Orpheus: The Taste of Ashes - Missions - Mission007

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Dramatis Personae


Protagonists

  • James Darkwood, Poltergeist
  • Annie Harper, Unknown Shade
  • Tom Knox, Haunter
  • Frank, Unknown Shade
  • John Reeve, Skinrider


Supporting Characters

Orpheus Personnel

  • Frank, Unknown Shade
  • Adrian Challis, Wisp
  • John “Blink” Carruthers, Wisp
  • Ben Cotton, Poltergeist
  • Kate Dennison, Banshee
  • Craig Forrest, Skin rider (ghost)
  • Tom Knox, Haunter
  • Chet Mason, Skinrider
  • Hoyt Masterson, Haunter
  • John Reeve, Skinrider

Other

  • Herbert Mol, a hitman
  • Marcus N’Kejeda, NextWorld spook
  • Jesse Osorio, FBI special agent
  • Lo-Jack, ghost (Brooke House)
  • Freeman, ghost (Brooke House)
  • Flicker, ghost (Brooke House)
  • Various other Brooke House ghosts
  • Four FBI agents
  • Some NextWorld operatives
  • Four projecting pigment users
  • A Lost Boy


Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back…

The new day dawns bright and clear. People potter around, chatting, cleaning themselves up as best as they can, wandering off to relieve themselves, chewing on the energy bars that are what passes for breakfast. (The only one of them who actually seems to enjoy breakfast is Annie, but then she has been dead for two and a half years. The act of eating is enough of a novelty right now that she would probably savour it no matter what was actually passing her lips.) Ben approaches Frank and thanks him for saving their arses back when the police started firing on the crowd of Orpheus employees. Frank seems a little taken aback by the thanks. The two men shake hands. Annie exchanges a few words with Kate, Chet, and Ben. She and Blink keep their distance from each other.

When everyone’s just about done, Kate calls them over so they can talk about what they’re going to do now. They need to determine what has to be done and how they can do it. She seems to be taking charge. The first thing they need to do, she says, is collect Zoë from the backstreet hospital she’s currently stashed in. That’s going to mean travelling to Portland, Oregon and back which, realistically, is going to mean a car. (None of them are going to be able to fly right now.) That, in turn, is going to take money. After some discussion, it is decided that Tom, Annie, Frank and Hoyt will go into town to acquire money and then a car. There being no time like the present, they go to it straight away.

The three skimmers project, and Hoyt thumbs a lift for all of them. A middle-aged woman stops for the handsome latino man, and he flirts shamelessly with her for the one-hour journey into New York City. She leaves him her number, and he promises to call her soon. (Whether or not he actually keeps that promise remains to be seen.) He lies low whilst the other three hit ATMs across the city. Annie manifests (borrowing some vitality from Frank so she can look like a living woman and not a bullet-ridden corpse), and goes up to the machine, pretending to use it. Tom Inhabits it and makes it spit out $2000. They repeat this for three more ATMs, acquiring a total of $8000 which they give to Hoyt. The two of them then ripcord back to their bodies. With Frank in tow, Hoyt pays a visit to a dodgy used car dealer of his acquaintance to purchase some wheels, no questions (or ID) asked. He manages to get an okay vehicle for about a grand. After picking up some maps and supplies (including a change of clothes for all of them), he and Frank drive out to the others. (The supplies cost about $100, and the new -- well, second-hand -- clothes cost about $200.)

Tom checks over the maps, and comes up with a place they can stay for a couple of days: Joe’s Lo-Rate Motel. It’s on the outskirts of New York City in a fairly rough part of time. The city is just about within easy reach by public transport (such as it is), and the motel is hopefully out of the way enough that the FBI (or NextWorld) won’t necessarily look there unless tipped off. It’s also very cheap. Hoyt ferries everyone to the motel (it takes a couple of journeys) and then sets out for Portland. Blink goes with him, and the two of them take $1000 out of the fast-dwindling reserve, just in case. Before they set off, they arrange to call the motel payphone at 8 o’ clock that evening, so both groups can keep each other updated. The group rent three rooms at the motel. Kate, taking charge again, says that Ben can share with Frank and Tom with Chet. Obviously, she and Annie will be sharing a room.

The next two items on their list of things to do (after showering, which is a matter of some urgency) are to pick up some cheap pay-as-you-go mobile phones, and to rendezvous with Craig. The first is relatively easily dealt with. Buying phones -- and credit -- for the lot of them takes about $200 out of their dwindling store of money. They make sure that they get each one from a different shop, rather than drawing attention by picking up a bundle of them all at once.

When Craig rang Chet previously, he gave two possible meeting times: one is tonight, and one is tomorrow night. He also described a message drop -- a particular graffiti-daubed street corner -- in case they missed each other for some reason. There is plenty of time to make this evening’s time-slot, so Annie and Frank head off. She projects, and he goes in the flesh. They take the subway into the city and make their way to the agreed location. Craig is already there when they arrive, together with a member of Eta crucible: John Reeve. John was a sleeper, but since the attack, he has apparently developed the ability to skim. This is welcome news, as is the fact that another of their number has not only survived, but managed to avoid being taken into custody.

Craig has a lot of information to pass on. It turns out that he knows Jesse Osorio, the FBI agent in charge of the Orpheus investigation. Apparently, Jesse tried to penetrate the company before, but failed in such a way as to leave a stain on his record. He is very driven and, unless he’s changed a great deal since Craig knew him, he’s not likely to give up until he gets what he wants. He didn’t use to be the kind of man who would doctor evidence, even in the name of justice, but then it has been several years since Craig last spoke with him. Craig plans on trying to find out more information about the FBI investigation, although he observes that it’s going to get a little hot around Federal Plaza. There is a distinct possibility that the Feds may have gotten their hands on some of Terrel & Squib’s anti-spook gear in the aftermath of the NextWorld hit on their Boston headquarters. If they see him coming, their response is unlikely to be friendly. He still intends to see what he can find out, but he’s going to have to be very careful. Annie asks if he can find out where their colleagues are being held, and he says he’ll try. John suggests that they might want to try to make contact with the press and get their side of the story out. Hopefully, that will give them a more solid basis for negotiating with the FBI, if they decide to do so. It also might serve to seed enough doubt that the FBI can’t just swoop in and disappear them. Craig thinks that it’s a good idea.

There is something else Craig wants to tell them. After the FBI left the wreckage of the Orpheus building, he remained onsite to observe. This watchfulness paid off: a couple of hours or so later, another group of spooks showed up and entered the collapsed structure, heading for what remained of the basement. Craig didn’t recognise any of these, either from the NextWorld attack, or from anywhere else. He didn’t see them come out of the building again so, after waiting for little while longer, he followed them in. There was no sign of them in the building, nor any indication that they’d even been there. Scouting around, he located the Orpheus computer core, but it had been completely fried. Of slightly more interest was the fact that the ghost of Shelley Jackson was huddled in a corner of the server room. (Presumably, her body had been killed either when N’Kejeda took a shotgun to the cradles, or when the building came down.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, she appeared extremely traumatised and didn’t really seem to pay much attention to Craig. She babbled incoherently about something “coming out of the lines”. (Craig thinks she might have said “she came out of the lines”, but he isn’t certain.) He tried to calm her down, but without any real success. After babbling on for a little while longer, she dived into a nearby computer. Craig followed her in, but she wasn’t there. She didn’t step out -- he would have seen her -- so this shouldn’t have happened. Inhabit can’t be used to travel, and Shelley didn’t have Storm Wending. There was no way that she could have gotten out of there without him seeing her. The only problem with that theory is that she obviously did. Maybe she had developed a new technique -- one learned from whoever or whatever came “out of the lines”, perhaps. Craig spent a few more minutes poking around, but didn’t find anything else of interest. Shelley was nowhere to be found.

After a little more discussion, Craig takes his leave. John, Annie and Frank head back to the motel. People are mostly sitting around in motel rooms, talking or trying to relax. Tom has gone to sleep. (With all the night’s disturbances, few of them got anything like a good night’s sleep. Between that, and the general situation, everyone’s feeling a little ragged.) While Frank’s filling everyone else in on what Craig had to say, Annie wakes Tom up. There is something in particular that she wants to speak with him about. Before she can get to that, however, Tom registers the fact that they have an addition to their number. He goes to greet John, after which, she manages to pull him over to one side. Quickly summarising what Craig saw back at the Orpheus building, she relays Shelley’s words to him as exactly as she can remember them. It doesn’t seem to strike any chords at first, so she points out -- somewhat obliquely, as John is showing interest and she doesn’t know whether or not this is common knowledge -- that this might have some connection with the incident that led to Teresa discovering the chip in his brain [1]. (The sparks that knocked him out and subsequently got drawn into his Witch’s Nimbus seemed to come out of the telephone. Could either the telephone network or the power grid be the “lines” that Shelley referred to?) Tom considers her theory, but John is more interested in the chips, this being the first he’s heard about them. The other two fill him in.

The group discuss Craig’s information, and what their next move should be. Kate is also interested in the fact that John has managed to spontaneously learn how to skim. She decides that it’s worth pushing the other sleepers to see if they can also manage it. Blink and Hoyt are off on their road trip, but Ben and Chet are still there. Chet declines to take part for the moment -- he seems somewhat depressed -- but she doesn’t push. Annie and John take part in the lesson, though, as skimming is still rather new to both of them. (She wasn’t a projector in life, and knowing the theory isn’t the same as actually doing it.) If Ben is relieved not to have Kate’s undivided attention, he keeps his thoughts to himself.

The rest of the day passes fairly uneventfully. Tom hangs around by the payphone in reception just before 8pm, in anticipation of Hoyt’s phone call. It comes at the expected time, but the only thing Hoyt has to report is that he and Blink have picked up mobile phones. He gives the numbers to Tom, who in turn passes on the rest of the group’s new numbers. Neither of them seems to want to chat, so they ring off shortly after that. Hoyt and Blink are going to check in with the others every evening that they’re on the road (ringing someone’s mobile at about 8pm), just in case.

None of the fugitives stay up particularly late. None of them slept particularly well the previous night, and this is the first night that they’ve spent in proper beds since leaving Chet’s ranch just ahead of the FBI. It’s also the first night since then that they don’t set a watch. Either no one thinks about it, or the ones that think about it dismiss the idea. In any event, the night goes by without incident. Frank decides to take this opportunity to practice his dream shaping horror. Projecting, he pokes his head into Kate and Annie’s room to check that both of them are fast asleep before diving into Annie’s dreams. She is caught in another nightmare of being tortured by spectres, but there is nothing out of the ordinary about it. He doesn’t waste much time watching, but immediately sets about trying to change it. Concentrating, he tries to guide it towards something that she can draw strength from instead of being terrorised by. It seems to work, for the nightmare melts away, replaced by a dream of Teresa holding her, telling her that everything is going to be okay. (Much as he already surmised, it seems that his power works by guiding a person’s dreams, rather than creating them whole cloth. Although he can encourage certain themes and emotions, it is the dreamer’s subconscious that provides the framework.) His good deed for the night done, Frank returns to his body, and goes to sleep.

