Orpheus: The Taste of Ashes - Missions - Mission021
- James Darkwood, Poltergeist
- Annie Harper, Metamorph (revenant)
- Carlos Hayaté, Wisp
- Tom Knox, Haunter
Phoenix and Associates
- John “Blink” Carruthers, Wisp
- Ben Cotton, Poltergeist
- Carlos Hayaté, Wisp
- Chet Mason, Skinrider
- Hoyt Masterson, Haunter
- John Reeve, Skinrider (hue)
- Shelley Young, Haunter (spirit)
- Various security personnel
The City Above
- Grace Ishida, Dreamwalker/Mindbender
The City Below (formerly The Mole People)
- Alan, ghost
- Alice, Wisp (spirit)
- Emma, ghost
- Walter, ghost
- Various ghosts
- Agent Jude Forster
The Marion Prison Spooks – Bishop’s Faction
- Two unnamed hues; cult members
- P. A. Redfern (or Redfern's PA)
- Three security guards
The Port Authority
- Neil Williams, Head of customs inspections
Mission Twenty-One – Family and Friends
Part One – Legalities and Logistics
A week or so slips by, the group concentrating on completing some jobs. Money might not be as much of a problem as it was when they first went on the run, but their outgoings have increased significantly in the intervening time. One of their major expenses at the moment is the hotel. At Chet’s suggestion – and under his and James’ guidance – they’re working on making the place a physical fortress, as well as a supernatural one. The first phase involves reinforcing the doors with steel plating – an expensive but effective measure. It’s going to take some time to get the place up to Chet’s exacting standards.
Another Monday rolls around; another week closer to the apocalypse they’re hoping won’t come to pass. It’s a day like any other. James is in the common room, gun parts spread out on newspaper as he cleans and maintains his weapons. The task is so familiar to him that he hardly even has to look anymore; his hands know exactly what they’re doing. The TV – a battered old thing they found in the hotel lobby – is on as usual, its constant droning a familiar part of the background noise. ‘Dreamwalker’ is playing. It’s a new daytime drama that’s just started on one of the broadcast channels, featuring a handsome male protagonist who solves peoples’ problems by walking in their dreams. It’s very ‘Highway to Heaven’, only without the angel. Dreams seem to be the big thing at the moment – they’ve all noticed it. Every five minutes it seems like there’s a new dream analysis programme or some such thing. People all over the city are claiming to have had prophetic dreams, and even Radio Free Death has got in on the trend, talking about widespread nightmares. Something’s definitely going on.
“I need you to drive me to Philly.” Ben’s voice breaks into James’ thoughts. James looks up. He opens his mouth to ask a question, then stops when he sees Ben’s clenched fists, the tension around his eyes. In the end, all he says is:
“Yeah, sure. Just let me tell someone where we’re going.” In a relatively short time, the two of them are on the road. James is driving, Ben staring moodily out of the window. After several minutes of silence, James asks: “What’s in Philadephia?”
“Some personal stuff. I don’t want to get you involved.” And that’s the end of that. The rest of the drive passes in uncomfortable silence.
Once they reach Philadelphia, Ben uses a battered map to direct James to a car park.
“Watch my body for a few hours,” he says. “If anything happens, just drive.” Without even waiting for a response, he projects and heads out, using anathema to make his way up walls and over rooftops. In a few moments, he disappears out of sight. James shakes his head.
“I hope he knows what he’s doing...” Whether or not that’s true, Ben ripcords a few hours later, jolting upright and swearing profusely.
“Drive,” he orders. The silence stretches as James starts up the car and makes his way through the streets of Philadelphia. Once past the outskirts of the city, he judges it safe to speak.
“Didn’t go well?”
“No.” There’s a long pause, and then Ben sighs heavily; a weary, hopeless sound. “Look.” He’s still facing away from James as he speaks, staring blankly through the window. One hand taps restlessly on the seat, an erratic staccato rhythm. “Don’t know how much you know about my past. Me and my brother and sister were raised in foster homes. Spent a lot of our time on the streets. I started running with gangs. There weren’t many other options for someone like me. Not until Orpheus.” A shrug; a mere jerky twitch of the shoulders. “A lot of us did jail time. My brother did. But he’s been going straight – got a job, made a life for himself.” For a moment, Ben’s voice softens, a note of pride running through it. “He’s been doing well.” Another sigh, and then the edge is back. “Well, he was.” Silence settles, stretching out until it seems as though he isn’t going to speak again.
