Orpheus: The Taste of Ashes - Missions - Mission018

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Dramatis Personae

Protagonists

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

Supporting Characters

Phoenix

  • Ben Cotton, Poltergeist
  • Kate Dennison, Banshee
  • Carlos Hayaté, Wisp
  • Matthieu Kerekov, Banshee
  • Mitch, cradle technician (non-projector)
  • Chet Mason, Skinrider
  • Hoyt Masterson, Haunter
  • John Reeve, Skinrider (hue)
  • Rory, ghost dog (Annie’s familiar)
  • Zoë Vitt, Poltergeist
  • Shelley Young, Haunter

Black Steel Centipede Triad

  • Gang-Sheng, gambling overseer and legbreaker
  • Lin, Gang-Sheng’s boss
  • A projector, unknown shade (skimmer)
  • Various Triad members

CellTech

  • Nathaniel Smith, employee (chipped)
  • Mrs Smith, Nathaniel’s wife (not chipped)
  • Charles Swift, employee (chipped)

FBI

  • Special Agent Larson
  • Deputy Director Friedman
  • Deputy Director Stiles
  • Various agents

Miscellaneous Non-Spooks

  • The kitchen staff of a restaurant in Chinatown

Spectres

  • Hyde, Jason
  • A dark cloud
  • A number of haunter (?) equivalents
  • Various spectres


Mission Eighteen – Law and Disorder

Part One – Old School

It’s Wednesday evening when Tom returns to the motel with Bill in tow. (They’re now in a different motel to the one they found just after the attack, having decided that it’s safer to keep moving around until they settle themselves into another permanent base.) Taking Annie aside, Tom relays the gist of his conversations with Bill and Mona, and suggests that Annie could go and speak with Jane. She seems amenable to the idea, although she feels a certain amount of nervousness at being that close to someone who’s in contact with the spectres.

As soon as Kerekov is briefed on the current NextWorld situation – i.e., that NextWorld is no longer a credible threat to Phoenix, or to him – he announces his attention to go solo again. It seems that he was never really much of a team player. NextWorld were the only ones gunning specifically for him – everything else seems to be aimed at Phoenix as a group – so there’s no real need for him to be in hiding any more. Technically, Bishop may still be after him as a way of getting to Phoenix, but he doesn’t seem to be especially worried by the prospect. Given the choice between life on the run and something a little more comfortable, it’s hardly surprising that he chooses the latter. Once he’s recovered sufficiently from his injuries to be mobile again, he makes his goodbyes and parts ways with them. He doesn’t burn his bridges, however, agreeing that they can call on him if they need his assistance (at a very reasonable rate). Naturally, he expects the same in return.

It’s time for another discussion regarding what to do next. Most of the Phoenix spooks, plus Carlos, gather in one of the motel rooms. They certainly have no shortage of loose ends to deal with, but that’s the problem: where do they start? Some possibilities that come to mind (in no particular order) include: the NSA spook-tech lab, Terrel & Squib, Béla Kiss, the tower, Theodore Walters, the compromised FBI system and Ethan Torrence. Of all of those, Kiss would probably be the fastest to resolve – all they have to do is disperse him, after all – but it’s also highly likely to get them killed. Kiss is a hard enough target on his own, but there’s an added complication in the fact that his lair is in the same building as a Terrel & Squib research facility. The last thing they want to do is end up tangling with T&S’ security measures as well as Kiss. Maybe they can draw him out, somehow, or force a conflict between him and his fellow tenants. If they do decide to take him on, they’re definitely going to have to work out tactics beforehand: just charging in is a sure-fire way to end up dead. If he has difficulty manifesting, they might be able to use things like ghost-shot, spook cuffs and the spook taser to give themselves an advantage. Engaging T&S also poses several difficulties, with or without Kiss as a factor. For a start, they’re probably still on alert from when Phoenix possessed one of their programmers. Between that and their anti-spook defences, they’re going to be a tough nut to crack. Not impossible, but certainly difficult. It might be best to leave that one until they have a base, some resources, and everyone at full health.

      “I think we should start with the FBI,” says James, decisively. “It removes a potential threat to us, and will increase goodwill.”
      “What about Chicago?” asks Annie. “The longer we leave that, the more people are going to get hurt.”
      “The FBI job is likely to be shorter. We might as well start with the loose ends we can tie up quicker.”
      “Yeah,” agrees Tom. “Chicago’s some distance away, and will probably tie up most of us. We might as well deal with the problems closer to home first.”
      “We can at least make the offer,” James points out. “It might take a while for them to set it up.”
      “I suppose so.” Annie doesn’t look completely convinced, but she seems to be outvoted on this one.
      “I’ll contact Larson when we’re done here,” says Carlos. “I’d rather discuss this face-to-face than over the phone.”
      “You mean you don’t want to ring him up and shout ‘NSA, NSA, NSA!’ over the phone?” James still hasn’t forgiven Carlos for that incident. That’s alright, though: Carlos hasn’t forgiven Phoenix for potentially compromising him and his phones, either. As grudges go, it’s six to one and half a dozen of the other. There are more important things to deal with at the moment, however.

Once they discussion is over, Carlos approaches Larson. The two of them meet up in a Taco Bell. (Well, they have used the pizza place twice now – it wouldn’t o to become predictable, just in case anyone’s watching.)
      “What can I do for you?” Larson asks cautiously.
      Carlos gets straight to the point. “Phoenix has a proposition for you.”
      “Why do those words fill me with dread?” The caution is now full-blown suspicion.
      “They shouldn’t. This will actually benefit you, and the Bureau.”
      “Go on then: what is their proposition?”
      “They’re offering to help clean up your computer system. If there is anything in there – and they’re convinced there is [1] – they can identify it and kick it out.”
      “I see. What would they need access to? They obviously don’t have security clearance – I can’t see this being an easy sell.” But it sounds like he’s at least considering the possibility, rather than simply rejecting it out of hand.
      “Well, they think that one of the mainframes may have been compromised by a spook. That means they’re going to need physical access at the very least.”
      “Hmm. Physical access is one thing, but we’re going to have to make sure that they don’t hack into the data itself.”
      “I’ll talk to them and see if that’s all they need.”

Carlos confers with Tom, who is apparently Phoenix’ chief Haunter. Tom tells him that they’re going to need a team of three or four spooks: one or two Haunters (or inhabiters), plus two others for boosting and/or protection. They’re definitely going to need physical access to the machines; maybe even more than one, depending on how the putative intruder is occupying the system. Access to the data itself, however, shouldn’t be necessary. Carlos relays the information to Larson, who warns that the Phoenix spooks will have to be watched at all times.
      “That shouldn’t be a problem,” Carlos reassures him.
      “Then I’ll see what I can do.” [2]

While waiting to hear back from Larson, James suggests that some of them take a trip to Baltimore to take another look at Poe’s house.
      “If that doorway really does lead to the land of the spectres,” he observes, “then we probably want to make sure it’s closed properly.”
      “We did close it as best as we could,” says Tom.
      “But you said it didn’t feel like it was shut as tightly as it was before.” They can’t really argue with that. “I just think we should make sure.”
      “I think you’re right,” Annie agrees. “And while we’re there, we can make a start on the surveillance for the NSA lab. We’ve got those names and addresses that Shelley found for us.” There is general agreement, but they are interrupted before they can start making plans. Ben returns from one of his absences, making a beeline for Annie.
      “There’s something I need you to take a look at,” he says, without preamble.
      “What is it?”
      “I’ve been chasing up the pigment supply. Found a few leads, made a few contacts. Yesterday, one of my contacts turned up nailed to a wall. I want to know who did it, and how.”
      “Sure, I can take a look.” After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Looking towards Tom, she says: “Sounds like we need an investigator. Want to come along?”
      “Yeah, okay. We should leave it ’till tomorrow, though – some of us need to rest.” No one disagrees – it is getting rather late.

Ben fills the rest of them in on what he’s found out so far. The pigment supply chains were severely disrupted after the Bounce Night tragedy. It seems that, even though the drug was being fairly widely distributed once it hit the streets, the supply chains started with a relatively small number of sources. The bulk of the supply just seemed to dry up overnight. Some gangs started trying to take over what was left; between the gang warfare and the police crackdown, it was chaos on the streets. The situation seems to be stabilising now, however. In part, this is probably due to the fact that the supply is starting up again. The Blasphemers could have taken over if they’d had more drugs. They’ve expanded their territory a little, but not as much as they might have done. Although they previously owned a significant portion of the market, it seems that they weren’t actually producing the drugs themselves. Ben hasn’t yet discovered who their supplier is, however. The Black Steel Centipede Triad seems to be reducing its pigment-related operations. Recent events don’t seem to have harmed them as much as some, but then their business portfolio is somewhat broader than the average street gang. It was one of Ben’s Triad contacts who was killed.

The little investigative expedition heads off to Chinatown. Hoyt is driving, with Ben, Annie, Tom, James and Carlos crammed into the car with him. They’re all in body, so it’s rather cosy in there. Rory’s also accompanying them; he may not be corporeal, but that doesn’t really help the sense of overcrowding. Ben directs them to a small alleyway next to a restaurant. The plan is that he and Hoyt (and Rory) will stay in the car while the other four investigate the murder scene. The investigators project, and Carlos uses stormwending to teleport them all into the alleyway. (From the various rumours they’ve come across, they strongly suspect that the Black Steel Centipede Triad has spooks on staff, so they don’t necessarily want to go wandering around here too much while in gauze. The last thing they need right now is to get into a fight with some ghostly gangsters.)

The alleyway looks more or less like they would expect: piled bin bags, rotting food, and the tattered remains of police tape. There is a roughly-drawn chalk outline on the wall, and a few dried bloodspots spattered around. It doesn’t look like the clean-up crew were especially thorough. There are holes pounded deep into the brick wall – too deep for merely human strength. According to Ben, the victim was pinned to the wall by knives. How does someone jam knives that deep into brick? The answer seems to be either power tools or supernatural strength: no prizes for guessing where the investigators would put their money. If they had any.

It’s time to take a closer look at the scene. Annie cautiously opens up her supernatural senses, but can’t pick up any particular emotional resonance from the area. Maybe the killing happened too quickly, or the resonance couldn’t take hold, or something else entirely. Despite Orpheus’ attempts to turn the supernatural into a science, these things are never exactly predictable. James and Tom use their investigative training to assess the scene, looking for clues to what happened here. [3] From the blood spatter, scuff marks and knife holes, it seems that the victim was thrown up against the wall and pinned there while still alive. Tom finds a small trail of blood droplets. He studies them for a few moments, and then says:
      “I think the killer just walked out into the street afterwards; into the crowd. Someone must have seen them – maybe even witnessed the killing. They might have heard something at least.” If the victim was pinned to a wall while still alive, he probably made some noise. “I doubt any witnesses would have talked to the police.” Luckily, unlike the police, they’re not limited by having to actually ask questions.
      “We can try and find them,” says James. “Some of those flats must have a view of the alleyway.” He gestures up towards them. “We can work out which of the occupants are likely to have seen something, and see what they know.”
      “There’s also the restaurant.” There’s a door into the alleyway from what’s probably the kitchen. “We should check out the kitchen staff.”

Meanwhile, Carlos is making his own analysis of the scene. [4] He starts to look around but then stops, puzzled. He feels something; a sensation both familiar and strange. It’s like there’s something there, just out of reach; just out of sight. But, somehow, he knows it’s there. He reaches for whatever it is, obeying the instinct to channel vitality (if only a small amount [5]). Something clicks into place in his mind. There’s a sudden burst of sound – a chorus of screams that’s over almost as soon as it begins – and then it feels like he’s reaching through a storm. He closes his hand on something he can barely feel, drawing it towards him as the winds buffet his gauze. [6] Looking down at his hand, he’s now holding a knife. It’s clearly gauze; barely even visible. And it’s bloodstained. Could this be the murder weapon? Turning, he holds it out to the resident expert on the supernatural.
      “Annie, can you take a look at this?”
      She does so, frowning. “Where did you get that?”
      “I’m not sure.” He describes what happened; the feeling of something being there, channelling vitality, the screams.
      “It sounds like you just discovered your third-tier horror,” she muses. “Can I see the knife?” He hands it to her, and she concentrates for a moment or two. “There’s an aura of violence about it.”
      “No, really?” That might just be sarcasm in James’ voice. “Well done, Deanna Troi.”
      “It’s nice to confirm these things.” She hands the knife back to Carlos, who’s looking thoughtful.
      “I’m going to try to find the other one,” he says.

Concentrating, Carlos channels a little vitality [7], reaches out his hand and pulls forth... a ring.
      “That doesn’t look like a knife,” James observes.
      “I did the same thing as before,” says Carlos, puzzled.
      “Maybe there’s something else to it,” Annie says. “Perhaps the ring is connected, somehow.” She shakes her head. “We’re going to have to figure out the rules of this horror.”
      Carlos has been studying the ring. “There’s an inscription here. It says: ‘To my darling wife.’ Maybe it’s a wedding ring.”
      Annie reaches out a finger to touch it, concentrating. She frowns. “The resonance is love curdled to hate. I’m not sure how it relates to the knife, if at all.”
      “Let me see both of them,” says James, holding out his hand. “I might be able to tell if they were made by the same person or event.” It’s one of the uses of congeal: analysing gauze objects. [8] He studies the ring and the knife. [9] “These weren’t created,” he says, frowning. “At least, not by a person. The knife is a... an echo. I think it just formed out of the emotions and energy of the murder. The ring is different. It formed slowly over time, probably due to a build-up of emotional residue. I don’t think they’re connected.” He hands them back to Carlos. “Congratulations: you have the ability to pull random crap from thin air.”
      “I’ve never been able to do that before,” he says, frowning. “Although I haven’t exactly tried. I’ll have to experiment some more.” He suits the action to the words, this time refraining from channelling vitality into the act. When he withdraws his hand from wherever it is he finds these things, he is holding a rather old-fashioned-looking hair clip. When Annie concentrates on it, she gets a sense of... nostalgia? That’s the word that best describes the emotion. Carlos turns to set the hair clip down with the other gauze objects, only to find that they seem to have vanished. Maybe they’ve gone back to where he found them?
      “Can you get that knife back?” Tom asks.
      “I can try.” He channels vitality, and pulls out... a book. It’s a pulp novel from the nineteen thirties: ‘Doc Savage, Man of Bronze’; a classic. “Apparently not.”
      “We can experiment with this when we’re done here, if you want,” says Annie. “Maybe we can figure out how it works.”
      “That would be good.”

