Orpheus: The Taste of Ashes - Missions - Mission016

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Dramatis Personae

Protagonists

  • James Darkwood, Poltergeist
  • Annie Harper, Metamorph (revenant)
  • Carlos Hayaté, Wisp
  • Tom Knox, Haunter
  • Chet Mason, Skinrider (played by Carlos’ player)

Supporting Characters

Phoenix

  • John "Blink" Carruthers, Wisp
  • Adrian Challis, Wisp
  • Ben Cotton, Poltergeist
  • Kate Dennison, Banshee
  • Craig Forrest, Skinrider
  • Matthieu Kerekov, Banshee
  • Chet Mason, Skinrider
  • Hoyt Masterson, Haunter
  • Mitch, sleeper cradle technician (non-projector)
  • Zoë Vitt, Poltergeist
  • Shelley Young, Haunter

Nextworld

  • Marcus N’Kejeda, Skinrider
  • A probable Wisp
  • A probable Haunter
  • A puppeteer (possible Skinrider)

Black Net

  • A squad of assassins
  • A combat specialist
  • A technical specialist

FBI

  • Agent Larson, a contact of Carlos
  • Various FBI agents


Mission Sixteen – And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place

Part One – The Best-Laid Plans

Sunday morning rolls around fairly uneventfully. Madame Cassandra’s Friday show goes out without incident, but then that’s the one that was recorded on Thursday. If anything has happened to her, they won’t know until and unless there’s a problem with tonight’s broadcast. Most of the Phoenix spooks are back at the warehouse today, engaged in training, researching, maintenance of equipment or weapons, or other similar, small tasks. Some are even just taking it easy for once. Heaven knows they’ve had precious little opportunity to do that for a while. The atmosphere is relaxed as the time ticks slowly by. And then the peace is shattered by the sound of gunfire.

After the initial shock, they realise that no one’s burst in through the doors yet. In fact, the shots seem to be coming from a short distance away. At Chet’s [1] suggestion, James briefly projects and boosts Craig so the Haunter can inhabit the whole warehouse and see what’s going on. After doing that, James physically heads over to one of the doors so he can cautiously stick his head out and see for himself. Unfortunately, he manages to pick the wrong door and ends up seeing nothing. [2] Tom heads over to the security screens, hoping that the external cameras are picking up something. Chet and Annie start helping people – the invalids, specifically – into the truck. Their standard operating procedure says to get out of there if anything like this happens, so that’s what they’re going to do.

Inhabiting the building, Craig sees some kind of disturbance a couple of blocks away. He uses the external cameras to zoom in, displaying what he sees on the viewscreens. Something that looks like an observation post sits atop a nearby building. It is well hidden, which is probably why none of them have noticed it until now. At the moment, however, its position is given away by the man on the roof firing a gun. His target is a spook of some kind; an out of body projector or a ghost. The gauze man looks familiar – he was involved in the New Year’s attack on Orpheus! Tom relays this information to the rest of the group and continues to watch the screen. The spook leaps into one of the men in the OP, and the sound of gunfire continues.

Ben grabs his gun. (Well, the submachine gun technically belongs to James, but Ben seems to claim it at every opportunity.) He and Adrian get on the truck, readying themselves for trouble. Everyone apart from Tom, James, Shelley and Craig are moving onto the vehicle.
      “I don’t see anything,” says James, still peering vainly out in the opposite direction to the OP.
      Tom glances over at him. “That’s because you’re looking out of the wrong door!” James starts to move, heading for the other side of the warehouse, or perhaps for the screens. Wherever he’s going, he doesn’t get there.

With a tremendous noise, the side of the warehouse explodes in a blast of flame and shrapnel. Gouts of smoke billow into the building, and no one can hear a thing over the sudden ringing in their ears. For a few moments, no one moves, but then people start to look around; to look down at themselves. Miraculously, they all seem largely unhurt. Maybe they were lucky... Shaking themselves out of their dazed stupor, people start to get behind cover and continue scrambling into the truck. It’s way past time to get out of here. Shelley pops out of her computer, and then just stands there. Her face is ashen with shock.
      “Craig... He’s gone. Craig’s gone.” No one can hear her words, but her stricken expression speaks volumes. This is not the time for mourning, however. Chet grabs the ghost and pulls her onto the truck. The vehicle itself is looking a little worse for wear, and two of its tyres have blown out. Hoyt projects and, with a boost from James, [3] sets about trying to fix the damage.

It’s going to take a little time before the truck is mobile again. In the meantime, they need to know what’s going on out there. For all they know, a whole army could be converging on them right at this very moment. Annie projects and dissolves into a swarm of flying insects, splitting off a part of herself to take a look outside. Unfortunately, her many compound eyes are blinded by the billowing smoke. [4] Leaving his body on the truck with the other skimmers, James picks up a rifle with helter skelter and ducks behind cover, looking for a target. [5] He manages to locate the observation point, but doesn’t have a clear line of sight on a target. Interestingly, muzzle flash indicates a firefight in progress between the OP and yet another warehouse. (If everyone wasn’t still deafened from the blast, they’d be able to hear the gunfire.)

Chet and Tom get to the cab of the truck. While Chet covers the exit, Tom projects and gets Ben to boost him as he channels vitality into juggernaut. [6] Annie manages to get her scout swarm above the smoke, [7] seeing the exchange of fire between the observation point on the roof of one warehouse and the interior of another warehouse. Both buildings are fairly close to theirs. A group of people are emerging from the warehouse with the observation point. There are about six of them, and they’re wearing helmets and body armour. They’re also armed with submachine guns and shotguns. The group are heading straight for the Phoenix warehouse. Annie speeds back to the truck.

James drops the rifle and moves to a position where he can take a look at what’s happening outside. The wreckage of a van is still smouldering next to the blasted wall, and the area around it is scattered with ball-bearings. They have an odd sheen to them: not metal. Black glass? When he spots the squad heading for the warehouse, he picks up the rifle again (using helter skelter) and shoots at them. He drops one, and the others immediately dive for cover. They start returning fire. Chet sees this, and stealthily makes his way around behind the group of armed and armoured men. [8] When he’s close enough, he dives into the rearmost man, just managing to possess him. It causes a spike, but that can’t be helped. (James sees this.) The instant Chet’s inside his host, he realises something’s wrong. Something about this possession just doesn’t feel right. He’s not sure he’s going to be able to get out again. Unfortunately, there’s no time to worry about that now.

Tom leaves the truck just as Annie gets back. She hastily reforms and tells the people in the truck what she saw out there. Spotting James, Tom goes over to see what he’s shooting at. James quickly tells him about Chet’s excursion, pointing out the body he’s currently riding. They don’t want a friendly fire incident. Meanwhile, the enemy have definitely spotted the pair of them. They’re not wearing spook goggles, but they can obviously see what they’re shooting at. A shotgun blast hits Tom, but bounces off his armour. The hail of bullets misses James completely, slamming harmlessly into the rubble around him.

There’s a spike from one of the other buildings – not the one with the observation point, from the direction – and three spooks suddenly appear in the centre of the room. One of them is Marcus N’Kejeda. A shot rings out from the shadows, winging N’Kejeda. Kerekov had been hiding, readying his weapon. Unfortunately, he’s just given away his position. He starts moving, but N’Kejeda is faster. In a blur of motion, N’Kejeda streaks across the room and slams into Kerekov, sending him crashing through a wall. He doesn’t get up again. One of the other two steps away from his comrade and bursts into flames, spiking as he does so. His comrade starts to glow brightly, also sending up a spike. Tom manages to look away in time to avoid being entranced. James looks, but shrugs off its effects. Three of the gunmen outside are hypnotised by the glow. Chet manages to avoid looking at it. The remaining gunman shoots at the Wisp, clipping him. The glow fades. [9]

The Haunter throws a fireball at James, scorching him slightly. Tom also flares up, his aura crackling with lightning rather than flames. It’s just as deadly. Quickly manoeuvring so that the human torch is in range of his own bolts, he zaps the spook twice in rapid succession, landing two solid hits. The Haunter is already slumping bonelessly to the ground, when the third bolt hits him. Sparks hiss and pop along his unconscious form. N’Kejeda’s charge at Kerekov, while inconvenient for Kerekov, handily puts his back to James, who is still hefting a rifle. The gun may be loaded with ordinary bullets (as opposed to ghost-shot), but N’Kejeda had to materialise to attack Kerekov. He’s completely solid at the moment. James takes advantage of the fact to fill him full of lead.

While the bolts and bullets (and Kerekov) fly inside the warehouse, Chet is still puppeteering on of the unidentified assault team who also seem to want to throw down with Phoenix. Firing the odd wild shot to just keep up appearances, he takes the opportunity to go through his host’s memories to find out who they are. He discovers that this group is a Black Net team. They have absolutely no idea who the other lot (Nextworld ) are. They certainly weren’t expecting to run into anyone other than their targets (Phoenix).

