The Huang-Marr conspiracy looms large in Trinity's first edition metaplot. It's mentioned in nearly every book in the series and it completely changes the characterization of two major factions. So I already had a vague idea about where this book was going. I knew that there was going to be unethical medical experimentation and a sinister coverup. What I was not expecting was that the experiments were naked atrocities and the coverup would be so cruelly cynical.
Jerzy Grabowski, the leader of the project on the Moon, collapsed the roof over Freak Alley. Hundreds were killed, and there wasn't even a scientific justification for it. He wanted to expand his laboratory and Freak Alley just happened to be in the way. It's unclear why he couldn't just expand in another direction, but I have to assume that a big part of it was that the Freak Alley people were poor enough that no one would in power would care.
I don't want to spoil too much. Suffice to say, he gets what's coming to him, but it makes me question whether the Aesculapian Order or Orgotek even deserve to survive. A small, well-hidden cabal, performing grotesque experiments and remaining undetected is certainly the sort of thing that would require an intense reckoning, but actual premeditated mass murder, followed up by a change in assignments meant to cover-up the crime . . . it should not be possible for that to happen under your nose. Society should, in fact, operate under the assumption that it isn't.
I mean, if they're using your resources to commit mass murder, and you don't know about, doesn't that mean you're giving people sufficient resources to commit mass murder, but not providing even the minimal oversight necessary to make sure those resources are not misused? A bulldozer can be used equally well to create or destroy, but presumably you've got some procedure in place to stop the guy with the keys from driving away and selling it to a shady dealer of used construction equipment. So why does this same procedure not stop the guy from using the bulldozer to run over schoolchildren?
Frankly, if I were Grabowski, I would just say that I was dong unethical medical experiments and then pocket the money. Clearly no one back at the home office is ever going to check. I guess the Huang-Marr project stays on course because the people who are in an oversight position are also in on the conspiracy. If that's the case, then the institution as a whole is compromised. The Aesculapians' book says Zweidler didn't know about it, but if so he was probably the only person in Grabowski's chain of command who didn't. At some point, the authorities in the Trinity universe have to bite the bullet and say, "we're going to have to make a new Red Cross."
Orgotek is not quite as implicated, if only because their operation is so much smaller, but they do wind up dispatching their elite commando unit to assassinate anyone with knowledge of the project. While this does implicate the highest levels of Orgotek in the coverup, it's at least possible to imagine the ruthless death squad as a punishment. It does go to show, however, how weird it is that Trinity has a heroic sinister corporation as a major setting element. They'll kill to keep their employer's secrets, but most of those secrets are being kept for the good of humanity.
It's also questionable how deniable Option 8 really is. They are highly-trained and well-equipped electrokinetics who are constantly acting in the interests of Orgotek. It seems unlikely to me that Alex Cassel's many enemies are going to trace a bunch of crimes back to Option 8 and then suddenly throw up their hands and say, "whoops, trail's cold." You don't need to prove the connection to use it as a justification for acting against Orgotek, especially not if you're a fascist state like the FSA.
But I'm most disappointed in Aeon. Their reaction to uncovering the conspiracy is pretty reprehensible. They create a cover story that pins the blame for the murders on a made-up aberrant cult. "Aeon understands that a coverup means deceiving the friends and loved ones of the murder victims. The Trinity believes that this sacrifice will be justified if all the guilty parties are brought to justice."
And I don't know. I guess I can see why you'd want to avoid releasing all the details of the case, to avoid tipping off potential suspects, but a coverup means committing to a lie, and when that lie is exposed, any trust you've built up over the years is quite rightfully compromised.
Maybe it's a 90s thing. They liked their superheroes dark and gritty back then, which means even the good guys do shitty things. This was meant to reflect the duality of the human condition and the difficulty in making moral choices in a where the line between good and evil runs straight through the human heart.
This is a fine theme, as far as it goes, and an important thing to consider, even in less cynical works, but seeing it out of its original context, it kind of lets these powerful people off the hook. If doing good requires evil actions, then there's no real way to criticize doing evil in the name of good. You can't really sacrifice your own morality for the sake of others, because when you are doing wicked deeds and causing suffering, it's really your victims who are doing the sacrificing. The families of the people murdered by Huang-Marr are going to grieve when they hear the cover story, and they are going to grieve again when they learn the truth, only the second time they're also going to have to deal with betrayal from a formerly trusted institution.
Of course, as with all things, there's a balance. We're in an age when earnestness feels radical, and thus 2nd edition's Aeon would likely have handled it differently, but the problem with straightforward morality is that it's easy to become simplistic. First edition didn't have that fault, but I'm going to have to see the next two volumes before I decide whether or not it's too cynical for its own good.
Overall, I'd say that Descent Into Darkness is a decent, but not great adventure. Its main flaw, aside from its moral murkiness, is that it doesn't want to commit to a campaign premise. As a result, it's full of distracting "ifs." "If the PCs are with Aeon . . ." "If they're working with the Lunar police. . ." "If they're just random busy-bodies poking their nose into things that don't concern them. . ." And that's not even getting into the occasionally bandied idea that you might just skip a chapter or two and only use one of the three scenarios (despite them being a direct sequence of events - chapter 3 literally starts with you chasing down the scientists who escaped in chapter 2).
Plus, you know, it's a murder mystery where the detectives are psychics. It's something that can work, but it's probably not a coincidence that this book introduces a rule out of nowhere that extreme violence clouds pychometric visions.
Still, I'm interested in seeing where the story goes next, even if I am spoiled on the end by various future Trinity supplements. That's worth something at least.
Now, let's end this post by taking a moment to honor the passing of the Summit Center. It was less than a week between me learning of its existence for the first time and me reading about its tragic destruction at the hands of a careless assassin, but I will always remember its pointless and impractical design and nebulous place in the Chinese government's plan to claim sole sovereignty over Mars. I mistakenly thought it revolved around a crater instead of the top of Olympus Mons, despite Hidden Agendas saying nothing of the sort, probably because I'm not used to thinking of mountains as having "rims." Hopefully, the next piece of civic architecture I choose for Ukss will endure for longer than one book.
Ukss Contribution: I say this, even as I choose Freak Alley as my contribution from this book. What can I say, I like the name, even if it is something of a blank slate due to being destroyed before the PCs ever encounter it.