“Some of my friends started done for parole violations. I didn’t think much of it at first. Shit happens, you know? But it was a lot of them, and all recently. And then my brother gets picked up on a drugs charge. He swears he didn’t do anything – that the drugs were planted – and I believe him. He was going straight. He wouldn’t lie to me, not about this. It was a set up. So, the next thing I hear, one of my friends gets shivved. Just one of those things that happens. Next thing, my bro gets a visit from a man in a suit. Obviously a government man, but didn’t flash any ID. Tells my brother he wants to meet me. Gives him a time and a place. That’s why we’re here.”
“You went projected?”
“Fuck, yeah. Whole thing stank like a trap. No way I was going in there physically.”
“So, what happened? What did he want?”
Ben’s hands tighten into fists, tendons and muscles like knotted cords. “He wants me to turn you in. All of you. Said bad things would happen to my friends. To my brother. If I don’t. The guy who got shivved – that was them, just to show they’re serious. And they can do worse. If they don’t get locations from me by the end of the week, they’re gonna do worse.” He takes a deep breath, as if to scream his frustration, but then just lets it out slowly. “Motherfuckers.” The word is barely louder than a whisper.
“What do you want to do.”
“I don’t know what to do. We need to get this sorted. We need... Fuck! What are we going to do?”
“Well, first of all, we’re going to go to Boston.” James changes lanes smoothly, plotting out the route in his head.
“What?” Ben looks nonplussed. “The fuck’s in Boston?”
“Guns. Lots of guns.”
Naturally, the gun safe in James’ flat is empty. There’s a helpful letter from the local police, however, explaining that they’ve been confiscated. Something to do with being on the FBI’s most wanted list. Fortunately, there’s another letter telling him that, now he’s no longer on The List, he can now collect them. He makes a quick trip to the police station – following Ben’s example and going out of body, just in case – filling out the mountain of forms the clerks require for him to reclaim his property. They’ll contact him later to arrange a collection date. And then it’s back to New York, where a difficult task awaits.
“You’re going to have to tell the others,” James points out. “They need to know if we’re going to work out how to deal with this.”
“Fuck.” The exclamation is subdued. “I know, but... It was hard enough just telling you.” He drums his hands on the dashboard for a few moments, thinking. “Can’t you tell them?”
“I think it would be better coming from you.”
“But... Can’t you just...?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fuck, man, don’t make me do this.” James starts to argue further, but there’s an edge of desperation in Ben’s voice that stops him from completing the refusal. He sighs heavily.
“Fine. I’ll tell them.”
“Thanks, man. You’re the best.
“Yeah. No problem.”
“So, we need to do something before Friday,” James concludes. “That’s about it.”
“Any idea who the man in the suit was?” Tom’s voice is the first to break the silence.
“No.” Ben shakes his head. “Didn’t give me a name, just a phone number.”
“Where did you meet?”
“A mall in Philly.” He gives the address. “We were in the food court.”
“Shelley, can you get hold of the CCTV footage showing the guy?
“Yes.” It takes her a couple of hours to retrieve the relevant images. The man is in his forties, dressed in a suit and looking like a typical Fed. Unfortunately, without a name or some clue as to where to start searching, knowing what he looks like doesn’t help them much. Carlos does some oblique and surreptitious asking around via his FBI contacts, but draws a complete blank. Still, it was a long shot. Shelley also pulls the files of Ben’s brother, and those of his friends who recently went back inside, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there they can use. It’s possible that investigating the individual cases may turn up evidence that they were framed, but any payoff is unlikely to be in a short enough time-frame.
The rest of the group hash out some ideas while waiting for Shelley and Carlos to get back to them. Ben has no intention of shopping the rest of them – he’s unlikely to have told them otherwise – but he needs to get his brother out of their clutches. A jailbreak is possible as a short-term solution, but isn’t going to stop whoever’s behind it. (At Annie’s request, Shelley checks whether there’s any record of the prison cameras being upgraded. There isn’t, so maybe they’re not expected a spook-powered prison break.) There’s also Ben’s sister and his other friends to worry about. Ideally, they need to deal with whoever’s after them. Going through their list of enemies, the NSA is looking the most likely. So, how do they get the NSA off their backs?