Back in the van, Annie boosts Hoyt as he continues to try to get the truck roadworthy. In his haste, he applies too much force and ends up undoing some of the repairs he’s made so far. [10] Swearing to himself, he takes a metaphorical breath and tries to push the tension away, focusing only on the feel of the vehicle; on what needs to be done.
      “Get out of body,” Ben orders Adrian and Zoë. “If anyone other than one of us comes in here, light up like a fucking flare.”
      “Understood,” nods Adrian.
      “Finally!” Zoë all but bounds out of her body, apparently eager to get a piece of the action. “Although,” she mutters to herself. “I’d rather be out there kicking their arses.” But she stays where she is, and Ben is already out of body (again) and out of the truck, congealing a big fucking gun out of one arm as he goes.

Chet dives deeper into his host’s brain, looking for information about why he’s trapped in this meat, and how he gets out again. He finds out that the Black Net team have detailed information on all the Phoenix spooks, including their abilities, strengths and weaknesses. They’re a crack team of assassins who have operated together – and for Black Net – for some time. They were issued with special equipment for this mission, some of which is presumably responsible for Chet’s current predicament. His host doesn’t know what, however, or how. He does know that there were grenades among the items and armaments they were given. He and one of the others are carrying them. This information is interesting and potentially useful. The remaining Black Net squad members, no doubt motivated by a healthy regard for their own skin with respect to the various blasts and shots, are diving for better cover.

Speaking of blasts, Tom sends a couple the way of the formerly glowing Wisp. The spook manages to dive out of the way of the first, but the second lights him up good and proper, putting his lights out. James continues to shoot at N’Kejeda. He seems to have got the Black Net squad’s attention now. A hail of gunfire comes his way, together with a small, bouncing object. It’s a grenade! He’s moving even before he consciously recognises its approach, getting out of what he estimates will be the blast area. Unfortunately, he isn’t so lucky with the bullets. Maybe that was their plan: if they can’t get him with the grenade, they’ll herd him into their firing line. Even so, they only manage to graze him. Ben, thinking quickly, uses helter skelter to scoop up the grenade and return it so sender. The grenade goes boom.

Chet is caught in the explosion. Like his erstwhile comrades, he can’t get out of the way in time. At least one of them is killed outright and the rest – including Chet and his host – are injured, but still conscious and functional. There’s a piece of shrapnel embedded in his stomach, and he’s a mess of cuts and abrasions. Using his recently developed third-tier horror, [11] Chet shrugs off the pain of the injuries and continues the fight.

Back in the warehouse, N’Kejeda (understandably enough) charges James, pummelling him with his fists. He’s obviously been boosting his strength. James is slammed backwards, towards the truck. Inside the vehicle, Hoyt (with Annie’s help) finally manages to fix the wheels and start the engine. Outside, James picks himself up and shoots N’Kejeda again, but this time the bullets pass harmlessly through him. The spook must have dematerialised: it’s going to take ghost-shot to hurt him now. Or witch’s nimbus. As if on cue, Tom sends a bolt of lightning his way. N’Kejeda, unfortunately, sees it coming, leaping out of the way and into the truck. Adrian and Zoë start to glow, but N’Kejeda manages to look away in time. Spotting the skimmers’ empty bodies, he streaks towards them and then disappears

Now that James is no longer in their sights, the Black Net team turn their attention to Tom. His actinic glow makes him easy to see, but hard to draw a precise bead on, and their shots mostly miss him. One round does actually hit, but bounces harmlessly off his armour. While his hosts’ comrades are focused elsewhere, Chet drops a grenade amongst them. He tries to make it look as though he simply fumbled a throw, but doesn’t know how convincing he is. [12] In any case, the grenade goes off. Two of the Black Net team are killed outright: the group leader, and his host. One is severely injured. One remains more or less unhurt. Chet’s gauze is shredded a little by the blast, but he’s still mostly fine. Frustratingly, his host’s death doesn’t release him from the unexpected imprisonment: it just means he can’t do anything. The death of the leader is also frustrating: he was hoping to be able to question the man. Oh well. There are still two chances to take one of them alive...

Inside the truck, Tom’s body sits up. N’Kejeda is puppetting him!
      “Get the cuffs,” Annie yells, hoping that one of them will know what she means. The anti-spook cuffs they took from Terrel & Squib will keep N’Kejeda trapped in Tom’s body and will stop him from using any horrors. They just have to make sure he doesn’t cause his host any harm. Materialising, she dissolves a swarm of rats, sending half of them to keep N’Kejeda pinned down and distracted. [13] He thrashes around, possibly giving Tom a few bruises in the process but not accomplishing a great deal. Kate and Blink start searching for the cuffs.

James drops the rifle and jumps into the truck. Resisting both Adrian’s and Zoë’s unearthly repose, he sees rats swarming over his and Tom’s bodies. The two of them are next to each other, and the rats are pretty much everywhere, so it’s difficult to tell which of them is the target. The fact that Tom’s body apparently moving on its own gives him a hefty great clue, however. Just to be sure, he asks:
      “Where’s N’Kejeda?” In answer, Blink simply points to Tom’s thrashing body. Wasting no time, James manifests and joins Annie in trying to restrain the skinrider. N’Kejeda is a slippery customer, but he eventually manages to get him in an arm-lock. He doesn’t think he can hold it for long, though. Luckily, Kate has managed to find the cuffs. She can’t really get close enough to put them on N’Kejeda, so Annie reforms and takes them from her. Clicking on loop onto N’Kejeda’s (well, Tom’s) wrist, she attaches the other to the side of the truck: N’Kejeda is going nowhere. It looks like they have a prisoner. Now they just have to figure out what they’re going to do with him.

In the warehouse, the fight is pretty much over. Tom examines the two unconscious spooks, and then calmly incinerates them. [14] Ben waits, watching to see what’s happening outside. He sees one of them crawl over to what is either a corpse or a very badly injured man and open up with the shotgun. Trapped in a dead and unmovable body, Chet can only watch as the man points and fires. The bullets – ghost-shot, naturally – rip through his gauze, tearing great ragged holes. It’s only through sheer force of will that he manages to keep himself together and avoid dispersal. [15] Ben frowns, turning to Tom.
      “What the fuck? One of those guys just ventilated the other. Is one of our guys out there?”
      “Yeah, Chet went out.” Studying the scene of carnage, Tom realises that Chet’s host was the one being ventilated. “We have to get out there.” Ben is already moving. Coming around behind the shooter, he uses helter skelter to pick up a discarded weapon and pistol whip him with it. The man drops like a sack of severed limbs; unconscious but (probably) not dead.

It looks like the immediate fight is over, but they’re not out of the woods yet. Now that their hearing is starting to recover, they can hear gunfire from the nearby buildings: the other firefight is apparently still going full swing. And from the distance – but getting closer – there comes the unmistakeable wail of sirens.


Part Two – Some Fun Now

Now that the incoming fire seems to have ground to a halt, Tom sticks his head out to see what’s happening outside the warehouse. Spotting muzzle flash on the roof of a nearby warehouse, he heads over in that direction to take a look. (Now that he knows to listen for it, he can just about distinguish the sounds of gunfire from the ringing in his ears.) Whoever’s up there seems to be exchanging fire with people on the top floor of yet another warehouse. He uses juggernaut to put on a quick burst of speed, dropping it again when he gets to the building with the observation point atop its roof. There are a couple of nondescript vans inside the warehouse, together with a few desks and monitors. Some very harried-looking people (probably techies from the looks of them) are packing these into the vans. A couple of men with guns are standing guard. They’re not wearing spook goggles, but they spot Tom – who is still ablaze with witch’s nimbus – and open fire. One has a shotgun and one has a submachine gun. Their eyes are shielded by tinted visors, which means that they’re not blinded by the glare of witch’s nimbus. Not liking those odds, Tom tries to duck out of their line of fire. He neatly side-steps the SMG fire, only to walk straight into the shotgun blast. [16]

The guns are, naturally, loaded with ghost shot. The bullets rip through Tom’s gauze, but he pushes the pain aside to concentrate on his counter-attack. [17] Firing up juggernaut again, he manifests and sends balls of lightning arcing towards each of the two men. The first shot hits squarely, dropping the man to the ground with his hair and clothing ablaze. He screams and writhes around, trying to put out the flames. The second shot, however, sails wide of the mark and splashes against a pile of something that turns out to be flammable. The warehouse starts to burn. Tom sends two more bolts after the second man, hitting solidly with the second. Now that both guards are down (and on fire), Tom turns his attention to the techies. Unsurprisingly, they’re diving for the vans. Wanting to stop them without killing them, he carefully targets the vehicles, aiming for the wheels. [18] One van is soon immobilised, two of its wheels melted to slag. The people inside start screaming, scrambling to get out with at least as much fervour as they scrambled to get in. Turning his attention to the second vehicle, he tries to immobilise it the same way. Unfortunately, one of the shots goes a little awry. The next thing he knows, there’s a blazing fireball where the van used to be. [19] Well, it’s certainly not going anywhere.

