Orpheus: The Taste of Ashes - Missions - Mission015

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Dramatis Personae

Protagonists

  • Annie Harper, Metamorph (revenant)
  • Carlos Hayate, non-projector
  • Tom Knox, Haunter

Supporting Characters

Phoenix

  • Kate Dennison, Banshee

Arms of Light

  • Madame Cassandra (AKA Lesley Smith)
  • Darren, a Bounce Night hue (largely compos mentis)
  • Sandra, a Bounce Night hue, (largely oblivious)
  • A Fetch
  • A possibly possessed (and definitely unnatural) chihuahua
  • Spook dogs
  • A swarm of supernaturally-influenced (and possibly possessed) rats


Mission Fifteen – Video Killed the Radio Star

Part One – The Dogs of War

Flush with success from the Di Cipriani case(s), some of the Phoenix spooks and Carlos gather to decide what they should turn their attentions to next. (They’re including Carlos more and more in the planning of missions, even going so far as to consider him one of the team. He’s certainly seemed trustworthy so far, and is proving to be rather useful. Then again, so did Frank.) There are quite a few options, so they spend some time discussing what would be the best use of their time. Torrence, Walters, Kiss, NextWorld and the Black Net are considered, but dismissed for the moment. Mayfair Green is right out. They’ve told Mona about the hotel (the modern one; not The Grand) that’s a possible overflow facility for the Brook House ghosts, so there’s nothing else they really need to do in that regard. That still leaves a few loose ends awaiting resolution.

Carlos has made some progress in deciphering the old priest’s diary. (That’s what he was doing while the others were off sunning themselves – oh, and counselling Césario – at the lakeside retreat.) It seems that the man was part of some kind of spiritualist organisation: that is to say, some kind of cult. Including himself, there were thirteen members. This group was engaged in a ‘great work’ to bridge heaven and earth. It’s obviously connected with the tower. Unfortunately, the other members of this little conspiracy aren’t actually named – they’re referred to only by letters of the Greek alphabet. (Just like the Orpheus crucibles, although that may only be coincidence.) Perhaps the organisation mentioned in those mouldering pages is the same one that was responsible for killing the church congregation. Kiss and Lamb are still around in some form – perhaps the rest of them are as well. The first attempt at the great work didn’t go entirely as planned; this would appear to be their second attempt. The question is: how many of the different factions are actually working together?

Annie and Kate have some bad news regarding the project to cleanse the murder sites. Their research (which included further examination of the sites themselves) suggests that the ritual they used to still the storm simply won’t work in this situation. Well, that’s not precisely true. They probably could counter the resonance with something more positive, but that will only last so long as they power it. Without an independent power source, the effects would simply fade over time. A human sacrifice would probably provide the required boost – much like the ones that Kiss performed, in fact – but for obvious reasons, that’s not on the cards. Passing a ghost over at the site may yield enough energy to power the effect for a while, but it might not. There’s also a risk that the poor soul in question will end up trapped in the land of the spectres, or be transformed into a spectre themselves. The risk – and the fact that there are too many unknowns – means they’re not considering that for the time being.

There’s an added complication in that each of the sites appears to be an open portal to another realm, most likely the land of the spectres. These portals are being actively held open. It’s possible that any metaphysical tampering might have the unintended effect of widening the rift, or of pulling through something from the other side. On balance, bringing the tower down doesn’t seem to have been a hideously bad thing, but do they really want to play Russian roulette a second time? There are things they can potentially do, like moving the hues away, healing them hues and perhaps even passing them over (as long as the connection has been broken first). Annie and Kate think this is fairly low risk, with regards to making things worse. It may even help. It will certainly help the poor, tormented hues. Aside from that, though, it looks like they’re going to have to put dealing with the murder sites onto the backburner for the moment. Inspiration, alas, has not struck.