“Maybe we can distract them,” Ben suggests. “Give them something else to worry about.”
“What do you mean?” Tom wants to know.
“Well, we think this CellTech place is connected to them, right? We could hit the place. Take their eyes off my people.”
“Maybe,” James says.
“I don’t know that just hitting the place would help,” Annie chimes in. “But we might be able to find something there that we can use against the NSA. We know they don’t want us talking about something. Maybe CellTech can help us find out what that is. If we can bring it out into the open, they’d have no reason to go after us.” She turns to Ben. “That means they’d have no reason to go after your family and friends.”
He looks uncertain. “What if it’s not there? What if we can’t find it?”
“We know CellTech are connected to some dodgy things. There’s bound to be something in there we can use.”
“More to the point,” says Tom. “Do we have any other leads?”
“There’s the phone number,” James points out. “You could always deadwire to the other end and see what you can find out.”
“Hmm.” Tom seems less than enthused about this. “It’s a thought. But we might as well try CellTech first. We’ve got a few days before the deadline, after all.”
Ben nods, decisively. “Then let’s fucking do it.”
It’s not as simple as that, of course. Just because they’re agreed on what they’re going to do, that doesn’t mean they’ve decided how they’re going to do it. The planning, discussion and debating drags on for a good few hours until Shelley points something out.
“They don’t know about the third tier horrors,” she prints. “That means they won’t know to protect against them.” Suddenly, their chances of sneaking in undetected look a whole lot better. In the end, they come up with two plans. Plan A: Tom will deadwire in and scout the place out. If all goes well – that is: if he can get in, take a look around, and get out again without getting caught or tripping any alarms – Shelley will go in and stripmine their computer systems for information. Plan B is the full force combat assault. They’re hoping the former will work, but they’re preparing the latter, just in case. It pays to be prepared.
On Tuesday morning, just before heading out for Baltimore, Annie uses forebode to see if anything’s likely to go dramatically wrong. All she gets is a blurry vision of sitting quietly in the van, which they all take as a good sign. It’s not a bad sign, at least, so they proceed as planned. Hoyt drives the van containing Annie, James, Tom, Ben, Chet and (of course) Rory. Ben is clearly impatient, fidgeting noticeably until Chet tells him to settle down.
“No sense working yourself up, Cadet,” the old soldier points out. “It’ll go down how it goes down.”
“I know, I know. I just want to do something, you know?”
“I understand. But you’re just going to wear yourself out like this. Don’t want to lose your edge, do you?”
“Then try to relax. We’ll be there soon enough.” If all goes well, their part of the plan will involve simply waiting around for Tom and Shelley to do their thing. Still, Chet’s words do seem to help.
“You can always try meditating,” Hoyt says, with a smirk. “Weren’t you supposed to be practicing it? We can help you chant.”
“Fuck you, Hoyt.” The rest of the journey passes uneventfully. They do a quick pass around the area first, but can’t see any roving bands of spectres, or anything else that might make them want to rethink their strategy. A couple of blocks out from the industrial park, Tom and James both project, James boosting Tom so he can fire up deadwire at full power.
“See you later, guys.” With that, Tom is gone, leaping from the van and hitching a ride into the nearest power line. It’s all up to him now. Ben sighs heavily, but it’s Hoyt who speaks.
“And now we wait.”
Tom emerges into what looks like a store room. His first objective is complete: as far as he can tell, he’s somewhere inside the warehouse he was aiming for. Working out his exact position is going to take a little poking around. The room he’s in is stacked high with various pieces of equipment, and seems to be part of an underground complex at least as large as what they’ve seen aboveground. There’s obviously more to this place than meets the eye. Right now, however, he’s after one specific part of it. A short while later, he’s ensconced in a light socket, peering out at what he’s fairly sure is the security room. Objective two: check.  There are four people in the room, all armed with pistols. They are keeping an eye on the security monitors. Aside from the computer monitors, there are also two large, wall-mounted LCD screens. One of these shows an outline map of Baltimore, while the other is blank, maybe turned off. There are no windows. As far as Tom can tell, his intrusion hasn’t set off any alarms. That’s certainly good news. The bad news is that the walls of this room have an odd sheen to them; one reminiscent of black glass.  He doesn’t recall seeing anything like it in the store room, but its presence here means that CellTech may well have other anti-spook measures. He’s going to have to be careful.
