Orpheus: The Taste of Ashes - Missions - Mission017

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Dramatis Personae

Protagonists

  • James Darkwood, Poltergeist
  • Annie Harper, Metamorph (revenant)
  • Carlos Hayaté, Wisp
  • Tom Knox, Haunter

Supporting Characters

Phoenix

  • Adrian Challis, Wisp
  • Ben Cotton, Poltergeist
  • James Darkwood, Poltergeist
  • Kate Dennison, Banshee
  • Carlos Hayaté, Wisp
  • Chet Mason, Skinrider
  • Hoyt Masterson, Haunter
  • Shelley Young, Haunter

The Arms of Light

  • Madame Cassandra, medium (non-projector, as far as they know)

Brook House

  • Bill Knox, Banshee (hue)
  • Mona, Banshee

FBI

  • Special Agent Larson
  • Various agents

Spectres

  • Reginald, AKA Fluffy, spectre-possessed Chihuahua; animal Jason (?)
  • A Fetch
  • A car-crash victim, twisted pieces of metal embedded in his form; Haunter-equivalent?

Spooks

  • A mysterious presence

Other Non-Spook

  • Various police officers
  • Various paramedics


Mission Seventeen – Interludes and Examinations

Part One – Watching the Watchers

It’s Sunday afternoon, and the Phoenix spooks (plus Carlos) are engaged in their favourite pastime: discussion. The first matter to be dealt with is security: namely, replacing the SIM cards in their mobile phones. (Tom asks Shelley if the NSA will still be able to track the phones after they do that. She doesn’t think so.) Ben and Hoyt go off to buy a pile of the things, making sure to spread the purchases around a little. Carlos also gets a new sim, plus an extra phone so he can keep a separate one for Phoenix business. He isn’t too happy about his own security being compromised.

High on the agenda is the question of where they’re going to live now. They are in the process of buying a hotel, but the paperwork on that won’t go through for at least another couple of weeks. No one really fancies a couple of weeks sleeping in the truck. The good news is that their recent jobs mean that they actually have a little cash on hand for once. They decide to use some of that to rent motel rooms, thus solving their (hopefully short-term) accommodation problem. They talk about setting up some other safe houses – perhaps squats, as they’ll definitely be off the books – but that’s something to deal with when they’re a little more mobile. The truck isn’t exactly inconspicuous. In order to avoid drawing unwanted attention, they pick a motel by a truck stop, and park up amongst all the other massive vehicles.

So, they think (hope!) they’ve shaken the NSA’s surveillance, and they have temporary accommodation. The next subject on the table is: what do they do next? Their ‘to do’ list has been accumulating items faster than they’ve been dealing with them; every time they try to tie up one loose end, a thousand more seem to unravel. So, where do they start? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the most logical place might actually be the most recent. NextWorld is effectively out of the picture. Bishop is still a problem, but with his pet assassins taken care of, they hope he’s not an immediate threat to their wellbeing. That leaves the NSA. Now that Phoenix is no longer being targeted by Feds and the police, the agency is their only significant non-spook threat. If they can neutralise them somehow, it’ll make dealing with the rest of their ‘to do’ list much, much easier.

Courtesy of the Black Net assassins, [1] they have a lead: the lab just outside Baltimore. (Technically, there’s also Fort Meade, but they think that hitting the main headquarters of the NSA – who are, apparently, more than a little familiar with anti-spook technology – is a little beyond their capabilities right now.) The good thing about this lead is that, as far as the NSA knows, their assassins don’t know where the lab is. This means they have no reason to think that Phoenix knows where it is. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy target, but at least no one’s going to be expecting them. They hope.

Before heading out to Baltimore, Carlos and Tom do some basic research on the facility. This mainly involves using the internet, and making a few calls. [2] The address is registered to a company called CellTech. They’re a specialised lab supply company, selling equipment to groups and organisations carrying out stem cell research. They have lab facilities, but these seem to be for designing and building the products they sell, rather than for any biological work. (They don’t do any stem cell work themselves; they just sell the relevant equipment to the people who do.) CellTech is a private company, not a publically traded one, so its board members aren’t listed in the stock exchange. Their website has contact numbers, but no names. The facility itself is located in an industrial park in the outskirts of Baltimore. They – or, at least, the receptionists – seem to keep normal office hours. A little more digging turns up the fact that they use a private waste disposal firm – a company called PolkaCrest – who make regular collections from the compound.

Baltimore is about a two hour drive from New York, so they get a good night’s rest and head up there the next day. The initial scout party consists of Carlos, Tom and Annie. (Back in New York, Chet is keeping an eye on the invalids and Shelley is keeping watch electronically for any signs of unusual interest. She seems to have taken over Craig’s role as security expert. James, Hoyt and Ben are keeping watch the old-fashioned way. They don’t think anyone’s still tracking them, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.) Phoenix’ only current vehicle is the truck, so Carlos is generously (and reluctantly) providing transport. As luck would have it, his car – the one that was damaged in the blast wave from the tower’s fall – has just been returned from the garage, good as new. He eyes Tom and Annie suspiciously as they get in.
      “You’re not going to drop another tower on my car, are you?”
      “We weren’t planning on it,” replies Annie, wryly.
      “We’ve never brought down a tower on purpose,” Tom muses thoughtfully. “Only ever by accident.” Oddly, the comment doesn’t seem to alleviate Carlos’ concern. He shakes his head.
      “Just make sure we’re back in time for my appointment with Dr Brennan on Tuesday.”
      “Who?” asks Tom.
      “Alex Brennan. He’s the historian who’s supposed to be telling me about Father Michael and the people-smuggling ring.”
      “Who?”
      Annie answers this time. “The church Alice heard the chanting from, back in the thirties; he was the priest at the time.”
      “Oh, right. I remember.”
      “The meeting’s at one. I really don’t want to miss it.”
      “Don’t worry, Carlos. We’ll be back in plenty of time – it’s just a quick preliminary scouting mission. We’ll probably be back the same day.”
      “Hmm. I hope so.”

It’s about midday by the time they set off. They stop en route to pick up some cameras, for surveillance purposes. The initial plan is for Annie to do a flyover, so they pull into the car park of a McDonald’s drive-through so she can project and do her thing. They order food so as not to look suspicious. Tom tucks into his with relish – it’s been a while since they could afford luxuries like fast food, and he’s apparently been missing it. Annie dissolves into a flock of sparrows and, after Tom replaces the vitality she used to power the change [3] – he reluctantly tears himself away from his meal for a few moments to do so – she takes flight.

CellTech owns a building set within its own grounds in the L-shaped industrial park. There are no obvious security measures in addition to the ubiquitous CCTV cameras and alarms – no external guard post, or anything like that. Annie doesn’t want to risk getting close enough to see if the alarms and cameras respond to ghosts. In fact, she avoids landing anywhere within the perimeter of the CellTech property. (It’s possible that they have some means of detecting the presence of spooks. There’s no sense taking the risk of alerting them to Phoenix’ interest at this stage.) The building is one storey high and about one hundred yards square. It’s situated next to a private road connecting CellTech both to the main part of the industrial park and to the streets outside. Employees of the company can either drive directly into or out of the complex from here, or can pass through the park itself and enter or leave via the main entrance. The car park is pretty full – Annie estimates that there are about one hundred or so cars there – but there are no people around. Considering that it’s coming up to four o’ clock in the afternoon, this isn’t surprising. (Annie contemplates trying to read some of the license plates, but that would require going onto the CellTech grounds.) She can’t sense anything out of the ordinary [4] – it all seems perfectly quiet and normal.

Annie returns to her body and reports her (lack of) findings. They discuss how to proceed from here. Given the lack of anything obvious (hardly surprising) and the fact that they don’t want to tip their hand, it seems that their best strategy is discreet, long-term surveillance. If this is where the NSA deals with spook technology, it seems reasonable to assume that there are going to be anti-spook measures in place. This means they’re going to want to find out a lot more about these – and about the building generally – before attempting to infiltrate. The obvious place to start, then, is with the employees. Carlos suggests taking down car license plates as people leave the building – that’ll hopefully give them a few addresses to start with. Given the possibility that anyone important will be chipped, they’re going to have to be extremely careful who and how they approach, but finding out who these people are is a good place to start.