After yet more discussion, the group decide to look into the spiritualist “Madame Cassandra”, hostess of the TV show “Arms of Light”. Her show seems to be along the lines of a combined church service/prayer circle and séance. The reason she’s come to the group’s interest is because she’s been levelling certain accusations against the Phoenix group. First, she claims that they were the ones responsible for the Bounce Night deaths. Second, she accuses them of sacrificing ghosts for power. “They call it ‘Passing Over’, she says, “but it’s really a vampiric rite to drain and consume the spirit’s essence.” She’s been badmouthing the various spook firms for some time now, but she seems to have developed a particular hatred for Phoenix. Her show’s doing pretty well, so her screeds are reaching a fairly large segment of the population. (Originally it was broadcast weekly in a late-night slot. In the wake of Bounce Night, however, it’s moved to prime-time and the broadcast frequency has increased to four times a week – Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.)

So, why does Madame Cassandra hold such a grudge against Phoenix? Does she really believe the accusations she’s making? If so, where is she getting her information? They could try asking her. They could also have someone puppet her and go through her memories. Before they do any of that, however, they want to get some idea what they’re up against. For example, can she really talk to ghosts? Could someone or something be possessing her, like the priest of the Church of the Children of the Angelic Host? Does she really cross ghosts over during her show? The simplest way to answer these questions is to watch the woman at work.

Some investigation yields the information that Arms of Light is recorded the day before broadcast, before a live audience. It’s Thursday now: Friday’s show is being recorded this afternoon. People who want a place in the audience have to buy tickets. Apparently, the show is popular enough that tickets are sold out for weeks in advance. That isn’t going to stop our plucky band, however. Annie and Tom project, leaving their bodies back at the warehouse. (James is off attending to business of his own.) Carlos, in the flesh, drives them to the television studio. (The show is made by a local channel called Pax TV.) They get there about an hour before the doors open. Getting in is no great difficulty for Annie and Tom. They both dematerialise, and Tom goes ahead to scout. Sticking his head through the wall of the studio, he sees some live humans and a couple of ghostly figures. He just has time to notice that the spooks look like hues before quickly pulling his head back out. He’s not quick enough, however: as he steps back, one of the hues turns and looks in his direction.

Tom quickly relays what he saw to Annie, and the two of them decide to just go in. After all: what’s the worst that could happen? The crew are prepping the studio when they enter, completely oblivious to the spooks in their midst. The studio is set up to resemble a church interior, even down to the stained glass windows and the pews that the audience are to sit on. Aside from the two hues, their quick scan of the place picks up nothing out of the ordinary. The hue that spotted Tom wanders over and says hi.
      “Are you here for Madame Cassandra? Have you come to ask her to pass you over?” he asks excitedly.
      “I’m not sure.” Tom’s reply is cautious. “I think I’m just going to watch this time. Maybe I’ll wait somewhere out of the way. Out of sight.”
      The hue seems confused by this, giving Tom a strange look. “Okaaay...”
      Annie joins the conversation. “How did you hear about Madame Cassandra?”
      “From the TV.” With one last puzzled glance at Tom, the hue turns to Annie. “I want to go on to my reward,” he says, simply. “I’m tired of being stuck here. Like this. I don’t know why anyone would hesitate, given the choice.”
      “How long have you been here?” She’s really asking how long he’s been dead, but it would be rather tactless to just ask that directly.
      “I’m not sure.” He shrugs, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. “A few weeks, maybe?” That would be about the right time frame for Bounce Night. He and the other hue – a girl; she just seems to be wandering around aimlessly – are about the right age and appearance for clubbers. Probably more victims of the tainted pigment. At least these ones don’t look like they’ve been going around eating other spooks (they’re no brighter than normal).
      “Do the two of you know each other?” Annie indicates the female hue, who’s staring blankly into space, not really focusing on anything.
      “Naah. She was here when I arrived. I tried talking to her, but she gets distracted easy.” Leaning forward, he lowers his voice. “Between you and me, I don’t think she’s quite right in the head.”