The next morning, the first item on the agenda is a quick trip to pick up breakfast and other sundries (such as hair dye for Tom, who intends to go blonde so he doesn’t match his wanted poster). John buys some newspapers, so they can see what’s being said about them (and who’s saying it). The whole affair is still front page news. The FBI have offered sizeable rewards for information leading to the capture of the ‘Orpheus terrorists’. Information about Kate, Chet, Annie and Teresa will yield the highest reward ($10,000 each), and their pictures are being flashed all over national television. The FBI has also released a list of names of other Orpheus personnel they are interested in (offering a $1,000 reward for each of these). Some names are missing from the list, presumably because they’re either dead or already in custody. As well as the named individuals, the FBI have also issued a blanket statement that they would like to speak with anyone who has any ties to the organisation. John makes a note of the main voices in the press. One journalist in particular seems to be pushing the ‘dangerous terrorists’ angle, doing a very good job of making them sound guilty.

Now that they have achieved their immediate aims -- money, a car, retrieving Zoë (in progress), finding somewhere to stay closer to the city, meeting up with Craig -- the group gather to discuss what they are going to do today. The subject of money comes up again, and John mentions that he has funds in offshore accounts that the FBI almost certainly don’t know about. If he can get hold of some fake ID, he can set up a bank account in another name and transfer the money into it. That should solve their cash problems for the foreseeable future. Tom, Ben and Annie set about looking for someone who can provide fake documentation. Annie manages to find someone who can do it more or less right away. She heads out with John (so he can head off for the bank as soon as they get the ID) and Ben. (Ben is there to look big and scary, as Annie doesn’t particularly want to be wandering around dodgy parts of town on her own. He doesn’t seem offended at Annie’s request. If anything, he seems faintly amused by it.) John gets some passport photos taken and then waits while Annie and Ben take them to the forger. It isn’t that long until they return with the documentation (which costs about $800 altogether). John manages to set up the bank account without too much trouble, and transfers a sizeable sum to it straight away.

Tom and Frank go out on a little shopping trip. Frank gets a police scanner ($500) so they can potentially have advanced warning of any police pursuit. Tom picks up a normal radio set (about $20), both to keep track of the news and to listen to Radio Free Death. (The motel is so basic that it doesn’t have amenities like radios or televisions.) When the two of them go back to the motel, Frank makes a phone call to one of his friends in high places and finds out a great deal of interesting information. When everyone else has returned, he gathers them all together and tells them what he’s learned. According to his friend, the FBI are after Orpheus’ technology and projecting abilities. This isn’t just one agent with an axe to grind. The witch hunt goes much higher than Jesse Osorio -- maybe even all the way to the top. The projectors know that Terrel & Squib’s Boston headquarters (their main base of operations) was hit -- presumably by NextWorld -- the day after the attack on Orpheus. What they don’t know is that the company’s newly-established New York branch was attacked the day before Orpheus. Frank also tells them that, unlike Orpheus, T&S as a company survived the attacks. Not only that, but when the FBI subsequently tried to fall on them like a tonne of bricks (citing terrorism and whatever else they could think of), they kept them at base by means of lawyers of mass litigation. (Frank knows -- or at least knows of -- the individual heading their legal offensive, and he’s very, very good.)

Frank’s information triggers a great deal of discussion. One question that comes up is whether the Orpheus survivors will be able to use legal trickery to keep the FBI’s grubby mitts off them. Now that they have an idea what the organisation is really after, it’s possible they might be able to negotiate. If they do try to make contact, however, they’re going to have to take steps to make sure that the FBI don’t just pretend to negotiate and then just haul them all in anyway. It may help their case if they can prove that the security camera footage was faked, but none of them are really sure how to go about that.

There is a general consensus among the group that they should concentrate on the NextWorld problem before dealing with the FBI. They have an address for Marcus N’Kejeda which, as far as they know, he doesn’t know they’ve tracked down. If he’s still living there, they can find out what he knows about the attack, about NextWorld generally, and about what the mercenary’s current intentions are regarding the Orpheus survivors. Someone raises the question of what they should do with N’Kejeda once they’ve interrogated him (assuming that they manage to do so). Killing him seems to be the favoured option, for a variety of reasons from revenge for their murdered comrades to not leaving him able to come after them. Where they go after they’ve finished with N’Kejeda depends on what they manage to find out from him.

They decide to investigate N’Kejeda’s apartment tomorrow, so they start to put together a plan. In an ideal situation, they’d find him asleep, or projecting, so someone can simply puppet him for the information they want. If he’s projecting, then killing his body will also kill his gauze. If a ghost forms -- as generally seems to happen with projectors -- then they should be able to take care of him while he’s still confused. All nice and simple. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be that easy. First of all, the man himself is a fairly formidable opponent. Second, they can’t rely on him not having backup. With the gadgets NextWorld have probably lifted from Terrel and Squib, he may well have spook detectors, so at the very least there may be a bodyguard to keep an eye on them (and on his body when he’s projecting). To try to get an idea of what they might be up against (or even if he’s still using the apartment), Kate uses Forebode. She tells them that she was granted a vision of them fighting N’Kejeda. This is both good and bad -- the former because it means he hasn’t packed up and left, the latter because it means they’re unlikely to take him unawares if they go with their fledgling plan as is. (Admittedly, the plan as it stands is little more than: as many skimmers as we can spare go to the apartment and jump N’Kejeda if he’s there.)

There is a great deal more discussion. John points out that they should move on to another motel by tomorrow morning at the latest. There is general agreement with this, and with the idea that they should buy another vehicle (preferably one that can fit all of them). Tom, Ben and Annie put their heads together to try to find a chop shop or otherwise dodgy car dealership, but draw a blank. In the end, Tom simply rings up Hoyt to ask where he bought the other car. It turns out to be a place called ‘Honest Joe’s Cars and Rentals’. Ben says he’ll go there early next morning to pick up a vehicle. Now that various decisions have been made, the group splits up. Kate pushes the new (and potential) skimmers through some more training. Others chat, or head to their rooms to relax. The mood seems a little more positive, a little less desperate. It isn’t that their situation has become any better, but a good night’s rest and a plan for tomorrow make all the difference. For the first time since the attack, it feels like they’re acting, rather than reacting. What a difference a day makes.

That evening, everyone piles into Tom and Frank's room to listen to the night's Radio Free Death broadcast on the radio that Tom bought. One phrase that catches everyone's attention is: "Orpheus should never have been". Two names are mentioned at the end of the broadcast, but the context is unclear as most of that sentence is rendered inaudible by static.

The next morning, they have breakfast and Ben goes off to pick up the vehicle while the rest of them gather up their things. A little while later, he returns with the people carrier. He pulls up outside the motel, and people start heading out with bags. As she heads for the people-carrier, Annie catches sight of a familiar-looking figure: it’s Teresa. She is standing across the street, frantically gesturing at Annie to duck. Without really thinking about it, she does so, yelling “Get down!” to the others. Some people start to follow her lead, but too late. There’s a sharp crack, and Kate falls to the ground, bleeding…

Tom and John dive for cover behind the people-carrier. John starts zig-zagging back and forth, trying to see where the shot came from. Frank ducks back into the motel room. Annie makes a dash for Kate and drags her towards the vehicle, leaving a sizeable blood smear behind them. Chet rolls into cover and points to an abandoned building across the street, saying that the shot came from there. Annie pulls Kate further around the van so that both of them are out of the shooter's line of sight. Tom projects, and starts heading towards the building. John trips on the uneven pavement and lands heavily. He tries to scramble to his feet, scanning the faces of the surrounding buildings, finally locating the shooter just as the rifle swings around in a slow arc. Another shot rings out, and John falls back, limp and still.

Moving quickly for an old man, Chet dives across to grab John and drag him into the shelter of the vehicle. Ben -- who ducked down into the people-carrier when Annie yelled at everyone to get down -- climbs out of the vehicle and hunkers down in its shadow with the rest of them. Not before time, too -- another shot rings out, slamming into the side of the car, which rocks with the impact. Frank and Annie both project. Annie starts to head towards the gunman, but Tom activates Juggernaut and moves ahead with impossible speed. He turns immaterial and enters the building. Hearing movement, he runs in that direction to find a man with a hunting rifle slung over one shoulder. The man -- presumably the shooter -- appears to be making his way to the back door. Before he can do so, Tom possesses him, sending out a pulse that can be sensed by all the spooks in the vicinity. Stowing the rifle in a sports bag that he finds nearby, he makes his way outside, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender. Annie moves to attack him but hesitates when she notices his raised and empty hands. He quickly tells her that it's Tom, and the two of them return to the others. (They make sure to announce that the gunman is currently being possessed by Tom so no one jumps him.)

Chet is swearing as he works on stopping Kate from bleeding out. "We've lost John," he says, "and Kate's looking bad. I can stabilise her for now, but we need to get her some proper medical treatment soon." (Chet is a trained paramedic, but it's going to take more skill -- and equipment -- than he has to remove the bullet and stitch her up properly afterwards.) He tells Tom to find a doctor, possess them and bring them back here (with all the necessary equipment and drugs) to treat Kate. Tom points out that he's currently possessing the gunman. Chet swears again and the group briefly discuss their options. Now that the threat has been taken care of, they'll probably be safe in the motel for the time being. There are no signs of any other hostiles (or, in fact, anyone at all) nearby. This neighbourhood probably sees enough gunfights that no one will call the police out for a few shots. They need to find out what the shooter knows, so they might as well do that while Tom still has him under control. (Chet thinks that a short delay won't do Kate any serious harm now that he's stopped the bleeding.) There's also he matter of John. There's a good chance that he will come back as a ghost, and they don't really want to leave him alone if that happens. Annie -- who knows from personal experience how disorienting the experience is -- volunteers to stay with him. If it takes long enough that the others go on ahead, she says she can always Inhabit a phone and call them to find out where they are. Annie heads over to where John's ghost is likely to form. Everyone else goes back into the motel.

Ben helps Chet to carry Kate inside, carefully laying her on the bed. Tom seats himself and then has Ben tie him securely to the chair. (It's a precaution in case his control slips. They use some of the rope that Chet picked up for snares, just in case they had to live off the land for a while.) When the possessed man is suitably restrained, Tom tightens his grip, probing into his memories. His name is Herbert Mol, and he's a hitman. There is a lucrative contract out on the Orpheus employees who are still at large, with priority being given to the projectors. Frank and Teresa's names are highlighted, and their current location -- the motel -- is listed. Interestingly, Teresa and Frank's files have been flagged with a note saying to hit them last when targeting the group they're with. Mol doesn't know why. He rushed over here to try to fulfil the contract. It isn't just the money: he's trying to boost his reputation in contract killing circles. Tom summarises his findings to Ben (as he won't remember any of it when he leaves the man). He starts poking around for more details, but realises that a proper trawl is going to take more time than they really have right now. However, Mol has a van parked nearby and he owns a house in one of New York's middle class suburbs. This means that they not only now have a decent set of wheels, but also a place to hole up for a little while. (They decide to abandon their people-carrier. The van is a much better vehicle, and will draw less attention in Mol's neighbourhood.)