There are two more objectives to hit before attempting to leave as quietly as he entered. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to orient himself while travelling through the building’s power lines. Deciding to leave the computer systems to Shelley – she’s had way more practice at this than he has – he concentrates instead on locating the plant room. The first attempt sees him end up in a junction box.  Not quite what he was aiming for, but he’s on the right lines. He tries again, this time succeeding in locating the main power inlet for the building.  A quick look around reveals that the plant room is underground and, as expected, also houses a back up generator. Still, he’s confident he could take the whole thing out if necessary. Now isn’t the time for fireworks, though: it’s time to leave. As far as he can tell, he exits completely unnoticed. All in all, the scouting mission seems to have been an unqualified success. Time for part two of the mission. Making his way to the prearranged meeting point – an anonymous McDonalds’ car park – he reports his findings to the back up team.
“So, what do we do now?” Ben wants to know. He’s the only one who actually seems disappointed that Plan A seems to be working out.
“Now we bring in the expert.” Tom already has his phone in hand. A quick call to the hotel, and Shelley is there with them.
“Let’s get this over with.”
Tom feels decidedly superfluous as Shelley streaks into the warehouse and heads straight for CellTech’s computer network. It’s as if she knows exactly where she’s going. There are still no alerts or alarms going off, so she has the run of the place.
“Heavy encryption,” she notes.
“Can you break it?”
“Of course. It’ll just take time.”
“How are you going to get the information out?”
“Break it up and e-mail it out. It’s easy to conceal a few fragments here and there.”
“What about analysing it?”
“Not my problem.”
“I guess we can look through it as you send it out.” There’s no reply. “So... Do you need me for anything?”
“Well, I’ll just be going, then.” No reply. “See you later.”
It doesn’t take Shelley long to learn her way around the system. After dissecting the security protocols, she infects the whole network with a virus she’s cooked up for just such an occasion. And then she leaves it to do its job. The virus will sit there quietly within the system, copying data to an off-site server she’s set up. Over time, it will build up a complete copy of all the information stored within the CellTech intranet, easily accessible by Phoenix. And no one at CellTech will be any the wiser. Shelley really is very, very good at this.
They get the first batch of completed files that evening. Various people start going through the information, dividing it up into subjects to make it easier. Annie focuses on chip implantation, discovering that the surgical procedures tend to be handled either at the Baltimore site, or at a clinic in Washington DC. She finds the records relating to the BlackNet assassins, but the client is identified only by a code. It would be handy if they could prove the NSA ordered the chips (and, hence, were connected to the warehouse hit), but apparently it’s not going to be that simple. Of more use is the account used to pay for the job – maybe a finance expert could use the information to trace the account holders. Interestingly, the same account has been used to pay for more implantations. This seems to be an ongoing job. At the moment, up to three or four people are being chipped per day at the DC clinic. The implantee records are all anonymised, but the clinical information describes a group consisting mostly of white males in their forties, fifties and sixties leading sedentary lifestyles. These people would certainly make unlikely assassins. The chips used for these people are simple warning devices: if someone puppets one of them, it will set off an alarm. Presumably, the chips can also be used to locate and track individuals in the same way that the Orpheus chips were. It looks like the NSA is worried about important people being targeted by spooks. Perhaps they’re right to be concerned.
James looks for files relating to the chipped Orpheus employees. All the clinical records have been anonymised, but after hours of painstaking reading he manages to identify what he thinks is the right batch. (The chips used in these cases are full scientific/medical implants; much more sophisticated than the monitoring devices.) There is a project associated with this specific group of records: a long-term monitoring project, with the aim of finding out how projecting (specifically, skimming) works. There are pages and pages of data relating to questions such as: “Which parts of the brain light up during horror use?” “Is there a specific pattern of neuronal activity preceding and during projection?” And so on, and so forth. As James continues to read, however, it becomes clear that CellTech’s researchers weren’t just passively recording data, they were also experimenting with using the chips to trigger specific patterns of neuronal activity. They were able to induce seizures (and have done so). They could make a chip that would act as a detonator for an explosive device if activated by the right pattern of neuronal activity, say, if the host was possessed. (Only at the theory stage, as far as James can tell.) They could activate a subject’s horrors remotely. Like the seizures, this is something that they’ve actually done. It looks like James has just found out how Tom’s apartment burned down. 