One of the gunmen has managed to put his hair and clothing out. Still smoking, he gets to his feet. He goes for his gun, but Tom shoots first and hits. The guard isn’t going to be getting up a second time. Tom briefly considers dispatching the second guard, but just destroys his gun instead. [20] Checking for movement, he sees techies still fleeing from the unexploded van. Some are down and moaning, evidently injured in the blast. None of them are a threat to him. Dematerialising again, he heads up to take a look at whoever’s doing the shooting. Upstairs (well, up a ladder), there are more people armed and armoured the same way as the two he’s taken out. They’re busy exchanging fire with the people in the building across the way. Unfortunately, they’ve also got people watching their backs. Some of these spot Tom and start shooting at him. Luckily, none of them land any significant hits. Not liking the odds, Tom decides that discretion is the better part of valour and goes to get backup.

Back in the Phoenix warehouse, N’Kejeda has finally been securely restrained. He’s still thrashing around, but he’s not likely to break free any time soon. Once James has assured himself of that, he heads out into the warehouse to look for Kerekov. As he opens the door, a shot and blasted (and clearly very dead) body floats past him, into the truck. After a quick double-take, he notices that the body is being pushed along by silver threads, which are attached to Ben. He looks askance at the whole business, but decides to leave the questions to the others. If Kerekov is badly hurt, then time could be of the essence.

      “Chet’s stuck in the stiff.” Ben is as blunt as ever.
      “What do you mean?” Annie comes over to take a look as Ben settles the body down in a corner.
      “Chet puppeted the guy while he was still breathing. Didn’t come out when he got dead.”
      “That’s not supposed to be possible...” She’s already checking the body, looking for (hoping to find) that the deceased is wearing anti-spook cuffs. That’s the least worrying explanation she can think of. It’s possible that Chet was killed along with his host, but she hopes fervently that this isn’t the case. They’ve already lost Craig... She doesn’t find any cuffs, but she does find something that looks suspiciously like some kind of black glass tattoo. If it’s made of the same material they encountered at the Terrel and Squib experimental facility, its presence might explain Chet’s predicament. Working on that assumption, she fetches a scalpel from the sick bay and starts cutting it out. She tries to keep the implant intact, but ends up mangling it beyond all recognition. [21] Nevertheless, as soon as she digs out the last fragments Chet pops out. That qualifies as a success.

Kerekov lies slumped where N’Kejeda threw him, very deeply unconscious. His jaw is broken and he’s covered in bruises, but James doesn’t find anything immediately life-threatening. Once he’s ascertained that it’s safe to move him, he uses helter skelter to carry him into the truck so he can set the jaw. Somehow, he figures that Kerekov would rather be unconscious for the procedure.

Chet is looking pretty battered after all the damage he took out there, so various people top up his vitality. He rapidly briefs everyone on what happened out there. Unfortunately, he doesn’t remember anything he found in his host’s memory, so he has no idea who those people were or why they were attacking Phoenix. [22] If they want information, they’re going to have to take prisoners. They’re also going to have to clear an escape route before they hightail it out of there. Otherwise, there’s nothing stopping the enemy just using a rocket-launcher to blow up the truck. It looks like their exit is going to require a strategy. Tom returns as they start to discuss their options, filling them in on what he found in the other warehouse. After a few minutes’ discussion – possibly their shortest planning session to date – they have a plan. They waste no time putting it into practice.

Kate and Zoë donate vitality to the people who need it. Annie projects and splits off into four scout swarms. Three remain to keep watch over the truck, just in case any of the enemy decide to get sneaky. One goes with the assault team, both to provide boosting if necessary and to act as eyes and ears for the people back at the warehouse. The parts of her staying in the warehouse can also double as communication relays. (The lack of speech means that communication is limited to a pre-agreed set of signals, but it’s better than nothing.) The assault team consists of Tom, James and Ben. The plan is that they will neutralise the people in the warehouse without the observation post. (This is the one whose occupants were exchanging fire with the ones in the building Tom investigated.) Stealthily, they make their way to towards their target. Just before going in, they pause for a quick round of boosting. And then it’s on.

A large armoured van in parked inside the warehouse. From the looks of it, the vehicle is a decommissioned military armoured personnel carrier. It’s also guarded by two men with guns and goggles, who start shooting. They seem to be aiming for Tom (who’s now lit up with the electric glare of witch’s nimbus), managing to clip him lightly. [23] Ben stops the gunfire by the simple expedient of using helter skelter to click the safeties on. As Tom’s already looking a little battered, James heads out to make himself a target, boosting the Haunter as he does so. Tom uses the boost to fire up juggernaut. Materialising, James uses anathema – boosted by Ben – to send a wave of force racing towards the gunmen. [24] They both fly backwards. One bounces off the side of the vehicle and falls to the ground, stunned. The other skids across the warehouse floor. [25] Ben tries to knock their guns away from them. The first man is too dazed to resist, but the second manages to keep hold of his weapon. It doesn’t too him any good: Tom materialises and blows it up, taking the hand with it. This warehouse is now starting to burn. James uses anathema again, knocking the other man out. The one-armed (well, one-handed) bandit is grimly clinging onto consciousness, so James takes care of that the old-fashioned way: punching him until he falls down.

A quick inspection of the ground floor confirms that there are no other armed men lying in wait. Ben checks inside the APC.
      “Is there anything useful in there?” James asks.
      “If you count one living and three dead spooks as useful,” Ben replies. These must be the bodies of the skimmers. It makes sense that they’d be somewhere relatively close by. Two of the corpses are recognisable as belonging to the Wisp and the Haunter who just died attacking Phoenix. One body belongs to no one they’ve seen before. The living body belongs to N’Kejeda. Now, that’s definitely useful: it’s going to make questioning him a great deal easier. Now, however, is not the time, as evidenced by the gunfire still echoing from upstairs. Tom and James head up to investigate. Ben stays behind to keep an eye on N’Kejeda and to get the two corpses out of the vehicle. (In a moment of irony, he finds some anti-spook cuffs in the APC, which he uses to restrain N’Kejeda’s empty body.)

James goes ahead to scout. He manages to make some noise [26] but, luckily, the people up there are a little too preoccupied to notice him. There are five mercenaries in the upper section of the warehouse, and their attention is all focused on the building across the way. A couple of them are positioned near the windows and the rest are further back in the room. Creeping back down the ladder a little way, James reports what he saw to Tom and they put together a plan of attack. It’s a straightforward plan: James will go in first and get their attention. While they’re focused on him, Tom make his entrance. What could be simpler?

James charges in. He physically attacks one man and uses anathema to throw a second one out of the window. The man hits the opposite wall and falls to the ground. He’s certainly managed to get their attention. The combatant James just hit dives around the other side of the objects he was using as cover to allow his comrades a clear shot at James. They seize the opportunity, but he manages to dodge or shrug off all their bullets. Tom bounds in, drops witch’s nimbus and dives into one of their opponents. James boosts him, and he gets a solid grip on his host. [27] Following his current target, James physically attacks again, but doesn’t manage to land any solid blows. Tom knocks his host’s goggles off – it isn’t like he needs them – and shoots at the man nearest to him. He goes down, but is still twitching. Seeing this, another one of the gunmen switches out a regular clip for ghost-shot and shoots Tom. (Apparently, the host is considered expendable.) He hits solidly, managing to incapacitate the already-injured Tom, who falls away from his host and slumps to the ground, unconscious.

Seeing Tom go down, James realises it’s all up to him now. He congeals a semi-automatic rifle out of one arm, drawing upon his dark side to power it. [28] The weapon is oddly organic-looking; black, spiky and pulsing. It shoots little boring things instead of bullets. Turnabout being fair play, he shoots the man who just took Tom down, killing him. The missile bores into his throat and travels upwards, bursting out of the back of his head in a spray of blood and brains. Spinning to aim at the man next to him, he pulls the trigger just as his opponent manages to dive out of the way. The bullet starts to eat into the floor. Not thrown off his stride, James tries to slam the butt of the rifle down on the man, who rolls just out of reach. Flipping the weapon again, he points and shoots, catching his target squarely in the gut. The bullet/creature eats its way to the unfortunate man’s heart, which explodes in a shower of gore.