For now, they have a murder to investigate. Annie tries to look back at the murder (with James’ help), but gets nothing more than a confused impression of anger and violence. [10] It looks like they’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. That is to say: it’s time to use puppetry. Working on the assumption that someone from the restaurant may have seen something, Tom starts possessing people, one at a time. Annie, Carlos and James boost him. It doesn’t take long to establish that none of the front of house staff saw or heard a thing. As they surmised, however, the kitchen is another story. The head chef heard thumps and screams – some kind of scuffle. Naturally, he didn’t go out there, or even take a look out the door. He simply didn’t want to know. He couldn’t help hearing, though. There was a male voice – the screamer, he thinks – begging for his life.
      “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he whimpered. He was speaking Chinese but, as the chef could understand it, so can Tom. “Please don’t hurt me.”
      “No one betrays the Black Steel Centipede Triad and lives,” replied another voice. This was also male; low and menacing. More screams, followed by an ominous silence.

Further poking around reveals that there was one kitchen worker who actually witnessed the murder. As luck – theirs, not his – would have it, he was outside having a cigarette at the time. Despite the deep male voice, the attacker was actually a petite woman. Somehow, she bodily lifted the victim and pinned him to the wall. The witness doesn’t know how she did it. He doesn’t know and he doesn’t want to know, just like he doesn’t want to know who she is. Tom draws out his host’s memory of what she looks like, so he can relay it to the others. She was Chinese, with long hair and, memorably, a scar across her right cheek. That’s something they can work with. Returning to the car, they run the description past Ben. It rings a bell.
      “It sounds like Whisper,” he says, frowning. “She’s an enforcer for the Centipedes. That’s all I know about her, though.” Apparently, the part about the man’s voice hasn’t made the rumour mill. The group decide not to follow up the lead immediately. Given the dangers inherent in blundering through the territory of a criminal organisation – let alone one thought to employ spooks – they feel it best to come up with a plan first. Besides, Carlos would like to work out the details of his cool new ability.

Back in the motel, the experiments go quite well. Annie takes Carlos through the procedures she developed for Orpheus (back in the early days of her post-life employment), and they soon have a rough guideline. Like all the other known horrors, the potency of the effect scales with the amount of vitality channelled into its expression. In this case, ‘potency’ seems to mean ‘size of object’. This ranges from things like lockpicks or a small knife all the way up to a car or a biplane. It seems to be easier to find older objects, and downright impossible to pull out anything made since the millennium. (It’s beginning to look like the knife he retrieved might not actually have been an echo of the murder weapon but, rather, just a murder weapon.) The difficulty also seems to depend on how specific a thing he wants. That is: the more precisely he specifies what he wants, the harder it is to find it. Certainly, he never seems to get exactly what he wants; the best he can do is something close. As long as someone – not necessarily him – pays attention to the objects he retrieves, they seem to last for about an hour. If ignored, they seem to fade almost immediately. If Carlos materialises while holding one of the objects, that item materialises with him. It will fade, however, if he puts it down for a few seconds. Unlike non-materialised objects, this is the case even if someone else is holding or otherwise paying attention to it.

The experiments suggest that Carlos is actually reaching into the storm and pulling objects towards him, thus combining aspects of both storm-wending and unearthly repose. Although something that they haven’t really considered before with respect to storm-wending, it seems likely that the storm in question is actually the storm: the one that seems to form a barrier around the land of the spectres. That’s a thought that some of them may find disturbing. (Annie certainly does.) In any case, a consequence of this connection is that Carlos can actually pull out a piece of the storm itself to wrap it around another spook. It doesn’t last for long before dissipating, but while it is in place, some of the vitality channelled by the spook is reflected back towards them. The effect of this is more complicated than simply returning spent vitality, however. Rather, it sets up a kind of feedback loop where the benefit of the relevant horror is activated and then reflected inwards. Essentially, the benefit of this Carlos’ third-tier horror – whatever he decides to call it – is that it can let other spooks use benefits upon themselves. [11] Ordinarily this isn’t possible.

Wednesday night’s Radio Free Death broadcast is intriguing:
      “Bad dreams seem to be everywhere these days. ... more to it ... People are disappearing ... Got a fix ... Free Death ... out.”

They can’t help but wonder if there’s any connection to Frank. After all, he is in the enemy’s hands right now. Perhaps they should try to rescue him. First, however, they have to find out where he is. And then they have to get through Bishop and his forces. Somehow, they don’t think that’s going to be easy. There’s only one other dreamshaper that they know of: the woman Frank encountered in Annie’s dreams. How do they even begin tracking her down? Tom has another question in mind for the moment, however.
      “Shelley,” he says (well, IMs). “Have you made any progress in tracking down Radio Free Death?”
      “Seems to be local.”
      “Well, he certainly has more local knowledge than I’d expect from a non-local. Have you managed to track down his base?”
      “He’s based in the city.”
      “The whole city?” Tom is doing an admirable job of reining in any impatience he might be feeling. “Is that ‘everywhere and nowhere’, like you said before?”
      ““Something like that.” She refuses to be drawn further, her IM status changing to: ‘Exploring Azeroth.’

So, another day; another new thing for the group to investigate. About par for the course, really. Another day closer to an apocalypse that may or may not come to pass. Who knows what will tomorrow bring?


Part Two – Probing Questions

It’s early morning (Thursday, for those who are counting), and various members of the Phoenix Group are engaged in a favourite pastime: discussing what they want to do now. They still have another couple of days until their scheduled visit to the FBI building, so they might as well use the time productively. (Larson thinks they have the best chance of avoiding unwanted attention if they go in on Saturday.) Much to everyone’s surprise, there are a couple of clear winners in the ‘things we want to and are able to deal with right now’ stakes: CellTech (the front company for the place where the NSA spook chips are being manufactured) and Whisper (the Black Steel Centipede Triad enforcer). With surprisingly little discussion, they arrange to split their forces. James and Ben will investigate Whisper, while Tom, Annie, Hoyt and Zoë will head up to Baltimore to look into CellTech. (Zoë is still fairly badly injured, but the group is rather short-handed at the moment.)

Ben knows (or, at least, knows of) a couple of the Black Steel Centipedes. One is fairly low on the food chain, and the other is somewhat higher up. James wants to start with the former, so they make their way to the gambling joint where he tends to spend much of his time. James keeps watch in gauze form, waiting for the target to show. It’s something of a risk, as there are pigment users in the area, but it’s a risk he’s willing to take. He conceals himself in an alleyway. [12] A deadhead [13] does stumble across him (almost literally; the man is so far gone that he just collapses in the alleyway on his way out of the club) but is too far gone to do any more than wave blearily at the spook. He slumps there blinking dazedly for a little while before dragging himself painfully to his feet and staggering on his way. If anyone starts asking about strangers or spooks near the club, then the deadhead can potentially give James’ description, which could let someone identify him as a member of Phoenix. The risk seems fairly minimal, however. Time passes. Eventually (several hours after James first takes up his post), the target emerges from the gambling den and makes his way through Chinatown. James follows stealthily, taking to the rooftops [14] to reduce his chances of being spotted. [15] Reeling more than a little drunkenly, Gang-Sheng heads to one of the many tenement buildings; presumably where his apartment is. James uses helter skelter to activate the mobile phone Ben left him, alerting his partner that their target is on the move. Barely a couple of minutes later, Ben joins him, ready to boost his attempt at puppetry. They don’t bother to wait until Gang-Sheng reaches his apartment, jumping him as soon as he gets into the hall. There’s no one around, and James wants to find out whether or not his host lives alone before heading into the apartment. He succeeds in getting a good grip, [16] and quickly rifles through the relevant memories, identifying his host’s apartment and confirming that it should be empty. The interrogation can commence.

Gang-Sheng is mainly employed to oversee some of the Triad’s gambling dens, with a sideline as a legbreaker. He doesn’t know much about the murder, but the rumour mill says the victim was talking to people he shouldn’t. It’s widely believed that he was killed as an example to others. This is certainly consistent with what they already know. He’s heard of Whisper, but never actually seen her. Few have – she’s the bogeyman; a scary story to warn of the consequences of betrayal – but everyone knows the rumours. It’s said that the Yakuza tried to start something a while back, but Whisper made an example of the people in charge, and the problem just went away. Aside from that, the Triad hasn’t really had any trouble with rival gangs. They occasionally come into contact with Mafia interests, but they’re pretty much beyond warring with street gangs.

There are rumours of ghosts working for the Triad. There are supposed to be thirteen of them in total, with one of them present in New York. Could this be Whisper? Gang-Sheng hasn’t heard anything about Phoenix – the Triad doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned about the spook organisation, which is probably a good thing. Aside from his day to day duties, he doesn’t really know much about what else the Triad may be up to. There has been some unusual activity lately, however; a number of unfamiliar faces in the area. He’s been ordered not to ask about them.

The Triad is run by a board. He doesn’t know who any of them are, but James manages to get the names of some other Triad members out of him: his boss, and his boss’ boss, plus the other people involved in his little corner of the operation. There are also some locations of interest, such as a couple of other clubs/hangouts like his, and the place where he tends to meet with his boss. That seems to be pretty much all the useful information Gang-Sheng has. James does have one more question: has his host suffered any unexplained blackouts or episodes of missing time that are consistent with his being puppeted by other spooks. He has experienced blackouts, but the context suggests that these are more due to his not infrequent drinking binges. Certainly, there’s nothing to suggest that he’s been doing things during those periods. It looks like he’s going to suffer another one. James gets him to his bed, and the two Phoenix spooks return to their bodies.

Meanwhile, the other team drive up to Baltimore and hire a couple of cars. The plan is to begin surveillance of some of the CellTech employees on their list. [17] According to Shelley, their files were flagged to trigger some kind of alert if anyone accessed them. Fortunately, she’s very good at what she does and, as far as she knows, managed to acquire the information without tripping the flag. The presence of the flags is interesting in and of itself is interesting, however, and tells them something useful: someone (almost certainly the NSA) is interested in these individuals, and in anyone who might be investigating them. It suggests that getting to them isn’t necessarily going to be a straightforward exercise. (Shelley is unwilling to try to trace the flags back to the source. Something tells her that messing with the NSA computer system, while undoubtedly fascinating, would be extraordinarily dangerous. After all, they have anti-spook measures and they’re not afraid to use them.)

Remembering the near-disaster of their attempt to investigate Terrel & Squib, [18] the first thing they want to do is establish whether or not any of these people have brain chips. Fortunately, Tom can do so without activating the device, if present. At least that’s the theory. There are two reasons why they want to know if the targets are chipped. First, because it means they wouldn’t be able to simply puppet them to find out what they know. Second, Phoenix might be able to use something like that to get the NSA off their backs. It seems likely that the chips are something the organisation would want to be kept secret. After all, the general public are unlikely to respond well to the news that a government agency has been implanting electronic microchips into American citizens without their knowledge or consent. Even if this matter isn’t the reason they wanted all the Phoenix spooks dead, it might make life difficult for them if the information were to come out.

(Before setting out, there is some discussion about how to ensure that the general public finds out about the chips, if present, in a way that can’t necessarily be traced back to Phoenix. One possibility is to try to arrange for one or more of these people to have a brain scan. In theory, this should be able to pick up the chips. If they don’t know they’ve been chipped, their doctors are likely to follow up on the presence of a foreign object in the patients’ brains. This would work, but would be difficult to set up. How do they arrange for a group of people to get brain scans without puppetting doctors and alerting the NSA? The other difficulty would be to ensure that the presence of the chips is actually linked to the NSA. Without that connection – and hard proof – revealing the information is unlikely to help. Presumably the agency hasn’t etched ‘Implanted by the NSA’ on each one of their illegally implanted brain chips. It’s something they’re going to have to think about. First, however, they need to establish whether or not the CellTech employees are actually chipped.)

They have the addresses of ten CellTech employees, so each of the drivers – Zoë, Hoyt and Annie – picks one of them to trail. (Annie is accompanied by Rory.) Tom can’t exactly just walk into the CellTech compound, and there’s a not-insignificant chance that the NSA will have installed anti-spook security measures in their employees’ houses. (The technology certainly exists, and the flags on the files show that they’re keeping an eye out for anyone showing interest in these people.) This means they’re going to have to either catch the targets on their way home, or wait for them to leave their houses. Tom accompanies Zoë in his body, ready to step out of it when he gets the opportunity to scan one of the targets. He can always deadwire if necessary.

The targets arrive home from work. Now it’s just a case of watching and waiting; hoping that one of them will step outside so Tom can do his thing. This mission is likely to involve a lot of waiting around: such is the nature of surveillance. As luck would have it, the man in Zoë and Tom’s sights – Charles Swift – heads out to do some grocery shopping. He’s changed out of his work clothes, but they have no trouble recognising him. Obligingly, he’s even going on foot rather than driving. (Well, the shops aren’t that far away.) Tom and Zoë both project, but Zoë only stays out of body long enough to boost Tom’s deadwire. (They need it to last longer than a few seconds without him spending enough vitality to cause a spike.) [19] As it turns out, keeping up with Swift isn’t a challenge. When he’s close enough, Tom extends his senses [20] and picks up a faint, intermittent signal coming from the back of Swift’s neck. This tells him what he needed to know: the man has been chipped. Returning to his body, he gives Zoë the good news and then calls the others to let them know. It looks like getting information out of these people isn’t necessarily going to be easy. Tom and Zoë move onto the next person on the list. Their luck isn’t repeated, however: none of the targets leave their homes again this evening. Luckily, there’s always tomorrow. The group return the rental cars and head back to New York for the night.

On Friday morning, James has a request for Shelley.
      “I’d like you to retrieve the police file for this murder, if you can.”
      “If I can?!” Even as a text response, Shelley’s indignation comes across loud and clear.
      “I mean, if you can be bothered,” James tries to appease her. “I mean, obviously you can, but you might not want to for some reason.”
      “Hmmpf.” For a few moments, it’s not clear whether James has mortally offended their resident computer specialist, but then the word: “Done” forms in the chat window.
      “You’ve got the files?”
      “Yes.”
      “Oh. Thank you.” The files don’t say much, as it happens. It seems that the investigating officers have written the killing off as “suicide by gangster”. It does mention similar killings, however, so James asks Shelley – carefully – to retrieve the relevant information.
      “Already done,” is her reply. Apparently, she was way ahead of him.