They have a couple of hours or so to kill before they need to be in position, so – at Tom’s insistence – they pay a visit to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. (He also suggests deliberately letting of spikes to try to attract Beta crucible’s attention, but the others are far less enamoured of that idea. In any case, Phoenix as a whole is still undecided as to whether they actually want to make contact with Beta crucible. Perhaps it’s something they should discuss with the others before leaping in.) As they’re wandering around the Poe museum (actually his old house), Carlos feels something strange in the drawing room. When he mentions this to the others, Tom looks thoughtful and says that, now he comes to mention it, there does seem to be something there. Annie can sense nothing. [5] Tom thinks about inhabiting the building to see what’s there, but after what happened to Craig he’s a little worried about being blown up. Annie uses forebode to see if anything bad will happen to him within the next hour if he does this. [6] The vision is inconclusive. There’s nothing obvious, but it feels as though there are lots of possibilities; lots of things that could happen, depending on what he does. [7] All in all, not as reassuring as it might have been, but it implies that whatever may happen isn’t going to be triggered by him just taking a look. It’s over to Tom.

After a little thought – and some going back and forth – Tom decides to go for it. It’s about 5pm by this point. He projects, heading back to the house as the other two drive off with his body. It’s a lot harder to possess the house than he would have expected, but he manages it. [8] There seems to be something resisting him; perhaps some kind of presence. It’s hard to say precisely what it is. [9] Almost, it seemed that he was going to bounce off before getting a firm grip on the place; not something he’s familiar with. Surely, if there was someone or something in there, he wouldn’t be able to possess it at all. That’s how it usually seems to work: one object, one inhabitant. This... This is like when he tries to possess a person and their mind is still in their meat; the sense of resistance is similar. Could it be that Poe’s house is somehow aware? If so, it certainly isn’t responding to his entry or his hails, and he can’t sense another personality within the structure. There is something else strange, however: the drawing room is unusually difficult to sense. He tries to focus on in, but it’s like peering through deep shadows. There’s nothing stirring there, as far as he can tell. The sensation of resistance is stronger in the drawing room than in the rest of the house.

Tom pokes around a little more, but discovers nothing of particular interest. Perhaps he might be able glean more if assisted by another spook with inhabit (like Annie, he remembers). Carefully leaving the house for now, he takes a quick look around the immediate neighbourhood. Everything seems quiet: no obvious Fetches or other spooks. Maybe no one noticed the pulse he sent out when possessing the house. There’s a first time for everything, after all. He ripcords back to his body.

Once Tom’s filled the other two in on his findings, it’s time to get on with their actual reason for being here. After a great deal of discussion, weighing up the pros and cons of a number of different options, they settle upon a fairly simple plan. Annie inhabits one of their mobile phones, which Carlos then “accidentally” drops by the gate into the CellTech compound. [10] He parks up near the traffic lights at the first junction, just out of sight of their target. (Just in case anyone’s watching, he endeavours to give the impression that his car’s broken down.) Annie acts as spotter, telling Carlos which vehicles have come from the CellTech car park. (This generally consists of make and colour – her vantage point isn’t the best, and there isn’t much time to convey the information.) Tom inhabits the traffic lights, stopping all oncoming vehicles long enough for Carlos to take down the relevant license plate numbers. (He doesn’t know which cars Carlos is interested in, so he’s just stopping all of them.) The team spends about an hour collecting license numbers, managing to accrue a fairly respectable list. Once they’re done – when no more cars seem to be emerging from CellTech’s car park – Carlos “fixes” his car and returns to “find” his mobile phone.

When the gang’s together again, they briefly discuss whether to return to New York tonight. In the end, they decide to stay the night in Baltimore (although Carlos does remind them that he intends to keep his appointment tomorrow), making sure to let the others know (and to report the day’s findings). Annie tries to persuade Tom to return to the Poe house that evening, but he isn’t keen. It’s just going to have to wait until the morning.

After all, what’s the harm in waiting another day?


Part Two – The House that Jack Built

Carlos, Tom and Annie retire to a hotel for the night, passing their haul of license numbers onto Shelley. A thought strikes Annie: both Tom and Shelley have inhabited the Orpheus spook chips and the ones the NSA (they presume) implanted in the Black Net assassins. This means they might be able to work out if they were manufactured by the same people. She poses the question to Tom, who thinks about it, trying to recall what it felt like to inhabit the different chips. [11]
      “I think they felt the same,” he says, hesitantly. “They were doing slightly different things, but they felt like they were made the same way. I think. We’ll have to check with Shelley as well.” It’s not surprising that the chips were doing different things; the Black Net assassins weren’t spooks, so presumably their chips wouldn’t need the same functions as the ones the skimmers had. It’s interesting, though: does this mean that Orpheus got their chips from the NSA, or that they both got them from the same third party? Alternatively, it could be just that they’re constructed along similar lines. The things the chips do aren’t so different, after all. Phoenix needs to get their hands on some more NSA chips so Tom and Shelley can perform a more detailed comparison. But that’s a matter for another time.

After some discussion, Carlos and Annie manage to persuade the reluctant Tom to make another trip to the Poe house. They get a good night’s sleep (recovering the energy they used during their surveillance), and set out very early in the morning. The town is still asleep – unsurprising considering that it’s not yet dawn – and the area around the house is as silent as the grave. Annie pauses before crossing the threshold, extending her senses to see if she can detect anything out of the ordinary. [12] Maybe there is something, but she just can’t be sure; the sensation melts away when she tries to focus on it. At least there are no obvious signs of spectres.

Once inside the house, the first thing they do is to search it from top to bottom, keeping an eye out for any spectral occupants. Inhabiting the house is likely to cause an energy spike, and the last thing they want to do is draw any unfriendly attention. (Of course, there’s also a risk they might draw a Fetch from wherever it is they hang out when they’re not mauling Phoenix agents, but there’s not a lot they can do about that.) The Poe house is completely empty, both of the living and the dead. There is that weird feeling in the drawing room again, but that’s all. (Annie does notice that the constant whisper of spectre voices in the back of her mind seems to be quieter, but she doesn’t think that’s because of the house. She’s noticed previously that voices quieten somewhat when she leaves New York, and also when there are less people around. It’s an interesting observation, and perhaps if she wasn’t in so much denial about still being able to hear the voices, she might even investigate it further.)

After some brief discussion, they come up with a plan for exactly how they’re going to try to use inhabit synergistically; something that no one’s ever done before, to their knowledge. First, Annie tries to, for want of a better phrase, think like Tom. Drawing on her experiences of the link with Kate and Teresa, she tries to put herself in the right frame of mind to use inhabit exactly as he would. [13] She suspects they’re going to have to be in perfect harmony – or as close as they can get – for this to work. When thinks she’s there, they begin; both of them channelling vitality into inhabit. They do it at the same time, in (as far as they can) the same way, aiming for the same target. They have no idea whether it will work, nor what will happen if it does. They’re letting instinct guide them, and if that isn’t enough then maybe sheer force of will get them the rest of the way. [14] There’s a spike of energy; a sense of moving without moving, and then... They’re inside the house.

Wait a minute: they’re both inside the house, at the same time. Two spooks in one object. That contradicts everything they know about how inhabit works. And yet, here they are. More than that, they’re acutely aware of the house and everything in it; information flooding their senses in razor-sharp detail. They’re also aware of each other: their thoughts and feelings; a telepathic (telempathic?) communion of some kind. It’s almost like the connection Annie, Kate and Teresa shared, although not as deep. As the thought crosses her mind – and, therefore, Tom’s – Annie withdraws into herself a little, using the shielding techniques the three of them put painstaking effort into developing before. It helps a little, but doesn’t break the contact completely. They’re still aware of each other, and aware of each other’s awareness, and aware of each other’s awareness of...