Now that he’s dealt with the immediate threat he heads over to Tom, taking a quick detour to finish off the man that Tom shot before being taken down himself. The warehouse is still under fire from the building opposite: James catches a stray bullet, but shrugs off the impact, taking cover and shooting back. [29] The gunmen immediately turn their attention to him, hitting a little more seriously now that they’re putting their minds to it. James decides that they’ve outstayed their welcome here. Picking up Tom, he heads back downstairs and tells Ben it’s time to go.
      “Did you find the keys to the APC?” Ben asks.
      “Afraid not.” James doesn’t add that they were a little too busy up there to start searching pockets.
      “Never mind.” Materialising, Ben hotwires the vehicle and drives straight through the (closed) doors. They catch some fire, but nothing that’s really likely to bother them.

Spotting the APC heading towards the Phoenix warehouse, Chet turns to Annie.
      “Is that friendly?” She signals that it is. Even so, people seem relieved when James hops out to tell them it’s time they blew this popsicle stand. “Did you get prisoners from both groups?” Chet wants to know.
      “No,” admits James. “Should we?”
      “It would be best.” They quickly put together a plan. Chet uses his new horror to temporarily allow James to ignore the pain of his injuries. [30] James and Ben (accompanied by one of Annie’s scout swarms) set off towards the warehouse occupied by the not-Nextworld group. After a brief pause for boosting, they head in. There are some horribly injured people scattered around, some moaning in pain and some silent as the grave. Also of interest are the remains of some computers and other electronic equipment. The gunfire seems to have stopped by this point, probably because there’s now no one in Nextworld ’s (former) warehouse to shoot back. James checks the bodies – moving and otherwise – identifying three people who have a chance of surviving being moved and questioned. [31] He tries to stabilise them, but only one of them makes it. [32]

The surviving gunmen from upstairs pick this moment to make a break for it. Asking Annie for help – she reabsorbs two of her scout swarms back in the Phoenix warehouse to reclaim the invested vitality, using some to recharge him some to boost him – he knocks one of them unconscious. The others are in the process of hotwiring a nearby van. Ben uses anathema to smash the vehicle, leaving the occupants alive but unable to go anywhere. Using helter skelter, James picks up the two prisoners (the technician he’d already picked out, plus the soldier he’s just taken down) and one of the computer towers. Dumping them in the APC with N’Kejeda. Getting back in his body, he takes the wheel.

Now it really is time to get out of there. The Phoenix group – spread between the truck and the APC – manage to leave just ahead of the sirens. Once they’ve put some distance between themselves and the scene, they do some offensive driving to get rid of any pursuit. When they’re sure they’re clear, they head for their pre-arranged bug-out point (some waste ground just out of town). Taking stock, they seem to be in reasonably good shape, considering. One casualty (Craig) and one man incapacitated (Tom). Three prisoners: N’Kejeda and two of the other group. A computer tower belonging to the not-Nextworld group. One way or another, they should be able to get some useful information. There’s even an upside to Tom being unconscious: it means N’Kejeda has been kicked out of his body. [33] The cuffs mean he can’t go anywhere, however, so he’s stuck there for the moment. Not only is he unable to control Tom’s body or to use any horrors, he can’t get inside his own body to offer any resistance to puppetry. After some consultation, they carefully put Tom back into his body so it doesn’t start to deteriorate. (It isn’t like they haven’t had enough practice at doing this.)

So: they think they’re safe for now. They’ve patched themselves up. They have prisoners. They have questions. It’s time to start getting some answers.


Part Three – Questions and Answers

Ben boosts James, who puppets N’Kejeda’s body. It’s so much easier to do this when the owner isn’t in residence. That is, of course, why they’re leaving him stuck exactly where he is. It does mean they can’t find out anything that he discovered since leaving his body, but that can’t be helped. As various members of the group ask questions, James rifles through his host’s memories. (They’re doing this in the APC, leaving N’Kejeda’s gauze back in the truck. They don’t exactly want him to know how much they know, nor what they plan to do about it.)

The Nextworld group have been watching Phoenix for the past couple of days. They got the location of the warehouse through Frank, albeit indirectly. His interviews are being serialised in the New York Times. Nextworld tracked down the journalist who’s been interviewing him and puppetted him to meet with Frank, who they then seized. After trawling through his memories, they killed him and handed his ghost over to their ‘client’. This is the same person who hired them to do the hit on Orpheus. N’Kejeda doesn’t know his name, but it’s a bald spook dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. The description sounds a lot like former Marion Prison inmate that the Phoenix group have identified as Uriah Bishop. And now Frank is in his hands. This is... not good. N’Kejeda doesn’t know (or care) where Frank was taken.

The client was extremely displeased with Nextworld ’s failure to finish the job regarding Orpheus. He expressed his displeasure by killing a number of them and burning down their Texas headquarters. (Yes, the fire they read about was his handiwork rather than Beta crucible’s.) All previous contact with him was handled by two men called Dupré and Derkov; the people who seized control of Nextworld from the original CEO. However, he killed them right in front of N’Kejeda; just put his hands in their chests and exploded their hearts. When he was done with them, he turned to N’Kejeda and told him that he was now in charge. As he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to him, he’s been trying to fulfil the contract. He contacts the client by telephone (James gets the number), but he hasn’t told him about this little operation, or given him the location of their warehouse. He was hoping to present it as a fait accompli, buying enough goodwill so that the client didn’t kill him, too. (They just seem to have the one client at the moment, but he’s apparently a well-paying, if somewhat wrathful, individual.)

The plan was to watch the warehouse for a while until they got an opportunity to strike. The next time significant numbers of the Phoenix spooks left the premises, they were planning on teleporting into the warehouse to take out anyone within. Naturally, this included doing a number on the bodies of anyone out and about in gauze form. They were also considering possessing someone, wiring them with explosives, going into the warehouse and going boom. In other words, the same thing they did during the Orpheus hit. It turns out that the chips they used for that were provided by the client. Essentially, they detect when the puppeteer leaves their host. It’s fairly straightforward to use this as a detonation signal.

N’Kejeda doesn’t know anything about the other surveillance/assault group. The exploding van was their doing, not Nextworld ’s. (He didn’t see a ghost – Craig – pop out of the warehouse when the van blew, so Craig was almost certainly shredded in the explosion. This was Shelley’s question – she was hoping that there was a chance he’d managed to survive the blast.) They spotted the observation post during their own surveillance and sent a skinrider over to see what was going on. The men there weren’t wearing anti-spook goggles as far as they could tell: the fact that they could see spooks on their own came as a complete surprise. Things went downhill from there. Nextworld did have a bug out plan – to drive off and head for a pre-agreed rendezvous point – but they didn’t have the chance to carry it out. Part of the exit strategy – and Nextworld ’s general contingency planning – involved setting up several caches of weapons and ammunition. The group’s collective response to this information is: “Yoink!” (They’ll be acquiring the contents of those caches at the earliest available opportunity.)

From N’Kejeda’s memories, he believes the client’s response to further failure would be to kill any Nextworld personnel who survived it. At the very least, he’s going to be extremely pissed off with them. That’s at least in part why he didn’t tell him that they were going to attempt this.

The client was actually heavily involved in the original Orpheus attack, mostly by providing resources to enable them to get the job done. He gave them spook-goggles (for their non-spook mercenaries) and ghost-shot. (Later, they acquired more of these by taking them from Terrel & Squib during the attack on their base.) He also provided backup: the spectres. Nextworld don’t know how he managed to do it, and they don’t seem to have asked too many questions. They were ordered to leave the spectres alone to get on with it, which is pretty much what they did. All members of the assault team were given a gauze chess piece to carry during the attack (also provided by the client), so the spectres wouldn’t target them. (These objects have long since faded away: apparently they weren’t permanent.) As well as killing the Orpheus employees, the assault teams were also ordered to destroy all the computers they could find.

There were twelve Nextworld spooks involved in the attack on Orpheus. There were only four left after the client was done expressing his displeasure. Now, with his three comrades fallen in battle, N’Kejeda is the last one. He pretty much is Nextworld at this point.

The overall aim of the New Year attacks was to get rid of everyone who could see ghosts. Orpheus was the main target, but they were also hitting mediums. In fact, their kill list included pretty much anyone in New York who claimed to be able to interact with the ‘other side’. (Interestingly, Madame Cassandra wasn’t on any of those lists.)

Nextworld have consultancies in all the major cities, and they handle all local work from those. For the Orpheus contract, however, they gathered teams of spooks from throughout the organisation, working on a national scale. (Taking out one of the mediums only tended to need a single operative, and not always even a spook. It sounds like most of them weren’t really able to defend themselves.)