Meanwhile, back outside, it isn't long before the first wisps of gauze start to form above the place where John died. Eventually, the wisps solidify into John's familiar form. Well, almost -- he looks a little younger and he's wearing an expensive business suit, which certainly wasn't what he died in. The death marks are also new: a hole in his forehead where the bullet hit, and the back of his head very messily missing where it exited. Finally, his ghostly form is monochrome and faded-looking (like Craig Forrest's). That last is unusual, and tends to be associated with pigment [2] use in life. Annie makes a mental note to ask about it at some later point. For now, however, she needs to fill John in on the current state of affairs. His ghostly body apparently now fully formed, his blank gaze suddenly focuses, and he starts looking around in confusion. His first question, understandably enough, is: "What happened?"

Annie asks him what he knows, quickly establishing that he remembers everything up to about half an hour or so before the sniper. He doesn't realise that he's dead, although he has noticed that he's wearing different clothes to (from his perspective) a few moments ago. "I'm afraid I have some bad news," she says. "I've… lost all my money?" The prospect of poverty is obviously something that bothers him greatly. He still seems a little confused, although he grows more focused as they talk. "No..." Technically, as long as they keep his death a secret, there's no reason he can't continue to access his contacts. "I don't know how to tell you this, so I'll just come out and say it." She takes a deep breath. "You're dead." Now she's pointed that out, he starts to notice the little details that lend support to her bombshell. While he's digesting that, she summarises how he got from waiting around in a crappy motel room to standing on bloodstained tarmac as a ghost. She asks him if he remembers anything about being dead and he tells her about seeing a bright white light, but turning away from it. This is reminiscent of her own experience, but before she can question him further, he heads over to have a look at his body. The sight doesn't really seem to faze him. The two of them stand there in silence for a moment or two, looking thoughtfully down at the corpse (perhaps Annie is remembering her own death), and then John abruptly asks what became of his killer. Upon hearing that he's in the motel, he strides purposefully over there to get a good look at him.

By the two of them enter the room, Ben has just untied Tom and the two of them are starting to gather up their gear to load up Mol's van. John stares at the face of the man that's ended his life. It's actually a fairly ordinary-looking face, all told. No one really comments on John's new state of existence beyond a "welcome back", or similar. Tom fills the two of them in on what he learned from his host. The contract was posted on a website that he frequents that hooks up mercenaries or assassins with people who need such services. It's all anonymous, so he doesn't know the identity of the poster. Whoever fulfils the contract is supposed to provide photographs of the bodies as proof. As they're talking, Tom spots some wispy shapes outside. They look like spooks, but they're barely there. He points them out to John and Annie, who go to investigate. Ben and Tom start loading gear and bodies (variously unconscious, unoccupied and dead) into the van. Chet tells Ben to dig through Kate's purse for her donor card, as he wants to know what blood type she is. (With the amount of blood she's lost, she might need a transfusion.) She's type A-positive.

There are four shadowy figures wandering around outside the motel. Although they don't appear to have any death marks, but they're far more translucent than even the weakest drones. Annie tries to talk to them, but they don't really seem to hear her. They do talk among themselves, though, and it sounds like they're stoned out of their tiny minds. Repeating themselves several times over, the spooks wonder what "that" was, observing that it felt "weird". (It seems likely that they're talking about the spike of energy Tom gave out when he possessed the hitman. By the sounds of it, they wandered over here to try to find out what caused the "weird" sensation.) A number of them comment that they've "never seen things so clearly before", and comment on "that hot chick over there" (presumably Annie).

John strides into their midst and demands to know who they are and what they're doing. That seems to get their attention, provoking reactions from surprise to outright guilt. Addressing him as "Sir", they tell him that they weren't doing anything and, in fact, they were just leaving. Putting two and two together, Annie tells John to ask them about pigment, which he does. Although they claim not to know what he's talking about, it's clear they're lying through their teeth. It looks like they're hopped up on the stuff, which is presumably why they're wandering around outside their bodies. John orders the accidental spooks take Annie and him to where their bodies are. It turns out that they are in an abandoned building on the next street over. (There are a great many abandoned buildings in this area.) Needles and tubing, etc, are plainly visible, and the comatose bodies look absolutely blissed out. A small bag of what looks like pigment is sitting on the ground between them. The deadheads [4] seem highly amused at the sight of their physical bodies, giggling about it being "a real out of body experience". Annie comments dryly that they have no idea, but they don't seem to be able to hear her. John sternly tells them never to do this again. They agree, but it's anyone's guess as to whether they actually mean that. Annie tells John to warn them that wandering around bodiless can be dangerous, and then the two of them head back to the motel.

The van is all loaded up and ready to go by the time John and Annie return. Tom is sitting behind the wheel. As soon as everyone's on board, he sets off. A few minutes later, he spots what looks like a Lost Boy heading back in the direction they've come from. He mentions this to the others and, after some dithering, John and Annie decide to go back to check on the stoners. Tom turns the van around and heads back (taking a wrong turn or two along the way) and the two volunteers leap. John uses Juggernaut to run faster, bursting into the building a short way ahead of Annie. The Lost Boy has been busy: three of the stoners are dead, and the spectre's stomach is bloated and distended. The final boy is screaming and gibbering. John's entrance seems to have attracted the Lost Boy's attention, for it launches itself at him, jaws gaping wide. (Apparently, it's still hungry.) A vicious fight ensues. By the time Annie gets there, John and the spectre are both looking a little ragged around the edges. Annie's arms dissolve into a mass of writhing black tentacles which she wraps around the Lost Boy, holding it in place. John immediately lays into it, ripping it to shreds: that's the end of the Lost Boy. There isn't really anything they can do for the survivor -- who is now whimpering quietly to himself -- so they return to the van.

Mol's house is in a fairly nice neighbourhood. It's a good job they didn't bring the people-carrier, as that would likely have attracted all manner of unwanted attention. The house is a small detached property with a garage built onto one side of it. A connecting door allows them to enter the house from the garage without being seen, which is rather useful. After disabling the security alarm (by dint of Tom lifting the codes from Mol's head), they make Kate as comfortable as they can. As John is a Skinrider, he gets the job of retrieving a doctor. (He's running low on vitality, so Annie gives him some of hers before returning to her body.) Ben drives him to the nearest hospital, and John finds a suitable target. Taking control, he puts the man's consciousness to sleep and uses his medical knowledge to gather everything he'll need to treat a gunshot wound (not to mention painkillers and antibiotics for afterwards). When they get back to the house, John starts working on Kate right away. He has to remove the bullet, give her a blood transfusion, stitch up her wound and pump a whole lot of drugs into her. Once he's finished, he tells them that the next couple of days will be critical. According to his host's knowledge, if she hasn't woken up on her own by then, they're going to have to get her to a hospital. Ben takes him back to the hospital, where he leaves the doctor sat on the toilet. (He hopes that the man will think he had a mini stroke or embolism from straining too hard -- which apparently happens more frequently than you'd think -- which would explain his 'blackout'.) The two of them then return to Mol's house.

Chet stays by Kate's side, but the others explore the house. Annie checks for any signs of spooks (particularly spectres), but there aren't any that she can see. John tries to come to terms with his new state of existence. Tom boots up Mol's computer and finds the secure client for the assassin broker website. It's called 'The Black Net', and logging in requires a fingerprint scan as well as a username and password. (There is a scanner plugged in to the computer.) He looks at the Orpheus contract, and discovers that the projectors are worth $30,000 a head, while the other employees are about $10,00 each. There are about sixty or so names on the list, which adds up to a considerable amount of money.

While he's on the computer, Tom decides to check his e-mail. There is only one thing there of any interest. At first glance, it looks like spam, but then he notices that the subject line contains the sentence: 'Everything you wanted to know about being dead (but were afraid to ask).' Going against all his instincts, he follows the link in the message body, to find what looks like a replica of the Orpheus spooks-only forum. There is a new post, from 'Board Admin', time-stamped after the attack. It says: "We're up again and ready for business. Like the company, this board just won't stay dead." Tom points this out to the others, and they speculate that perhaps Shelley is responsible for it. He's starting to run out of energy, so he'll have to return to his own body shortly. (It isn't possible for a Puppeteer to receive energy from another spook while they're possessing someone, unless the two spooks have worked closely together for some time. Unfortunately, no one present has that level of familiarity with Tom.) While he still has some time left, he trawls Mol's memory again, telling Annie everything he thinks might be relevant (login details, bank account numbers, the code for the security system; anything else he can find). She writes it all down.

Now that they have some breathing space, it's time to rest and discuss their options. (Although it's not that late in the day some of them are very low on energy, and they want to be on full-strength as soon as possible. Just in case. There's also a lot they have to talk about.) They stash Mol in the basement, binding and gagging him so that Tom can return to his own body. The first item for discussion is whether they'll be safe here. It seems unlikely that the people behind the contract on Orpheus actually know anything about Mol, so there's no reason to think they might come here. As far as any of them could tell, no one followed them or kept them under surveillance. In theory, no one knows they're here. As far as Tom knows, Mol keeps himself to himself and doesn't really have any contact with his neighbours. In short: it seems they've found a base of operations. The contract on the Black Net is of great concern. The FBI aren't likely to be behind it. NextWorld could have subcontracted, but why? It isn't like they couldn't do the job themselves. However, if NextWorld were hired to carry out the hit on Orpheus (as opposed to simply taking care of the competition on their own), then the people who hired them could also have taken out the contract. It makes a certain amount of sense. Where the spectres fit into all of this still isn't clear, though. Talking of the contract leads to a suggestion that they fulfil the contract by faking their own deaths. Annie can use her Flesh Flux ability to provide the evidence, and 'Mol' can call it in. They decide to go ahead with that plan once they've finished talking and recovering energy.

What are they going to do with Mol? It's a difficult question. John is all for having him meet a nasty end. They certainly can't keep him prisoner forever, but they do need him for the moment so that they can access the Black Net. They might be able to fool the fingerprint scanner -- depending on whether it reads body heat to make sure that a living finger is pressed against it -- but they don't know for sure. They don't want to risk it until they've terminated their termination order. For the time being, they vote to keep him restrained or possessed. That means they only have one body to dispose of: John's. Mol was planning on bashing their heads in, removing their fingers and dumping them in the river. (The contract offers a bonus for disposing of the bodies quietly.) The group think about using this method, but instead decide to bury him in the waste ground where they camped before moving on to the motel. Ben and Annie both volunteer for the grisly task of ensuring that John's remains can't be identified. (If he is reported dead, that might put the kibosh on him making use of his contacts and resources.) For some reason, John doesn't seem to appreciate them talking about smashing his face and cutting off his fingers.

That's just about the end of the discussion for now. There's still the matter of N'Kejeda, but they can deal with him when they've taken care of the contract on their heads. They've already worked out their plan, so it's just a case of deciding when. The only thing they really have to do now is contact Hoyt and Blink to let them know about the contract. A simple phone call takes care of that. Hoyt says that they haven't had any trouble so far, but they'll keep an eye out for hitmen. As well as NextWorld operatives, FBI agents, police officers and spectres.