Tom goes hunting for financial data. He does what he can, but there’s a lot of data to sift through, and he really isn’t trained for this. They need someone who knows their way around an invoice. After digging out as much information as he can, he arranges to meet John.
“What do you want me to do this time?” John skips the social niceties and gets straight to the point.
“We’ve got some financial information we’d like analysed, and an account we’d like traced.”
“What kind of information and how much? What kind of account? What’s the risk, and the timeframe? I need the details if I’m going to know how to cost the job.” He pauses, studying Tom thoughtfully. “Or even if I want to take it at all. I do have other things to do with my time, you know.” Tom explains about Ben’s brother, CellTech, and the NSA connection.
“We to nail them with this, and quickly,” he concludes. “You’re our best hope. We’ll pay, of course. Vitality isn’t an issue.”
“It’s going to take more than a top up or two this time. This is going to take significant time and effort. It’s not just a case of going through a spreadsheet or two, you know. I’m going to want something concrete in return.”
“Like what? Money?” Tom is incredulous. What would a ghost do with money? John is already shaking his head.
“No, not money.” He flashes a wry grin. “Anyway, if I charged you money you’d never be able to afford me.”
“So what do you want?”
“I want a place in your little fortress.”
“The hotel? You want a room in the hotel?”
“Unless you have another, better fortress you haven’t told me about. I want protection and safety. You – finally – seem to be in a position to provide that. Those are my terms, and they’re non-negotiable. So, what do you say?”
“Sure. No problem.” After all that build up, Tom is relieved. They were going to offer that to John that anyway, no strings attached. They just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. “When do you want to move in?”
“Right away.” John is looking at him a little oddly, as if wondering what his game is. “I assume you want me to get started on this job as soon as possible.”
“Please. We have a deadline.”
“Then I’m going to need Shelley, and regular vitality top-ups.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Good. Then let’s get going.”
John moves into the hotel straight away. There’s no time like the present, and it isn’t like he has tonnes of stuff to move. As soon as he’s taken a look at the place and selected his suite, he starts making arrangements to have his personal space reinforced until it can withstand a full siege. There’s a minor argument when the others realise what he’s doing. They don’t object to him having the work done, but they are concerned that it will draw unwanted attention. He rolls his eyes at them and takes steps to make sure that the data trail points to a wealthy and highly security conscious client. They were thinking of running this place as a business, after all.
By the end of Wednesday, John has tracked the accounts back to one sizeable master fund, set up about a decade ago. Whoever set the account up did a very good job of covering their tracks but John’s financial expertise – backed up by Shelley’s superlative ability to retrieve information from obscure and/or highly secure systems undetected – is equal to the task. After consulting with his clients, John focuses his attention on the account’s recent activity: where the money’s going, rather than where it’s come from. 
The others continue to trawl through the rest of the data. Tom finds out that a few hundred people have been chipped by CellTech. The monitoring signals are relayed via the mobile phone network, and can only be tracked within the US. This means that moving into a radiofrequency shielded area or no-signal zone (like the waste ground they briefly camped out on when they first went on the run) will block the transmission. Presumably a brief loss of signal won’t trigger an alarm – people pass in and out of poor-reception areas all the time – but a longer one will. Annie discovers that CellTech sources black glass and ghost-shot from somewhere offsite. It’s not clear whether the source is another company entirely, or simply a separate division within the same parent company. Whoever this ‘offsite’ group is, they are collaborating with the Baltimore facility on the chip projects. She suspects Terrel & Squib, but can find no evidence to confirm her suspicions.
“... Radio Free ... More ... Mayfair Green ... city ... seem to be small now ... growing ... watch out ... Death, signing out.”
Thursday morning dawns bright and clear. Ben’s deadline is fast approaching, and they’re not sure they’re going to have enough to make the NSA back off. John and Shelley are still following the money trail, but maybe it’s time to follow up on their other lead: the phone number. The plan is simple: Ben will ring his contact, and Tom will deadwire into the man’s phone to see what he can find out.