The surveillance team set out for Baltimore before any of this takes place. The city is a couple of hours’ drive away, so it’s mid- to late-morning by the time they arrive. It’s too early to get started on the surveillance (unless any of their targets are home sick, working from home or taking a day off), but they have other plans for the day. They want to check up on the Poe house, primarily to make sure that the door to the land of the spectres is still well and truly closed. A sweep of the area reveals no obvious spooks, portals or any other obvious dangers, so they park up and couple of blocks away. The plan is that Tom and Annie will attempt the same thing as last time, leaving their bodies under the watchful eyes of Hoyt, Zoë and Rory. (Rory is rather long-suffering [21] about being left with Zoë, who’s in an even bouncier mood than usual, thanks to the fact that she’s finally back on missions again. Annie, perhaps rather heartlessly, tells him he’ll just have to cope.)

The two spooks step into the house without difficulty, much like before. The act does cause a spike, but that can’t be helped. (Technically, Zoë could use the benefit of helter skelter to reduce the amount of vitality they have to channel into the effect, but they don’t want to risk it. This is such an unusual location; they just don’t know what would happen. Maybe she’d get drawn into the link as well, or worse. It might be worth experimenting with at some point, but not when she’s badly injured and they’re short-handed.) As far as they can tell, everything seems fine. The house’s energy pool has refilled, and the door is as firmly closed as it was when they left it. (It’s not sealed shut, as it was before they opened it, but it is the metaphysical equivalent of closed and locked.) The slow-time effect has faded, as has the enhanced ‘solidity’ of the drawing room. As they conclude their examination, something rips a hole in space and starts to come through; another Fetch. As before, Annie slams portal shut before it can come through, channelling a significant chunk of the energy pool in order to do so. After consultation with Tom, she uses the rest of the energy (plus some of her own) in order to bar the door. The barricade almost certainly isn’t permanent, but it’s all they can do for now. It does occur to them that perhaps it might be a bad idea to keep drawing the spectres’ attention to this place by spiking. Maybe they should leave it alone for a bit.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Carlos pays Phoenix a visit. The historian he spoke with listed Kate – or, Dr Dennison – as one of the foremost experts on New York’s occult scene, and he has some questions he wants her expert opinion on Father Michael’s diary. Her first impression is that it’s a mish-mash of occult terms and symbology. Given what they know about the cult’s activities and goals, Kate thinks it’s entirely possible that they managed to summon something real. That the spectres of Lamb and Kiss are still trying to complete the ritual suggests either that their goal is an all-consuming obsession, or that they’re under the thrall of someone (or something) so-obsessed. To put the cult’s earlier activities in context, the nineteen-thirties saw the end of the spiritualism movement; an end helped along by the conflicts between various occult groups (such as Paris’ War of the Roses in the late nineteenth century). Kate speculates that perhaps someone was simply trying to get rid of the competition. After all, from what N’Kejeda said, Bishop didn’t just want to take out Orpheus and Terrel & Squib – he had a number of mediums assassinated as well. On a related note, Kate observes that there were certainly ghosts around before their abrupt appearance (more properly, reappearance) three years or so ago. So, why was Orpheus so insistent that they weren’t? That was their party line and they refused to even consider deviating from it. In hindsight, that seems rather strange. Returning to the subject of Carlos’ current line of investigation, however, Kate has some contacts among some of New York’s modern cults and occult groups. It’s possible they may know something – she’s going to try to find out.

James (with Shelley’s help) has made progress in his investigation. Murders like the one they’re investigating first started in Chinatown around ten years ago. There was a small spate of them back then (five or six over a couple of weeks), followed by about one more every month or so. There’s been a slightly longer gap between the most recent pair, however. At first, the police thought they were dealing with a serial killer, but over time they revised their hypothesis to ‘internal gang violence’. Reflecting this, the first few case files contain the results of detailed forensic analyses, but the later reports grow steadily more perfunctory. By this point, it looks like the priority is simply to determine whether or not the murders are consistent with this killer’s (or killers’) particular modus operandi. James goes over the crime scene analyses with a fine-toothed comb, but can find no unequivocal evidence of supernatural activity.

Looking back at the first spate of killings, it seems that all the victims had something in common: they were all members of the same gang. James digs further into the files, carefully reading through the witness statements and interview transcripts to try to identify a possible candidate for the killer. (After all, the police weren’t looking for a spook.) The rather tedious task pays off. One of the people interviewed in connection with the case was a small Chinese woman in her mid-twenties who had previously been attacked by the gang in question. Her face had been cut quite badly: could this be the source of Whisper’s scar? Looking for more information on the woman, James finds a name (Su-Chen), her address (from a decade ago; certainly longer valid) and a photograph. [22] The name means nothing, but the picture confirms his suspicions: unless this is some huge coincidence, Shen Yi is Whisper. Interestingly, Shen Yi’s husband was killed in the same attack that saw her scarred for life. It was shortly after this that the killings started.

Was Whisper possessed by the ghost (or spectre) of her dead husband so they could get revenge on the people who killed him and scarred her? If so, why is he still around? How did he survive whatever purged the world of almost all the other ghosts? Why are the two of them working as enforcers for the Black Steel Centipede Triad? Those answers aren’t going to be in the police files – he’s going to need to find Whisper herself. He asks Shelley to do a massive, multi-database search to try to track her down. This will not be a small undertaking.
      “I can do that,” says Shelley, “but it’s going to bring up thousands of hits. The parameters are too broad.” After a brief pause, she adds: “I am not going to go hunting through that mass of data to find the one tiny bit you’re interested in. I have much better things to do with my time.”
      ‘Like levelling up your elf sorceress,’ [23] James thinks, but doesn’t say aloud. What he does say, is: “I can go through the files. Just get them for me. Please?”
      “It’s your life.” That seems to be a yes. “It’ll take a couple of days to pull everything.”
      “That’s fine. Thank you.”
      “I need vitality.”

As they did yesterday, the Baltimore group rent a couple of cars and split up. (They can do more damage, uh, cover more targets that way.) Tom stays with Zoë again. Hoyt’s target – a man called Nathaniel Smith – leaves the house with his wife. They take their car and head off to a nearby entertainment complex, Hoyt trailing them with ease. It looks like the Smiths are going to the movies. This is as good an opportunity Tom’s going to get, so he deadwires to Hoyt’s location and then heads off into the cinema, after the couple. He has to run to catch up with them, but at least he knows they won’t be going anywhere for a couple of hours. (Mr and Mrs Smith are watching a cheesy action flick.) Concentrating his spook senses on Mr Smith, Tom picks up a signal much like the one he sensed from Swift. For completeness’ sake, he checks Mrs Smith as well, but senses nothing. It’s time to go back to his body, and then back to New York for the night.

“... Free Death, broadcasting ... ghosts ... disappearing ... near Mayfair Green. ... expanding. Repeat: ... zone ... getting bigger. ... light ... others have reported ... singing. ... female voice. ... stay away. .... Radio ... out.”


Part Three – “Hopefully things won’t go FUBAR...”

It’s Friday evening, and James and Ben have a few more leads they want to follow before starting the FBI job tomorrow. Specifically, they have two more targets for puppetry, and they would like to get hold of at least one of them this evening. Gang-Sheng’s boss has his office in the back room of a restaurant, so they project and head off to Chinatown. The building they’re interested in is on the corner of its block. It’s between nine and ten pm by the time they get there, and the restaurant is fairly busy. They don’t want to risk being seen (either by the Triad’s putative spooks or by any nearby deadheads), so Ben hangs back, within earshot but out of sight. James uses anathema to scale the wall so he can keep watch from the roof. [24] No one seems to have noticed James [25] – at least, not so far as he can tell [26] – so he settles down to wait. Lin (the target) is a bald, muscled Chinese man. He has some tattoos, but they’re not particularly prominent. (He’s usually behind his desk when Gang-Sheng sees him, so they’re not sure of his height. From his general bulk, however, they’re expecting someone fairly tall.) Given that he’s at least a low-level Triad boss, it seems likely that he’ll be accompanied by bodyguards or flunkies.

Time passes. The clock strikes eleven; not quite the witching hour, but an important time nonetheless. Back at the motel, Kate turns on the radio and waits. Sure enough, a short while later, the low hiss of static is interrupted by words. Other spooks gather round to listen.

“... Free Death, broadcasting ... ghosts ... disappearing ... near Mayfair Green. ... expanding. Repeat: ... zone ... getting bigger. ... light ... others have reported ... singing. ... female voice. ... stay away. .... Radio ... out.”

Just past midnight, someone matching the target’s description leaves the restaurant, accompanied by three other men. They look like muscle and, from the way they’re carrying themselves, James surmises that all four men are packing heat. James spiders back to the ground and signals Ben. After letting the group get a little way ahead, they set off in pursuit. James takes the lead, as he has actual training in this sort of thing. At his direction, they hang back a little way. This makes it harder to keep up with their quarry, but should reduce the risk of being spotted. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay off. [27] A short way through Chinatown, James realises that one of the men has clocked him. [28] He and Ben temporarily break off pursuit, trying to lose himself in the (relatively sparse) crowd. Ducking between buildings, they scale a wall and come back around from a different direction, sticking to the rooftops.

James and Ben locate the Triads again without too much trouble. As it turns out, they haven’t gone very far. In fact, they’ve stopped moving altogether, the three guards taking up position around their boss. The guards have gone from merely watchful to hyper-alert, with one or two of them keeping hands near their guns. Luckily, they don’t seem to notice the spooks’ reappearance. [29] Lin is just finishing a phone call, presumably reporting to his boss the fact that they were being followed. (It would be no surprise to Phoenix to learn that the Triads have a procedure for this kind of thing.) The group hold position for a few tense minutes, until his phone rings. He’s on the line for less than a minute, after which he gives a curt order and the four of them start moving again. With no need for discussion, James and Ben continue to follow their target. As before, James takes point and Ben follows him. The Triads are now moving in a different direction to their original course, and it’s about one o’ clock [30] by the time they arrive at their destination: a warehouse by the docks.

Ben hangs back, maintaining a little distance but keeping line of sight on James, who climbs up to the warehouse roof and takes a look through the skylight. There’s one car in the warehouse car park and there are no obvious cameras or guards. [31] Inside the building, a handful of men are packing things into crates. More men are openly carrying guns. The group they’ve been following are sitting near one of the walls, talking with an older Chinese man. (He doesn’t match the description of Lin’s immediate superior.) Lin is extremely agitated; the older man appears to be trying to calm him down. As they talk – the conversation goes on for a good few minutes or so – another man surveys the warehouse with what look like spook goggles. (Fortunately for James he, like so many other people, fails to look up.)

When the conversation is over, Lin and his men appear to sit back and wait. The older man settles down, closes his eyes and then steps out of his body. Apparently, in addition to the rumoured ghosts, the Black Steel Centipede Triad also employs at least one projector; an interesting and useful piece of information. At this precise moment, however, James is more concerned about remaining hidden than investigating further. The Triad spook walks into the nearest warehouse wall and disappears from view. James immediately leaps off the roof, using anathema to hover in place about the skylight. [32] If the man inhabits the building, he could potentially sense anyone in contact with it. There’s no pulse from within the warehouse, and the projector doesn’t reappear in James’ field of view; it’s not clear what he’s doing. [33] James waits for a few moments, but nothing further happens as far as he can tell. He signals to Ben and the two of them ripcord. Once back in their bodies, he observes:
      “I think they made us.”
      Ben just looks at him for a moment. “Ya think?!” [34]

Saturday morning rolls around: it’s the day of the FBI job. They briefly talk about how they’re going to do this, putting together a fairly simple plan. Basically, Tom is going to try to inhabit things to work out whether or not they’re occupied. If they are, he’s going kick the occupant out so that they can deal with it. None of them really think it’ll actually be that simple, but they can hope. They can always hope. After some more discussion, they settle on a team that consists of Tom, James, Annie, Shelley and Chet. [35] Hoyt will be their chauffeur (and babysitter) for the day, will Rory coming along to act as guard dog. (James, of course, has the slight issue of still being on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Apparently, they’re holding a grudge over the fact that he shot two of their agents – who would’ve thought?! He deals with this by the simple expedient of congealing a hoodie top to cover his face. [36])

At Annie’s suggestion, Hoyt drops the projected spooks off near a subway station a couple of stops from Federal Plaza, so they can travel the rest of the way in by train. (She reasons that if they get anywhere near the FBI headquarters, there’s a high risk that someone might spot them getting out of the car, thus connecting the car to Phoenix. All they have to do then is follow the car back to the motel, and the rest of them. No one else seems too concerned about that possibility, but they go along with the idea anyway. [37]) Carlos (their official-unofficial liaison) is waiting for them on the steps of the FBI building, together with Special Agent Larson and a gaggle of other agents. Some of these are wearing goggles (Larson isn’t).

      “They’re here,” Carlos murmurs to Larson. As Larson looks to the goggle-wearers for confirmation, he turns to the Phoenix spooks and says: “Does one of you want to manifest to act as spokesperson?”
      “I’ll do it.” Tom materialises and steps forward. Some of the agents – at least, the ones not wearing spook goggles – startle at his sudden appearance, standing down at a nod from Larson. Tom turns to the man in charge. “Good morning, Agent Larson.” He doesn’t bother to introduce himself – he and Larson have met before, when Madam Cassandra into protective custody. As a key witness, Tom was questioned extensively. “The team is all here and we’re ready to get to work.”
      “Where do you want to start?” Larson displays a trace of unease at speaking to someone who’s out of body, but maintains a professional manner.
      “We need a terminal. Any terminal will do, as long as it’s connected to your internal computer network. What anti-spook precautions do you have?” At Larson’s sudden wariness, he explains: “If anything happens, we need to know what to expect.”
      With obvious reluctance, Larson answers. “This team, plus some sensors and cameras.”
      “We’re intending to stay together as much as possible. If you see any spooks wandering around by themselves, they’re not with us. Hopefully, things won’t go FUBAR – if we have to bug out suddenly, we’ll try to let you know. Do you have any anti-spook software?” Tom’s concerned about running afoul of booby traps inside the computer system.
      “The details of our security systems are confidential, obviously, but I don’t think we have anything like that.”
      “What about hardware?” asks James. He hasn’t manifested, so Tom relays the question.
      “What kind of thing do you mean?”
      “Well, something that can trap spooks, for example.”
      Larson blinks. “That’s possible?”
      “Ummm.... Maybe...”
      “Not at the moment, but maybe we’ll work on it.”
      James glowers. “Great. Well done, Tom. Nice job.” Tom ignores him.