Tom checks the Black Net again, and sees that the Orpheus file has been updated. Teresa and Frank's location has been changed to this very house. This is very, very bad. Telling the rest of them that they need to move, he quickly digs a little deeper into the file, reading the pages about specific Orpheus employees. All of the projectors are flagged with a note warning anyone going after them to immediately take out any who look like they're sitting or lying down, as if to sleep or meditate. The information about each one also includes a list of their known abilities. (This is obviously incorrect in Annie's case, as they still believe her to be Teresa.) It seems strange, though, that for all the detail they go into about the danger of approaching projectors, there is nothing about the fact that they're likely to leave behind ghosts. The people behind this obviously either don't know (unlikely, given the rest of the information they have access to), or don't care. Frank and Teresa aren't the only ones who have notes ordering that they be taken down last if possible. A few of the projectors are marked this way, including Zoë. Her page has another note. It says: "contract completed". That gives Tom pause, but the fact that they've been made is more important right now.

While everyone's starting to swear, panic, pack up and/or wonder where they can move to now, a sudden thought strikes Annie. "They're tracking us through the chips!" She exclaims. It makes perfect sense: all the projectors with a "leave until last" flag are skimmers, and all the skimmers have chips. It also explains how they knew about the change of address. This changes things, as it might not be necessary to leave Mol's house after all. They do have to deal with those chips right away, though, and they have to get that contract closed. Tom Inhabits and deactivates Frank and Teresa's chips. Annie projects, manifests, and becomes a corpse body double for each of them in turn. (Well, each of them except John, as they have a genuine corpse for him.) Tom takes photos, and uploads them to the Black Net. A short while later, he -- or, rather, Mol -- receives a reply to the effect that the money will be transferred as soon as the photographs have been confirmed as genuine. After a tense wait, a second message arrives saying that everything is satisfactory. The relevant names are tagged "contract completed". Everyone breathes a sigh of relief, and Tom calls Hoyt to warn him that Zoë is probably already dead. (Hoyt and Blink are still going to continue with their task, however. There is a very slim chance she's still alive. Even if she isn't, she's almost certainly come back as a ghost.)

Tom checks the Black Net and finds that there is still one skimmer not marked ‘contract completed’: an Eta crucible graduate called James Darkwood. James’ location has just been updated and he’s only about an hour away from where they are. The group decide to mount a retrieval operation, so Ben and John take the van and head over to where he is. James has gone to ground in a fairly rough part of town; somewhere he thinks the FBI are unlikely to look for him. Someone else seems to be hunting him, though, and their intentions are more ‘kill’ than ‘capture’. He’s evaded them so far, but no matter how often he moves -- and how certain he is that no one’s followed him -- they always seem to catch up with him. He doesn’t really know the area all that well, and he doesn’t have any contacts who might be able to help him out. Although he risked a quick trip home after leaving the remains of the Orpheus building, he didn’t really have the time to grab more than weapons and other necessities. He’s somewhat low on cash, so he’s been solving that problem by mugging passers by and then moving on.

When John and Ben get near his last known location, John approaches on his own. They figure that James is likely to be on edge, and might just shoot at someone heading purposefully towards him. Also, he and John are part of the same crucible, so the fugitive might be more inclined to trust him. James is currently hiding out in an alleyway. He spots John approaching and ducks back around the corner, but not before John notices him. When John follows him deeper into the alleyways, he brings up his gun but doesn’t shoot. John tells him to calm down, and that he’s come to warn him that they’re all being hunted by contract killers. “That’s how I ended up like this,” he adds, indicating the bullet wound in his forehead. James slowly lowers his gun and John fills him in on the important details, including the fact that the a chip in his head which is being used to track him. (He already knows about the chip because he is one of the trainees that Teresa and Tom examined, and he was there when she told Frank what they were looking for.)

John explains that they’re going to have to deactivate the chip before doing anything else. They meet up with Ben, who drives them to the abandoned building where the Lost Boy ate the three deadheads. (He’s not impressed with their attempts to choose a suitable location.) The bodies of the three dead men are still there, but the survivor is nowhere to be seen. James -- who’s already rather wound up -- gets even more nervous when he sees the bodies. He seems to be halfway inclined to suspect John and Ben of bringing him here for some nefarious purpose. Ben heads back to Mol’s house, where he stays to keep an eye on the owner.

Tom and Annie drive out to meet the other two. There are a few paranoid moments when they explain to James that they’re going to deactivate the chip and them fake his death, but he lets them get on with it without drawing his gun. First, Tom projects and deals with the chip. Second, Annie projects and provides a suitable corpse for Tom to photograph. James only realises that she isn’t who she appears to be when he sees Annie’s gauze step out of Teresa’s body. Before he can ask any questions, she sighs and says: “Yes, I’m really Annie -- I just happen to be occupying Teresa’s body right now. It’s a very long story that we don’t have time to go into right now.” The sight of himself as a corpse seems to distract him from asking for more details. When they’re done, they head back to Mol’s house -- taking a roundabout route in case anyone’s following them -- and report the hit.

That evening, Tom decides to post a warning about the chips on the Orpheus spook forum. He doesn't want to post from Mol's computer though, so he projects and goes for a walk, looking for someone else's he can use. He mentions the price on all of their heads, and the fact that whoever took out the contract not only knows all their abilities but can also track them by their chips. Annie goes to have a quiet word with Chet, as a disturbing thought has occurred to her. Since spectres all seem to be part of a group mind, they may now know her last location from the Lost Boy she and John dealt with. Luckily, they're probably not going to be able to track her to here, but it may be a problem if they encounter other spectres in future. She thinks there's a good chance that they want her back, and that they also still want to get their hands on Kate. It isn't like they haven't sent Reaper-class spectres after Teresa and her before… Chet says it's something they'll have to bear in mind.

When Tom returns to Mol's house, everyone gathers for yet more discussion. John calls Craig to fill him in on recent events. Craig is extremely concerned. He thinks that the contract must have been placed by a government agency, and that they're probably the ones behind the chips in the first place. They certainly have the resources in terms of money and expertise. If they are behind the contract, then they're probably the ones who hired NextWorld in the first place. The big question is: why? Craig speculates that maybe the government thinks that the Orpheus Group has found out something they shouldn't, and this whole affair is about silencing them. If this is true, then they probably took out the contract to stop the FBI getting its hands on them. They're not concerned about the projectors leaving ghosts because ghosts can't be called to testify in court (which would be an awfully short-sighted way of looking at it). He thinks the forum is probably a trap, and tells them they shouldn't use it. Unfortunately, that advice comes a little late. Annie does some poking around while everyone else is talking, and discovers that the forum seems to be hosted somewhere inside the official Republican Party website. Interestingly, there's no sign of any external commands to set it up, or of the files actually being imported. It's as if the files just spontaneously arose within the system. She relays this information to the others, but they're unsure what it means. Maybe they were put there by someone Inhabiting the system? If so, it could have been Shelley, the strange spooks that Craig saw entering the ruined Orpheus building, or someone else entirely.

The group are reluctant to abandon Mol's house so soon. Instead of just cutting and running, they decide to find somewhere else to hole up for a couple of days and keep this place under surveillance. Given the tactics employed so far by the various parties interested in their whereabouts, it seems likely that if they have given themselves away they'll be getting a visit from assassins or the FBI within the next day or so. Ben says he can find somewhere they for them to crash for a couple of days. He simply trawls some of the poorer areas until he finds a suitable squat, and then kicks the current residents out of it. Everyone moves in, and the skimmers (and ghost) take turns keeping Mol's house under surveillance. (They take the man himself with them, keeping him gagged and tied up when he isn't being possessed. One of the Puppeteers takes control of him when they want him to eat, drink and relieve himself. This way, they don't risk him breaking free.)

Over the next couple of days, nothing much happens. There is no FBI raid on Mol's house, nor are any assassins or NextWorld operatives sighted. No one really bothers them in their squat. Sometime during the first day of the stakeout, Annie and Ben take John’s body to the waste ground for disposal, as agreed. While they’re out there, Annie projects and attempts to contact Teresa from the spot where the two of them exchanged places. Nothing apparently happens. Ben picks up another vehicle and makes a start on getting to know his way around the nearest lower-income areas. Kate occasionally surfaces from unconsciousness. Chet keeps a careful watch on her, being the only one of them with any real medical training. (Chronic care isn’t really his speciality, this being well past the point where he would normally have handed the patient over to a doctor. Unfortunately, that isn’t really an option at the moment.) He thinks she's going to be okay (assuming there aren't any complications like infection), but it's going to be a little while before she's fit enough to be up and about. Tom and Annie sporadically check up on the forum, but there are no new posts. Unfortunately, they can't check the Black Net without taking Mol back to the house. Everyone who isn’t unconscious or staking out Mol’s place listens to Radio Free Death each night, but there doesn't seem to be anything of specific relevance to them.

John and Annie compare notes on being dead. It turns out that their experiences of being dead have some significant differences. As a ghost, Annie felt almost numb, all senses muted and dulled. It was easy to get lost in the serene nothingness of it if she wasn’t careful, especially at first. In contrast, John is aware of a constant, nagging pain, like arthritis. It feels as though his gauze is permanently under strain; like it will crack if he tries to take in more energy. His experience is very similar to Craig, who is also a Hue. Annie tells him that Craig can expend energy to manifest mutations that give him particular abilities, and wonders if he can do the same. He makes the attempt, and discovers that he can.

Annie has a theory on why John has become a hue, rather than a ghost. After confirming that he’s never used Pigment, she tells them that every Orpheus projector who’s died -- that she knows of -- has become a hue. She suspects that the drugs they all take when they’re first learning to skim contain a similar active ingredient to pigment. Chet says that the DEA investigated Orpheus, back when they were setting up, and they analysed samples of their drugs to see if they were breaking any laws about restricted substances. Nothing ever came of it, though. Alas, this isn’t something they can really test. It also doesn’t really make any difference to them at the moment; it’s just interesting.

Hoyt calls with daily updates. By the time they decide to chance moving back into the house, he and Blink are about a day or two away from Portland. (They’re avoiding the freeways, to reduce the risk of attracting attention from the various people. The FBI -- and Next World -- can certainly find out that three projectors, a babysitter and a security guard went to Portland just before the attack. Whoever placed the contract knows that at least one of them -- Zoë -- was still there up until a couple of days ago. It’s not inconceivable that someone might be keeping an eye on likely routes into the city.)

Annie projects and drives to JFK to retrieve the gauze tablet that Teresa left there. (She projects because Teresa’s face has been splashed all over the news as a wanted terrorist, and Teresa is quite memorable.) The tablet is still in the locker where Teresa left it, and the trip is without incident. When she gets back, she studies the artefact whenever she can. Even with her knowledge of languages, it’s probably going to take some time to identify the script and translate the inscription.