While Annie occupies the hue’s attention, [1] Tom takes a look around for suitable objects to inhabit. He needs something with a good view of the stage. After a failed attempt to climb up to one of the lights, he instead dives into a camera. This catches the hue’s eye. He stares at the camera, looking utterly baffled.
      “What’s he doing?” he asks Annie. “Why is he hiding?”
      “He’s... shy.” It’s the best she can come up with on short notice.
      The hue shakes his head. “Weird.” He continues to converse with Annie, but keeps shooting glances in Tom’s direction. Maybe he’s expecting him to do something else. Annie makes an attempt to steer the conversation around to the hue’s death – the researcher in her is curious as to whether his experience matches Bill’s – but he seems unable or unwilling to remember it. She doesn’t push.

In the meanwhile, Carlos has his own plan for getting inside. Through a combination of bribery and smooth-talking (a convincing sob-story about needing to talk to his dead father one last time), he manages to convince the receptionist to give him a spare ticket for today’s recording. It’s not clear why she has a spare ticket – maybe so she can make a little extra cash by selling them to the desperate – but he’s not complaining. As he heads into the studio with the rest of the audience, he wonders if Madame Cassandra will have a message for him from his father. It’ll be impressive if she does – his father is alive and well. Annie spots Carlos in the crowd, but doesn’t approach him. Having decided not to inhabit anything, she just takes up a position near the edge of the studio, largely out of sight.

The show starts. Music swells to a crescendo, and Madame Cassandra appears on stage, surrounded by brilliant light. She’s a short, dark-skinned woman in a floral dress; definitely not young, although her exact age is unclear. Spreading her arms wide, she bestows a beatific smile upon the audience – her congregation – and waits for the applause to die down before speaking.
      “Welcome, brothers and sisters. Welcome to the Arms of Light. Some of you are here to receive messages from those who have passed beyond. Some of you” – her eyes flick to the hues – “have passed the first veil and want to go one, into the arms of the holy mother. All are welcome here.” She lets her hands drop and takes a couple of steps towards the edge of the stage. “Let us begin...”

After the opening prayers, Madame Cassandra passes on messages from the other side to the people in the audience. If real, these must be messages she’s received previously, because she doesn’t speak with any of the spooks actually present. Her showmanship is superb, and she manages to wring every ounce of emotion and pathos from both the messages themselves and the recipients’ reactions. There are more than a few tears. A commercial break marks the end of this segment of the show. When it resumes, she asks if there’s anyone in the audience who would like to contact their dearly departed. A veritable forest of hands go up: this is a very interactive show. After hearing each story, the medium asks if the particular ghost is present today. Her eyes automatically go towards the hues when she asks, confirming that she really can see them. It seems that neither of them have relatives in the audience today, however, and the requests for contact remain unanswered.
      “Either they haven’t visited me yet, or they’ve already gone on into the light,” she reassures the living. Looking towards the cameras, she asks for the relevant spirits, if they’re out there, to get in touch.

It’s the final segment of the show that the hues are waiting for. This is when she calls upon any ghosts in the audience to come forward so that she can help them go on to their eternal reward.
      “This is it!” The hue’s voice trembles a little with excitement. He smiles at Annie. “Shall we?”
      “I don’t think I’m ready,” says Annie, which happens to be perfectly true.
      “Are you sure?”
      “Yes. I’ll just watch for now.”
      “Oh. Okay. Well, uh, goodbye, I guess.”
      “Goodbye. And good luck.”
      “Thanks.” He nudges the other hue, jolting her out of her daze. “It’s time,” he whispers. The other girl looks around, seeming to see him properly for the first time.
      “She’s going to do it? She’s going to pass us over?”
      “Yeah.” He takes a deep breath. “Let’s go.” They step forward. As they do so, Annie ducks behind a camera, out of Madame Cassandra’s sightline. The medium turns her smile upon the two visible hues.
      “Come,” she says, holding out a hand towards them. “Tell me your stories.”

Madame Cassandra converses with the hues, relaying their words to her audience. She wants to know about them; about who they are (or were) and about their family and friends. The subject of their deaths is only touched on: her main focus seems to be on the people they’ve left behind. Her final question is: do they have any messages they want her to pass on? They tell her their final words, and she appeals for the recipients to get in touch with her.