      “This is... odd.” Annie observes, breaking the recursion before it gets truly silly. She can sense Tom’s agreement as soon as she forms the thought. He, like her, is busy trying to get a handle on this too-much-awareness; this information overload. Their senses simply weren’t designed for this. Nevertheless, they manage to adapt. Forcibly narrowing their focus reduces the input to a manageable level, allowing them to widen their perceptions at a rate they can cope with. Even so, it’s still a lot to take in. It’s as if they can feel the very fabric of reality – the space between places and objects as well as the things themselves (and it doesn’t feel empty; it feels... solid). Without even trying, they can sense where everything in the house is in relation to everything else. They’re aware of the temperature, the direction of gravity, the flow of time, the faint traces the walls leave in the spectral realm; everything. There’s a pool of power here, stored within the house. Some of it (they think) is the vitality they channelled – maybe it was drawn in somehow. They have the feeling they might be able to draw upon this pool, just as they’re tapping into the enhanced sensory input. But what can they use it for?

Remembering what Tom described, Annie tries to sense other presences in the house. [15] There is something there; not an intelligence, but some kind of resonance. It’s focused in the drawing room and feels like an imprint of something, maybe some significant event. Whatever it is, it’s old: definitely pre-millennial, probably by quite some way. There’s something else there too: a doorway. It’s not a physical doorway but a spiritual one and it seems to be closed at the moment. As soon as he becomes aware of the door, Tom also studies it. Neither of them can tell where it goes, but they think they might be able to open it. Whether or not they actually want to, however, is a different matter. They decide to leave it for the moment.

Annie tries to determine whether other spooks have been here, using the enhanced senses to search for traces. There’s nothing there as far as she can tell. [16] After brief consultation with Tom, she experiments to see if she can affect the house. She starts small, merely flicking a lightswitch on and off. It works, and they can both feel that the act of doing so drains a miniscule amount of energy from the pool. Tom wonders if it would be possible to pull some of that power into himself, but it seems too diffuse for that. Thanks to Annie’s little test, they know it can be used to affect the house, but how far does that go? Could they use it to open the door? (If they wanted to, of course.)

This is all very exciting. Annie is feeling a little like a child in a toy shop, wondering just what she can prod at next. [17] The Fetch turns up while she’s trying to decide. She and Tom both stepped into the house from the drawing room. That’s where the pulse went out from, and that’s where the Fetch comes through. Well, tries to come through. Both of them feel the portal start to open, sensing it on a far deeper level than they ever have before. It feels wrong; like a violation of space itself. Annie reaches out for the portal, sensing that this is her chance to learn how the spectres make them, and how they can be closed. Acting mostly on instinct, she slows down her perceptions so she can see and understand exactly how the Fetch is starting to break through. Energy suddenly flows from the pool, channelled into whatever it is she’s doing. It seems to work – suddenly, it’s as if events within the room are happening in slow motion. She watches as the portal starts to widen. It happens slowly; so slowly that understanding flares before it opens completely. She wasn’t necessarily thinking she’d be able to close this portal, just figure out how to do it for the next one. But... But she knows how to do it and time is on her side. So, why not?

Concentrating again, she focuses her will on what she wants to do. Having almost exhausted the pool, she has to channel a small amount of her own energy, [18] but if this works, the expenditure will be worth it. It does work: the gateway slams shut. More than that, the room and everything in it now feels more solid, somehow; impregnable on a spiritual level. All in all, the exercise seems to have been an unequivocal success.

They study the drawing room. Apparently, it wasn’t just Annie’s perception that she slowed down. Time is actually moving slower inside, relative to everything else. (In fact, as they’re aware of everywhere and everything in the house simultaneously, the differential time flow causes them something of a headache. It’s easier not to think about it.) The effect will probably fade over time, Annie thinks, but has no idea how long it might take. If it’s on the same order as horrors, it could be on the order of an hour or two. If not, then there’s no way of knowing. In any case, it’s another sign that there is definitely something special about this house. If they can find out what that is, maybe it would be possible to replicate it somewhere else. It would be very useful to possess (no pun intended) this level of control over, say, their base. Even if they could only ward it against spectral intrusions – never mind controlling the time flow, or the direction of gravity, [19] or anything else – it could give them a huge advantage. It’s something they’re going to have to think about.

In the meanwhile, there isn’t much left in the pool and they’re both running low on personal vitality. Maybe now isn’t the best time to embark on any in-depth experimentation. (There’s also a chance that the Fetch might try to return with friends.) However, Poe’s house definitely seems worthy of future study. They agree that they’ll almost certainly return at some point, but there’s one matter they want to address before they leave: are they going to do anything about the other door? Both Annie and Tom agree that there’s no way they’re going to risk going through it, but they do want to know where it goes. There doesn’t appear to be a keyhole or anything to look through, so they’re going to have to open it. After some discussion, they decide that the knowledge is worth the risk. [20]

Tom takes the lead this time, channelling most of what’s left in the pool, plus some of his personal vitality. [21] The door creaks open, revealing a desolate, sprawling wasteland. Ruined buildings are scattered beneath a bilious sky, and the air is hazy with dust. To Annie, this blasted landscape looks eerily, terrifyingly familiar. It looks like the place where the spectres took her. Tom sees the recognition in her thoughts, along with a few memory fragments that rise to the surface before she forces them away again. As soon as the realisation hits her, she slams the door closed again. Tom doesn’t try to stop her.
      “Why would this place have a door to there?” he wonders. Annie doesn’t have an answer for him, but it’s worrying. They only hope they haven’t just opened a way for the spectres. The door is closed again now – as firmly as they can close it – but what if opening it has weakened the house’s defences? Or alerted the spectres to its existence? Or some other undefined yet terrible thing? Still, what’s done is done. There’s no sense worrying about it now. Both Annie and Tom agree that it’s time to leave this place.

Leaving the house isn’t like stepping out of an ordinary object. Instead, it feels like they are simply materialising. Fortunately, they have control over where they materialise. If they simply came out in the drawing room, where they entered, they would almost certainly end up trapped in the bubble of slow time for as long as it persisted. Not wanting to step blindly outside – they can’t see beyond the walls of the house, and there could be an army of spectres waiting out there for all they know – they emerge in the hallway, just before the front door. A cautious peek outside doesn’t reveal an army of spectres, so they make their way rapidly to the car, and their bodies.

Carlos is interested to hear about their experiences in Poe’s house, but he’s even more interested in making his appointment with the historian. Tom suggests that they could do some more surveillance of the warehouse, but Carlos isn’t prepared to wait. Also, he points out that they’ve already got a few license plates: they might as well wait to see what they come back with first. Tom and Annie decide against staying out in Baltimore, and Carlos drives them back to the motel.

By the time they meet up with the others – and fill them in on the new loose end Tom’s made up in Baltimore [22] – James and Shelley have done some of the preliminary research on those license plate numbers. First of all, Shelley hacks into the DMV database to get hold of the names and address associated with those vehicles. James takes that list and starts searching for these people online (from an internet café), trying to work out which of them are useful targets. One name in particular stands out as being of potential interest. According to his CV (which is posted on a recruitment website), he is a Chief Technology Officer with governmental security clearance. James puts him on the list.

Dr Alex Brennan, historian, seems quite happy to chat with Carlos about illegal immigration in the twenties and thirties. Carlos’ cover story is that he’s researching a possible cult connected to Willam Lamb (the architect who designed the Empire State Building). He says Father Michael’s name came up during the course of his investigations, which is why he’s looking into the people-smuggling angle. He mentions the possibility that Michael brought Béla Kiss into the country, which intrigues the historian. According to Dr Brennan, Ellis Island was the legal entry point to the States during this period, but there were certainly other – somewhat less legal – routes that Father Michael could have been connected to. There were rumoured to be tunnels which were used to bring immigrants into the city – some beneath Manhattan itself.

On the subject of cults, Dr Brennan notes that spiritualism was very popular at the time. A possible connection to Lamb is that a number of his firm’s buildings were rumoured to be connected with “some Freemason thing”. Back in the day, he was the focus of quite a few conspiracy theories, including a suggestion that he was involved with a group that performed human sacrifices. People inclined towards such suspicions would point to the high death toll associated with his various construction projects, most notably the Empire State Building. Dr Brennan observes, however, that those deaths might have had more to do with the notoriously lax health and safety standards than with any sinister purpose. At Carlos’ request, he provides a list of all the buildings he knows of that were connected with Lamb and/or his associates. There are over fifty in all, mostly located in New York, but are also some in other cities. Carlos asks if Dr Brennan can recommend someone who might know more about spiritualism in the twenties and thirties. (This is a little outside his speciality, which is more to do with immigration and the movement of people.) As it happens, he can recommend someone who he thinks is based in New York: Dr Kate Dennison. [23] (Carlos is surprised – he didn’t know that Kate had a doctorate, let alone that this is her field. Still, at least he should be able to get an appointment easily enough.)