No one seems to take any undue interest in Mol’s house over the next couple of days, so they decide to chance moving back in. John calls Craig, who tells him that he’s been having trouble getting into the FBI computers. It feels as if something’s inside the system already, actively keeping him out when he tries to use Inhabit. He’s not certain whether it’s another spook, or some new kind of security system. Either way, it’s seriously hindering his attempts to find out what’s going on. He tells John that Orpheus spooks have been implicated in the attacks on Terrel & Squib. More CCTV footage has been presented in support of this. The current story is that a faction within Orpheus decided to do away with their more law-abiding colleagues, as well as the competition. They haven’t really said what the goals of this faction might be in anything other than generalities. The word ‘terrorism’ is being thrown around an awful lot, as are ‘criminal’ and ‘violent’. The media are having a field day. (This is something the group have been able to see for themselves, now they have access to a television.)

The group at Mol’s house gather together to discuss plans. Sooner or later they’re going to have to do something about their unwilling host. They haven’t disposed of him yet for two main reasons. First, they don’t know if the Black Net biometric system reads things like a pulse and body heat in addition to scanning his fingerprint. Second, most of them aren’t hardened killers. To address the first point, James examines the biometric scanner, which turns out to be quite a sophisticated system. He thinks it almost certainly does more than simply scan a fingerprint. Given more time -- and tools -- he might be able to work out exactly what it does and how to bypass it. There is a risk, however, that doing so will render it non-functional. James suggests trying to get hold of the CCTV footage that apparently shows Orpheus spooks engaged in nefarious activities. If they take it to an expert, they might be able to prove it’s been faked. It would certainly help their case if they could manage that. The problem is that the original footage is almost certainly stored somewhere in the FBI computer system. For the moment, they concentrate on N’Kejeda.

The first order of business is surveillance: if they’re going to go after the man, they need to know what kind of backup he has. It would also be useful to confirm that he actually still lives there, although Kate’s Forebode vision a couple of days ago seemed to suggest that he does. Tom and James have a drive round the area, to get an idea of the layout. The apartment -- a penthouse suite -- is in central Manhattan. It looks like access is by key card. (There is a bank of buzzers next to the door.) A security guard’s desk is just visible inside the foyer. The building has an underground car park for residents.

Annie’s examination of the tablet starts to bear fruit. She identifies the language as ancient Sumerian, but that’s only part of the battle. The language is not one she’s particularly familiar with, and the tablet is quite badly weathered. After almost a full day of work, she manages to translate the first line, which reads: “She will come, in all her raiment and glory…” It could be the start of some sort of prophecy. Interestingly, when she touches the words (for which she has to be in gauze form), she starts to sense something, faintly; an emotion. It feels a lot like devotion. The impression is quite faint, and she only picks it up from the writing, and from the best preserved writing strongest of all. She’s never experienced anything like this before, but then the tablet is unique in her experience. She’s encountered gauze objects before, but they’ve all been echoes of physical objects. This is… something else.

Taking a break from her studies, she returns to her body and makes herself a cup of coffee. When she goes back to the tablet, she sees Teresa standing there, holding the tablet. There is a look of complete rapture on her face, which is illuminated. The angle of the light suggests that it’s coming from the tablet, but it isn’t glowing to Annie’s eyes. Teresa’s mouth is open, as if singing a sustained note. Annie drops her mug, which shatters. Teresa vanishes. Ben comes rushing into the room and asks what’s wrong. Still dazed from shock, she says that she saw Teresa again. His response is to draw his gun and start looking around as if he expects someone to start shooting at him. Belatedly, Annie realises why, and hastens to add that there was no warning this time. Ben puts the weapon away, but still seems a little on edge. Annie is rather disquieted by the whole thing. When she checks, the tablet is back where she left it.

Tom and James decide risk entering the car park to identify N’Kejeda’s car. Tom drives the pair of them back out there at about 3am the following morning. He stops the van a couple of blocks away and James projects, heading for the building. As soon as he’s left the van, Tom starts driving back to Mol’s house with his body. James enters the car park and looks for the space marked with N’Kejeda’s apartment number. As his bad luck would have it, he locates the space just as his target gets out of the black van. N’Kejeda sees him and snaps: “Hostile spook, five o’ clock. Out of the van.” Men start getting out of the back of the van. James decides to risk sticking around long enough to memorise the van’s license plate. N’Kejeda draws a pistol and shoots him, but the bullet just skims his gauze. That’s just as well, as the gun is apparently loaded with spook-killer rounds. James ripcords.

Having ripcorded back to his body, James considers whether to try to take out N’Kejeda. After all: his cover’s been blown, which may well compromise all of Mol’s other ‘kills’. Also, N’Kejeda now knows that they know where he lives. Tom drives them all (John and Frank are also in the van) back to the vicinity of the apartment block (about ten minutes or so. When within line of sight, James hauls out his binoculars and takes a look at the penthouse suite. The lights are on and the curtains are drawn at all the windows except one. There is a shadow across that pane, as if someone is looking out of it.

James retrieves his -- well, Mol’s -- rifle (packed into a sports bag). After having John possess the security guard in the foyer, he enters the building next to N’Kejeda’s, and heads up to the roof. (He has to take the service stairs up from the floor below the penthouse suite.) When he finds a suitable vantage point, he sets up the rifle and keeps an eye on the apartment. The watcher at the window appears to be a man -- not N’Kejeda -- in full tactical gear and peering through what look like night vision goggles. (Unusually, these goggles seem to emit a red glow. When he mentions this to the others, Tom realises that they’re probably spook-vision goggles.) Calling the others in the van, James asks them if they want him to try to take N‘Kejeda out. There is some dithering, but it turns out to be a moot point because he can’ t get a clear shot on the man.

John possesses a cat and sneaks into the garage to keep an eye on their vehicle. (After a little discussion, the group figure that any getaway or backup approach is going to be by vehicle, rather than on foot. It would be better, therefore, to watch the garage rather than the front door.) Several hours pass: James and John continue to watch from their respective vantage points. From his somewhat restricted view into the suite, James thinks that the occupants are packing up. Coming up to 6am, he realises that, although the lights are still on, there hasn’t been any movement for a good few minutes. At about this time, John returns to the van (somewhat out of breath) to report that the NextWorld operatives are loading up their vehicle (after first checking the underside, presumably for explosives). Frank calls to inform James, who switches his attention to the street below. A couple of minutes after that, the van emerges from the garage and heads away. It’s moving at a fair clip; as if the occupants are expecting an attack. Quickly drawing his handgun, James loads it with a tracking slug. He fires it at the car, but misses; there is no apparent reaction from the occupants. (He doesn’t think it likely that they noticed.) The spooks decide not to follow the van, hoping they can track down N’Kejeda again at a later date.

When they get back to the house, they tell everyone else what happened. James doesn’t know whether N’Kejeda got a good enough look at him to peg his identity. If he was made, however, it means that all of Mol’s ‘kills’ could have been compromised. The group decide to move out to a squat and keep the place under surveillance for a couple of days, like they did before. (That means that, since acquiring a base of operations, they’ve spent more time out of it that in it.) They take Mol and his laptop with them, so they can keep track of the Black Net contract. It’s a risk, but they decide that it’s more important to know what’s happening with the rest of the fugitive agents. (It doesn’t really seem to occur to any of them that the contractors could feed Mol false information to test him or set him up.)

Finally reaching the clinic where Tom left Zoë, Hoyt and Blink charm the staff as best as they can (which is very well, as it happens), but none of them seem to know anything. As far as they know, she just up and disappeared on them: not an uncommon occurrence with their clientele. They’re certainly not planning on trying to track her down, or anything. If she owed them money, it might be a different story, but thanks to Tom she was all paid up. There’s also no sign of the babysitter, but that doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. He calls to let the others know. Annie asks Hoyt how Blink is. He gets tired easily, and his condition seems to be deteriorating. Hopefully that’s just the result of being on the run and not getting his medication, rather than the cancer reasserting itself, but it is a concern. According to Hoyt, Blink insists that he’s fine. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really mean anything. He and Blink are planning on staying at little longer in Portland in case Zoë’s either somehow still alive or wandering around as a ghost.

John spends most of the next couple of days keeping watch on Mol’s house. There is no obvious activity there that he can see. Ben -- who’s getting tired of being Mol’s babysitter when the hitman is unoccupied -- disappears off to continue learning his way around the streets and the somewhat dodgier parts of society. Frank contacts his patron, the Mayor of New York, to have some questions answered. He manages to find out where the captured Orpheus employees are being held (the main headquarters in New York), and to acquire a copy of the CCTV footage ‘proving’ that Tom, Teresa, Kate and Chet hit the company headquarters on New Year’s Eve. Regarding Jesse Osorio: it seems that the man is definitely getting support from higher up; maybe even an assistant director of the FBI. The group discuss making contact with someone in the FBI -- perhaps an enemy of Osorio -- to try to get them to call off the witch-hunt. Annie says that they have some information the FBI might be interested in: perhaps they could use it to buy some goodwill. [5]

Zoë’s contract on the Black Net is abruptly renewed, and a new one is added. The subject of this is a man named Mathieu Kerekou, a former Liberian special forces operative who cashed out and went freelance. He is not known to have any connection with Orpheus, but is believed to be accompanying Zoë. His file lists him as ex-Black Net, and the price on his head is $60 000 (double the highest Orpheus one). Their current location is updating hourly, suggesting that Zoë’s chip is still active. Tom calls Hoyt to let him know, and describes Kerekou to him. From the route she’s taking, Hoyt believes that she’s heading to New York. (She might well be planning on visiting the remains of the Orpheus building to see if there are any ghosts who can fill her in on what happened.) He’s confident that he can catch up with her before she reaches the city.

Annie continues to study the gauze tablet, managing to decipher some more of the writing. It definitely seems to be part of a prophecy of some sort. The part she can make out is:

“She will come, in all her raiment and glory
Heralded by her choir of three hundred souls
And by these signs shall you know her
First will come a great war that shall block the Well of Souls…”

She shares her findings with the others, including (reluctantly) that she’s had a vision of Teresa holding the tablet and singing, bathed in a light coming from the object. This last she says may well be due to the fact that she’d just spent hours deep in concentration. When she tells them about the emotion she thinks she could sense from the writing, Frank and James decide to try it for themselves. James doesn’t really feel anything, but Frank receives an impression of great age: hundreds or thousands of years. They speculate that the blocking of this “Well of Souls” might be what’s causing ghosts to form in such numbers, and that the war might be why there are no pre-millennial ghosts.

Various people continue to train and to develop their abilities. Annie teaches them how to channel their darker emotions to power horrors. She makes sure to stress the risks, and to tell them that it should only be used as a last resort, but isn’t convinced that all of them hear much beyond “more power” and “it doesn’t send out a pulse”. It has been documented that spooks who work together over a long period of time start to find it easier to share vitality. Some of them -- Annie and Kate, Chet and Kate -- already experience this. Annie uses her ability to form temporary connections between spooks to try to accelerate this process among the group’s skimmers (and, when he’s around, their resident ghost). Connected to this, she theorises that it might be possible to form links that allow them to communicate telepathically whilst projected. In essence, it could be a lighter, temporary version of the link that she, Teresa and Kate shared. Even though the ability to communicate instantly over distance would be useful, people are a little reluctant to offer themselves up as guinea pigs. Kate says she’ll think about it.