The audience start to murmur, knowing what happens now. The fact that they can’t actually see it doesn’t seem to matter at all. At a gesture from Madame Cassandra – backed up by the cards saying “Silence” that various crewmembers hold up off-camera – a hush falls over the crowd. She waits for a few moments, letting the tension build. Her expression grave, she looks from one hue to the other.
      “Darren. Sandra.” Those are their names. “Do you want to be passed over? Are you ready to go on to the embrace of the holy mother?”
      “Yes!” Darren barely even waits for her to finish the question.
      “Yes,” echoes Sandra, quietly.
      “Are you certain?”
      “Yes.” This time, they both answer together.
      Looking towards the audience, she says: “They are ready, brothers and sisters. Let us pray for them.” Closing her eyes, she starts to intone a prayer for the holy mother to receive her children, and to grant them life eternal. Many of the people in the audience also close their eyes – some even clasp their hands – silently mouthing the words. The wall behind her starts to glow, and then to blaze with a brilliant white light. It looks like the opening to a brightly lit tunnel. Two dogs – not fetches, but ordinary-looking (if large) spook dogs – emerge from the light, each heading straight for one of the hues. (The audience don’t seem to see any of this.) The hues seem dazed by the spectacle, but not fearful, allowing the dogs to gently nudge them towards the light. When they step through, the light fades, leaving no sign that dogs or hues were ever there. Madame Cassandra ends her prayer, letting the silence hand for a few moments before raising her head and gazing out over the audience. “It is done,” she says. Her voice is quiet, but the words seem to carry throughout the whole studio. “They are at peace.” The audience erupts into rapturous applause.

The show wraps up rather quickly after that. The audience starts to leave, and Carlos goes with them. As per the plan, he goes to his car to wait for the Annie and Tom. They wait for the crowd to thin a little before emerging from their respective hiding places, just in case any of those dogs are hanging around the studio, or in case there is anything else lying in wait. Nothing stands out, so they decide to try to talk to Madame Cassandra. She’s long gone from the studio by this point, so they’re going to have to look for her. Before leaving the studio themselves, they go over to examine the wall where the light came through. [2] The place feels decidedly strange and creepy, although neither of them can precisely put a finger on why. It certainly isn’t anything that they want to prod at too much, however.

Finding the right dressing room isn’t hard. When they step through the wall, a small yappy dog – a chihuahua – turns to face them and starts barking furiously. They ignore it. Cassandra turns at the noise, only to freeze as she sees them. Her face blanches in fear.
      “You!” she exclaims, staring at Tom. (Well, his face has been splashed over the press as a wanted criminal for the past few weeks. One might expect someone who takes an interest in Phoenix to be aware of what the key players look like. Annie, being dead, is unknown to the law.) She starts to back away from them, looking scared.
      “We just want to talk,” says Tom, trying to look nonthreatening. The medium still keeps backing away from them, moving towards the door. It looks like she’s trying to make a break for it.
      “We’re not going to hurt you. We don’t mean you any harm. Like my colleague said: we just want to talk to you.” Annie keeps talking in a low, soothing voice, trying to calm the woman down. [3] It seems to work; at least, she isn’t staring at them like she’s expecting them to rip her heart out of her chest and show it to her any more. There’s still something wrong, however. She’s still backing away, and she’s still scared of something: it just doesn’t seem to be them... [4] With a sudden insight, Annie realises that Cassandra is carefully keeping the still-yapping dog in her peripheral vision; that’s where her attention is really focused. She’s scared of her pet chihuahua? Something’s not right here.