Unsurprisingly, N’Kejeda has heard about Black Net. He’s never worked for them himself, but he knows people who have. He knows a few things about and related to Terrel & Squib. Some of this – that they’re a spook company who use spook tech and the odd ghost or two, rather than projectors – is already known to Phoenix, but he does have a few other interesting titbits. He thinks their ghosts are weak and mindless, not showing any initiative of their own. This would seem to imply that they produce their own ghost support (probably using the ghost-breaking techniques Phoenix saw/found out about), rather than simply recruiting it.

During the New Year attacks, Nextworld were under orders not to hit the T&S Boston base especially hard; just hard enough to let them know they’d been hit. Unlike with Orpheus, it seems that the client didn’t actually want every last one of them dead. As with the Orpheus hit, Nextworld grabbed some of their employees, possessed them and wired them to explode. Unfortunately for Nextworld , T&S apparently have cameras that can spot when someone’s being possessed, rendering the technique considerably less effective. They also had a few people who seemed to be able to see spooks without using goggles or cameras. Their security personnel mostly took down the human bombs before they got near anything important.

As Phoenix plan to infiltrate several T&S facilities at some point, the fact that those cameras exist is definitely useful to know. It means they’re going to have to consider alternative approaches. There’s a possibility that T&S may have supplied the technology to the FBI – the Feds were having lots of work done around their headquarters – but there’s no point worrying about that unless they plan on infiltrating One Federal Plaza. There is some good news, though. Apparently, one of N’Kejeda’s colleagues found out that spiking will fritz the spook-cameras for a few seconds.

In addition to hitting the company’s Boston headquarters, Nextworld also carried out a raind on a T&S storage facility in New York, taking out the people there and helping themselves to the spook-tech stored there. Basically, they killed people and took their stuff. They hit the NY storage facility on New Year’s Eve and the Boston base on New Year’s Day.

As well as his client, he knows that the Black Net organisation is also gunning for Orpheus. He doesn’t know of anyone else who’s out to get them, but then he hasn’t exactly been keeping track. He doesn’t know whether T&S are manufacturing pigment. He doesn’t actually know much about pigment, other than it’s a major pain in the arse to have people around who can see him while he’s out of body. He considers it fortunate that no one really pays any attention to the ramblings of deadheads.

Kerekov is top of Nextworld ’s hit list. They didn’t know that he was in Portland. In fact, the last N’Kejeda heard, Kerekov was in San Francisco somewhere. According to his memories, the big client offered Nextworld a lot of money to splat Orpheus and the other spook-detectors, but the CEO (Williams) turned him down. Williams wasn’t happy about carrying out such a large operation on US soil. Dupré (a man with great influence among the projectors) and Derkov (a defector from one of the Soviet psychic research programs, and the man responsible for developing Nextworld ’s spook training protocols) disagreed with Williams’ decision. So, apparently, did a lot of people. Dupré and Derkov successfully (and fatally) overthrew Williams and dealt with most of his supporters in a rather nasty coup. It was a very hostile takeover. Kerekov was loyal to Williams, but managed to get out ahead of the purge. (As a matter of fact, he’s the only loyalist projector who did so.) They’ve been hunting him ever since. This is nothing Kerekov hasn’t told them himself, of course, but it’s nice to have independent confirmation.

There’s a lot that N’Kejeda doesn’t know, but he seems quite happy with that as long as he gets paid. He doesn’t know how the video evidence against the Orpheus spooks was manufactured; nor does he know anything about the FBI infiltration. He doesn’t know of any gauze storms other than the one that used to rage at Ground Zero. Spook metaphysics and the mechanics of horrors – other than how to use them to kill people – are of no interest to him. He’s a soldier, not a theoretician. (He’s a very skilled soldier, though, and can use a total of seven horrors. The only particularly unusual one he has is pep, which he refers to as biokinesis.)

On the subject of more things he doesn’t know: the only thing knows about Mayfair Green is that he wants to avoid the place. He doesn’t know of any connection between Mayfair Green and his client, but Nextworld were hired to ensure that no one interfered with the events of Bounce Night. Someone else was giving the orders around that time – another spook in an orange jumpsuit. This one sounds a lot like Harper Forrester. He doesn’t know anything about the tower. He only found out about it after returning from the mission in Baltimore. Their client told them not to bother investigating it – he wanted them to concentrate on neutralising Phoenix instead. N’Kejeda and his team were in Baltimore to try to take out Beta crucible. What actually happened was that they exchanged fire with them a few times, managing to kill two of them. However, Beta crucible blew up a van full of Nextworld projectors. It sounds like Beta crucible shouldn’t be counted out of the game yet.

Wondering whether they can afford to let N’Kejeda live after this, James tries to determine if he’s still going to come after them, or if he’s likely to just give it up as a bad job. As near as he can tell, whether or not he’s going to take revenge for his capture will depend on how they treat him. None of this is personal for him: it’s just about money and survival. If he succeeds in killing them all, he gets two million dollars. If he fails, the client will kill him. Anything else isn’t part of the equation. Just in case, James digs out details of N’Kejeda’s family and friends, including addresses. It’s good to have some leverage and, according to the man’s memories, he genuinely cares for these people. (That comes as a surprise to some of his captors, who were starting to wonder if he was capable of such a thing.)

No one can think of any more questions for N’Kejeda, so it’s time to decide what to do with him. This is something that the whole group should really be involved in, so they put N’Kejeda back into his body in the APC and move the discussion to the truck. (It wouldn’t do to leave him in the truck to listen in on their discussion and plans.) They persuade him to return to his body by the simple expedient of holding a gun to his (physical) head and threatening to shoot unless he complies. Being practical – and having a healthy concern for his own survival – he does so. Naturally, they make sure his body is securely restrained as well as using the spook cuffs to stop him from projecting again. James rouses Tom from unconsciousness so that he can express his opinion. He doesn’t think it’s safe to risk waking Kerekov. Tom is a little groggy, but otherwise coherent.

      “We have three options,” says Annie, once everyone who’s going to be is present and conscious. “We can kill him, we let him go, or we can turn him over to the authorities.” She looks around at the assembled spooks. “Well?” Discussion ensues.
      “Cap him.” Ben doesn’t hesitate. “Fucker’s killed too many of us already; it’s time for some payback. And he’s too dangerous to leave alive.”
      Hoyt frowns. “Let’s just let him go, man. He isn’t going to come after us – he’s going to be too busy saving his own skin.” He sighs. “There’s been enough killing.” Chet and Shelley also vote to execute N’Kejeda, Chet because he wants justice and doesn’t think the authorities can give it to them and Shelley because she wants revenge for Craig’s death. (Technically, he wasn’t responsible for that, but Shelley doesn’t seem to care. She’s determined that someone should pay, and he’s right there.) Mitch and Blink abstain from the vote altogether. (Mitch thinks it should be the spooks’ decision, not his.) Kate, Adrian, and Zoë vote to let him go.
      “Hand him to the Feds or kill him,” says Annie. “Preferably hand him over, as that might buy us some goodwill. If handing him over is too risky, we should kill him. I do not want to let him just walk away.”
      Tom glares in the direction of the APC. “I want to kill him,” he starts, but then stops and sighs. “But I vote to hand him in to the authorities.”
      “If we can hand him over,” says James, “then I think we should. Otherwise we should kill him.” He looks towards Annie. “How could handing him in be dangerous to us?”
      “Depending on what he tells them about us, we could end up going straight back on the most-wanted list again. I don’t think it’s that likely, but we have to consider the possibility.” They think about that for a while, but come to the conclusion that N’Kejeda probably doesn’t know all that much about their less than legal activities. All he can really tell the FBI is that they killed some of his people in self-defence. Besides – how much weight are the Feds going to give to any accusations he may make?
      “We can always try to negotiate an amnesty,” points out Blink. That idea does have some merit, although they figure they have a much higher chance of coming out of this smelling of roses if they go through Carlos. Not only is he a masterclass negotiator – assuming he’s willing to employ his skills on their behalf – but the FBI faction he’s connected with seem to have a much higher tolerance for Phoenix than Osorio’s group. Hopefully, they have a vested interest in their new ‘consultants’ not going down.
      “He still deserves to be executed,” Tom mutters, a little blurrily.
      “Don’t worry,” Annie smiles blackly. “Bishop’s probably going to ensure he dies in custody. In fact,” she muses, “we should tell the Feds this – maybe offer to help set a trap for him. If we succeed, we get Bishop and more goodwill from the authorities. If we fail, Bishop kills N’Kejeda. I’d say that’s a win-win situation.”