Annie starts to make contact with some of New York City’s ghost communities, beginning with Brooke House in Harlem. (She’s visited this place once before, together with Teresa and Tom. The person who seems to be in charge of this little settlement is a ghost called Lo-Jack.) It’s not that far away from where the group are currently squatting, so she projects and takes the subway. When she’s a few blocks out, she ducks into an alleyway and shifts into the form of the African-American male that she used last time. She spots a few ghosts in the area, mostly drones with the odd blip here and there. None of them seem to pay her any attention, and she doesn’t try to approach them. (When such spooks notice projectors or ghosts, they can easily react with hostility if not approached correctly. It doesn’t seem to be worth the risk.)

There are a couple of ghosts in the front yard when she arrives. One of them is leading the other around, and the latter seems to be muttering something about needing his fix. The former looks up at her approach and offers a cautious greeting, which Annie returns. He says he hasn’t seen her around here before, and she replies that she’s only been here once, telling him that she spoke with a man called Lo-Jack. He seems to relax a little when she mentions the name, and asks if she’s decided to come in. “Something like that,” she replies. She asks to speak with Lo-Jack, and he says he’ll take her in a little while: he’s busy at the moment. He continues to walk his friend around the yard, introducing them as Freeman (himself) and Flicker (his companion). Annie uses the alias ‘Sam’.

Flicker seems to be in a bad way; shaking, muttering incoherently and not really seeming to be aware of his surroundings. If he weren’t dead, Annie would think that he was suffering withdrawal symptoms. Speaking quietly, she asks Freeman what’s wrong with him. With a shrug, Freeman replies that he’s craving his pigment fix. Apparently, the addiction was carried with him beyond the grave. In Freeman’s experience, such a phenomenon isn’t uncommon. He mentions that there’s one ghost who can’t help diving into the living to experience them using the drug. That one is currently trying to get clean, though. They chat for a little while longer. Annie asks if he’s heard about what happened to Orpheus. Rumours seem to be flying left, right and centre, but none of the local ghosts really seem to know all that much about it. Freeman knows that some of the employees are on the run, though. Saying that she had friends there, she asks if he’s heard anything about any of the survivors or ghosts. He hasn’t, but she’s not the first person who’s asked. There is a lot of interest in the fugitives at the moment, and not all of the enquiries are casual or friendly. There are rumours about ghosts being dispersed for ‘knowing too much’, but he doesn’t have any details. They also talk more generally, and Annie asks if they’ve ever had any trouble with spectres. There have been a few attacks on the community, but Freeman says -- rather proudly -- that they’ve always managed to see them off. They haven’t seen any in a while, perhaps because it’s become too expensive for them.

When Flicker seems to have walked off the worst of his cravings, Freeman takes him -- and Annie -- inside the building. Dropping Flicker off in what looks like a bedroom, he points Annie towards Lo-Jack. The man recognises her -- or, rather, her current guise -- from last time. Although they didn’t say where they were from at the time, he obviously figured out that she, Tom and Teresa worked for Orpheus. (Ghosts as strong as one of Orpheus’ projectors are few and far between. Together with the fact that two of them didn’t have death marks, it wasn’t hard for him to put two and two together.) She confirms that she’s with Orpheus, and explains that she’s here for two reasons. First, she’s trying to find out about any survivors or ghosts who are still at large, so she can retrieve them. Second, if any of them do wander this way, she has a favour to ask: would the ghosts here be able to direct them towards a dead letter drop, so they could make contact with her little band without compromising their current base of operations. Lo-Jack observes dryly that they never saw much of Orpheus before this happened. After all, although there are lots of ghosts in the area, there is very little money. Annie can’t exactly argue with that. However, he does understand her wanting to look out for her own. After thinking about it a moment or two, he agrees to her request. (She deliberately doesn’t ask him to put the word out on the street. While that would increase the chances of making contact, it would also increase the risk of drawing potentially unfriendly attention.) She gives him a list of names and brief descriptions of the people who might come this way. Regarding her first point, he just confirms what Freeman told her.

Annie and Lo-Jack talk for a little while. She tells him that NextWorld carried out the hit on Orpheus, and that the mercenaries were working hand in glove with spectres. That surprises him, and he says he’ll make sure that his people are even more careful about who they talk to. (Annie has two reasons for sharing that piece of information with him. First, she doesn’t want any other ghosts ending up in the spectres’ hands. Second, she figures that ghosts will be less likely to help NextWorld if they know that they work with spectres.) Although he hasn’t asked for anything in return for sending colleagues her way, she asks if there’s anything they need help with. After all, she figures they need all the friends they can get at the moment. Thinking at little further ahead, this might well be a good place to try to establish a safe house, especially if some of the ghosts here would agree to help them out. (Even something as simple as watching over the bodies of the living while they project would be a great help.) As it happens, there is something. Over the past few months, local homeless people have been vanishing. (This was actually mentioned in a Radio Free Death broadcast that Tom and Teresa heard. They had planned on looking into it when they got the opportunity, but then the New Year’s Eve attack happened.) One ghost claims he saw men bundling one of them into a black van. A lot of the ghosts here have (or at least had) friends among these people, so they’re worried. Lo-Jack says that they’d all appreciate it if she and her friends could find out why it’s happening and put a stop to it. Annie says she can’t promise everything, but they’ll investigate if they have the chance.

Now that she’s achieved her immediate goal, Annie spends some time talking with the various ghosts here. Whatever else she may be, she’s also an anthropologist, and this is the largest community of ghosts she’s ever encountered. Most of them -- well, the ones that show awareness of their surroundings -- are willing to talk to her, and to answer some questions. (Annie projects for several hours during each of the days they spend in the squat, and uses most of her ‘out of body’ time on her visits to Brook House. The time she can spend projected is limited by her energy reserves. Luckily, this is something that replenishes fairly quickly when she’s back in her body. Training happens when everyone’s together, but the bits she’s involved in don’t actually take that long. Studying the tablet is something that she squeezes in whenever she has the time.)

The Brooke House community was set up by a woman named Mona, who died about nine months ago. The ghosts here seem to revere her, speaking of her as if she’s a holy woman or prophetess. They are very protective of her, mainly because a group of the ghosts who still run with the gangs took exception to what she was doing and attacked the place. The attackers were dispersed, but not before they almost dispersed Mona. Since then, she has effectively gone into hiding. The Brooke House ghosts are reluctant to talk about Mona (and they certainly have no intention of allowing Annie to see her), but they are willing to share other information with her. One thing they do know a lot about is Pigment. The vast majority of the post-life residents here were addicts while alive, so they’re fairly familiar with the phenomenon of being able to see ghosts -- and even to project -- whilst under its influence.

One interesting fact that comes up in conversation is the fact that two of the larger local(-ish) gangs are known to have ghosts as members. The first is a group calling themselves ‘The Blasphemers’. This is predominantly made up of Hispanic men (whether living or dead), and started up sometime in 1999. It was actually formed from two other gangs, and there were a lot of rumours flying around about the leaders and lieutenants of those groups ending up dead in very odd ways. The Blasphemers were always into drugs, with a side-order of breaking and entering (plus an assortment of other criminal activities). Recently, however, their main business seems to be dealing Pigment. It’s not known where they get their supply from, but there are rumours of connections with other gangs outside of New York City. The ‘Black Steel Centipede Triad’ -- predominantly Chinese-American -- have ghosts working for them as enforcers. It’s not so much a gang as a criminal organisation, and it’s been around as long as anyone here can remember. The Triads are spread throughout the city (with Chinatown being the heart of their operation), and have a piece of pretty much every type of action going. They started dealing in Pigment as soon as it hit the streets. There are a few other gangs that also deal in the drug, but they’re somewhat smaller scale than either the Blasphemers or the Black Steel Centipede Triads.

Frank sets about locating someone who can analyse the CCTV footage that Mayor Bloomberg acquired for him. A name comes to mind: Dr Jenny Walker. Dr Walker is the foremost audiovisual analysis specialist in New York, and he knows of her through his work as a district attorney. Her services are often retained by lawyers aiming to exonerate or implicate a particular defendant, and she also does some work for the police. She’s very expensive, but very good. If anyone can find out whether that footage is faked, it’s her. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know if she’ll even take the case, let along whether she’ll call the police if he approaches her. He decides to do some reconnaissance first.

Dr Walker mostly works from her home, which is in one of the suburbs just outside of New York City. Fortunately, Frank knows her address. Waiting until late at night, when she’s likely to be asleep, he takes the van and drives out there. Finding somewhere nearby to park up unobtrusively, he projects and takes a look into her dreams. From what he sees there, he deduces that she’s unlikely to turn him in if she enters into a contract with him. She won’t break the law -- such as concealing the whereabouts of a fugitive -- but she’d probably be happy to look at the footage as long as that didn’t involve her knowing something that she’d have to report. Approaching her through an intermediary (or, through someone she thinks is an intermediary) should be fine. If she does prove that the footage has been faked, he thinks that she’ll agree to testify to that effect in court. Whilst he’s in her dreams, he tries to influence them -- and, through them, her -- so that she’ll react favourably to his approach (and to Orpheus generally). This is beyond his previous experiments with dream-shaping, but he thinks it works.

Sometime towards the end of the first day of the group’s self-imposed exile from Mol’s house, Craig contacts them with some bad news. All of the Orpheus personnel in FBI custody have been murdered: burned alive in their cells. This news hasn’t been made public (for obvious reasons) -- he found out through judicious use of Puppetry. The official verdict is that the perpetrators were the ‘rogue Orpheus agents’ that were behind the other attacks. It certainly sounds like one or more spooks were involved, possibly someone with Witch’s Nimbus or a spectre like the burning man who was involved in the New Year’s Eve attack. A day or two after the prisoners were slaughtered, there was a separate incident in which an FBI agent in the main headquarters cafeteria suddenly drew his gun and started shooting people, killing five agents. Internal CCTV footage shows Frank sitting near him in the cafeteria shortly beforehand. This incident is being made public, with Frank’s face splashed across the TV, internet and newspapers like those of Teresa, Tom, Chet and Kate. The interesting thing is that this footage came directly from the security cameras -- it hasn’t been processed, or gone anywhere else. How could it have been tampered with? It seems likely that there’s a spook in the system. The other option is that Annie isn’t the only shape-shifter around. In any case, however it happened, the FBI are now putting serious anti-spook defences in place. Craig doesn’t think he’ll be able to get in again.

The next morning, Frank calls Dr Walker to arrange an appointment. He gives his name as Alan, and claims to be a lawyer representing someone who would like to retain her services. She asks what practice he represents, but doesn’t enquire further when he says it’s a small private firm. After a short conversation, she agrees to meet him that day. Rather than driving out there in his body, Frank decides to project and manifest. Before he sets out, Annie changes his appearance (with Tom’s assistance). It’s more difficult than altering her own gauze, but it’s broad daylight and Frank’s face is currently being splashed all over the media: the effort is worth it. He takes the memory cards containing the CCTV footage with him.