Reaching the door, Madame Cassandra wrenches it open and bolts. She tears off down the corridor as if all the hounds of hell were hot on her heels. The chihuahua chases after her, and the Phoenix spooks run after the pair of them.
      “The dog,” says Annie. “She’s scared of the dog. Can you see if there’s anything in there?” Tom is already diving into the small creature, or trying to: he gets bounced out without so much as a by-your-leave. It seems... slippery, somehow; like nothing he’s ever encountered before. Admittedly, he’s not had that much practice with trying to puppet animals, but Chet’s never mentioned anything like that to him.
      “Didn’t work. The thing’s slippery.” It’s fortunate that they don’t really need to breathe, or they’d be out of breath. Both Madame Cassandra and the dog are proving capable of a surprising turn of speed. Manifesting, Annie uses familiar to try to command the chihuahua to stop. [5] This works about as well as the attempted possession, which is to say: not at all.

At the sudden sound of Annie’s running footsteps – now she’s manifested, she can be heard – the dog suddenly turns. Moving impossibly fast, it leaps, bouncing off the ceiling to land on her shoulders. The force of it knocks her to the ground. It tears into the back of her neck with its teeth, ripping away ragged chunks of gauze, [6] and then bounds off her to continue its pursuit. Tom helps Annie to her feet and all but drags her in the opposite direction, just in case it comes back. Moments later, they feel something tear a hole in reality, forcing open a portal. A Fetch has just come through somewhere nearby...

The two spooks stop dead, not sure which way to go. The Fetch is definitely close, but they don’t know where it is. If they set off blind, they could end up walking straight into its jaws. The other question is: why is the Fetch here? Neither of them felt a spike, and that’s what usually draws them. Maybe whatever entity is possessing or controlling the demon-chihuahua called in a friend. As they are wondering about this and trying to work out which way to go, they become aware of a strange skittering noise. The noise is growing louder, coming closer. Its source becomes clear soon enough: a swarm of rats starts pouring into the corridor. The animals appear to be flesh, not gauze, but their eyes gleam red and they’re heading straight for the two spooks.
      “Hide,” says Tom. “I’ll draw them off and try to lose them. If I can’t, I’ll deadwire.”
      “Be careful!” With that, Annie dives into a nearby doorknob. Tom jogs down the corridor, a sizeable fraction of the rat swarm in pursuit. He rounds a corridor... and runs straight into the Fetch. It tries to bite him, but he nimbly skips backwards, buying himself just enough breathing room to deadwire out of there. Annie feels the pulse of Tom’s deadwire, although she doesn’t know what caused it. The rats apparently sense it too, for most of the remainder head off in that direction. Some of them are still milling around in the corridor, however. She decides to wait a little longer before trying to make a break for it.

Tom was aiming for Carlos’ phone, but doesn’t quite make it. He’s only a few phones over, however, so he can just run the rest of the way. Quickly filling him in on the salient points (“We ran into trouble. Annie’s still in there.”), he inhabits a mobile phone and calls Craig to ask if Annie’s ripcorded back to her body.
      “No, she’s not back. She has severe bruising to the back of her neck, though. Chet’s seeing to it. What happened?” Tom explains, concluding with:
      “We need to put together a rescue mission.” After a brief planning session, they hang up. Tom pops out of the phone.
      “Well?” enquires Carlos. “What happened?” Tom explains.
      “The others should be here in about twenty minutes or so, depending on traffic. We’re going to go in mob-handed.”
      “Is that wise?”
      “We don’t know what we’re up against and we might have to get Annie back by force. Better to have numbers on our side.” Carlos can’t argue with that logic.

After about fifteen minutes or so, Annie decides to make a break for it. There are still a few rats milling around, sniffing at the air, so she exits the doorknob into the room, rather than the corridor. Dissolving into a swarm of scuttling insects, she crawls up the wall and slips through the crack between the top of the door and the door-frame. Banking on the fact that most people (or entities) simply don’t tend to look up, she crawls along the ceiling, heading in what she thinks is the direction of the exit. She’s a little disoriented thanks to the chase and to the fact that she’s on the ceiling rather than the floor, but she eventually manages to find her way out. It takes quite a while, because she can’t move that fast as an insect swarm. Reforming, she cautiously peeks out through the doors and is relieved to spot Carlos’ car. She’s just crossing the car park when the Phoenix van (the Phoenix-mobile?) pulls up alongside it.