Back at the motel, the rest of the group discuss various matters, including their current situation, the Poe house and last night’s Radio Free Death broadcast. According to the people who actually listened to it, he said something along the lines of: “Another group is out there, taking over Oprheus’ shtick. They’ve busted a few ghostly heads over Jersey way.” They’re not too sure how they feel about this news. On the one hand, more people fighting the good fight can only be a good thing. On the other, who are these people? What do they want? Can they be trusted? Perhaps Phoenix should try to find out more, and maybe even make contact. It can go on the list. The ghosts of Brook House might have heard something.

The conversation turns to the vision Kate received when she looked into likely outcomes of handing over the prisoners to the FBI. They need to work out what was actually going on and why. With James’ help, [24] Annie concentrates on a specific question – “what is the major contributing event to the situation in Kate’s vision?” – and channels vitality into forebode. The room around her fades away, and she’s standing on a city street. She doesn’t know which city, but it doesn’t feel like New York. She starts to look around, and then... bang! A massive explosion – impact? – from somewhere up ahead. The ground rumbles and quakes, buildings shuddering and cracking as the blast wave races towards her. Black dust – no, ash – fills the air, and she knows what’s coming next; has lived through (was killed by) it too many times to count. She knows she should move, that she should seek shelter, but instead she is rooted to the spot. All she can do is watch helplessly as the blast wave approaches...

And then she’s back in the cheap motel room. Her breath comes quick and shallow and her heart is racing. It takes a few moments before she realises that she isn’t there, that she didn’t die again. It was just a vision. It was the vision; the apocalypse they’ve been working so hard to prevent. But there was something different this time...
      “What did you see?” James looks at her expectantly as she gathers her thoughts.
      She shakes her head. “Wait. There’s something I need to...” Focusing her will, she calls the vision to mind once more. [25] This time, she concentrates on the place itself. ‘Where is it?’ [26] Her expression is sober when she comes out of the trance for the second time.
      “Well?” The enquiry comes from Tom this time. The others’ expressions are concerned – her initial reaction was hardly reassuring. She fills them in on what she saw, saving the important detail for last.
      “It wasn’t in New York this time,” she says, softly.
      “Where was it?”
      “Washington DC.” Naturally, the revelation leads to a certain amount of discussion. There seems to be little they can do at the moment, however, except ask Carlos to pass on a warning to his FBI friends.
      “Ask them if there have been any odd ritual murders around there,” instructs Kate. “If they’re doing the same thing there as they are here...” She shrugs, the implication clear.
      “I will,” he says.

      “So, what are we going to do now?” James has apparently tired of the endless discussion. When no one has any immediate suggestions, he puts forward an idea of his own. Shortly after that, he, Carlos and Annie are heading into Manhattan so they can take a look at the tower. James wants to know what the current occupants are up to, and if the spectres are still taking an interest. When they get close enough Annie projects, taking to the air as a flock of sparrows. Her initial pass shows that the ghosts are still in residence, some of them peering out through the windows. None of them seem to be outside the building, nor can she see any obvious spectres. As far as she can tell, the tower feels just as serene as it did before. There’s certainly no obvious difference. [27]

When Annie reports to the other two, Carlos decides to take a look in person. By “in person”, he means “in the flesh”. This has the distinct advantage of allowing him to get up close without them being likely to notice him. Annie inhabits his phone so she can call for help if something untoward happens like, say, running into Hyde. (It’s happened before in this area, after all.) He heads into the subway station and walks through the part of the tower that protrudes onto one of the platforms. (The tower blocks his view of the platform up ahead, so he can’t move out of the way of people coming towards him. This leads to a couple of collisions, but being sworn at doesn’t particularly bother him.) As far as he can tell, the tower still feels serene, exactly like the last time he walked through it. There are a handful of hues inside, as expected. These mostly look like the churchgoers, but there is one exception.

Ghosts tend to appear either in whatever they were last wearing, or in a favourite outfit. The brightest ghost, however, is wearing robes. They don’t look anything like Christian vestments, so unless the person was a particularly dedicated live roleplayer in life, it’s probably significant. Carlos holds his phone up as if composing a text message; carefully positioning it so that Annie can has a good view of the scene. (He actually does start writing, as it happens. The ‘message’, though, is just telling Annie what he wants her to take a closer look at.) The hue – probably an Echo or Mirage class – is young, with a shaved head and no obvious death marks. They think she’s female, but between the lack of hair, slender figure and voluminous robes, it’s difficult to tell. Annie recognises the robes as the ones worn by the people who rigged the coke-heaters in the church. The outfit is clearly more than just costume – it’s designed to stand up to everyday wear, even though it seems to be ‘one size fits all’. Annie relays this information to Carlos (via text message) and then they return to the car. James thinks about going to take a look at the tower for himself – he is trained in the art of sneaking around, after all – but then decides that this requires a long-term surveillance operation, and it’s better not to risk alerting their targets at this stage.

Back at the motel, Tom informs them that they’re going to have to move – it’s too risky to stay in one place for too long until they have a defensible base. He’s managed to find another motel where he doesn’t think they’ll ask too many questions, so the group relocates. (No one seems to mind that Carlos knows where they’re staying at the moment. Maybe they’re starting to trust him – he has risked himself alongside them several times now. Or, maybe they’re not overly concerned about keeping these temporary – one or two nights at most – stopping places a secret from him.)

Annie remembers something she’s been meaning to speak to Tom about.
      “Have you spoken to Bill yet?” she asks.
      Tom looks puzzled. “I’ve said hello to him a couple of times. I haven’t really had time to go up there, but he sounds like he’s doing okay. Why?”
      “So you haven’t asked him about Jane?”
      “Jane?”
      “The ghost we took from the basement of the Empire State Building. We brought her to Brook House, remember?”
      “Yeah, I remember. She was a bit – he waves his hand vaguely around by his head – “wasn’t she?”
      “Yes. Bill’s been working with her, trying to help her become a bit more compos mentis. Mona told me that she’s overheard them talking a couple of times. He was asking her about Liz, and...”
      “Liz?”
      “Bill’s girlfriend. She died with him on Bounce Night, remember?” Annie tries not to sound impatient. Maybe she didn’t tell Tom about this after all, but she thinks she did. She’s almost certain of it, in fact. He has had a lot on his plate recently, though. Maybe he’s just forgotten. “Her ghost was taken away by spectres.”
      “Oh.” Light dawns. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember. He was asking Jane about her? Why?”
      “I don’t know, but Jane was telling him things about Liz.”
      “But how does she know about her?”
      “I don’t know for certain, but I’d guess it’s because Jane can still hear the spectre hive mind. If Liz was... Maybe Liz is connected to it as well.”
      “I... see.” Tom looks troubled. He doesn’t remember Annie telling him this, but she’s had a lot on her plate. Maybe it just slipped her mind. [28] Still, at least he knows now. “Maybe I’d better have a word with Billy.”
      “Yeah.” James, listening to the conversation, carefully doesn’t point out that Annie recently admitted that she’s still connected to the spectre hive mind, and has been since she came back. Maybe that’s something else they should be worried about. Or maybe it’s something they could use to find out more about what the spectres are up to. Either way, it’s something to think about.

Something else to think about is Madame Cassandra, and her response (if any) to their message. Her show is due to go out shortly, and it’s the first one recorded since they sent the letter. If she’s going to respond, then tonight is probably the night. Everyone who’s interested (and not keeping watch) piles into one of the motel rooms to watch the programme. When she appears on screen, Cassandra seems nervous, visibly sweating. After delivering her familiar introduction, she breaks from the standard format to make an announcement, stating that Phoenix has been sending her death threats. This is news to them. She rambles on for a little while, vowing that she will not be intimidated; that she will continue to do God’s work, passing over lost souls to their just reward. Just when they’re starting to wonder whether they made a mistake, she pauses, looks directly at the screen and says:
      “Phoenix, if you’re listening...” That’s it. That’s the phrase they told her to use if she wanted them to try to make contact with her. The rest of the sentence is: “I won’t bow to your intimidation,” but that’s not important. The important thing is that she’s given the signal. And the transmission goes completely dead.