After a brief discussion of tactics, the Phoenix team is led into the building. James abruptly stops dead in the middle of the foyer, looking around warily.
      “Anyone else feel that?”
      In response, Chet unsnaps the holster of his trusty service revolver [38], scanning the place with a professional eye. “Feel something. Not right.” That’s an understatement. The building feels oppressive and ominous; like a haunted house. James almost expects to see dust and shadows, even though the foyer is bright and clean. No one apart from he and Chet seem to notice, however. [39] The spooks have stopped moving while James and Chet take a look around, but they let themselves be herded forwards again. When they get within ten feet from the barrier, an alarm goes off. The guards start to get to their feet, but a quiet word from Larson gets them to stand down. He heads for the lifts – closely followed by the others – only to stop as a man stands from one of the chairs scattered around. The man is tall, grey-haired, and carries himself as if he owns the building. He shoots Tom a considering glance, and then focuses his attention on the Special Agent.
      “Larson.”
      “Deputy Director Stiles.” Larson seems rather uncomfortable all of a sudden. “I thought you were still on leave.”
      “On leave I may be, but I still have friends. Don’t think you can slip something like this past me.”
      “I, ah, wasn’t trying to, Sir. I...”
      “Introduce me.”
      “Yes, Sir, of course. This is Tom Knox.” Stiles doesn’t seem to see any of the non-manifested spooks. He purses his lips as he studies Tom.
      “So, you’re going to fix our little problem, are you?”
      “We’re going to try,” Tom replies cautiously. It’s fairly clear this man out-ranks Larson by quite some way. They really want to stay on his good side.
      “Hmm.” He turns to Larson. “I’ll be accompanying you.” His tone brooks no argument, but Larson tries nonetheless.
      “You don’t need to do that, Sir.” There is a hint of panic in his eyes. Perhaps he’s thinking of all the many ways in which his burgeoning career could go down in flames. It’s bad enough having your boss look over your shoulder at the best of times. Whatever else this may be, it is not the best of times.
      “Oh, that’s quite alright,” Stiles says. Turning to Tom, he continues: “What Larson hasn’t told you – because he doesn’t know – is that there has been a drastic increase in suicides among people working in this building. Most, but not all, occurred in the building itself.” He takes a deep breath. “One of these was my wife.”
      “I’m sorry to hear that.” Tom doesn’t really know what else to say.
      “I’m not so much of a true believer as Larson, but if you really think you can help, I’m willing to let you try.” Larson is looking increasingly uncomfortable, and appears to be trying to melt into the background. “So. Let’s go, shall we?”

They take the lift up to the fourteenth floor. (It isn’t clear why Larson and co. take their consultants up to this floor. Perhaps it’s just somewhere that doesn’t contain anything of great importance.) Actually, they have to take two lifts, as one would be more than a little crowded. For everyone except Annie – who somehow remains cheerfully oblivious – the place starts to feel more and more oppressive, the further up they go. They catch glimpses of what look like very fine gauze spiderwebs. They’re reminiscent of the black threads woven through Mayfair Green, but much thinner and lighter. This is definitely not good. The spooks are escorted to an open-plan office, where they briefly discuss refinements to their plan. One problem that has occurred to them is that, if Tom does kick an occupying spook out of the computer system, they have no idea where in the building it will emerge.
      “What kind of spook-cam coverage do you have?” he asks Larson.
      After glancing to Stiles for permission, Larson replies: “Less than one hundred percent.” That means they can’t just have someone watching the camera feed. Fortunately, Shelley has a suggestion.
      “Get them to start isolating individual parts of the system. If anything’s in there, we can narrow down; limits the area we have to cover.”
      “That’s going to take time, and they’ll know we’re doing it,” Tom points out.
      Shelley shrugs. “Only way we stand a chance of catching them.”

After a little more discussion, Annie uses forebode to look for the most likely worst-case scenario within the next day, assuming they proceed with their plan. [40] She sees the building in flames, with four or five will o’ the wisp-like balls of electricity hovering above it. Relaying this to the others, she observes:
      “They must be the Haunters in the system – obviously there’s more than just one.” This future isn’t inevitable – it isn’t even necessarily likely – is just what may happen if everything that can go wrong does. That doesn’t, however, mean that they can just ignore it. They’ve gained some valuable information: namely that they’re dealing with more than one spook, and that those spooks have the ability to burn down the building. As the team are discussing how to proceed, Shelley pokes idly at a computer mouse. [41]
      “Yep, that’s inhabited.” She prods at a wall. “Nothing here, though. We need to do this floor by floor. And isolate the building.”
      Tom turns to Larson and Stiles. “My team have a couple of requirements. We need the building completely isolated from the internet.”
      “That’s possible,” says Larson, slowly, “but it will take time.”
      “If you haven’t already done so, you need to evacuate non-essential personnel.”
      “Why?”
      “The entities in your system are able to start fires. They could burn this whole building down.”
      “They haven’t started fires before,” interjects Stiles.
      “No one’s tried to flush them out before.”
      “Hmm.” Stiles still seems unconvinced.
      “I don’t have the authority to evacuate the building,” Larson says.
      “Show Stiles a fire.” Shelley is nothing if not pragmatic.
      “What?”
      “He won’t believe unless he sees it for himself. Convince him these things are a threat.”
      “Oh. Good idea.” Stiles and Larson have been watching him warily as he converses with someone they can’t see or hear. He focuses on Stiles this time. “I’m going to show you the kind of thing they can do. There’s no need for alarm.” With only the slightest effort, he uses witch’s nimbus to start a fire in a nearby bin. Larson takes half a step backwards, involuntarily. “That’s only the very least of what they could do.” Stiles frowns at the flames flickering in the waste-paper basket, his frown deepening as he brings his attention back to Tom. Both he and Larson suddenly seem a lot less sure of themselves.
      “Deal with that, Larson.” As Larson has one of his agents put out the small fire – luckily, he manages it before the sprinkler system activates – Stiles addresses Tom. “Fine; you’ve convinced me. This is going to take some time, though...”

Stiles has Larson start making some calls, coming on the line to give his authorisation when necessary. Apparently, evacuating One Federal Plaza without causing a big, noisy, interdepartmental fuss is not a trivial exercise. Neither is doing a floor-by-floor isolation of the internal computer network from the rest of the building and from the outside world. While both operations are being carried out, the Phoenix spooks take the opportunity to arrange for reinforcements and/or a vitality top-up. (Tom, Annie and James are all losing vitality for being out of their bodies.) John [42] is willing to come out and donate vitality to the cause, in return for a promise of more vitality in the future. (He wants one full recharge at a time of his choosing, plus the vitality he donates to be replaced at the first available opportunity. If the little expedition proves to be risky, he wants further recompense at a rate that’s dependent on the degree of danger. Tom –who makes the phone call – agrees to the terms without haggling. John isn’t being unreasonable, after all.) Annie tries calling Kerekov, who wants nothing to do with the whole business. He isn’t sentimental enough to want to help them out for old times’ sake, and they can’t afford his prices at the moment. He’s unwilling to extend credit on the grounds that he doesn’t think they’ll survive long enough to pay up. So, it looks like they’re only going to have the group they started with, although they’re going to be more or less fully-charged.

The group’s first stop is the server room in the basement. Shelley pokes a random computer mouse and announces:
      “It’s still in there.” That’s their cue to prepare for battle. At Chet’s suggestion, James congeals a gun out of one arm. If things kick off into an all-out fight – which seems more than likely, somehow – the plan is that he will boost Chet, and then either himself or Tom, depending on what they’re doing. Larson, Stiles and the rest of the FBI agents stay with them, but keep back so as to be out of the way. When they’re as ready as they’ll ever be, Tom – boosted by James – dives into the computer system. After a brief struggle, he manages to seize control of it, kicking out the inhabitant. [43] The mystery spook turns out to be a charred, corpse-like figure sparking with electricity; clearly a spectre. And then the fight is on.

The spectre throws the first punch, right at the machine it was just forcibly ejected from. [44] Electricity crackles, and the smell of burning circuitry fills the air. Tom feels like he’s just stuck his finger in a live electrical socket, but shrugs off the worst of it. [45] He doesn’t know how much of this he’ll be able to take. Fortunately, his attacker is just about to be distracted. James sticks with the plan, boosting Chet so the old soldier can activate a truly impressive level of juggernaut. [46] James also takes a shot at the spectre, but doesn’t manage to hit it. Chet, on the other hand, does; his service revolver almost like a part of him as he sights and shoots in the same, smooth motion. One shot goes wild, but the other two tear away chunks of gauze, getting the spectre’s attention and marking him as a real threat. That’s why the lightning comes for him... from behind them. There’s another spook in the camera! The first bolt narrowly misses its target, but there’s bound to be more where that came from. The last thing they need is to be attacked from two different directions. Annie materialises and wails at the camera, damaging but not destroying it.
      Chet barks orders: “James: boost Shelley. Shelley: get that thing out of there.” As he boosts Shelley, James shoots at the spectre, reducing it to a wisp of its former self. It decides discretion is the better part of valour and dives into a nearby light-socket. Despite Chet’s order, Shelley uses James’ boost to zip after it, rather than kicking the second one out of the camera. She has a point – they don’t want to let this one get away. The spectre in the camera seizes the opportunity to shoot at Chet again, but doesn’t manage to actually blast him. Annie, however, shatters the camera. They wait, but there is no sign of the spectre, or of anything else. It seems that this particular fight – or, at least, their part in it – is over.

      “They didn’t isolate the security system,” Tom mutters, emerging from the computer. “It could have come out anywhere in the building.”
      “We can’t isolate that system,” says Larson. “It’s not designed that way.” He looks from Tom to Carlos. “I take it the excitement’s over?” Both spooks answer at the same time.
      “For the moment,” says Carlos.
      “For now,” says Tom. “Although we’re still waiting to hear back from one of our people.” He could dive into the light socket after Shelley, but doesn’t have any idea where she went from there.
      “We’ll wait here for her,” says Chet. No one objects.

Now that the spooks seem to be standing down, the FBI agents – who were mostly milling around in confusion during the brief exchange of fire – also start to relax a little, although they don’t yet put their weapons away. Larson quizzes the agents wearing goggles as to what they saw; something that Stiles also seems very interested in. (It doesn’t seem as though any of the FBI agents have dead-eyes. [47]) Shelley returns as Larson and Stiles start to debrief Carlos and Tom.
      “Got it,” she says, matter-of-factly.
      “Where did you go?” Tom asks, ignoring the FBI agents in favour of questioning Shelley.
      “Chased it through the Wired. Caught up with it a few blocks away. Dissipated it.” That’s probably all the detail they’re likely to get from her. After a moment’s reflection, she adds: “We blew out some traffic lights.”
      “Oh.” Tom is considering the possibilities of deadwire. He’d never really thought of chasing someone through what Shelley calls the Wired before. That could be useful. “Ours got away.”
      “How?
      “Security system.” Apparently, Shelley’s brevity is catching.
      “Figures. Have to do something about it.”
      “The security system or the spook?”
      “Yes.”
      Larson is frowning, apparently not happy about only hearing one side of the conversation. “So,” he interrupts. “How do you want to proceed?”


Part Four – “Minimal Risk”

To recap, the team have encountered two spectres. Both tried to make a run for it: one through the Wired and one through the building’s security system. Shelley chased down and dissipated the former, but the group have yet to decide how they’re going to deal with the latter. While they’re putting together their plan, they call for a vitality recharge. It will take about an hour for their ‘batteries’ to get there, but they should be good for another fight or two while they’re waiting. Before they can proceed, they need to work out how they’re going to chase down the one that got away, and how they’re going to stop it – and other hostiles – simply trying the same trick next time. Luckily, they have some ideas. After a couple of minutes of discussion, those ideas have become a workable plan. Carlos has the task of relaying the team’s plan and requirements to the FBI agents.
      “They plan to deal with the spook in the security system next.”
      “How?” Larson wants to know. Carlos explains. “Will my agents be in any danger?”
      “Yes, technically,” says James, unheard by any of the agents. “But the spectres should be focused on us.”
      “There should be minimal risk to your men.”
      Larson seems satisfied with that. “We’ll proceed, then. The security hub is on the third floor.” As everyone starts to move, he observes: “If one of them was in the security system, I suppose that would explain why we haven’t seen any of the others on the spook cams.”

Larson leads the group to a cargo lift, but the Phoenix spooks balk at getting in.
      “We’re in a building controlled by hostile spooks who now know we’re coming for them,” says Annie. “I don’t think so!”
      “We got the lift before,” James points out.
      “Yes, but they didn’t know what we were going to do then. Hiding was probably more important to them than taking us out. Now they have no reason to hide.”
      “I suppose. Okay, let’s take the stairs.”
      “What’s the hold-up?” Larson calls back to Carlos and Tom, who stopped with the others.
      Tom answers the question. “The spectres could crash the lift with us in it. It would be safer to take the stairs.”
      Larson blinks for a moment or two as his agents mutter among themselves. “Can they do that?”
      “Easily.”
      “Then why didn’t they do it before?” Stiles wants to know.
      “They were still trying to remain hidden, and they didn’t necessarily know that we were going to be a threat to them.” Although, thinking back on it, perhaps the group should have been a little more careful.
      “Hmm. I suppose we’re taking the stairs, then.” Stiles has a little trouble keeping up (being substantially older than the rest of them), so they slow to his pace. They figure that they’re going to need his authority for what they have to do, so there’s no particular point to storming ahead.