It seems there’s no longer any need for a rescue mission. Annie tells the others that she just waited for a while and then sneaked out as an insect swarm.       “You okay, Babe?” Ben asks. “Heard you got bit.”
      “I’m fine,” she replies, rubbing the back of her neck with a rueful expression. “Looks like the dog was either possessed or being controlled by some variant of familiar.” She deliberately doesn’t mention the fact that the dog in question was a lowly chihuahua. Somehow, she knows the others would never let her live that down. There is some talk of going in mob-handed anyway, just to see what’s really happening (and to deal with whoever or whatever is behind it). After a brief discussion, however, they decide against it for the moment. Annie and Tom get in the Phoenix-mobile, which heads back to the warehouse. Carlos goes off to report to his FBI ally.

Back at the warehouse, Annie takes Blink aside and says she thinks it might be time to break the news about her pregnancy to the rest of the group. Blink agrees wholeheartedly.
      “You can’t keep doing this, Annie,” he says softly. “You can’t keep taking risks like this. What if you’d been badly hurt, or even killed? What about the baby?”
      “We didn’t know,” she points out. “We thought this was a safe reconnaissance mission: none of us were expecting to find anything like that.”
      “Well... just be careful.”
      “I’m trying. I will try.”
      “Good.” The proud parents-to-be (well, the parents-to-be) decide against calling a meeting to break the news. Instead, they tell people individually and in small groups. The news still spreads rapidly enough.

Tom does some research into Madame Cassandra. Her real name, apparently, is Lesley Smith. (It’s obvious why she doesn’t use that as her stage name.) She was hit by a bus about four years ago. It was after she came out of hospital that she first demonstrated her ability to see and speak with the dead. Her show has been going for some time, but before the Bounce Night tragedy it languished in a weekly graveyard slot. Now, it goes out at primetime. She started decrying Orpheus after the attack on their headquarters. As Tom has managed to find her address, they write her a letter. It’s a simple request to speak with her. They give her the PO box and contact number of the newly registered Phoenix corporation, in case she does want to write back or call them. They also include a code phrase she can use in her show, to signal to them that she wants to get in contact but is otherwise unable to. (The phrase is: “Phoenix, if you’re listening...”)

The next day, Annie looks up Akambé (the scientist heading up Terrel & Squib’s New York-based special project). She finds out that he’s a physicist by training, specialising in the area of quantum tunnelling. He’s a vocal proponent of the ‘many worlds’ theory, among other things, and is considered to be something of a fringe scientist for his ‘crackpot’ theories and controversial statements. In the past, he’s claimed to be able to effect what he calls a ‘temporary phase transfer’ under laboratory conditions. No one believes him, however, and no one has ever managed to replicate his experiment. Akambé still has tenure at an African university, but seems to have dropped off the radar. He hasn’t published any papers recently.

Carlos works on the diary a little more. Working on the theory that Father Michael helped Kiss enter New York, he makes and appointment to meet with a historian, Alex Brennan. Brennan’s area of expertise is the movement of immigrants into New York in the thirties.

Over the next few days, Phoenix deals with a few small jobs: minor haunting and the odd party appearance. (Apparently the Di Ciprianis have put the word out to their friends.) They start to earn some money. After some discussion, they decide to buy the Grand. Hoyt starts setting it up. It’s going to take a little while to go through, however, not least because they have to get a business loan to raise the necessary capital.

All they have to do now is wait for Madame Cassandra to get in touch.


Footnotes

[1] [Appearance 4] helps in situations like this. It’s not so good at helping you blend in and go unnoticed, however. [Back]

[2] Both pass the [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[3] Success on a [Charisma + Expression] roll. [Back]

[4] Success on a [Perception + Empathy] roll. [Back]

[5] With the exception of helter skelter (and a few powers with sensory effects that can be perceived by people with Dead Eyes), a spook has to manifest to use a horror on the living. [Back]

[6] 4 bashing damage in a single hit. That’s quite a lot. The damage to her pride is infinitely greater, however: being taken down by a chihuahua – even a clearly unnatural one – is just embarrassing. [Back]