The group stares at the blank screen for a moment or two. Tom is the first to stir, projecting and asking James to boost him so he can deadwire to the TV studio without causing a spike.
      “The rest of us will drive,” James says. As well as boosting the deadwire, he tops up Tom’s vitality – whatever’s at the other end is unlikely to be good, so he’d better be fully charged and ready for action. “When we get close, we’ll project and come back you up.”
      “Fine,” says Tom. “I’ll see you at the other end.” With that, he disappears from view.
      Annie turns to their other resident Haunter. “Shelley – go after him.”
      “Are you kidding?” The words print themselves across the screen of the computer Shelley tends to live in. “It could be dangerous!”
      “Yes, and Tom’s there on his own. We do not want to lose him like we lost Craig.”
      A pause, and then: “FINE! I’LL GO!” A scared and angry Shelley steps out of the computer, barely waiting long enough for James to boost her before zipping off after Tom.
      “We can use my car,” offers Carlos.
      “Let’s go then.” Annie heads for the door, turning back to say. “Hoyt – you’re driving. Get us there as fast as you can.”
      “Yes Ma’am!”

The TV studio looks like the aftermath of an explosion. Wreckage and bodies – injured, dying and dead – are strewn everywhere, and the air is filled with moaning and screams. It looks like the bomb – assuming there was one – went off in the middle of the audience. On the stage, Madame Cassandra is down, but it’s unclear whether she was injured or simply knocked off her feet. In any case, before Tom can work out which it is, his attention is drawn by the manifested spectre looming above her, poised to strike. It looks like a man, but crushed and broken; a car crash victim, perhaps. Twisted chunks of metal and plastic driven right through his body. Tom’s seen this one before, attacking the researchers at the Mastworth Plant. There’s no time to wonder about that now, though: the spectre is about to attack Cassandra!

Tom fires up witch’s nimbus and hurls a lightning bolt at the spectre, who isn’t expecting the attack. It hits, sending electricity coursing through him, sparking and shredding his gauze until he pulls himself back together again by sheer force of will. Metal grinds, filling the air around him with an aura of edged death. [29] He charges towards the object Tom’s inside, hitting with the impact of a freight train, his blades biting deep into Tom’s gauze. Reeling from the wounds, Tom deadwires into the studio’s electrical system as the spectre proceeds to destroy the object he just left. [30] Suddenly, the pain of Tom’s injuries fades, leaving him clear-headed and able to focus his attention on the fight. (Seeing wounds open up on Tom’s body, Chet uses pep to counteract the pain and weakness. [31]) He doesn’t know why, but he isn’t complaining.

The spectre completely destroys his target, looking rather surprised when Tom doesn’t pop out of it. Tom pops out somewhere else instead, being sure to stay out of his target’s line of sight. He channels energy into juggernaut, devoting most of it into boosting his ability to resist and endure injury. The remainder goes into speeding him up. [32] He shoots the spectre twice, shredding his gauze to ribbons. For a moment, it looks as though the spectre is going to be able to pull himself together again, but then he simply fades away to nothing. Tom has dispersed him.

It seems that this fight is over. [33] Before Tom can so much as catch his breath, however, there’s a sound from across the room: a growling. Looking in that direction, Tom sees the chihuahua from before. Teeth bared, it’s staring at him with an expression of sheer malevolence. It looks like Fluffy wants a piece of him...


Part Three – It isn’t the size of the dog in the fight...

Tom pauses, waiting to see what Fluffy does before acting. Dog and man stare at each other for a moment or two, the chihuahua growling deep in his throat. You wouldn’t really think that a Chihuahua could sound menacing but, somehow, this one manages it. Shelley arrives in the middle of the staring contest, stepping cautiously out of the object she deadwired into. Keeping a wary eye on Fluffy, she concentrates for a moment, infusing Tom with vitality. She looks distinctly unhappy to be here. Fluffy seems to lose interest in the pair of spooks, turning his attention to Madame Cassandra. Although obviously injured in the blast, the medium is apparently still alive. This state of affairs may not continue for long, however. Fluffy starts to bunch his muscles, preparing spring. He looks like he’s going for her throat... but he doesn’t get the chance.

Materialising, Shelley fires up witch’s nimbus and hurls a lightning bolt at the demon dog. The bolt hits; Fluffy’s fur starts to smoke, but he seems otherwise unharmed. Now he’s paying attention to Shelley. He leaps for her in a blur of motion – no dog moves that fast – tearing into and through her gauze, shredding it with unnaturally powerful jaws. Shelley’s gauze is ripped to shreds, but she pulls herself back together again. [34] Her lightning aura has set Fluffy’s fur ablaze, [35] but that doesn’t seem to have slowed him down in the slightest. He makes to come back for another pass, but Tom intervenes. Like Shelley, he materialises and hurls lightning bolts at the dog. Fluffy dodges the first one, but the second hits, singeing him a little more. [36]

Tom and Shelley suddenly become aware of a new sound: the scurrying of lots of tiny feet. Rats? Whatever they are, there are lots of them and they’re getting closer... But Fluffy is right here and he hasn’t forgotten about them. He goes for Tom this time, biting and tearing, but not managing to get through the juggernaut-forged armour. Unfortunately, Tom’s witch’s nimbus also fails to have any significant effect on Fluffy. This particular exchange seems to come out as a draw. Aiming carefully – she really doesn’t want to hit Tom – Shelley throws another bolt of lightning, landing a palpable hit on Fluffy. The possessed dog is now looking rather the worse for wear. Tom hurls lightning, hoping to finish him off. The first two shots miss. The third... doesn’t. [37] The small dog slumps to the ground, charred and blackened: Fluffy is no more. The thing riding him, though: that’s another story.

A ghostly figure – a spectre – starts to rise from the corpse. Teeth! Lots and lots of them; crammed into a hungry, cavernous maw. Mutations and mutilations: twisted body covered in burns, scars and raw, suppurating wounds. This thing is ugly. That’s the first impression. The second – lagging a little behind the first – is that even without the meat suit, it still looks like a dog. An animal Jason? [38] That’s certainly very interesting, but the look in its eye says it’s more than ready to continue the fight. Luckily, Tom still has a fist full of lightning. [39] With barely a pause, he throws it towards Fluffy’s former passenger, who he mentally names “Heidi”. [40] The spectre seems to be slower now it’s out of body (one thing to be thankful for, at least), so it doesn’t quite manage to get out of the way. The blast shreds its gauze a little. It lunges for Tom in retaliation, but claws and teeth bounce off his toughened skin. Tom’s aura doesn’t seem to bother it at all. Shelley has the same idea as Tom, but her shot misses its target. Heidi spins around and attacks her anyway, though. Perhaps it thinks she might be an easier nut to crack than Tom. Luckily for Shelley, Heidi’s jaws snap shut on the air where she was, rather than on her gauze.

The air crackles with St Elmo’s fire as Tom unleashes blast after blast at the spectre. Most don’t manage to hit their mark, at least one coming a little too close to Shelley for comfort. She dives for cover, inhabiting one of the many objects strewn around the devastated studio. All this time, the scurrying sounds have been getting closer and closer. Now, they build to a crescendo as rats start pouring into the room and heading towards Madame Cassandra. The sight poses a dilemma: do they ignore Heidi to try to protect Cassandra, or do they concentrate on dealing with the spectre first (hoping that the rats don’t finish her off in the meanwhile). [41]

Tom concentrates on Heidi, reactivating juggernaut when it starts to fade, but otherwise just throwing bolts of electricity. Interestingly, the spectre seems to be trying to stay out of the range of his aura – perhaps it does hurt it after all – and just focuses on avoiding the bolts, rather than launching attacks of its own. Cassandra starts screaming as the rats begin ripping out chunks of her flesh. Shelley zaps them once from her hiding place, and then – going against all her instincts – steps out into the fray so she can deal with them more effectively. She wades into the swarm, letting her aura burn a swathe through the mass as she tries not to get too close to Cassandra. Heidi notices what Shelley’s doing. Roaring in rage, it gathers itself for a leap just as Tom – who dematerialised at some point during the fight – unleashes a final storm of lightning. The bolts arc across its skin, driving deep into its gauze, which starts to boil. In mere moments, there’s nothing left: Heidi has been dispersed. As soon as the spectre is no more, the rats stop attacking Cassandra and simply flee the scene, reverting to normal rat-like behaviour. Tom and Shelley can breathe a sight of relief. They’ve done it: they’ve won. This fight, at least.