Despite the building-wide evacuation, the security station – unsurprisingly – is still manned. The security personnel seem surprised to see them, coming to attention when they recognise the deputy director. (The room isn’t that large – between the guards, the agents, Carlos and the spooks, it’s awfully crowded in there.)
      “What’s going on, Sir?” asks one of the guards.
      “Just some house-cleaning,” Stiles replies, somewhat wryly. “We have reason to believe the system’s been compromised. The agents look puzzled.
      “We haven’t seen any sign of that, Sir.”
      “No, there wouldn’t be.” The guard looks like he wants to ask more questions, but refrains from doing so. Stiles is a little pre-occupied: Carlos has just announced that the team is about to go to work.

James boosts Tom as he tries to inhabit the security system. Tries is apparently the operative word, for he just bounces off. It seems that the spectre – or, at least, one of the spectres – is in there. He tries again, this time managing to displace the resident spook. [48] Cycling through the feed from the spook-cams, he manages to locate it just in time to see it dive into the electrical circuits. It zips away through the building’s cables, going to ground... somewhere in the middle floors, he thinks. [49] As per the plan, he signals Shelley to replace him in the security system. [50] She channels some vitality into James first so he can boost her – she wants total control for as long as she needs to be in there. Once inside, she starts lighting up various features of interest so everyone – even the FBI people without goggles – can see them on the monitors. There are no visible spooks, but there’s a web-like tracery of cracks running through the walls of the building. They cluster thickly in the canteen (on the first floor) and the cells (near the middle of the building). After a moment’s thought, it’s clear what these places have in common: lots of people were killed there relatively recently. [51] This isn’t good. It also isn’t particularly relevant to the task at hand, so they try to put their unease to one side for the time being (with varying degrees of success) and get on with it.

After a brief discussion – mainly consisting of Tom and Shelley wondering if the spectre inhabited or deadwired into the electrical system and what difference it will make to them – they put Plan B into action. (Plan A was that Tom would catch up with the spook before it could dive into anything else.) Tom inhabits the building’s circuitry, stepping into it without any effort whatsoever. It’s clearly uninhabited, but apparently not unoccupied. Something is... buzzing around inside him. That certainly answers the question about how the spectre did it. Tom concentrates on the sensation – it kind of tickles – and manages to pin down the location to the fourteenth floor. [52] So far, so good: now for the second part. Using his control over the physical structure of the circuits, Tom starts cutting cables, trying to cut off the room the spook’s currently passing through. [53] He isn’t fast enough: the spectre zips out just before the trap closes. Also, it now knows he’s there. It zips through the wires, shorting them out as it goes; hurting Tom by doing so. [54] Tom makes another attempt to trap it, but it’s still too fast for him. He’s going to have to try another tactic.

      “Smoke alarm’s going off on the 14th.” Back in the security control room, Shelley brings up the relevant images, printing the notification on the screen. Showers of sparks can be seen on the monitors as circuits blow up left, right and centre. A moment or so later, Tom appears on one of the displays as he steps out of the electrical system – staying in there much longer might prove seriously hazardous to his health. He finds an intercom to contact the others.
      “Tom here. It’s on the fourteenth floor, but it’s too fast for me to trap it. It doesn’t seem to know I’m out of the electrical system – it’s still burning up the circuits behind it.” It’s putting on quite an impressive lightshow – a brilliant white glow zipping through the walls at high speed, followed by sparks and flame as circuits fry in its wake. “I’m going to try to engage it before it burns the place down. You might want to head up here.” With that, he signs off. There’s a small flurry of activity in the security room in response to his message. Annie channels vitality into James, who boosts Chet’s juggernaut to the maximum level before using anathema to let him run straight up the outside of the building. (He just needs to have line of sight on the target, so he simply sticks his head outside.) Short of storm-wending, this is the fastest way to get someone up there. One way or another, the fight may well be over by the time the others make it up the stairs. Still, it’s just the one spectre – surely Tom can handle it by himself...

The bolt of energy crackles into the wall, narrowly missing the speeding ball of light. Cursing – he spiked and risked drawing a Fetch for nothing – Tom fires up juggernaut and chases the spectre through the offices, hurling another ball of electricity at it. This time, he hits the thing. [55] The light stops and jags into a room, out of sight. Redirecting some of his juggernaut boost into armour, he bursts through the wall after it and promptly takes three lightning bolts to the face. One bursts against the wall by his head, only narrowly missing. One appears to zip off on a random trajectory, crashing into another ball of light – friendly fire between hostiles? [56] The third one hits, but dissipates harmlessly against his armour. Two of the bolts came from computer monitors, and one from the cables in the wall behind him; it was this last that actually hit. Even as he’s identifying his targets, Tom is already moving, channelling electricity into a blast that explodes one of the occupied machines. A spectre emerges; another blackened corpse wreathed in lightning. Three against one: this could get interesting.

There’s no time to contemplate the odds: more bolts of lightning are already arcing their deadly way towards him. Tom’s already moving, twisting so that one of the bolts shoots straight past him. He can’t avoid the next one, again feeling that finger-in-the-light-socket sensation as he becomes, however briefly, part of a live circuit. One bolt is no danger, except perhaps to the other hostiles. (That’s two friendly fire incidents now – is there trouble in the enemy ranks?) [57]
      “Cadet: report!” Chet’s voice comes from somewhere out of sight: he’s finally arrived to join the skirmish.
      “Three hostiles.” Tom continues to hurl bolts of energy even as he answers Chet, targeting the only visible spectre. One shot misses, but the other is a palpable hit, dissipating the spook. Chet bursts through the outside wall; Tom’s cue to dive back through into the corridor he entered from. He’s low on energy and singed around the edges: time to pass the torch until someone else has the spectre’s full attention. The last thing he does before his head passes through the wall is to call out: “There’s one in the monitor and one in the wall.” And then it’s up to Chet.

Gunfire from inside the room – lots of gunfire; Chet has juggernaut up to his eyeballs – punctuated by the odd snap, crackle and pop of electricity. In the corridor, Tom’s attempt to catch his breath is rudely interrupted by a blast of lightning from a nearby plug socket. Either one of the spectres followed him out, or there’s another one. The bolt hits him, but dissipates across his armour before doing him any further injury. Now it’s on. The first order of business is boosting his armour, since that’s stopped him being cooked to a crisp so far. Then it’s time to return that electricity with interest, zapping the socket until the resident spectre is forced out where he can see it. It’s missing an arm, but that’s slowly reforming even as he watches. Time to turn up the heat. Accompanied by the staccato sound of even more gunfire, Tom ramps up witch’s nimbus and blasts the spook into nothingness. He bursts back through the wall just in time to see Chet do the same to his last opponent.
      “Room’s clear.” The Captain’s voice is as calm as ever.
      “So’s the corridor.” Assuming there aren’t any more waiting out there. Tom starts to say something else, but then stops, frowning. “Do you smell smoke?”

The floor is on fire. That’s not exactly surprising, but it is something they’re going to have to deal with before it starts to spread. The sprinkler systems are starting to come on, but only patchily; whole swathes of the electrics have been knocked out of commission. Luckily, there’s a Haunter on the case. With a pep [58], a boost and some vitality from Chet, Tom inhabits and fixes the fire suppression system. Luckily, he manages it in time for the fire’s spread to be halted. It looks like they’ve managed to prevent the events of Annie’s vision from coming to pass. They hope. Now that the immediate threats have been dealt with, Chet makes his report.
      “One more hostile entered the room after you left. All of them have been neutralised.”
      “There was another one in the corridor as well, but I dissipated it. So, with the one that Shelley chased down, that makes six altogether. That could be all of them.”
      “Affirmative, but we should still make sure.”
      “Of course.”

The group heading up the stairs – not including the deputy director, who remains at the security station with a couple of guards – eventually reaches the fourteenth floor. Naturally, once it’s been established that there are currently no active threats, everyone and their dog wants to know what happened. Tom and Chet report, and then Tom – who’s in pretty bad shape and very low on vitality – decides it’s time for him to withdraw. He’s too badly injured to ripcord, so instead he fires up juggernaut and runs very fast to the rendezvous point instead, making it back to his body without incident. [59]

Back at the FBI building, the team head back down to the basement – still taking the stairs – and resume their systematic, floor-by-floor search of the building. They think they’ve probably dealt with all of the ghosts in the machine (so to speak), but they need to be sure. Shelley remains in the security system, keeping watch through the spook cameras. Annie takes over the task of trying to inhabit things to see if they’re occupied. The exercise takes time, but doesn’t turn up any more spooks. The only features of interest are the oppressive atmosphere and the web of fine black lines running through the building. As Shelley told them, the lines cluster more thickly in the canteen and the cells, but no one seems to want to spend much time examining them. Perhaps they’ll go back once they’re certain the building is clear. Eventually, the job is done: they’re as sure as they can be that they’re the only spooks in the building. Weary and low on vitality, they start to traipse back down the stairs. (The lifts should be safe now, but, well, caution born of experience. It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.) They’re just passing the sixth floor when they hear the sound of gunfire. After a moment’s panic, they realise that no one’s actually shooting at them. The sounds are coming over the comms system. More than that, they’re coming from the security room, where they left the deputy director...

Chet turns to Carlos.
      “Fuck secrecy, Cadet: storm-wend us down there.” The fact that Chet uses profanity – and in mixed company, no less – is almost as shocking as the gunfire. To Carlos’ credit, he barely hesitates. He’s been carefully keeping his ability to project secret from his FBI friends and yet, without argument, he simply says to Larson:
      “Please look after my body. I’m going to be out of it for a little while. We’re going down to see what’s happening.” Larson looks like he’s bursting with questions, but he nods in agreement. Time is of the essence, after all. Carlos settles himself down – it’s important to make sure he doesn’t fall and hit his head or something when his body goes limp – and projects. With a boost from James, he storm-wends all he spooks down to the security room. They arrive just in time to see Hyde burst through the door. [60]

The Jason’s final blow knocks the door clean off its hinges. He’s wielding his trademark fire axe. It may be the one he had before, or it may just be one he grabbed on the way up. Either way, it’s covered in blood, reminding anyone who sees it that there were guards stationed outside the room. They’re certainly in the past tense now. Hyde is barrelling forward, axe held high, charging towards the security station where the deputy director and his people are standing. It’s time to act!

James manifests – generally necessary for attacking something physical – and shoots Hyde. The impact blows a sizeable chunk out of his hand, but it doesn’t even slow him down: the wound heals right before their eyes. Hoping that the Jason’s attention is focused on James, Carlos makes a grab for the axe, trying to wrench it away. He gets hold of it, but Hyde is just too strong for him. He’s now in close combat with the spectre: not a good place to be. Hyde swings the axe in his direction, hitting with a solid thunk. This is the downside of manifesting. It’s not just one way – you can interact with them, but they can also interact with you. Still reeling from the blow, Carlos jerks as a bullet clips his gauze. It’s one of Chet’s – friendly fire is apparently contagious. Chet was aiming for Hyde (obviously), but missed. Luckily, he only catches Carlos a glancing blow and does him no real injury. [61] A wave of rats makes a beeline for Hyde – Annie is joining the fight. She starts to swarm up over his body, heading for his eyes, but hesitates when she sees James preparing to fire again. (Naturally, he uses juggernaut to boost his armour and speed before doing to.) Concentrating, Annie channels a trickle of vitality into forebode, directing the effect into James to guide his aim. [62] The first shot hits but, as before, the wound closes almost instantly. The second shot goes wild.

Carlos’ new horror sees its first use in combat. He reaches into the storm, seeking something he can use to entangle Hyde. Grasping his prize firmly, he pulls out... an opera cloak. This wasn’t precisely what he was envisaging. He tries to use it anyway, doing his level best to tangles Hyde’s feet and (ideally), trip him over. It doesn’t seem to have much effect – Hyde appears to keep his balance easily. It isn’t like he was trying to run, after all. Chet dives forward to join the little knot of spooks, using the dark side of his third-tier horror on Hyde. That which giveth can also taketh away, so Chet inflicts a wasting disease on the spectre’s stolen body, draining him of strength and stamina. [63] Annie seizes the opportunity to scramble up and over Hyde’s head, obscuring his vision. [64] This is the point where it feels as if they’re starting to gain control of the situation. They have Hyde right where they want him; maybe this time they’ll be able to take him down for good. Just as long as there are no more unfortunate surprises... [65]

The Fetch appears with that all-too-familiar rending sound, pushing its way into the room through a hole torn in reality itself. It was only a matter of time before all those spikes attracted something, and now it’s here; large as life and twice as ugly. Speaking of ugly, Hyde reminds them that he’s still around by almost taking Chet’s head clean off. [66] It’s only with a considerable effort of will that the Captain manages to pull himself back together, but at least he has the consolation of knowing that his body, back in the tank, is unharmed. [67] As long as he survives Hyde and the Fetch, he’ll be fine...

Covering Hyde’s eyes clearly isn’t hampering him enough, so Annie materialises and starts tearing at his face and throat. As with Kiss, it’s like chewing on a dead thing, albeit a dead thing that can regenerate. She tries not to think about it. Still, at least she can’t catch any diseases in gauze form. All she manages to inflict on Hyde is cosmetic damage that heals almost as fast as she makes the holes – he doesn’t even seem to notice. He’s clearly noticed Chet, however, swinging the bloodied axe at him for a second time. Chet tries to dodge out of the way, but miscalculates its trajectory and ends up walking straight into the blade. [68] There’s a sickening crunch, and he suddenly has a gaping wound in his chest. [69] Knowing he can’t take another hit like that, Chet dives into the nearest light switch. It’s up to James, Annie and Carlos now.

James steps up to the plate, speeding up his movements even more. [70] He shoots Hyde solidly in the chest, then has to throw himself to one side as the Fetch snaps at him with its huge, powerful jaws. He’s not quite fast enough – the jagged teeth close on his shoulder but skitter off his toughened gauze. With a boost from Chet (who’s still watching the fight from his hiding place [71]), he congeals a battleaxe out of the arm that isn’t a gun, using it to decapitate the Fetch. The stump knits back together again, but it’s still an impressive strike. He immediately follows up with another blow, but only manages to clip it this time. Nevertheless, he’s got its attention. Annie continues to focus on Hyde, ripping out more chunks of flesh. Hyde swings at her almost absently, swatting a few rats, but leaving the bulk of the swarm intact. [72] Giving up on the cloak, Carlos just swings a punch. The blow connects solidly – it’s just like punching a slab of meat – but Hyde doesn’t even seem to notice. How can they put him down? Even without the Fetch complicating matters, it’s starting to look doubtful...


