Proselytes of Lud.
With psyker populations on the rise in Askellon, many of those captured for the tithes are always on the look for ways to escape. Those who do so often find their way frst of-world and then in Port Aquila, ready to leave via the Illuminated Pathway, a network of hiding holes and means to spirit the unsanctioned away to other sectors. Occasionally, some of these souls find a reason to stay and help those on the pathway in making their own connections to freedom. They are often very skilled in the use of their own abilities, but are still in many ways oblivious to the threat they actually represent. These dangerous people work the shadows and pay attention to the signs around them, able to locate others like them and help hide them until the connections can be made with Those Who Walk the Path, a shadowy group who collects those they deem worthy and leave the rest. Very few are turned away, but those who have been left behind are often found dead or declared missing. Calling themselves the Luminous, these psykers have turned their power to profit, generating enough from their efforts to maintain small hideouts among the rocks. What happens to the people they aid is unknown, for those freed are never seen again in Askellon.
- Dark Heresy: Core Rulebook (2nd Edition) (RPG), pg. 342
- Dark Heresy: Enemies Within (2nd Edition) (RPG), pp. 97-102