      “We can’t stay here.” Shelley is looking this way and that, as if expecting another attack any second. “We’ve been letting off spike after spike.” She’s right – it’s a minor miracle that they haven’t drawn a Fetch or two.
      Tom considers their options. “You should dematerialise, but leave witch’s nimbus up. “I’ll materialise and help Cassandra to get out of here.” He frowns. “But where should we go?”
      “Let’s hide somewhere in the building for now.”
      “Good idea.”
      “I’ll find somewhere.” While she’s off searching, Tom materialises – remembering to put out witch’s nimbus first – and checks the still-dazed Cassandra over. None of her injuries seem to be life-threatening, but they do need treating. The rat bites especially might turn septic. When Shelley returns, he tells her that they need a first-aid kit. Luckily, she locates one easily enough en route to the hidey-hole she’s chosen. Tom has to carry Cassandra, as she seems too dazed and weak to even walk with support. Fortunately, they’re not going to far.

When they’re safely ensconced, Tom treats and binds Cassandra’s injuries as best as she can. She starts to snap out of her fugue at the first sting of the antiseptic spray. By the time he’s finished treating her, she’s looking around in confusion and fear.
      “What’s happening?”
      “It’s okay – you’re safe now.” Tom tries to reassure her, but she starts shaking her head before he even finishes speaking.
      “I can’t hear you. What’s wrong with my ears?” Now he thinks about it, her voice is oddly flat, and a little louder than it needs to be.
      “There was a bomb.” He mouths the words exaggeratedly, speaking loudly and clearly. She seems to get the gist of it, although she’s clearly still quite dazed and shaken. Tom thinks she’s probably in shock. She sits there quietly and lets him finish treating her.
      “What are we going to do with her?” Shelley is as tactful as ever. “Should we hand her to the paramedics?”
      “No. I want to get her out of here and under protection. Ours, probably.”
      “I can run interference to get us out of the building. Maybe inhabit a car.”
      “Let’s do that.”

They make their way through the building, Tom carefully leading Cassandra. Even with Shelley scouting ahead, though, they are spotted by a couple of police officers. [42]
      “Police,” one of the officers barks. “What are you doing?”
      “A bomb went off,” Tom says, sounding suitably dazed and confused. (Given his current lack of vitality, he certainly looks the part.) “That way,” he points. “They need help. You have to help them!” [43]
      “We will,” the other says, looking Tom and Cassandra up and down. “But you need medical attention; both of you. Come on, this way.” They herd the pair of them towards the paramedics. Tom lets the two of them be herded, relying on Shelley to provide a distraction so they can get away before anyone realises there’s anything odd about him. She comes through, inhabiting a radio and using the officer in charge’s voice to say:
      “All EMTs inside to the main studio. We’re swamped here – we need all hands.” She’s so convincing that they all head in. [44] They would have taken their two patients with them, but Tom takes advantage of the confusion to sneak the two of them away, heading for the car park. Shelley has neither the vitality nor the strength of will to actually inhabit a vehicle, but she can (and does) pop a door open and start an engine. After carefully strapping Cassandra into the passenger seat, Tom takes the wheel.

As they head out of the car park, Shelley uses Cassandra’s phone to send a text-message to one of the others, asking where they want to meet. A few moments later, she gets a location: the car park of a nearby supermarket. She relays this to Tom, who takes a circuitous route to the rendezvous, making sure they’re not being followed. As far as he can tell, no one’s paying them any undue attention. It takes a few minutes of driving around the car park before he spots Carlos’ car. Abandoning the stolen car amongst the other vehicles, he helps Cassandra over there. Chet takes one look at the woman and – once she’s sitting down and strapped in – uses pep to knock her out. In his opinion, rest is the best thing for her right now. Tom steps into his body, relieved to be back. In very little time, they’re heading back to the motel. (Again, they take a circuitous route; just in case.)

As Chet is examining Cassandra, James does the same for Tom. Now that he’s unlikely to be accumulating more injuries, James can get on with treating the other ones properly. [45]
      “So, what happened?” he asks.
      “There was a bomb in the audience. Then a spectre materialised and tried to kill Cassandra. I think it was one of the ones we saw at the Mastworth plant – it looked like a car crash victim. After that, her dog tried to kill her.”
      “Her chihuahua?” James can’t keep the smirk off his face, earning himself a glare from Tom.
      Annie looks at Tom. “Did you kill the spectres?”
      “Yes, with Shelley’s help.”
      “Can you describe them?” He does so. She’s particularly interested in their abilities, asking him lots of questions about them. In the end, he shakes his head and says:
      “I wasn’t exactly taking notes. I was too busy trying not to die!”
      “Killed by a chihuahua,” James mutters. “That would have been embarrassing.”
      “It was a spectre, alright!” Tom glowers at James. “It wasn’t exactly a normal dog.”
      “It’s still embarrassing.” That seems to be the final word on the subject.

They reach the motel without incident. Cassandra is put to bed where she can rest under Chet’s watchful eye. Even without the effects of pep, he doesn’t expect her to wake up for at least a day, and he thinks that’s the best thing for her right now. (Well, short of being treated in a hospital, which isn’t something they think is safe for her at the moment. It might end up being bad for her health.) The TV is still on, and – to no one’s surprise – the screen shows a reporter standing in front of a very familiar-looking studio. The bomb is big news at the moment, featuring prominently in all the local news reports and even some of the national ones. Phoenix’ name is being bandied around in connection with it, with journalists constantly referring to the death threats, and asking the police if they think Phoenix was involved. (The standard police response is that they can’t give out details of an ongoing investigation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop the speculation.)
      “We have to do something about this,” Annie says, frowning.
      “Like what?” asks Hoyt.
      “We need to put out a statement. If we don’t respond, people are just going to assume we’re guilty.”
      “If we do respond, people are going to see that as a sign of guilt,” says James, phlegmatically. “We can’t win either way.”
      “I think it’ll look better if we say something, though. At the very least, it might sow some doubt in people who would otherwise condemn us out of hand. Carlos.”
      “Yes?”
      “Will you get in touch with your FBI friends? Tell them we didn’t do it?”
      “Will do.” He makes the call, reporting back that Larson will leave Cassandra with them for now, but wants to interview her – and them – when she wakes up. That seems reasonable enough. In the meanwhile, Annie has managed to convince some of the others that getting out a statement is a good idea. They put it together [46] and film Adrian reading it, as they did with their manifesto. Shelley distributes it to the various news networks, and it does get some airtime. It’s unclear how much impact it actually has, but it’s better than nothing.

With little else to do (other than rest) before Cassandra wakes up, they discuss their situation and plans. The subject of the FBI comes up, prompting Shelley to make a suggestion.
      “We think the FBI system is compromised by something supernatural, right?” she IMs. “Why don’t we ghostbust it, then? We can take it on as a job and charge the FBI through the nose.” It’s an interesting idea, and not one they’ve really considered before. It wasn’t really feasible when their status was more or less ‘shoot on sight’ but, now they’re on more or less friendly terms with one faction of agents, it might just work. Carlos passes on the offer.

Radio Free Death has something to say about the incident:
      “Looks like ... up to ... old tricks ... trying to frame Phoenix. Spectres ... understand that much about humans. Strange, isn’t it? ... If you hear anything, pass the word along. ... Radio Free Death ... out.”