‘Alan’ explains to Dr Walker that his client would like her to take a look at some CCTV footage and establish whether it has been faked. He says that he can’t say too much about it, and that she’ll see why when she looks at the images. Dr Walker doesn’t press for more details. She does point out, however, that if the footage -- whatever it is -- turns out to be genuine, then there’s nothing further she can do. Once he acknowledges that, she says she’ll take the case. To finish the analysis as soon as possible -- which will involve delaying other clients’ jobs -- her fee will be $5000. It’s a lot of money, but then she’s supposed to be very, very good. Frank agrees to that sum. He doesn’t try to bargain her down, because he knows from her dreams she’ll feel doubly obligated to do her best with the job for that amount of money. It also means she’s even more unlikely to go to the FBI when she realises that the ‘client’ is at least one of America’s most wanted. (Fortunately, between John’s offshore accounts and Mol’s ill-gotten gains, they can afford Dr Walker’s services.) After handing over the memory cards -- and his mobile number -- he heads back to the squat.

Tom and James have been going through the Black Net contract details. Interestingly, there are no contracts out on any Terrel & Squib staff: Orpheus is the only company singled out for that particular honour. Everyone agrees that retrieving the rest of their fugitive colleagues should be one of their top priorities, and that it might be useful to find Beta crucible (the combat specialists) as soon as they can. They don’t really have much luck tracking down Pretorius and co., as the only information relating to there whereabouts is in the form of bodies they are believed to have left in their wake. There have been a few incidents where police officers have been killed. Whoever’s updating the contract information seems to think it likely that these were officers who had spotted one or more of the Beta crucible members, who then took them out to prevent them reporting in. Some of the bodies have been their own. From the losses they’ve sustained, it seems that there are only two or three of them still left alive. The deceased are almost certainly still around as ghosts, however. Pretorius is one of these, having stayed behind to delay pursuit. He was cut down by a police gunfire. Beta crucible seem to have headed out of the city. On the one hand this is a good thing, because it means that anyone looking to fulfil the contract will have a hard time tracking them down. On the other, it’s going to make it difficult for the Orpheus spooks to find them.

The Black Net file is updated with a possible sighting of one of the targets: Adrian Challis, a Wisp and the head of Gamma crucible. He’s believed to be in New York City, so James heads out to see if he can track the man down. Tom keeps an eye on the Black Net to apprise him of any changes. Before James can find him, the file is updated with the information that Challis has been apprehended by the FBI. The timing strongly indicates that the contractors have a source in the FBI. That, however, is a problem for another time. The file says that he is now in custody and en route to a holding facility. A list of possible destinations is appended. Looking over the list, James thinks he knows which one they’re most likely to take him to. He decides to try to spring the guy. Quickly putting together a plan, he asks Tom to project and come out to meet him. Having worked out the FBI agents’ route, he intends to cause a traffic pile-up at a particular intersection, bringing them to a halt. While they’re at a standstill, Tom is to possess the driver and pull into an alleyway a short distance away. James will follow along behind and the two of them will take out the FBI agents and free Challis.

The plan starts out well. Tom possesses a driver so he can get out to the junction in time. The traffic’s so bad that he almost doesn’t make it, but he jumps out of his host, uses Juggernaut to run to the front of the gridlock and possesses the driver of the lead car. He can then drive the rest of the way. James parks the van somewhere out of the way and ‘acquires’ a new vehicle. (It’s interesting that the two former law-enforcement professionals -- James and Tom -- seem to have the most lax attitude to acquisition of other people’s property and money.) The prisoner is being transported in a police van, so picking out the target vehicle isn’t too difficult. James starts to run the red light and then stops dead, causing chaos at the intersection. Cars swerve and screech to a halt to avoid the obstruction, and there is a collision as someone doesn’t stop in time. The FBI van stops, and Tom quickly jumps into the driver. Telling the second agent that he thinks one of the rogue Orpheus agents caused the crash, he uses that as an excuse to take a detour. James starts to head after him, having managed to position himself so as not to get boxed in by the snarl-up he caused. Unfortunately, there is a police car parked up just beyond the intersection, and the officers saw what happened. They gesture for him to pull over. He rams their vehicle, pushing it into a row of parked cars. This prevents them from pursuing him, but they manage to get a good look at his face. (He is wearing a baseball cap, but that isn’t enough to conceal his identity.) Unsurprisingly, they call this in. The encounter with the police car means that it takes James a little longer to catch up with the FBI van than he intended. That doesn’t stop him proceeding with the plan, however. (There isn’t really any choice at this point.) He parks his stolen car around the corner and approaches on foot, drawing his handgun. The van is visible in the alleyway up ahead. It is facing away from him, so he gets a clear view of the submachine gun pointing his way. One of the rear doors is open and a man in full tactical armour is standing in front of it. He’s the one with the gun. Just as James registers this, the man catches sight of him. Eyes widening, the man calls: “Fuck, he’s here!”

Faced with a heavily armed and armoured FBI special agent, James ducks back around the corner so that he can project. The agent starts to bring his gun up, shouting “Freeze!” When James doesn’t obey, he starts to follow him around the corner. Hearing the man’s footsteps, James abandons his attempt to project and instead shoots the agent as he comes into view. The agent is hit in the arm and falls to the ground, dropping his gun. While this is going on, a second armed guard moves to the open back door of the van with his weapon raised to cover the alleyway. The agent riding in the passenger seat of the cab gets out of the vehicle and moves around to where he can see what’s going on. Tom -- who is still possessing the driver -- does the same. James heads back into the alleyway, and immediately comes under fire from the second special agent. Fortunately, none of the rounds hit him.

Tom tries to order the second special agent to go and see to his downed companion. The agent says that he needs to stay with the prisoner, telling Tom that he should deal with the wounded man while he covers them both. After having a look around, the passenger gets back into the cab and starts calling for back up. Tom also returns to the vehicle, jettisoning the gun at his belt and handcuffing his host’s body before leaping out of him and into the man he just spoke with.

Meanwhile, the man that James shot in the arm manages to get to his feet and draw his handgun just as James moves forward and shoots the second special agent in the chest. (Most of the impact is absorbed by his armour, however.) Instincts taking over, the first man brings his weapon up and fires. His shot finds its target, punching into James’ abdomen. The impact knocks James backwards, blood spraying across the grubby paving stones. He staggers, but manages to stay on his feet and drag himself around the corner and out of the line of fire. Although his body starts to go into shock, training and adrenalin keep him from shutting down; keep him moving despite the pain lancing through him. His vision wavers and goes dim, narrowing until it’s as if he’s looking down a long tunnel. Blood pours from the hole in his side, torn skin and ruptured muscle protesting every movement. Still, he continues to stumble backwards, knowing that his life depends on it. Death may not be the end anymore, but it’s a hard thing to see it looming ahead of you as you lurch around with a bullet in your guts. If the FBI agent gets him in his sights now, there’s nothing he can do…

The all-too-familiar wail of sirens mingles with the sound of panicking civilians. The sirens are coming closer, but there are more important things to worry about at the moment. The driver -- now free of Tom’s control -- starts to call out in confusion. Ignoring him, Tom points his gun towards the passenger, ordering him to toss his gun aside and get down on the ground. Unsurprisingly, the man does as he’s told. Moving to where he can cover everyone who isn’t friendly, possessed or handcuffed, he orders the other special agent to do the same. When the man obeys, he calls to James, telling him that it’s safe to come out. It takes a little while for the message to get through the roaring in his ears, but when he realises what the words mean, he staggers painfully back into view. Tom orders the two agents to handcuff themselves and then lie down flat. (He can’t really do it himself while still training the gun on them, and James isn’t really up to any bending up and down.) After making the driver get out of the vehicle and lie down with the others, he gathers up all the weapons and tosses them all into the van. Handcuffing his host, he lies down and then steps out of him.

Now, it’s time for their getaway. If only they’d planned this far ahead. (It would probably be unfair to say “at all”. Probably.) The sirens are closing in rapidly, and they can hear from the radio chatter that the police are in the process of setting up roadblocks. James is in no condition to drive, so he gets into the back of the vehicle with the prisoner, a Skinrider named Adrian Challis. Adrian is restrained and unconscious; apparently very heavily sedated. Tom manifests and takes the wheel. Fortunately, his time in the force means he has a fair of idea of where the roadblocks are likely to be set up. Now, it’s just a race against time to see if he can get through and away before the area is sealed off. It involves a few handbrake turns, driving the wrong way down a one way street and maybe running the odd red light or two, but he manages it. Apparently, all that time he spent playing Grand Theft Auto finally pays off. He even manages to reduce his pursuit rating by switching vehicles. Specifically, the trio ditch the police van for Mol’s wheels. Before driving away, Tom uses Witch’s Nimbus to torch their previous ride.

Adrian is still isn’t conscious and James is only barely so. Tom drives them all back to the squat. Chet removes the bullet from James and patches him up as best as he can. Luckily, they still have some of the supplies that John acquired from the hospital, but those aren’t going to last much longer. (Especially if they keep getting shot.) Annie returns while James is being treated, and asks what happened. She is not impressed by the explanation. Kate stirs at the commotion, and demands to know what’s going on. She expresses her displeasure much more acidly than Annie, who leaves her to it. Kate tells James in no uncertain terms what she thinks about him going out there in the flesh, and with only Tom for backup. This goes on for some time, and Tom doesn’t escape unscathed. Unfortunately for James, he’s something of a captive audience, seeing as Chet isn’t letting him move while he’s being treated. Perhaps the painkillers take some of the edge off the lecture.

Tom listens to the police radio, which is practically humming. Interestingly, none of this information makes its way into the Black Net files. In fact, there are no updates at all. It seems clear that the mysterious contractors now know that at least one of Mol’s alleged kills is still alive, and consider him compromised. They’re going to have to ditch him -- and his laptop -- and move on. For once, there is no debate. Annie calls Ben, and quickly summarises the situation. He says he’s found somewhere that will probably serve as a new base, at least until they can find somewhere better: the Mayfair Green projects. There are a number of abandoned buildings, including entire apartment blocks. One tower block in particular has plenty of suitable squats that they won’t have to fight anyone for. Also, the police don’t tend to go there. The downside is that they don’t go there because it’s too dangerous for them. The place can best be described as a crime-ridden shithole. There won’t be any running water or electricity, it’ll certainly be filthy, and wandering around on their own may well get them killed, but at least the authorities are unlikely to look for them there. In short: it’ll do for the moment.