Part Five – “We Weren’t Expecting this Level of Response.”

The Fetch bites at Carlos, but doesn’t get a good enough hold on him to actually pierce his gauze. Given the size of those teeth, that’s probably just as well. It shifts around, trying to get a better grip. Carlos can’t get free. He braces himself to lose an arm, but then James’ battleaxe crashes into its side, dissipating it. That only leaves Hyde...

Her attacks so far being less than effective, Annie comes up with another idea. Scampering away from Hyde, she morphs back into human form to call out:
      “Use anathema to throw him around!” With Carlos using the benefit of his new horror, James can boost his own horror use; he can throw Hyde around with considerable force without causing another pulse. (The last thing they need right now is for another Fetch to show up.)
      “Fine,” he agrees. “Boost me,” he orders Carlos. Hyde brings up his axe again... but instead of attacking any of the spooks, he hurls the weapon towards the bank of security monitors. Acting instinctively, James uses helter skelter to knock it aside. The action wastes Carlos’ boost, but he thinks stopping Hyde from achieving his goal – whatever that is – is more important. The axe spins wildly away, tumbling end over end to thud into the wall where Annie’s head would have been if she hadn’t reflexively ducked. [73] She isn’t overly impressed. However, now is hardly the time to air a grievance – Hyde is getting away!

After throwing the axe, the Jason makes a run for it, barrelling through the gaping doorway and down the corridor. James charges after him. Hyde seems to be heading for a window at high speed. It doesn’t look like he has any intention of stopping, but then they are only on the third floor. Given his toughness and the rate at which he heals, he can almost certainly survive the drop. But what are they going to do about it?

Carlos follows after the pair of them, albeit moving considerably slower than either. As soon he passes into the corridor, he shouts:
      “Here, catch!” Channelling vitality, he calls forth a sliver of the storm and wraps it around James, who immediately boosts anathema and starts throwing Hyde around. The Jason is slammed him into the walls, ceiling and floor with enough force to knock out an ordinary man. Unfortunately, as they well know, Hyde is made of somewhat tougher stuff. Still, at least it’s keeping him occupied with something other than tearing them to pieces, and there’s always a chance James might manage to seriously damage him. Unfortunately, despite the repeated battering, Hyde’s injuries continue to heal. James is pretty much expecting Hyde to come for him, but he doesn’t even try. All he does is keep picking himself up and trying to make his way towards the window. Apparently, he just wants to get out of there. But why?

Back in the security room, Chet emerges from the light switch and takes up a guard position near Stiles. He doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but he’s the cautious type. [74] Annie moves around to take a look at the monitors. After all, Hyde threw that axe for a reason... It takes her a moment to work out what it is she’s looking at, but then her eyes widen in horror. [75] Loud enough for James and Carlos to hear, she shouts:
      “Ten spectres incoming! They’re in the lobby!”
      On the screen, unnoticed, Shelley prints: “Finally!”

Hyde’s motivation is suddenly crystal clear: charge in and disable the feed from the spook cameras so the wave of spectres takes them by surprise. It didn’t work, but they still don’t have much time. James drops Hyde, who scrambles to his feet and dives out of the window. They can worry about him if they survive what’s coming.
      “We need to get out of here,” he says.
      “How?” Stiles wants to know. He seems to have recovered some of his poise.
      “Down the outside wall. One of my horrors lets me change the direction of gravity.” [76] The security personnel exchange glances, clearly doubtful, but there’s no time to talk them round.
      Chet addresses Stiles. “Evacuate everyone. They’ll listen to you.” Fortunately, there are just the people in this room, Larson’s team and a handful of essential personnel to worry about. It’s a good thing they cleared everyone else out earlier. “You need to do it now, Stiles.” [77] Stiles jumps a little at the iron in Chet’s voice, and then nods. He starts issuing orders – apparently, this is his usual way of getting things done.

      “I’m going back to my body,” Carlos announces.
      “Good idea,” says James. This really isn’t the time to leave an unoccupied body lying around – there’s no telling what could end up inside it. Carlos storm-wends back to where he left himself. There are two agents standing guard, but there’s no sign of Larson or the rest of them. “We have to leave,” he says, standing up and stretching. One of them is already moving. The other nods, staying by his side.
      “We were just waiting for you. Larson told us to follow along as soon as you got back.” They start hustling him to the lift, keeping a wary eye out for trouble. He almost protests, but then lets them escort him. If they want to get out of the building before it’s overrun by spectres – and without running headfirst into them on the stairs – the lift is really the only option. All the haunters have been dealt with, so it should be safe. At least that’s what Carlos tells himself.

As per Stiles’ instructions, the few people left in the building either make their way to one of the rear exits, or gather on the third floor (depending on where they are). The spooks are impatient to get moving – the clock is ticking, and they don’t have much time – but they don’t want to leave anyone behind. Spectres generally leave the living alone, but what if Hyde comes back? Getting the deputy director killed would hardly do wonders for their relationship with the FBI. Once everyone who is coming has been gathered, Stiles – on James’ instructions – leads them towards a window on the back of the building, away from the spectres’ approach and Hyde’s exit. They hurry past the stairs and lifts, all of them startling when one of the lifts abruptly pings. The doors start to slide open... and Larson’s voice comes from inside.
      “What’s happening? Someone report.” He sounds wary. Annie quickly fills him in and he and his agents emerge, guns drawn. When she’s finished, he nods. “Go,” he says. “We’ll cover you.” And then the enemy are upon them.

Indistinct shapes start rising through the floor. The agents with goggles start calling out positions, and the spectres are met by a hail of gunfire that utterly shreds the first wave. (The FBI gunmen are using ghost-shot, of course.) To the spooks – and anyone else who can see what they’re shooting at – it’s an impressive sight. Chet joins them on the firing line, opening up on the spectres with his service revolver.
      “Come on, people, let’s go!” James uses anathema to break the window and alter the local gravity. “We need to move.” He glances back over his shoulder. “That means you, Chet.” He’s in pretty bad shape from he previous fights – a solid blow or two might well finish him off. Nevertheless, he shakes his head.
      “It’s going to take some time to get everyone out. I’m needed here.”
      “But...” James breaks off with a heavy sigh. There’s really no time to argue right now, especially since the people who are supposed to be leaving seem to be mostly peering worriedly through the broken window and muttering amongst themselves. While their reluctance is completely understandable, it might get them all killed. “Gentlemen, this area is no longer safe. Please step through the window and make your way down to the ground.” Stiles frowns down at the three storey drop, then raises his eyebrows at James.
      “You’re certain this is safe?”
      “Safer than here!” James gestures frustratedly towards the ongoing firefight. “Trust me – I’m a professional; I’ve done this before.”
      “I’ll go first.” Annie interjects, cutting off James before he says something to the deputy director of the FBI that they’ll all regret. She’s still manifested, so the FBI agents can all see and hear her. Shaking off the terror-induced paralysis that gripped her when the spectres started coming through the floor, she carefully steps through the window and out onto the side of the building. There’s a moment of disorientation as she passes through the change point, but then it’s as if she’s standing on perfectly level ground. “See – there’s nothing to it.” The living are still reluctant to take that step but, after some encouragement from Stiles and James, they nervously follow her lead, milling around in a clump a short distance from the window. When everybody’s out, James boosts Chet – assuming he’s going to use juggernaut to get the hell out of dodge – and follows them out, waiting there within line of sight of them.
      “Just head straight down for the ground,” he tells Stiles. The deputy director of the FBI nods. Squaring his shoulders he strides purposefully forwards.
      “Follow me, men,” he barks. They fall in behind him and the whole group pushes on (well, groundwards), Annie moving a little ahead of them to act as scout. She keeps a careful eye out for spectres, but for now the coast seems to be clear. [78]

Back near the window, the coast is anything but clear. The second wave of spectres has just arrived, and it’s proving a little tougher than the first. A squidlike entity lashes out with a filament, snagging one of the FBI technicians (that is: one of the men wearing spook-goggles) by the wrist. The man goes down screaming, the dull gleam of bone visible through the red pulped mess that was his flesh. [79] The shooters concentrate their fire on this one until it’s forced to let him go, then one of them starts to drag their wounded colleague out of harm’s way. It’s time to blow this popsicle stand.

A little ahead of Stiles and his people, Annie spots something rounding the corner of the building, flying towards them. [80] It looks like the enemy are sending out their own scouts. This one resembles nothing more than a rotting cherubim, the remaining faint traces of beauty making its corruption and deformity all the more striking. There’s nowhere they can hide. As it spots them, Annie takes a deep breath and blasts it with the most powerful wail she can manage. [81] She spikes, but that can’t be helped. The spectre is caught full on by the killing music, its gauze torn to ribbons... until it reforms. And then it’s diving for her.

Chet uses James’ boost, but not to exit at great speed. Instead, toughens his gauze as much as he can, ordering Larson and crew to leave while he covers their retreat. Calmly, he stands his ground and continues to unload bullet after spectral bullet into the increasing crowd of spectres. Larson confirms the order to retreat, but then stands with him while the men make their get away. He’s unable to see the spectres but nevertheless opens up in the direction of Chet’s fire; it’s a target-rich environment, after all. Outside the window, James shakes his head in frustration.
      “Get your arse out here, Chet!” he calls impatiently. Half his attention is on Chet and Larson, and the other half is on the group caterpillaring its way down the building. Luckily, none of the hostiles seem to be paying any attention to him... until now. Without warning, a black shadow mass gushes out of the wall next to James. Before he can react, it roils back to envelop him in darkness. As it rushes to surround him, he realises where he’s seen it before: eating people’s ghosts during the New Year’s Eve attack. And now it’s coming for him.

Chet is rapidly starting to get overwhelmed. As he’s the only spook left in the room, the spectres are all piling on him. Spiked tentacles lash out at him. Something with massive dentists’ drills for hands stabs at his body, just as a shadowy figure steps fro a doorway to slash at his throat with something that glints dangerously. An amorphous thing gloms onto his feet and legs, suckling obscenely at his substance. He can feel it draining his vitality away; a trickle that he hopes won’t become a flood. Fortunately for him, it’s only the last that manages to pierce his armour, although all the attacks connect. [82] He seems to have outstayed his welcome; time for he and Larson to get out of there. Chet, at least, still has a fight of it, weathering the spectres’ attacks as he concentrates on pushing through them to reach his escape route. [83] This slows him down, so he’s not going to reach James in time... [84]

James flares juggernaut, knowing he’s sending out a pulse but, like Annie, figuring he’d rather risk summoning another Fetch and have a better chance of shredding this thing. (Besides, he just felt Annie’s spike, so he knows that particular genie is already out of the bottle.) He can already feel the cloud starting to pull at his substance, a chilling numbness eating away at his extremities. He doesn’t know what it capable of, but he has no intention of finding out. Hacking at it with his axe, he manages to cut himself a hole, forcing his way out of its chill embrace. [85]

The FBI agents have made it out of the window, and are hurrying down the wall towards Stiles and his men. Larson is a little way behind them, pausing to let off a few final shots in the spectres’ direction. (Apparently, he’s either confident enough in his training to believe he won’t accidentally hit Chet, or he just doesn’t care.) Some of the spectres have managed to get past the suppressive fire, however, and are dogging the agents’ heels. The filament-creature lashes out again, snagging another victim. Concentrated fire manages to free their comrade, but he’s in pretty bad shape. Now they have two wounded men slowing their pace. James takes stock of the situation as he emerges from the crowd, realising that they’re going to have to move faster if they’re to have any hope of losing the pursuit.
      “I’ll take this one,” he tells them, seizing the man with the worst injuries – the one who’s unable to walk unassisted and running down the side of the building. Glancing back, he spots Chet silhouetted in the window; not even all the way out of the building. “Oh, for... Just fucking go already!” he yells, channelling a portion of vitality into Chet. [86] And then he has to look to his own safety – it looks like the cloud hasn’t finished with him yet.

Chet finally manages to break free of the spectres, using the opening to dive through the window. Once he’s safely out of the building, Larson calmly pulls the pins from two grenades and tosses them through the broken window. It’s not clear where he was hiding the anti-spook grenades, but they do their job: only a small number of spectres emerge through the smoke. Not that he and Chet are staying around to watch, of course. As soon as the grenades leave his hands, they’re already moving to join Larson’s men, firing into the small knot of spectres chasing them. It’s probably just as well James doesn’t see this. Instead, he’s zig-zagging down the side of the building, pursued by the cloud of darkness. He dodges the grasping tendrils, and it seems to lose interest when he outdistances its far edge. (It’s not really moving very fast.) Perhaps that’s because it now has new targets.

      “Oh my God!” screams the remaining goggle-wearing technician. “We’re surrounded! Black cloud!” It’s boiling up from beneath their feet, billowing around them as it pulls back the tendrils that were chasing after James. People shudder as it touches them, holding themselves as if violently chilled, but seem otherwise unharmed – perhaps it can only consume naked gauze. No one wants to give it the chance to find out, however. Larson grabs the goggles from the terrified agent, settling them over his own eyes.
      “Shoot the wall beneath your feet,” he orders, setting the example. Chet dematerialises – so as not to accidentally hit one of the agents – and joins his fire to theirs. The bullets rip straight through the slow-moving cloud, but only tear away small wisps of gauze: the entity’s diffuse nature makes projectiles a less than efficient means of damaging it. Still, at least they are damaging it, if only slowly.

Annie sprouts wings and takes to the air, continuing to wail as she pursues the flying spectre. It seems to be holding up to her onslaught so far, but at least she’s keeping its attention off Stiles and the rest. Oddly, it doesn’t attack her in response, apparently preferring to try to evade her instead. Maybe it’s waiting for something, or simply in communion with the hive mind. Either way, it can’t hold out indefinitely, withering away before her sustained wailing. Glancing below, she sees that Stiles’ group has almost made it to the bottom. She also sees the cloud of hungry darkness. The angel died before her wail did, so she simply dematerialises – for the same reasons as Chet – and turns the razor-edged melody against the cloud. Wail seems to work somewhat better than bullets, blasting great holes through it. The cloud starts to retreat, fading back through the wall. That just leaves a handful of spectres to worry about.