After some more discussion, the group comes around to the idea of turning N’Kejeda in. They figure it will look better for them if they do this sooner, rather than later, but Tom interrupts before someone can dig out Carlos’ number.
      “Someone should use forebode – see if this is likely to turn out badly for us.” It’s a good idea. In fact, it’s a very good idea. Kate – the group’s best foreboder – agrees to give it a go. She’s still very badly wounded, but Chet can help her to ignore the pain of her injuries. Once he’s done this, Annie makes use of swarm queen’s side-effect to ensure that Chet, James, Tom and Ben can all lend their assistance. Kate concentrates, her gaze turning distant. A few moments pass, and then she snaps back into the here and now. Even in gauze, she pales noticeably.
      “I saw darkness,” she says, haltingly. “Howling winds. A storm. Black clouds covered the sky. Some of us were there.” She gestures vaguely around at them all. “I’m not sure exactly who, or how many, but we were there. We were with some men dressed in fatigues – they might have been spooks.” A frown crosses her face. “Well, we might have been there with them. I’m not sure. We were definitely organised in two separate groups, but we didn’t seem to be fighting. Maybe we were allies?” She doesn’t sound at all sure of herself.
      “Were they wearing insignia?” Annie speaks softly, not wanting to disrupt her recall.
      “I didn’t see any, but it was very dark. We had to carry our own lights with us. We were walking through the city. Well, a city, anyway. I don’t think it was New York. There was a building. Not a tower” – she forestalls the obvious question – “but something else. I remember pillars. We... Both groups were moving towards it. I think we were planning to go inside.” She looks around at them all. “That was all I saw.”
      “What question did you ask?”
      She glances at Annie. “The one we agreed on: what will happen if we hand N’Kejeda over to the FBI, warn them that Bishop’s likely to come for him and offer to help with an ambush?”

      “So, what does that mean?” James looks to Kate. “Was that the land of the spectres? Are they going to break through somewhere else, like with the tower?”
      “I don’t know,” she says.
      “We need more information,” says Annie. “I can try looking at the same event, maybe with a different question.” Recalling how tapped out they all are, she smiles ruefully. “Maybe after a good night’s rest.” They discuss Kate’s vision for a while and decide that, ultimately, they still want to hand N’Kejeda in. Their original reasons are still sound, after all, and nothing in the vision isn’t necessarily unequivocally bad. It may just represent them managing to get a lead on where their enemies are currently hiding. The spooks in fatigues might well be on their side. That decision more or less made, they decide they might as well see what the other prisoners know before making contact with Carlos. They just about manage to scrape up enough energy between them to boost Chet so he can puppet them.

They have one soldier and one technician, both of whom are wearing black glass tattoos. James carefully removes these before Chet dives in. The first thing the group want to know is what their prisoners and their team were doing there. To no one’s great surprise, the men are high-end assassins working for Black Net. They’ve been working together for some time now. This mission – for which they were being paid a total of one million dollars – was the same as N’Kejeda’s: to kill them all. Their briefing included the warehouse location and full dossiers on everyone there. The dossiers were complete and accurate up to the time of the fall of Orpheus, and contain a full breakdown of the abilities they possessed at that point. Interestingly, the assassins were also given a special Black Net login which allowed them to access GPS tracking data for Tom’s mobile phone (the one he kept for Frank to contact him on). (This means they could have been tracked to their current hidey-hole. They’re going to have to destroy or leave the device and move on. They start making preparations while Chet finishes his information retrieval.)

Before being sent out on-mission, the assassins were equipped with some very special kit. Additionally, the lot of them were driven out to a lab somewhere in black vans, where they were subjected to procedures that required them being put under general anaesthetic. They weren’t supposed to know the location of the lab, but the technician – who, it turns out, was actually the head of the technical support team – made it is business to find out. He viewed the knowledge as insurance. The lab turns out to be based just outside Baltimore.

The fact that the assassins were unconscious for a specific procedure rings alarm bells for the Phoenix spooks, and they immediately start looking for chips. No one is surprised to find that both men have scars on the backs of their necks. Shelley follows the signal, tracking it through a government communications satellite and, eventually, to the headquarters of the NSA. Even as she relays this information, Shelley is already zapping the chips. They really do have to move, and quickly.

The men themselves don’t know the identity of their client (Black Net is supposed to be anonymous, after all), but from the resources being thrown at them they suspect it’s a government agency. It would seem that their suspicions are correct. Their plan was to watch their targets for a little while until they identify the best time to strike. (One of the first things they did was move the van full of explosives into position.) They weren’t expecting to run into a Nextworld team competing for the same target. When the skinrider came over to see what was going on, they spotted him and assumed they’d been made. Phoenix know the rest.

So, as well as being hunted by a group of apparently deceased former Marion Prison inmates, not to mention the spectres, they also have the NSA on their backs. Could their situation get any worse?


Part Four – Persons of Interest

There are at least two ways in which Phoenix’ enemies could have tracked them to their current hiding place: Tom’s mobile phone (now switched off) and the chips (now disabled) implanted in the two Black Net mercenaries. That means it’s time to move. Tom knows the area best, being a former NYPD cop, so he picks their next temporary hiding place. Chet continues his trawl of the prisoners’ memories as they drive. (N’Kejeda and the other Black Net prisoner are securely trussed up in the APC, watched over by Ben. Zoë is driving. Everyone else – including the prisoner currently being possessed by Chet – is in the truck, which is being driven by Hoyt.)

The Black Net assassins were equipped with a variety of specialised equipment by their employers, all of which – they were assured – will work on spooks. Their load-out includes claymores (one of which they used to blow up Phoenix’ warehouse), grenades, ghost-shot, electronic sensors (both motion detectors and AV equipment) and spook cuffs. Additionally, they were given patches – similar to nicotine patches – that they were told would allow them to see spooks without using the sensors. It seems likely that these are doped with Pigment, or with something similar. Unfortunately, the bulk of their spook equipment was left behind in the warehouse they were using as their base of operations. It’s undoubtedly in the hands of New York’s finest by now. They do have various mundane weapons caches scattered around, however.

The contract was to kill the remaining Phoenix personnel, and the team was thoroughly briefed on how to take out spooks. They were told to concentrate on making sure that their targets’ bodies were dead. If it was easier to focus on the gauze, then they were to do that, but the primary aim was to kill the meat. [34] The prisoner doesn’t know whether the job will be passed on to anyone else in the wake of their failure. He also doesn’t know if any other teams were given the same assignment, but he doesn’t think it likely. His team is one of the best, and – he believes – would have succeeded if it wasn’t for the other group’s interference.

At James’ request, Chet follows that train of thought back to get an idea of the sequence of events. After being briefed and equipped by their employers, the team set up their observation point and put one of their special claymores in position. They observed their targets for a few days, and then everything went wrong. An unknown spook turned up at the OP and dived into one of their operatives. As per their protocol, they opened up with ghost shot and the puppeteer returned fire. They took him down, but by that point the operation was blown. Figuring that their targets must have heard the firefight, they had no choice but to move with the attack, even though they weren’t ready. Phoenix knows the rest.

After a little more digging, Chet confirms that they now possess all the useful information relevant to the attack and asks if they want to know anything else. James wants to know who they are and where they live. Both Black Net operatives own nice houses in different states, and are very careful about making sure there’s no way of connecting those with their day jobs. Neither of them is wanted for anything by the authorities, or has been caught breaking any laws. (That’s hardly a surprise for professional assassins of their calibre.)       “Does he own an expensive sports car?” James indicates the prisoner that Chet is currently possessing, looking hopeful.       “No.” In any case, taking their prisoners’ money and stuff would look really bad if they hand them over to the Feds. The group briefly talks about what they should do with the two of them but, unlike with N’Kejeda, it’s a fairly brief discussion. The decision is unanimous: they’re going to hand them over with their favourite Nextworld merc.

There are still more decisions to be made. The two most pressing matters are: where do they go now, and what should they do with the APC? The first question remains unresolved for the time being. The second one is much easier. The big problem with the APC is that it’s a fairly distinctive vehicle. The NSA could be tracking it via satellite right now. As soon as that thought occurs to them, they make sure to head for cover, following Tom’s directions into a forest. Longer-term, they either need to stash it or ditch it. In the end, they opt for the latter, deciding to give it to the FBI along with their prisoners. It makes it easier, in a way: if the vehicle is disposable, they can just send a couple of projected spooks to make the hand-off. One can manifest to drive the vehicle, and they can both ripcord when the transaction is complete, or if anything goes wrong. They won’t be leaving behind anything they’ll miss. Well, they will miss the APC – more for the potential than anything else – but they like not being tracked down even more.