Before they move out, they have to decide what to do about Mol. He knows a lot about them now, and they don’t really want to risk him passing it on to their enemies. They discuss killing him, but Tom has a better idea: he wants to hand him in to the FBI. The FBI are likely to be very interested in the Black Net, and the fact that someone’s taken out a contract on the Orpheus fugitives might at least make them consider the possibility that someone else might be behind the hit. It certainly can’t hurt to try to build bridges with the Bureau. This possibility is worth the risk of Mol passing on what he knows about them. (Hopefully, nothing he knows should really help their enemies to find and/or kill them. The group have generally been careful about what they say around him when he isn’t being possessed and kept unconscious. It’s been harder while they’re in the squat, though, because there isn’t a convenient basement to stash him in.) Tom possesses Mol and fires up the Black Net one more time so that Annie can note down what’s known about the whereabouts of the people on the list. Hopefully it’ll at least give them a place to start looking. When she’s done, he packs up the laptop and Mol’s rifle (the latter for ballistics analysis), and drives the van to the main FBI headquarters.

Once inside the foyer of the building, Tom heads straight for the security desk. He tells the guard there that he’s Tom Knox, Orpheus employee, and he would like to speak to someone in authority. (It will be obvious enough what happened when he leaves his host, so he sees no real point in pretending to be Mol.) The guard looks a little taken aback, and gets on the phone. A short while later, Jesse Osorio arrives with two armed men as back up. One of them is wearing the now-familiar spook goggles. He asks Tom if he wants to come in, and Tom replies: “Something like that.” Osorio tries to take him to a room that’s very obviously been recently refurbished with new panelling. Suspecting a trap -- possibly spook-proofing -- Tom refuses to enter, asking to go to a normal interview room instead. Osorio concedes fairly easily. Once in the interview room, the two of them have quite a long chat. The salient points are:

  • NextWorld carried out the attack on the Orpheus building, and probably the Terrel & Squib hits as well. They may well have been hired to do this by someone else.
  • The employees of Orpheus are innocent victims in all of this.
  • Someone -- possibly the same party or parties behind the hit in the first place -- have taken out a contract on all of the survivors who are still at large through an anonymous site called the Black Net. Mol is a hitman who decided to try to fulfil that contract. He has access to the Black Net, which the FBI can use to confirm this. (Tom gives Osorio Mol’s password and tells him how to access it.)

Unsurprisingly, Osorio has a lot of questions, which Tom tries to answer as best as his can. The FBI agent does at least seem willing to consider the possibility that someone other than “a rogue faction” within Orpheus was responsible for the attacks. He says that he would need solid evidence, though, and wants Tom and his companions to turn themselves in. The latter obviously isn’t going to happen. When Tom brings up what happened to the ones that were in custody, he doesn’t press the point. He does raise the issue of Beta crucible, however. They seem to be killing cops and FBI agents left, right and centre. According to him, it’s not just a matter of self-defence any more (if it ever was in the first place). He thinks that they are systematically slaughtering anyone who even looks like they might be getting in their way. Tom quickly disavows all knowledge, stressing that they haven’t had any contact with Pretorius and company since the attack. Osorio observes that it would help their cause greatly if they could bring Beta crucible in, or at least put a stop to their killing spree. He also mentions the recent incident involving James Darkwood, saying that they’re going to have to give him up as well. When Tom doesn’t immediately distance the rest of them from James, he pressures Tom into admitting that James is with them. Tom initially tries to claim that James acted in self-defence, but Osorio points out that he shot first. With that argument shot down, Tom points out that James didn’t actually kill any of the agents, (not to mention the fact that they feared that Challis would end up dead if he made it to the holding facility). Osorio still thinks that they should hand him over, but doesn’t make it a condition of future chats like this one. When the conversation seems to have reached its end, Osorio tries to transfer Tom to another room. Tom, not having any of it (just in case the place is spook-proofed), just ripcords back to his body.

Back at the squat, Annie tells the others that Ben’s found them a new (temporary) home. None of them are especially pleased -- the Mayfair Green projects have a certain reputation, after all -- but no one objects. It’s not like they really have much of a choice, and it’ll hopefully only be for a day or two. Maybe. They need transport, so they steal a couple of cars. (Becoming fugitives seems to have nudged their moral compasses slightly askew. Well, those that had them in the first place.) James hotwires one car and John Inhabits the other. (Frank projected and retrieved him from where he was keeping watch over Mol’s house.) Chet, Kate and John take one vehicle, and the rest of them take the other, loading Tom’s body into the back seat. James is driving, even though he’s hopped up to the gills on painkillers. His state of mind isn’t helped by the fact that Frank -- who remains projected for the car journey -- creates a small illusory dragon to perch on his shoulder and otherwise unnerve him. (Frank’s reasons for doing this aren’t exactly clear: perhaps his own amusement, or maybe something more sinister… In an event, James puts the strange sight down to the drugs, and doesn’t tell anyone else about it.) Annie projects so that she can carry the gauze tablet. (Her body is unceremoniously strapped onto the back seat next to Tom’s.)

As they enter Mayfair Green, Annie and Frank feel distinctly uneasy. To Annie, the place feels spiritually dead, the metaphysical plane choked with rot and decay. It feels wrong in a way that other, similarly abandoned or dilapidated places don’t. Frank senses all of that, and also catches a glimpse of what look like giant spider’s webs. He only sees them for a brief moment, but it looks like the whole area is swathed in them. Naturally, they cluster most thickly around the building that Ben has chosen as their new base. The two of them compare notes, and Annie tells him about a vision that Teresa had, not long before the attack. She was being carried along a dark tunnel, perhaps underground. Strands of sticky stuff wrapped around her, leaving her held in place while her conveyance -- whatever it was -- continued on its way without her. For some reason, Frank’s description of the place wreathed in gauze spider webs brings the memory of that vision to mind. (Annie experienced it with Teresa, as their minds were linked at the time.)

Tom returns to his body as Frank, Annie and James are discussing the fact that staying here might not be such a good idea after all. Frank helpfully mentions the possibility that a spectre may be lairing here, which Annie doesn’t seem to appreciate. She suggests that they ask Lo-Jack if they can stay in the vicinity of Brooke House instead. From her conversations with him, she believes he’ll agree if they investigate the mystery of the missing homeless people. The others seem happy enough with that idea, although Frank does seem to be more in favour of trying to seek out the source of the webs, now that they’re here. Popping back into her body for the moment, Annie calls Ben. He hasn’t noticed anything odd about the place, but is happy enough for them to move somewhere else. This area is a complete shithole, after all. He’s currently waiting inside the building, so he comes out to meet them as they pull up. As everyone seems happy enough with the idea of seeking sanctuary in or around Brooke House, they make their way to Harlem, parking up a few blocks away from the building so Annie can go on ahead. She shifts into her guise as Sam on the way.

Lo-Jack agrees that they can stay there, in return for trying to find out why homeless people are disappearing and, if possible, putting a stop to it. Assuming that they’re all ghosts, he says they can stay in Brooke House itself. (Annie refers to them as a group of spooks, and the only projectors he really knows about are the deadheads, whose gauze forms are generally barely even there.) When Annie explains that some of them are living, he thinks about it for a moment and then says it should still be alright: they can hide in the loft. With the ghosts keeping watch, it shouldn’t be difficult to sneak them in through the back entrance. Thanking him, Annie goes back to the others to let them know the good news. When she returns to Brooke House, it is as herself, and she tells Lo-Jack that Sam told them to come here. Once they’ve moved their stuff -- and the people who need to be carried, or otherwise assisted -- into Brooke House, they take the stolen cars somewhere else and ditch them.

The Brooke House ghosts are fascinated by the Orpheus spooks, and have a great many questions for them. The fugitives spend some time answering those questions and generally settling in. Tom summarises his discussion with Osorio. They spend some time discussing possible courses of action, but for once, their next move is clear. They need to investigate the disappearing homeless people.


Footnotes

[1] During the incident in question, Tom was experimenting with his -- at the time -- new horrors whilst alone in his apartment. What looked like a spark of some kind came out of the telephone and interacted in some way with the chip, knocking him unconscious. Sparks continued to stream out of the telephone, and he seemed to somehow gather them into a Witch’s Nimbus. While apparently still unconscious, he manifested. At that point, the still-active Witch’s Nimbus set fire to his apartment. A spark landed on his physical body and his gauze form snapped back into it. Moving like a sleepwalker, he got up and left the apartment. Tom doesn’t actually remember most of this. He recalls starting to experiment with his horrors, and then there is a blank period. His next memory is standing on the pavement outside his building, looking up at his burning apartment. This only came to light after he asked Teresa to use Forebode to look back and tell him what happened. Examining him for physical evidence of the event, she found a small burn scar on his chest (where the spark that jerked him back into his body landed) and what looked like a surgical incision on the back of his neck. All the skimmers they examined had a similar scar, whereas none of the sleepers did. Whatever procedure had left these scars appeared to have been carried out during each individual’s last full medical examination. When they brought this matter to Orpheus’ chief physician, he told them that they’d all been implanted with chips that would take readings whenever they projected. This was part of a research project carried out by a third party at Orpheus’ request. Data from the chips was to be collected at subsequent medical examinations, and then handed over to the researchers for analysis. This explanation did not deter various Orpheus employees from investigating further.[Back]

[2] Pigment, also called black heroin, is a recreational drug that hit the streets sometime in the past year. It has hallucinogenic effects and, although cheap, is extremely addictive. One of its little-publicised side-effects is that it seems to allow users to see spooks. There has even been the odd rare case where one of them has been able to project (at least while stoned). Interestingly, ghosts of people who were heavy pigment users in life are different from 'normal' spirits. They appear faded and monochrome, and they are unable to hold more energy than their 'natural' limit. (Other ghosts can hold more than their natural limit, but the excess will drain away the next time they fugue [3].) Ghosts of pigment users are known as Hues.[Back]

[3] Fugue is a state similar to sleep that ghosts and sleepers will tend to drift into when not otherwise occupied. Unlike sleep, they do not normally dream while in this state.[Back]

[4] Deadhead is a slang term for a pigment addict.[Back]

[5] During one of Tom and Teresa’s missions, they discovered (through the use of Forebode) that N’Kejeda killed an FBI agent: Kevin Nanket. Nanket had been investigating a company called Whole Earth Enterprises (WEE), which was strongly suspected to have been a front for a mafia smuggling and money laundering operation. An FBI agent was killed during a botched raid, and the man responsible was jailed. This man -- Harper Forrester -- is believed to have died in the Marion Prison fire. The FBI are still suspicious of WEE, however. Nanket didn’t have enough evidence to make a case against them, so he pressured an ex-hacker into breaking into their computer network. WEE discovered the attempt, and hired NextWorld to deal with the problem. Tom and Teresa started investigating WEE itself, and discovered that the current CEO (a man named Charles Cross) had actually made the business legitimate since Forrester’s imprisonment and subsequent (apparent) death. However, Forrester recently turned up again and started to once more play a role in the company’s affairs. He was definitely a spook, but it wasn’t clear if he was a ghost or a projector. Certainly, there were no death marks to suggest that he died in a fire. He threatened the Cross into smuggling some unknown items or materials into the country under cover of their usual shipments. Forrester also warned Cross whenever the FBI were going to raid their premises. It’s not clear where he got his intelligence, or what was actually being transported. Chet reported the team’s discoveries to Albert Cook, who took them off the case and gave it to Beta Crucible. (The Magnox Affair and its aftermath.)[Back]