The next morning, they wait for Cassandra to wake up. Annie busies herself with research, sifting through all the information they’ve gathered so far and trying to fit it into a coherent picture of what’s going on. Tom continues to rest, and James keeps watch. Cassandra wakes up around midday. Looking around at the motel room, and at them, the first thing she says is:
      “What happened? The last thing I remember was an explosion and... rats?” She shudders, murmuring to herself: “I hope that was just a nightmare.” Her gaze settles on Tom and she frowns, looking puzzled.
      “Do you remember me?” he asks.
      She nods. “Yes, you came to see me a little while ago. And you were there...” She trails off.
      “Shelley and I helped you get out of there.” He doesn’t mention saving her from the spectres – that can wait until he knows whether or not she can handle that information right now.
      “You sent me a message.”
      “Yes.”
      “I tried to reply, but... but they read it.”
      Annie joins the conversation. “Who are ‘they’?”
      Cassandra looks at her without recognition, having only seen her gauze before. “There’s an old man with greying hair. He looked like a ghost.” She turns to Tom. “Like you looked when I saw you the first time.”
      “Was he wearing an orange jumpsuit?” Tom asks.
      “Yes.” She describes the mysterious spook further.
      “Sounds like Harper Forrester,” observes Annie. Cassandra looks like she’s going to ask a question – ‘Who’s Harper Forrester and how do you know him?’, perhaps – but Tom forestalls her.
      “Can you tell us how you met him? How all this came about? Start at the beginning.”

Shortly after Orpheus was attacked, Forrester paid her a visit. He told her that she’d be working for him now. If she didn’t do exactly what he said, then unfortunate things would happen. He obviously made an impression on her. It was around that time that her dog started acting strangely.
      “What’s the dog’s name?” asks Tom.
      “Reginald.” So, not ‘Fluffy’ after all.
      “Reginald was possessed – probably to keep an eye on you.”
      Cassandra nods. “I knew there was something wrong – he just wasn’t himself at all. He... He scared me.” James, perhaps wisely, doesn’t say anything about being scared by a chihuahua.
      Tom hesitates a moment while he considers what to tell her about Reginald. He makes a decision. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” He takes a deep breath. “Reginald didn’t make it.”
      “Oh. Oh, I see. Poor Reggie.” The news doesn’t seem to come as a surprise, but it clearly shakes her. After taking a moment or two to gather herself, she continues with her account. One of the first things Forrester ordered her to do was to start bad-mouthing Orpheus and projectors generally. The other was to ignore the ‘Hounds of Light’ as she calls them. They only started appearing after Forrester’s visit. She doesn’t know where they took the ghosts she ‘passed over’. The Phoenix spooks get the impression that she didn’t want to know. She was never able to pass ghosts over before. She’s been able to see them since being hit by a bus and almost killed a few years ago, but this is something else.

A few days ago, Forrester intercepted the letter they sent. He brought it to her, telling her that he’d kill her if she tried to leave. Today – well, yesterday – she figured it was her last chance to call for help. They know the rest.
      “You’ve been out for about a day,” says Tom. “The FBI wants to talk to you as soon as you’re feeling up to it. After that, I suggest you hide. Do you have somewhere to disappear to?”
      “I’m good at disappearing.” She looks around at them all, a little hesitantly. “I can’t clear your names. Not publicly. I don’t... He’ll find me.”
      “That’s okay,” says Tom. “We’re not going to ask you to put yourself at risk.”
      “You could join us,” suggests Annie. “If you can see ghosts, you might be able to project as well. We could teach you how to protect yourself from people like Forrester.”
      “No.” Cassandra doesn’t even have to think about her answer. “No, thank you. Your line of work seems a little too risky for me.”
      Annie gives a half-smile. “Fair enough. The offer of training’s still open, though, if you ever need it.”
      “Thank you.” She pauses for a moment, and then continues: I’ll make a statement to the FBI, telling them what really happened. That’s the least I can do.”

Once Chet has pronounced Cassandra fit to talk to the FBI – although he thinks she still needs more rest and proper medical treatment – Carlos makes the call. A fairly short time later, they meet Larson and his team in an anonymous motel. Cassandra isn’t the only one he wants to question. Phoenix has decided to co-operate, in the interests of maintaining friendly relations, and so a number of his ‘persons of interest’ accompany the medium and submit to the interrogation. He almost certainly doesn’t get as much information as he wants, but he doesn’t push for more. Apparently, he’s also interested in maintaining the relationship. Carlos passes on Phoenix’ offer regarding the compromised computer systems but, to no one’s great surprise, Larson can’t commit to anything without consultation and consideration. He says he’ll get back to them about it. When they’re done, and the FBI team has gone on its way, Cassandra says her goodbyes and makes her own exit. She does one more thing, though, before disappearing completely: contacts one of the local news stations and tells them an abbreviated version of what she told Phoenix and the FBI. She doesn’t mention anything about spooks or spectres, but she does say that she was being pressured into badmouthing Phoenix, and that all the accusations she levelled at them were completely false. It doesn’t affect any of the people convinced of Phoenix’ guilt – after all, they say, how do we even know that came from her? – but it hopefully gives some of the others a little food for thought.

Now that one loose end has apparently been tied off, Tom pays a visit to Brook House, and his brother. Bill is looking in pretty bad shape, even for a ghost. He looks worn and desperate.
      “How are you?” Tom looks his brother up and down with concern.
      Bill sighs. “Tired. It’s hard working here. Sometimes it all seems a bit of a blur.”
      “How’s Jane?”
      “Still bad. She was trapped for seventy years or so. It’s no surprise that she’s having trouble adjusting.”
      “I hear she hears things.”
      Bill blinks in surprise. “How do you know that?”
      “Annie told me.”
      “Sometimes...” His voice is low, almost inaudible. “Sometimes she hears something that might be Liz. I’ve been listening too. I think I can sometimes catch the odd word or two.”
      “You should be careful.” How does he even begin to tell his brother what’s happened to his fiancée? “Where she is... You can’t come back from there.”
      “You don’t know that!” The words are harsh with desperation and denial.
      “No one’s ever come back.” Not strictly true, but maybe this is one of those times when the whole truth can do more harm than good.
      “But she might. Maybe if I only try harder...”
      “I think you should be careful. This isn’t good for you – you look terrible, Billy!” He shakes his head. “Maybe you need a break from this place.” Perhaps Tom’s regretting not spending more time with his brother, both during his life and after his death.
      “I just need to keep trying.” Bill’s fists are clenched tight; distress and stubbornness in equal measures. “Annie’s looking for Teresa, isn’t she? She’s trying to get her back?”
      Tom hardens his heart against the pleading in his brother’s eyes. “No, she isn’t. Teresa isn’t coming back. There’s nothing left of her to come back.”
      “But...”
      “Billy, you need to watch out for yourself. Liz is gone. I don’t want to lose you the same way. They talk – argue, really – for a little longer, neither managing to convince the other of what’s right. In the end, Tom steps back and sighs. “There’s something I need to talk to Mona about.”
      Bill looks uncertain. “Are you coming back?”
      “Of course – I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”

Tom goes in search of Mona. After waiting around for a little while, he manages to catch her with a few spare minutes, opening the conversation without preamble.
      “I’m worried about Billy.”
      Mona frowns. “So am I. This obsession of his isn’t healthy.” Her frown deepens. “But he’s the only one that Jane seems to respond to.”
      “Maybe someone else should look after her for a while; give him a break.”
      “I have suggested that. He... didn’t respond well. I’m worried that if we press the issue, Bill might just take Jane and leave.”
      “By the sounds of it, the two of them seem to be quite co-dependent.”
      “Yes, I’m afraid so.” Tom thinks, considering the options as Mona outlines why she thinks Bill and Jane have latched onto each other the way they have. “Jane offers him hope,” she says, softly. “Hope that he can get Liz back. He...”
      “I’ll deal with Billy,” Tom breaks in. “He can come and stay with me for a little while. Maybe being away from here – being away from her – will do him some good.”
      Mona looks grave. “I hope so.”