On Larson’s orders, the FBI agents mount a fighting retreat down the side of the building.
“Go,” he tells the remaining two Phoenix spooks. “We’ve got this. They seem more interested in you than us, anyway.” Indeed, the spectres seem to be trying to break through the wall of bullets to get to Annie and Chet, more or less ignoring Larson and his men. They seem to have things well in hand, so Chet and Annie take Larson’s advice. Chet throws himself off the side of the building in a wide arc so that natural gravity takes hold and he simply falls to the ground, trusting his armour to shield him from the impact. (He’s toughened his hide to such an extent that he barely even feels the landing, let alone is injured by it.) Annie flies down after him.

Meanwhile, back in the building, Carlos and his bodyguards make it down to the ground floor without encountering any spectres. One of the agents, in radio communication with Larson, leads them to one of the rear car parks. (Larson appears to be quite the multitasker. He was apparently, shooting spectres, issuing orders to his men and keeping up this communication, all at once.) Everyone is congregating in the car park. Carlos is soon able to find the Phoenix representatives – they’re right in the middle of things, as usual. Chet starts organising people into vehicles and directing them to leave as quickly as possible. James performs emergency first aid on the two wounded men, stabilising them before they’re despatched to hospital. (Thanks to his efforts, the men partially flayed by the filament spectre may even get to keep their skin. If they survive.) Larson eventually joins them on the ground, immediately requesting reports from all and sundry (including Carlos’ bodyguards). The Phoenix spooks also find themselves herded into FBI vehicles and, in very little time at all, everyone has left the building. It seems that they’ve escaped the spectres once more.

As soon as they’re underway, Stiles rings Larson. Carlos is in Larson’s car, while the rest of the Phoenix spooks are sharing Stiles’ (roomier) vehicle. This means that, between the two groups, they can hear both sides of the resulting conversation.
      “Thoughts?” Stiles asks Larson.
      “I wasn’t expecting this level of response.” That’s almost certainly an understatement. “I hope you can see the extent of the threat now.”
      “Yes. We have to hit the bastards, and hard. How much of that special equipment can you get hold of?”
      “I’ll have to talk to the manufacturer. I should be able to get hold of some, but it will cost us.”
      “Fine. I’ll authorise it; whatever’s necessary.” It seems that when Stiles commits to something, he doesn’t go in for half measures.
      “I’ll need to put a team together.” He hesitates only fractionally before continuing. “We’ll need to employ Phoenix as part of the task force.”
      “We can always ask.” Stiles doesn’t seem fazed by the request. “Put something together and call me back in two hours.” He ends the call without saying goodbye. Larson turns to Carlos.
      “Well? You heard that – what do you think?”
      “What can you offer?” Carlos is ever the negotiator.
      “We can pay you of course. We could also deal with their little NSA problem.”
      “I’ll talk to them.”
      Larson is already thinking ahead. “Our people are going to need training. In the long-term, we need Phoenix to teach us to do what they can do. We also need to know more about – what did they call them? – anti-spook measures.”
      “I’ll see what they say.” Carlos foresees lots of discussion in Phoenix’ immediate future. This is the kind of proposal that they’re going to want to consider carefully before coming down on either side. Helping the FBI has its benefits, but there are also a number of drawbacks.
      “So, do you think you’ll be ready in two hours?”
      “Ready for...?”
      “To retake the building.”
      Carlos nearly chokes. “Uh, no. We’re going to need a day at the very least. That was a serious battle – it’s going to take a good night’s rest just to recover all the energy we used.” [87]
      “Fine. Then, if they’re on board, the first mission will be to retake the FBI building tomorrow morning.”

Once back at the motel (a new one), it’s time for that serious discussion that Carlos foresaw. The main topics: the events of the day and Larson’s request/offer. The latter gets a decidedly mixed reception.
      Kate frowns. “I’m beginning to like the FBI a lot more now they’re not actively hunting us, but I’m not sure I want us to be the centre of their task force. I’m not sure how many of you know this, but Craig was originally an FBI infiltrator.”
      “He infiltrated the FBI?” asks Tom, puzzledly.
      “No, he infiltrated Orpheus. He was working for the FBI. But then he started to see what we were about, and started to believe in us. When he suggested to his masters that Orpheus might have the right idea, they ‘rescued’ him. Except that he was killed during the course of the extraction. So, I’m a little reluctant to trust their intentions and their competence.”
      “I agree,” adds James. “First of all, they don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to spectres. Second of all, they’re not going to care about keeping us alive, especially if they decide they don’t need us any more.”

The discussion continues, occasionally going round in circles or off at a tangent. There is much speculation about the reason for the spectres’ attack: did they just want to get Phoenix out of the picture, or was there some other motivation at work? Killing two birds with one stone, maybe? If they are trying to make another Mayfair Green, then a score or so horrible deaths on the premises would likely go a long way towards facilitating that. Perhaps tomorrow’s assault squad will be able to capture and interrogate one of them, although it remains to be seen whether they’d be able to get any useful information that way.

Eventually, a consensus of sorts is reached regarding the specific matter at hand. The possibility of being long-term consultants/trainers is still very much up in the air, but they’re agreed that they’ll help the FBI retake their building tomorrow. Kate still isn’t happy, but she’s the only one of them who really voices any objections. There are a couple of neutral voices, namely Shelley (who apparently got back safely under her own steam) and Mitch (the non-projector cradle technician). Mitch tends not to get involved in matters of policy and strategy. The others judge that the potential benefits outweigh the risks.
      “After all,” Carlos points out, when the initial discussion seems to have run its “they’re going to go in with or without us.” Once that decision has been made, he contacts Larson to let him know that they are going to have company tomorrow. When he gets off the phone, he tells the others: “Larson says they’ve managed to get hold of four sets of spook goggles and twenty modified guns, with ammunition.”
      “They must be in cahoots with Terrel & Squib,” James observes. “I don’t know how else they could’ve got their hands on that so fast.” Certainly, T&S have shown eagerness to work with law enforcement in the past. [88] Given their somewhat dubious methods, it’s rather troubling that they seem to be hand in glove with the FBI. After all, it isn’t like Phoenix haven’t passed on what they knew about the Mastworth plant and what went on there. The cynics among the group – that would be all of them – wouldn’t be surprised if the Feds were willing to ignore a few (or a few score) dead homeless people as long as they get their anti-spook kit. Maybe it would be different if there was actually any hard evidence. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t.

Now that they’ve decided to go ahead, they have to actually plan the assault. Chet – who was the most vocal supporter of the mission – starts to take the lead, but James cuts him off.
      “You’re not going,” he says, brusquely. “You’re still in bad shape – if you get badly hurt, you won’t be able to replenish your vitality.” Topping up his energy levels isn’t a problem – and is something the skimmers have already done – but the force keeping his soul together is another matter. That recovers at its own pace, and there’s little that can be done to hurry it along. [89]
      “It’s probably time for me to come out of the tank anyway,” Chet observes mildly, not arguing with him. “I’ve been in there a while now.” Standard Orpheus procedure was for sleepers to stay in the cradles for no more than about three to four weeks at a time. It must be at least five weeks since Chet went under. There’s a brief discussion of who should replace him, but Blink’s name quickly floats to the top of the list. Anything that can keep his cancer in check has to be a good thing. Mitch starts making the preparations to bring Chet out of cold sleep. It’ll take five hours to thaw him out completely, plus about another five hours to cycle Blink down.
      “Why didn’t you leave when I told you to?” James seems unwilling to let the matter go.
      “There were still people inside.”
      “You could have died.”
      “They most likely would have died. Wouldn’t have done our standing with the FBI any good to get one of its special agents killed.” He has a point.
      James glowers at him a moment longer, and then sighs. “Well, just be careful.”
      “Will do, Cadet.” The planning continues late into the night, until they finally have something they’re happy with. The main thing they need to do now is rest; it’s going to be a big day tomorrow.

“... Radio ... Death ... listeners. You know things are escalating when the Feds ... Not gonna back down now ... If they’re going to fight their little war ... What that means ... more material ... but ... safe out there. ... Free ... out.”


Part Six – Game Over

Early on Sunday morning, Carlos gets a phone call.
      “Good morning, Carlos.” Larson’s voice sounds a little strained.
      “Hi Larson.”
      “Deputy Director Friedman would like to have a word with you.” There’s the sound of the phone being passed over to someone else. Carlos has heard of Deputy Director Friedman, although he’s never really spoken to the man. He tends to spend his time in Washington DC. What can he possibly want with Carlos?
      “Hello, Sir.” There’s no harm in being respectful.
      “Mr Hayaté. I understand you were involved in yesterday’s ‘incident’.” The quotation marks are clearly audible. This doesn’t bode well.
      “Yes, Sir, I was. Is there something I can help you with?”
      “Yes. I believe that Deputy Director Stiles – while still on leave, I might add – engaged in activities that were rather beyond his remit. FBI agents were killed because he got carried away. I understand that he made certain... arrangements; made promises he can’t possibly sustain. Tell your associates” – he gives the word the same tone that someone might use to describe something they’d just scraped off the bottom of their shoe – “that the FBI will not be needing their services. They will be compensated for their time so far, of course, but that is all. There are also some documents for them to sign – we’ll send you all the relevant paperwork.”
      “Very well, Sir. What are these documents?”
      “Standard non-disclosure agreements.” More or less what he was expecting. “We’ll need signatures from everyone who was present, including yourself. This is non-negotiable and as condition of the payment, which I’m sure you’ll agree is very generous indeed.” He names a figure which is in line with Orpheus’ standard fees – not unreasonable for what they did.
      “I’ll talk to them.”
      “Good. The documents are being couriered to you – they should be there shortly.” Friedman sighs audibly, and then adds: “No offence, Carlos, but I hope I don’t have to speak with you again.”
      “None taken, Deputy Director.”

The papers soon arrive and, after looking them over, Carlos heads over to the motel to let the others know that last night’s intensive planning session was for nothing. [90] The news gets a mixed reception. On the one hand, they wasted a lot of time last night. On the other hand, they’re not going to have to risk themselves going up against the spectres again. Also, they were conflicted about working with the FBI on a longer-term basis – the fact that this is a decision they don’t have to make seems to come as something of a relief, over all.
      “Do you think we’d get anywhere if we tried to discuss the matter with Friedman?” asks Tom.
      Carlos shakes his head. “No – he’s a hard nut.” Friedman is not a believer in the supernatural. As far as he’s concerned, Phoenix are frauds. Frankly, it’s surprising that he’s actually agreed to pay them, but that’s more out of a desire to keep them quiet than any sense of fairness. [91] “From the perspective of someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, we caused a mass panic by evacuating the building, inflicted significant property damage and got two FBI agents killed by an axe-wielding maniac who was probably there for us.”
      “What about the spectres?” James is indignant. “The people with goggles saw what we were fighting. Two agents were injured by that one with the tentacles – how did they explain the wounds? And what about the fact that they were walking down the outside of the fucking building? Does he not believe all those people?”
      “All those people are probably suffering from trauma-induced amnesia.” interjects Annie. “It’s a common side-effect of exposure to hostile supernatural activity, and you don’t get more hostile than a group of spectres intent on murder and mayhem.” She shrugs. “They may not even remember how they got out of the building.”
      “Yes, but...”
      “We’re not going to reason him out of a position he never reasoned himself into in the first place,” Chet observes. “If he doesn’t want to believe, no amount of evidence is going to make him.” That’s the final word on the matter.

They go over the non-disclosure forms with a fine-toothed comb, looking for anything the FBI could possibly use to trap them. (It’s not that they don’t trust the FBI, but, well... Okay, they don’t trust the FBI.) It transpires that Hoyt is their resident legal expert, although it isn’t clear where he learned to analyse the small print of a contract. In any case, he says that it seems fairly straightforward: if any of them say anything to anyone about yesterday’s events, the FBI will sue them (both the named individuals and Phoenix as a whole) to hell and back. They want everyone who was there yesterday to sign on the dotted line. Carlos and Tom are named specifically. No one else is – presumably because they don’t know who the others are – but they do have an idea of how many spooks were there. After some discussion, it is decided that someone else should sign in James’ place. It seems that the FBI aren’t going to take the matter any further at the moment, but they may change their minds if they realise that James was running around inside their headquarters. Why tempt fate? As Carlos is putting the signed papers safely away, James receives an e-mail from Shelley, telling him that his name has suddenly vanished from the FBI’s most wanted list. Apparently, the Feds really are washing their hands of Phoenix. This is good news, as is the fact that they’re actually getting paid. They’re not certain exactly how much they’re getting, but Friedman told Carlos it would be in the region of thirty to fifty thousand dollars – enough to expedite the purchase of the hotel with enough left over to bolster the company’s finances in the short-term. [92] They chivvy Carlos into taking the papers straight to Friedman, who – after scrutinising the signatures closely – grudgingly hands over the cheque.
      “I believe this concludes our business,” he says.
      “I believe it does, Sir.”