Now that they’ve decided what they’re doing with their prisoners, it’s time to try to make it happen. That means contacting Carlos. James pulls out his phone and makes the call. [35]
      “Yes?”
      “Carlos?”
      “Yes.”
      “It’s James. There’s been an... incident. A firefight. Have you seen the news?” He can hear the television playing quietly in the background.
      “Let me guess: the warehouse district.” It isn’t a question, but James confirms it anyway.
      “Yes.”
      Carlos sighs heavily. “Did you bring down another tower?”
      “No, nothing like that. We were hit by a couple of agencies.”
      “Agencies? What agencies?” For once, Carlos sounds a little shaken.
      “Nextworld , for one.”
      Carlos breaks in while James is wondering how to say the next part without attracting undue attention. “That’s not an agency, that’s an illegal organisation,” he proclaims scornfully. “An Agency” – James can practically hear the capital letter – “is something like the CIA or NSA.”
      “You...” James is lost for words. “You didn’t just... Aaarrrgh!” He hangs up, turning his phone off and giving serious consideration to jumping up and down on it for good measure. Annie and Tom exchange glances.
      “What happened?” Annie asks.<BR       “He said the name!” James is in high colour, indignation disturbing his normally laconic demeanour. “He mentioned the NSA. Now they’re really listening!” He shakes his head. “I need another phone.”

After borrowing one of the others’ phones – and after taking a few deep, calming breaths – James calls Carlos’ landline.
      “Thanks for getting their attention!” He doesn’t even wait for Carlos to finish saying hello. “They were involved in the attack!”
      “What? Who?”
      “One of the Agencies you mentioned.” James also pronounces the capitalisation, the word tinged with disgust.
      Carlos is silent for a moment, digesting that. “Which one?”
      “I’m not just going to say their name!” James says, in exasperation.
      “Do they operate domestically or on foreign soil?”
      “Domestically. And they’re into computers. Really into computers.”
      “Oh. I... think I know which one you mean now.”
      “Good! Then let’s not mention their name again, shall we?”
      “I wasn’t going...”
      “Anyway,” James interrupts Carlos before he can finish his sentence. “We have some prisoners we want to hand over to the Feds, and we’d like you to arrange it. There are three of them – one Nextworld and two other. One of them is... special. Like us. They’ll need to take special precautions with him.”
      “The Agency has special personnel on payroll?” Carlos asks, disbelievingly.
      “What? Oh, no. The spook is with Nextworld . Well,” he amends, “he was with Nextworld . I don’t think there are many of them left any more, though.”
      “So, let me get this right: are you telling me that you were attacked by actual government agents? And you captured two of them?”
      “They weren’t agents – they were mercenaries. They were hired through that organisation we’ve mentioned before. Second word is net.”
      “I see.” That information comes as something of a relief. “Is there anything else you need to tell me?”
      “Two of the prisoners are pretty badly hurt. They’re probably going to need professional medical attention. And I mentioned the APC, right?”
      “What?!” This conversation is really trying Carlos’ customary aura of calm control.
      “Nextworld had an ex-military APC. We took it. We’d like to hand that over with the prisoners.”
      “I’ll be sure to mention it. Now, I’m going to need more information about the Agency angle. How do you know they were involved? Do you have any proof?”
      “No, not really. We used our special abilities. The mercenaries were implanted with tracking chips – one of our people tracked the signal before disabling them. It was being relayed to a one of their bases in Maryland.” He means Fort Meade, but he doesn’t want to say the name, just in case. As he’s thought before, it’s not paranoia if ‘they’ really are out to get you.
      “I see. Anything else?”
      “Well, no. Their employers weren’t exactly advertising their identity. They suspected a government agency of some kind, but that’s hardly proof. Oh!” James remembers something. “We’re pretty sure the agency has access to anything on the Feds’ computers. Your friends might want to keep this off the system, if they can. Also, someone might be coming after the Nextworld guy to try to kill him.”
      “Who?”
      “A spook called Bishop. Friend of Ethan Torrence, and probably the one responsible for killing the Orpheus people who were in custody. He’s the one who burned down Nextworld ’s Texas base recently, and who was behind the Bounce Night deaths.”
      “I’ll make sure to pass that on.”
      “See that you do. And try to make sure you don’t tip off the NSA.” There’s a brief pause, and then a torrent of invective comes from James’ end of the line as he realises what he’s just said. [36] Perhaps wisely, Carlos doesn’t comment. Before James hangs up, he says:
      “This is going to take some time to arrange. I’ll call one of you back when I’m done.”
      “Fine. Thank you.” Stabbing the ‘end call’ button with unnecessary vehemence, James turns to Tom and says: “Next time, you ring.” [37]

Carlos arranges to meet Special Agent Larson – his main contact at the FBI, and an individual with a certain amount of clout – out of the office. Specifically, they meet in a pizza parlour. After exchanging greetings, Larson asks curiously:
      “Why so paranoid?”
      “There’s been a... situation. Have you seen the news?”
      “Ah yes. The terrorist incident in Queens.” It isn’t really a question.
      “The warehouse district, yes.”
      “Car bombs, firefights, bodies galore... Real fun and games.” Larson’s voice isn’t so much tinged with irony as saturated by it. “Let me guess: your friends are involved somehow.” Again: not really a question.
      “They were attacked.”
      “I’ve heard this song before. Their base gets blown up, with a not inconsiderable amount of collateral damage. They set up another base, which also gets blown up. Popular, aren’t they?” He shakes his head. “Must be hell on property values.”
      “They can prove it this time.”
      “Really? How?”
      “They have prisoners.”
      Larson sits up straight, suddenly alert and serious. “Who?”
      “There are three of them. One’s from NextWorld. The...”
      “The same organisation they blamed for the last one?”
      “Yes. The other two...” Carlos hesitates for a fraction of a second, then gamely ploughs on. “Phoenix was attacked by two separate groups. I don’t have all the details yet, but it sounds like it was all a bit of a mess. The other two prisoners are both from the second group, which is associated with our friends down the road.”
      Larson stares in horror. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Groaning, he covers his face with his hands. “Please tell me you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.”
      “What do you think I’m saying?” Carlos asks cautiously.
      “It sounds like you’re saying your friends assaulted and kidnapped a couple of government employees.” Raising his head, he meets Carlos’ gaze with pleading eyes. “You are not telling me that.”
      “Oh, no. The other prisoners are mercenaries. My associates believe that they were employed by the agency with the sensitive hearing.” Carlos quickly fills Larson in on what he knows. Mention of the APC causes the agent to raise his eyebrows.
      “I don’t even want to know. I think I can persuade the NYPD to take custody of it, though. They’ve got a big enough impound lot, and I’m sure some of them would be happy have a new toy to play with.” Carlos continues his all-too brief account. When he’s done, Larson frowns thoughtfully. “I’m a little concerned about what proof they have that these prisoners were involved in the attack, but that’s something we can sort out afterwards. We’ll take them off their hands – leave it with me and I’ll make the arrangements.” Shaking his head, he mutters. “Now I just need to figure out a way to keep them out of the system.” Carlos passed on James’ warning about certain information not being as confidential as it should be.
      “There’s something else.”
      Larson sighs. “There always is. Go on.”
      “They think that the spook who hired NextWorld is likely to try and kill N’Kejeda. This may be the same individual responsible for the deaths of the Orpheus personnel in custody.”
      “That’s interesting.” Larson sits back in his seat, looking thoughtful. “Did they give any reason for thinking that?”
      “The prisoner believes it.”
      “I’m not even going to ask how they know that.” Larson gives a minute shrug. “If it’s true, this spook might have a bit of a surprise. We’ve done some remodelling since the last time.” He seems confident that they can keep their prisoner safe. This time.

After an hour or so – Larson moves quickly – the handover has been arranged. It will take place in the car park of an abandoned factory chosen by Phoenix. (Larson suggested that they choose the place, showing a certain understanding of the fugitive mindset.) James and Ben project and go to the meet. James manifests and drives, while Ben remains immaterial and watches the prisoners. None of them give him any trouble. The FBI agents are already in place when they get there, with an ambulance standing by for the injured men. There is no sign of Carlos, but he gave the Phoenix spooks a password to give to the man in charge. They want to make sure they hand the prisoners over to the right person, after all. One man takes a few steps towards the APC: presumably this would be the man to talk to. James steps out of the vehicle and slowly heads towards him, being careful to make no threatening moves. Even so, there’s a general indrawing of breath and a clearly audible “holy shit!” from one of the agents. Despite his comrades donating whatever odds and ends of vitality they had left, James is rather low on energy. This means he’s looking rather like a walking corpse at the moment.
      “Sorry about the Nâzgul impression,” he says, ruefully.
      “Not exactly what we were expecting,” the leader murmurs. In a stronger voice, he continues. “I’m Agent Larson and I’m in charge of this operation. I understand you have something for me.”
      “Yes, after the password challenge,” replies James.
      “Of course. Go ahead.” James repeats the code-phrase Carlos told him, and Larson gives the correct response. [38]
      James nods. “I’ll show you the prisoners.” He leads Larson into to the APC, where he identifies each of the prisoners, stressing the fact that N’Kejeda is a projector. Not to mention a highly-skilled fighter. “Leave those cuffs on,” he advises. “They’ll stop him projecting.”
      Larson looks interested. “I’ve heard about those,” he says. “Don’t worry, though: we can keep him contained.” That’s a worry in and of itself; that the FBI have ways of capturing spooks. That may be useful in this case, but what if Phoenix ends up on the wrong side of them? After giving the vehicle and the prisoners a once-over, Larson issues orders to his men. As they start securing their new acquisitions, he turns his attention back to James. “Is there anything further you might be able tell me about the incident in the warehouse district? I’ve been briefed, of course, but I would appreciate a more thorough report.”
      James considers for a moment, and then nods. “Fine.” He gives a brief account of what happened and what they found out. There are a few things he leaves out, but Larson seems satisfied. James and Ben ripcord back to their bodies.