      “You’re coming with me.” Tom doesn’t even give Bill a chance to greet him. “We haven’t seen much of each other lately – I think we should do something about that.”
      “But what about...?”
      “Mona’s going to look after Jane.”
      “But I understand her more.”
      “Billy, you’re exhausted. You’re wearing yourself out.”
      “I’m fine.”
      “No, you’re not. How can you take care of someone else if you can’t even take care of yourself? Let Mona help. She wants to talk to Jane.”
      “Well, that might be okay, but I really should be there. I understand Jane better than anyone.”
      “Mona’s a professional counsellor, Billy. She’s the reason we brought Jane here in the first place. Let her do what she’s been trained to do – a fresh perspective can’t hurt.”
      “Well, I suppose...”
      Now Bill’s determination seems to be wavering, it’s time to go on the attack. “Do you want to end up hurting Jane?”
      “What?”
      “How can you think straight when you’re exhausted? What if you push her into doing something that will harm her? She obviously wants to help you – do you think she’d turn you down just because it’s dangerous to her?”
      “Well, no.” Bill’s starting to look worried. “But I’d never...”
      “Look at yourself, Billy: you’re obsessed! And you look like shit. I’m really worried about you.”
      “I love Liz!” The words come out in a wail. Panting, Bill turns away as he fights for control over his emotions. In a quieter voice, he continues. “I want her back, Tom. I miss her so much.”
      “I know, Billy. I know.” Stepping forward, he puts an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “But she wouldn’t want you to destroy yourself searching for her.”
      There’s a long silence and then, almost inaudibly: “I know.”
      “Come with me, Billy. It doesn’t have to be for long, but you need to get away from here for a while. You need to rest.”
      “But...”
      “It’ll be okay.” Through a combination of persuasion, stubbornness [47] and leaning heavily on the ‘little brother’ buttons, Tom eventually manages to convince Bill to come and stay with him for a while. When the agreement comes, he breathes a little easier, moving quickly before Bill changes his mind. He could save his brother’s life, but maybe he can save him from a fate worse than death. Maybe.

Who’s going to save the rest of them?


Footnotes

[1] On a tangentially connected note, the information that the Black Net assassins were given about the Phoenix spooks’ abilities was only correct up to New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t seem to have been updated since, so they didn’t know anything about any of the advanced horrors. That’s something to be thankful for, at least. [Back]

[2] An [Intelligence + Investigation] roll, difficulty 8. Neither Carlos nor Tom use their private investigator licenses (which could have reduced the difficulty), preferring to preserve their anonymity instead. They each get 1 success. [Back]

[3] She has the ability to look alive enough to fool other spooks, but it only works when she has at least 7 vitality. [Back]

[4] 2 successes on a [Perception + Awareness] roll to sense anything supernatural. [Back]

[5] [Perception + Awareness] rolls. Carlos gets 3 successes, Tom gets 1 and Annie gets zero. At least it wasn’t a botch. [Back]

[6] This is the zero vitality use of forebode – looking one hour into the past or future. The vision doesn’t last very long, but it’s often enough to get the answer to a simple question. [Back]

[7] 3 successes on the [Perception + Awareness] roll at difficulty 7. [Back]

[8] He gets 4 successes on a [Willpower] roll at difficulty 8. [Back]

[9] No successes on a difficulty 6 [Perception + Awareness] roll to identify the source and nature of the resistance. [Back]

[10] Carlos gets 1 success on a [Manipulation + Subterfuge] roll to do so without arousing suspicion. This is apparently adequate. [Back]

[11] A [Perception + Technology] roll; 3 successes. [Back]

[12] A [Perception + Awareness] roll; 1 success. [Back]

[13] A [Perception + Empathy] roll; 3 successes. [Back]

[14] Inhabit doesn’t normally require a roll, but each player had to make a difficulty 7 [Willpower] check. Both of us also spent a point of willpower for the automatic success. I forget how many successes we got, but I think it was a reasonable number. We both spent 4 vitality (the level needed for a house or bus), which sent up quite a pulse. [Back]

[15] A [Perception + Awareness] roll; 3 successes. Apparently, today was the day for Perception-based rolls. [Back]

[16] A [Perception + Awareness] roll; 1 success. [Back]

[17] Her player was kind of in “This is so cool!” mode as well, I freely admit. [Back]

[18] 1 point. [Back]

[18] Although that would be pretty damn cool. [Back]

[20] You think we’d learn by now. Seriously. [Back]

[21] 2 points. [Back]

[22] It was Tom’s idea to go to the Poe museum, therefore it’s his fault that there’s now an additional item on our ‘to do’ list. [Back]

[23] As in: Dr Kate Dennison, formerly of Orpheus, now a member of Phoenix. [Back]

[24] He spends 1 vitality to use the benefit of anathema, which means she only has to spend 1 point herself to get a 5 point effect. The 5 vitality level of forebode has a range of up to ten years. [Back]

[25] 5 successes on the [Perception + Empathy] roll to activate the horror. This means that the vision can be replayed multiple times. That can be useful for picking up the little details that you miss the first time around. [Back]

[26] A successful [Intelligence] roll to figure out the location. [Back]

[27] A [Perception + Awareness] roll; 1 success. [Back]

[28] I think the main problem is that it’s been several weeks in the real world since the subject came up, and a lot has happened in-game. [Back]

[29] This seems to be the spectre’s equivalent of witch’s nimbus, suggesting that he may be a Haunter-analogue. [Back]

[30] Once activated, deadwire lasts for a scene. This means that, for as a long as it’s active, Tom can freely move along wires and radio-frequency signals without spending vitality. Doing this takes an action. Another advantage of this horror is that you don’t have to leave the object you jumped into to use witch’s nimbus. Thus, Tom was able to stay hidden while he blasted the spectre. The spectre could tell where the blast came from, but couldn’t see Tom deadwire from the object to the electrical system. [Back]

[31] Pep is quite a nifty little horror. It doesn’t heal, but being able to negate wound penalties could mean the difference between life and death in a fight. The spook needs contact with (or at least line of sight on) either the target’s flesh or gauze. This means it’s a very useful thing for a babysitter to have. Pep can also inflict wound penalties on targets, making it helpful to have when fighting enemies that are hard to hit or dodge. [Back]

[32] Mechanics-wise, a boost to [Stamina] plus one extra action. Alas, he has to step out of the electrical system to use juggernaut: deadwire (which includes a blast effect, like a lower-powered version of witch's nimbus) is the only horror he can use from inside an object. [Back]

[33] The fight lasted two rounds, plus Tom’s pre-initiative surprise attack. Shelley hasn’t turned up yet because it’s only been seconds since Tom set off from the motel. [Back]

[34] Ghosts take vitality damage, not wounds. Like other spooks, they can spend willpower to replenish vitality (1 willpower for 3 vitality), which basically rebuilds their gauze. [Back]

[35] As well as allowing someone to hurl bolts of flame or lightning, witch’s nimbus also sheaths them in an aura of fire or electricity (as appropriate), which damages anyone or anything that comes into contact with it. This is the problem with materialising when using the horror: it tends to start fires. [Back]

[36] Tom fired up juggernaut last round, using it to give himself a boost to [Stamina] and one extra action per round. The latter is why he shoots twice, while Shelley only shoots once. [Back]

[37] The first two shots are at the end of one combat round. The third is Tom’s first action of the next round. He got the highest initiative. [Back]

[38] This isn’t the first time the group has encountered an animal spectre. Teresa, Tom and Ben ran across one during their first mission, dealing with the haunting of the Southville Gazette. That was formed from a rat that died a horrible, lingering death crushed amidst the drained corpses of other rats. This one seems a little more intelligent than that, but it’s hard to say one way or the other. [Back]

[39] This is Tom’s second action this round. [Back]

[40] Perhaps inspired by some unholy combination of “Hyde” and “Fluffy”. It seems to work. [Back]

[41] The order of events is a little confused here. I’m finding it difficult to write up the combats in a way that’s both interesting and accurate, so I’m playing a little fast and loose with the sequence of events. [Back]

[42] No successes on a [Dexterity + Stealth] roll for Tom. Still, at least it wasn’t a botch. [Back]

[43] A [Charisma + Leadership] roll to try to get the police officers to rush off towards the bomb site, leaving Tom and Cassandra to their own devices. No successes. They’re not suspicious – it’s not a botch – but there’s no way they’re going to let two of the walking wounded go without medical attention. [Back]

[44] With 4 successes, she certainly ought to be! [Back]

[45] Getting medical attention within a short space of time after taking damage can drastically reduce the healing time. Given that Tom is really rather battered, this is very useful indeed. [Back]

[46] 3 successes on a [Manipulation + Expression] roll to craft an effective statement. [Back]

[47] Tom’s player spent a Willpower point on the [Charisma + Leadership] roll to persuade Bill stay with him for a few days. This is something very important to Tom. [Back]