Footnotes

[1] There are a couple of reasons why the Phoenix spooks are convinced there’s a ghost (or other spook) in the FBI’s machine. Shortly after the New Year’s Eve attack, Craig tried to inhabit the system, but couldn’t. There is also the matter of the doctored CCTV footage painting Kate, Teresa, Tom and Chet as being responsible for the attack. The expert’s analysis suggests that the footage was altered from within the system. It could just have been a mundane hacker, but the level of skill necessary to actually pull that off would be phenomenal. It would be much easier to have a spook on the inside. [Back]

[2] 3 successes on a [Charisma + Bureaucracy] roll to see how fast Larson can set this up. That translates into a couple of days or so. [Back]

[3] [Perception + Investigation] rolls from James and Tom. 3 and 4 successes, respectively. Annie didn’t make one of these rolls, as she was using supernatural senses, rather than mundane crime scene analysis. [Back]

[4] 2 successes on a [Perception + Investigation] roll. [Back]

[5] 1 point. [Back]

[6] 1 success on a [Wits + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[7] 1 point again. [Back]

[8] A few horrors also have some kind of sensory or study use. Annie’s version of forebode lets her sense emotional resonance. Flesh flux can be used to study other spooks’ gauze. There are probably others. [Back]

[9] 2 successes on a [Perception + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[10] Zero successes on the [Perception + Empathy] roll to activate forebode. [Back]

[11] The benefit of a horror is an advantageous side-effect. It is activated by spending 1 point of vitality. Normally, it isn’t possible for a spook to use the benefit of a horror on themselves. If I’ve understood the GM correctly, Carlos’ new horror allows a spook to use the benefit of whichever horror they’re currently using upon themselves. I don’t think they can use the benefit of a different horror, but I’m not sure. [Back]

[12] 1 success on a difficulty 5 [stealth] roll. [Back]

[13] Slang for a pigment addict. [Back]

[14] The zero point Anathema ability lets him run up walls and even up ceilings if he wants to. It’s quite a neat trick. [Back]

[15] James’ player gets 3 successes on the [Dexterity + Stealth] roll. [Back]

[16] I don’t remember how many successes he got, but it was enough to have control of his host for a good couple of hours or so. If they need more than that, they’re doing something wrong. [Back]

[17] On their first excursion, they took down license plate numbers of people heading into and out of the CellTech compound. Shelley got into the DMV database and retrieved the names and addresses associated with those license plate numbers. [Back]

[18] They tracked down one of the people who worked in the restricted area of the T&S New York office, and puppeted him to find out what he knew. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to him, he had a brain chip. Puppeting him set off an alarm, alerting T&S. The Phoenix spooks managed to evade the armed response team that showed up (without too much difficulty), but could do nothing about the fact that T&S were now aware that they’d been compromised. The group decided to back off from T&S for a while. [Back]

[19] It lasts for a scene. This means he can zip around at will without spending any more vitality. [Back]

[20] Much like forebode allows Annie to sense emotional resonances, deadwire lets Tom sense signals and power sources, etc. [Back]

[21] Rory doesn’t actually talk, but the familiar bond is such that Annie generally has a good idea of what he’s feeling. Being a familiar, he’s fairly intelligent and expressive. He seems to consider Zoë to be not unlike a loud, energetic, enthusiastic puppy. [Back]

[22] 3 successes on the [Intelligence + Investigation] roll to find out more about the woman. [Back]

[23] I’m not sure it’s ever come up in game, but Shelley is an avid gamer, playing whatever MMORPGs were around in Spring 2004 (the in-game present-day). It’s been speculated that she pays for her subscriptions through power-levelling and/or gold-farming for other players, but to my knowledge no one has ever asked her. [Back]

[24] Spooks with anathema can walk up walls without having to spend any vitality. It’s a really cool ability. [Back]

[25] 2 successes (including 1 from James’ player spending a Willpower point) on the [Dexterity + Stealth] to get them both into position without being seen. The roll was at [-2] dice because of Ben’s presence. [Back]

[26] 2 successes on the [Perception + Alertness] roll to tell if they were seen. [Back]

[27] For shadowing, the pursuer and quarry maker opposed rolls. The pursuer rolls [Dex + Stealth], choosing the difficulty based on how closely they’re following their target. (A high difficulty means that they’re hanging back to reduce their chances of being seen; a low one that they’re practically treading on their quarry’s heels. However, hanging back too far has the risk that they’ll lose the trail, especially if the target is taking steps to lose pursuit.) The difficulty of the quarry’s [Per + Alertness] roll is 1 less than that of the pursuer’s [Dex + Stealth] roll. James’ player decided that he and Ben were hanging back a little way, but not too far, so chose a middling difficulty. Unfortunately, the dice were not his friends: he got 0 successes, while the Triads succeeded on their roll to spot him. [Back]

[28] 1 success on a [Per + Empathy] roll to realise he’s been seen. Apparently, this was enough. [Back]

[29] Another set of rolls. 3 successes on a difficulty 7 [Per + Alertness] roll to re-establish contact. 2 successes on [Dex + Stealth]. [Back]

[30] The passing of time is important for skimmers like James and Ben, because every hour they’re out of body, they either have to spend a point of vitality, or take a point of bashing damage. This limits the amount of time they can spend projected, which in turn can make long-term missions problematic. [Back]

[31] 2 successes on the [Per + Alertness] roll to notice stuff. [Back]

[32] Levitating costs 2 vitality – not enough to spike. [Back]

[33] I’m wondering if the man is a Banshee, and if he’s gone to use forebode to get a look at the strange spooks who were following the group. If something like that had happened to us, it’s what we’d do. That’s just random speculation, though, based on absolutely nothing at all. [Back]

[34] Ben certainly has a fairly distinctive ‘voice’. For that matter, most of the Phoenix NPCs and a handful of others are pretty well developed characters in their own right. I suppose that’s one of the advantages of having a consistent group of NPCs who the PCs associate with on a regular basis, especially in a long-running game. (For anyone who’s counting, we started in July 2007, so we’ve been going for just over two years. I think that’s pretty good!) [Back]

[35] You’d think we might have sorted this out before the day of the job, but apparently we didn’t. I think we spent more time discussing the line-up than on actually coming up with the plan. We thought about bringing Ben for his combat skills, but decided those skills would be better off back at base, just in case any of our many enemies decided to come-a-calling. Like, say, the NSA, or an FBI faction that’s somewhat more hostile to us than Larson’s mob. If word got out that we were doing a job that day, they might – reasonably – assume that the few people back at base could be relatively easily picked up or otherwise dealt with. It’s certainly something I’d think about if I was an evil GM. And it isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you. [Back]

[36] Flesh flux was also considered, but changing someone else is extortionately expensive in terms of vitality. Congealing something small and uncomplicated like a piece of clothing is actually fairly cheap, and lasts a while. [Back]

[37] Remember, kids: it isn’t paranoia, it’s well-founded caution. [Back]

[38] This is actually an artefact weapon, rather than a congealed item. It’s apparently the ghost of the revolver he used during his stint in Vietnam. Some objects – especially those with a great deal of emotional significance or investment – can leave behind gauze versions of themselves when destroyed. This phenomenon was investigated by Orpheus and also by Terrell & Squib. Mechanics-wise, there is an Artifact background – spending points on this represents the fact that a character has somehow gotten hold of one of these objects. My original character idea – before I settled on Teresa – was a technology expert who had a gauze computer. It would have been the ghost of a machine destroyed in a fire that led to one of her near-death experiences. She would have been a good researcher/investigator, and I seem to remember having some sort of vague thought that her skills would let her develop into an expertise in spook technology. Unsurprisingly, she would’ve been a haunter. Unfortunately, this concept was more appropriate for a support position than for a field agent; not ideal for what was then only a two-player game. [Back]

[39] There was a round of [Per + Awareness] rolls, but only James and Chet actually succeeded. I actually botched mine, so Annie really didn’t notice anything. [Back]

[40] 1 vitality, 4 successes at difficulty 4. [Back]

[41] The zero-vitality inhabit ability will allow a spook to tell if something is already occupied, even if the object or system itself is large enough that they would have to spend more vitality to possess the whole thing. [Back]

[42] John Reeve (a former PC), was a financial wizard before joining Orpheus. Originally a sleeper, he learned how to skim during the New Year’s Eve attack. Shortly after escaping the massacre, he joined up with the group that would become Phoenix. He was killed by Herbert Mol, hitman, but came back as a hue. Terrel & Squib briefly captured him, but he was rescued before they could finish ‘processing’ him. Recently, John parted ways with Phoenix, finding their lifestyle a little too dangerous for him. He has remained on friendly terms with the group, however. [Back]

[43] It’s an opposed willpower roll to kick a spook out of a system or object. On his first attempt, Tom merely matched his opponent’s successes (5), which wasn’t enough. On the second attempt, he got more successes than the other spook, and thus managed to take its place in the computer system. [Back]

[44] Damaging an inhabited object also hurts the spook occupying it. [Back]

[45] After soak, Tom takes 1 level of bashing damage. [Back]

[46] It’s the equivalent of a 5 vitality effect, but he only has to spend 1 vitality to achieve it. The GM gives him +3 armour and 3 extra actions, keeping one action back for a dodge. [Back]

[47] Dead-eyes: slang term for the ability to see non-manifested spooks. [Back]

[48] 2 successes on the first roll, 5 on the second. [Back]

[49] 1 success on a [Per + Technology] roll. [Back]

[50] As Tom is relinquishing control voluntarily, there is no contested roll – he just gets pushed out when Shelley steps in. He could have stepped out first, but that would have given one of the hostiles the chance to jump into it, putting them back to square one. [Back]

[51] The Orpheus employees taken in by the FBI were all killed in their cells; burned to death by a spook of some description. It could well have been one of the haunter-like spectres – they’re certainly more than capable of setting things on fire. The canteen was where a number of agents were gunned down; a massacre Frank was framed for. [Back]

[52] 2 successes on the [Per + Technology] roll. [Back]

[53] 2 successes. [Back]

[54] 1 point of damage. [Back]

[55] 4 vitality for witch’s nimbus (a significant pulse). 0 successes on the first attack roll, and 2 on the second. [Back]

[56] Apparently, it’s not just players who botch rolls. Sometimes the GM does it too. [Back]

[57] 1 more level of damage to Tom and 1 more botch from the GM. Maybe the spectre that got hit by its supposed ally last round is returning the favour. [Back]

[58] Chet’s third-tier horror – the one that lets him negate wound penalties. Tom was already injured before even coming out to the FBI building. The damage he sustained during the last fight puts him on quite severe penalties. [Back]

[59] Tom’s player takes over Chet until Tom is back in the action. [Back]

[60] Hyde looks like Christian Bale in the film ‘American Psycho’. [Back]

[61] Chet’s player botched the attack roll – thus hitting Carlos – but rolled badly for damage, which Carlos managed to soak. All in all, Carlos got off fairly lightly that time. [Back]

[62] I spent 1 vitality to use forebode’s benefit, which reduces the difficulty of a roll by 2. On a related note, I sometimes find it difficult to translate the effects of game mechanics into an in-character or setting terms. (For example: I may spend a willpower point for Annie to get 3 points of vitality back; she concentrates to squeeze more energy out of her already stressed gauze.) The fact that many of the terms and descriptions in Orpheus represent in-character jargon, as well as mechanics descriptors, makes my job a little easier. It can still be a struggle, though. [Back]

[63] Each of these attributes reduced by 2 points. [Back]

[64] The great thing about this is that she doesn’t even have to manifest to do this – as far as they know, he can’t see through gauze any more than they can. [Back]

[65] You’d really think we’d have learned to stop thinking things like this by now. Really. [Back]

[66] 4 levels of lethal damage, which translates into 8 vitality damage. (That is: he loses 8 points of vitality in one go.) [Back]

[67] Sleepers, like ghosts, take vitality damage. This doesn’t transfer to their bodies, which is a definite plus. The downside is that they effectively have to spend health to power horrors. 1 willpower point can be spent to recover 3 points of vitality, and when a spook – including skimmers – reaches zero vitality and zero willpower, they die. [Back]

[68] The infamous double botch. You can tell Chet’s fate is in the hands of a player, can’t you? [Back]

[69] 6 vitality damage. He’s really starting to run low on willpower. [Back]

[70] He uses juggernaut to give himself extra actions. [Back]

[71] The group has worked together closely enough and long enough that they only need line of sight – not touch – to share vitality and to use benefits on each other. [Back]

[72] 1 level of bashing damage. [Back]

[73] I think that’s the second time Annie’s been on the wrong end of a friendly fire incident involving James. The last time was a burst of semi-automatic fire aimed at Béla Kiss. [Back]

[74] Zero successes on a [Per + Alertness] roll. He sees nothing. [Back]

[75] 1 success. Yay. [Back]

[76] Did I mention that anathema rocks? Well, it does. [Back]

[77] Lots of successes on a [Charisma + Leadership] roll. [Back]

[78] 1 success on a [Per + Awareness] roll. [Back]

[79] Usually, spectres don’t interact with the living at all, let alone manifest. Orpheus has previously speculated that they’re incapable of manifesting. Clearly, that’s not true. [Back]

[80] 2 successes on a [Per + Alertness] roll. [Back]

[81] 5 vitality, which means it will last for 6 rounds. 2 successes on the first roll. [Back]

[82] Chet only failed 1 of the 4 soak rolls – that’s not bad going. [Back]

[83] 2 more successful soak rolls. [Back]

[84] There was a brief out of character discussion of whether Chet would be able to assist James with his fight, which led to the comment: “Chet’s busy blowing spectres.” One presumes the player meant “blowing spectres away,” although what he actually said is far more amusing.

[Back]

[85] 2 successful attacks, doing the creature 6 and 8 levels of damage, respectively. It isn’t dodging – perhaps it can’t, given what it is. [Back]

[86] They’ve worked together long enough and closely enough that line of sight is sufficient for the exchange, rather than requiring contact. [Back]

[87] Am I the only one thinking this may come back to bite us if someone in the FBI – like, say, Jesse Osorio – decides to try to take Phoenix down once and for all? Stiles, Larson and the others have learned a lot about Phoenix’ capabilities over the past few hours. If that information were to get into the hands of hostile parties, they could make our lives very difficult. [Back]

[88] Mission Two: The Magnox Affair. Terrel & Squib gave a gun (a submachine gun), ghost shot and a set of spook goggles to an officer in the NYPD who apparently wanted to play ghostbuster and deal with the Magnox haunting. Unfortunately for the officer, he didn’t manage to finish the ghosts off and they killed him. The Orpheus spooks on the case retrieved the goggles and some of the bullets from the forensics department where they were being analysed, bringing them back to their own R&D division. One of the technicians – Mickey Williams, since killed by Hyde – managed to reverse-engineer the goggles. [Back]

[89] That ‘force’ is his Willpower, which generally recovers at a rate of 1 point per day, assuming a full 8 hour’s sleep (or fugue state, for sleepers or ghosts). It’s also possible for someone to regain points by acting in accordance with their nature to achieve relevant objectives. For example, a Leader may have to get a group of people to obey them under difficult circumstances, an Architect to build something of lasting significance, a Survivor to survive through her own actions against impossible odds, etc. These tend to be fairly significant events that don’t happen that often. [Back]

[90] The GM interrupted us before we got too involved with the planning, not wanting to waste the players’ time for something that wasn’t going to happen. The characters still wasted their time, however. We figure they spent all of the previous evening planning the raid, and weighing up the pros and cons of agreeing to a longer-term working relationship with the FBI. [Back]

[91] 1 success on a [Manipulation + Intrigue] roll to try to work out how yesterday’s events are being perceived and spun within the FBI. [Back]

[92] The Phoenix Group now has Resources 2. If we survive, maybe we can even start turning a profit. [Back]