About four hours after the hand-off, several Phoenix members meet up with Carlos, who wants more information. Before they get down to business, Annie breaks the news about Craig’s final death. [39] He seems to take it fairly well. They fill him in on all the relevant facts, and then the discussion begins in earnest. One of the threats to their continued survival (NextWorld) is no longer an issue. They have a solid lead on another one (the lab where the BlackNet team were chipped). On balance, it seems like they’re actually making progress.

And all it cost them was one life.


Footnotes

[1] For this session, the part of Chet is being played by Carlos’ player. There was no real way of working Carlos into this scene. [Back]

[2] A botched [Perception + Alertness] roll to see what’s going on. [Back]

[3] James is using the benefit of anathema to let Hoyt get a 5 vitality effect by spending only 1 point of vitality. [Back]

[4] A botched [Perception + Alertness] roll. [Back]

[5] A successful [Perception + Alertness] roll, much to everyone’s surprise. [Back]

[6] Ben uses the benefit of anathema, allowing Tom to spend 1 vitality to have juggernaut 5 (i.e. with the potency of a 5 vitality effect) up for 6 rounds. He uses this to get 2 extra actions, +1 [Strength] and +3 [Stamina]. [Back]

[7] 1 success on the roll this time. [Back]

[8] 2 successes on a [Dexterity + Stealth] roll. [Back]

[9] Unearthly repose is disrupted if the Wisp takes damage. [Back]

[10] The benefit of Wail reduces difficulties by 2. Unfortunately, the GM’s roll for Hoyt’s repair attempt came up a botch. [Back]

[11] The third-tier Skinrider horror is called Pep, and it lets a spook remove (or add) wound penalties from themselves or others. The interesting thing is that they can do this to flesh as well as gauze. It will certainly come in handy. [Back]

[12] 1 success on the roll to look as though it was an accident. 2 successes on the [Dexterity + ?] roll to make sure it goes where it’s supposed to. [Back]

[13] When she uses swarm queen, Annie can divide herself into a number of separate swarms. Taking separate actions (such as attacking different targets) requires a roll, but otherwise all she has to do is invest vitality in them (at least 1 per sub-swarm). This vitality is not spent, and can be reclaimed at any time by re-absorbing the swarm. She can also spend a swarm’s invested vitality to use a horror. One of the advantages of using sub-swarms is that they take damage like ghosts. This means that, if one is attacked, the swarm loses vitality but Annie herself doesn’t take any damage. If a swarm loses all of its invested vitality, it is dispersed. (Dispersal of a sub-swarm may do Annie a point of bashing damage – I can’t remember.) She split off 1 sub-swarm to subdue N’Kejeda. I spent a point of willpower to boost it to 4 vitality, so it would last a bit longer if he started attacking it. [Back]

[14] The GM gave him 4 points of temporary spite for cold-blooded murder. [Back]

[15] Sleepers take vitality damage rather than wounds, like ghosts. They’re dispersed when they hit zero vitality and willpower. Chet just took 10 points of vitality damage in a single hit, on top of the damage he suffered earlier in the fight. He’s in pretty bad shape. [Back]

[16] 4 successes on the first dodge roll followed by a botch on the second. [Back]

[17] Spending 1 [Willpower] lets you ignore wound penalties for a number of rounds equal to your [Stamina]. [#Footnote_17L|[Back]]]

[18] It was an [Intelligence + Crafts (Mechanic)] roll to work out how to disable the vans. The player got zero successes, but came up with the idea of targeting the wheels. [Back]

[19] Someone botched a roll. [Back]

[20] 5 successes. Pinpoint accuracy. [Back]

[21] Failed [Dexterity + Medicine] roll. [Back]

[22] When a puppeteer leaves a host, they forget everything they found out from delving through the person’s memories. When using puppetry as a means of interrogation, there has to be some means of recording the information, often by telling a partner. Under some circumstances, taking notes or audiovisual recordings can be helpful, but not generally on the battlefield. [Back]

[23] Tom dodges the one attack but the other hits, doing 2 damage. [Back]

[24] Unlike helter skelter, anathema only works on the physical world if the spook materialises first. [Back]

[25] The attacks succeeded with 2 successes and 1 success, respectively. [Back]

[26] No successes on the [Dexterity + Stealth] roll. At least it wasn’t a botch. [Back]

[27] Three successes. [Back]

[28] He tapped Spite instead of using Vitality. [Back]

[29] Cover gives +1 difficulty to an opponent’s roll to hit. [Back]

[30] That is: he uses Pep to remove James’ wound penalties (managing to take off 3 dice’ worth). [Back]

[31] A [Perception + Medicine] roll to identify which ones will survive long enough to be useful. [Back]

[32] An [Intelligence + Medicine] roll for each one: 1 success, 0 successes and 4 successes, respectively. Only the last one was enough. [Back]

[33] If a puppeteer’s host is rendered unconscious – or even just falls asleep – they pop out of it. It’s only possible to possess an individual who’s conscious, although the puppeteer can put them into a state where they’re not aware of anything. (Effectively, this is putting their mind to sleep while leaving their body awake.) [Back]

[34] This part is interesting. Why would they not want to make sure we didn’t leave behind ghosts? Especially ghosts who might well be motivated to track down whoever killed them and wreak bloody revenge. This might tell us something about the reasons why the NSA – assuming that’s really who put up the contract – want Phoenix dead. It suggests to me that they’re worried about something that’s only relevant to the living. What can the living do that a ghost can’t? Aside from the obvious, one answer is that a ghost can’t go to the authorities. No court of law would accept evidence or testimony from beyond the grave. Based on this assumption, my guess would be that they’re trying to silence us: they think we know something that they don’t want us to reveal to the authorities, or even just to the general public. (The former seems more likely.) The question is, then: what do they think we know? It could be the chips themselves. Implanting American citizens with recording and tracking devices (plus whatever other functions they might have) without their knowledge or consent surely isn’t legal. It could also just be that they want to keep the technology secret, but then giving it to the Black Net team might contradict that. Whatever the truth is, we need to find out what they think we know, so we can use it either as a basis for negotiation (because blackmail is such an ugly word) or to take them down. [Back]

[35] It now occurs to me that we hadn’t thought this through properly. We know that the Black Net team had access to a GPS trace on Tom’s phone. How might they have got that? Answer: they were (apparently) being employed by the No Such Agency; electronic surveillance (including phone tapping and tracing) a speciality. And how did the NSA know which phone to tap? By starting with Frank’s pet journalist, same as Bishop. The journalist’s phone leads them to Frank’s phone, which leads them to Tom’s. From there, they can get anyone he’s ever called, or been called by. Like the rest of the Phoenix group. Like James. For that matter, like Carlos himself. (And the phone we gave to Brook House.) We can only hope that they hadn’t gotten that far yet, and therefore weren’t listening in on the subsequent conversation. Or tracking us by means of any of our other phones. And we have to ditch all our phones. Again. It’s something we really should do more often than we have been. [Back]

[36] The question is: are we being too paranoid, or not paranoid enough? [Back]

[37] This conversation was actually played through twice. Carlos’ player was a little late, so the first iteration had the GM playing the character. When the player arrived, the GM decided it would be better (that is to say, funnier) to have him do the honours. The above dialogue comes from this version. The first one went much smoother. [Back]

[38] Of course, this type of precaution is no use if the ‘right’ person is being possessed. Perhaps James should have checked for passengers, but we didn’t think of it at the time. Also, I doubt Larson would have agreed to let James puppet him, even for a moment. What we really need are some of those cameras that Terrel & Squib have. [Back]

[39] Carlos knew Craig back when they were both at the FBI. It’s not clear how close they were, but it was close enough for Carlos to attend the funeral. [Back]