“But what should I say?” Ben doesn’t sound happy. “We ain’t got shit yet.”
“Say you’ve got information for him,” suggests Annie. “Tell him you need to meet – you’d rather talk to him face to face, because you never know who might be listening in.”
“I can do that, I guess.” He still sounds dubious.
Blink frowns. “What if the man presses you for the information?”
“I... I don’t know. Fuck.”
“Tell him we’re going to hit Mayfair Green.” Everyone turns to look at Annie.
“What?” Ben looks incredulous.
“Say we’re planning a major operation in Mayfair Green for, I don’t know, Friday night. If they don’t already there’s something weird about the place, they’ll find out pretty quickly. At the very least, we might be able to buy ourselves some time.”
“That could work,” Tom muses thoughtfully.
“Yeah, I guess. I just wish I could lie better.” Silence follows Ben’s remark, broken by Adrian snapping his fingers.
“Annie, my dear, can’t you alter people’s voices?”
“Yes.” She looks at him quizzically. “Why?”
“Without intending any insult to the esteemed Mr Cotton, he is not the most skilled dissembler. I, on the other hand, am a trained actor.” He pronounces it ac-tor, deliberately over the top. “If I were to make the call instead, I’m sure I could be most convincing.”
Some time and a long drive later, the group are sitting in the van some distance from the hotel. (There’s no sense in risking the call being traced back to their secret base, after all.) When everyone’s in place, Adrian makes the call. The phone is picked up on the second ring.
“Hello?” It’s a man’s voice; an older man by the sound of it. Tom is poised and ready, deadwire boosted as much as physically possible. As soon as the call goes through, he’s away, zipping along the signal. He emerges from the wired almost instantaneously a quick look around telling him that he’s in a city. A slightly longer look identifies the city as Philadelphia. He’s not in the target’s phone, however, and can’t see an obvious candidate nearby. It looks like his sense of direction was a little off.  Travel by deadwire is more than a little disorienting. Still, he can always try again. Hopping back to the others, he focuses on phone signal – fortunately, Adrian is still talking – and jumps again.
Meanwhile, back on Adrian’s end of the line:
“It’s me,” he says, his voice and way of speaking a perfect match for Ben’s. “I’ve got some information for you.”
“Do go on, Mr Cotton.” So far, so good.
“I know where they’re going to be.” He pauses, as if hesitating.
“Well?” There’s a note of impatience showing through the cultured tones.
“Look, I don’t want to say over the phone. I don’t know who could be listening. Can we meet up? It’s safer face to face.”
There’s a heavy sigh. “Mr Cotton, I am beginning to wonder whether you truly appreciate the... gravity of the situation, and the nature of your role here.”
“But...” Adrian starts to interrupt, but the man simply continues as if he’d never uttered a word.
“This is not a request. This is not a negotiation. This is a statement of what will happen. It’s really quite simple. I ask questions, and you answer to the best of your ability. If you do not give me what I want, there will be consequences. I had thought you understood this, but perhaps I am in error.” The words are spoken in an even, passionless – even disinterested – tone. “Perhaps another demonstration is required, for... shall we say, motivational purposes. You do have other friends, Mr Cotton. I’m certain any one of them would be more than adequate as an object lesson.”
“You bastard! Don’t you fucking dare!”
“Really, Mr Cotton, there’s no need for that kind of language. And I don’t see what the circumstances of my birth have to do with the subject at hand. So. What is it to be?”
For Tom, second time is the charm, apparently. He jumps into the handset again, following the signal through the vast tangle of energy that makes up the Wired (or, in this case, the Wireless). This time, he makes it all the way to his target, ending up inside another mobile phone.  He takes stock of his surroundings – not an easy task while his field of view is restricted to what he can see from the phone. It’s being held by someone, but all he can see of them is a hand and an ear. They’re in an office, looking out of a window. That’s all he can tell for the moment. Finding out more is going to have to wait until he leaves the phone, but he doesn’t want to risk being out in the open. Even if they’re not dealing with the NSA, these people clearly know what they’re dealing with. It’s not unreasonable to be worried about the presence of anti-spook cameras. It looks like Tom is stuck in the phone until he’s in a position to move into something else without being seen. This guy’s computer would be ideal. Now, if only he’d stop staring out of the window and sit down at his desk...
“Alright!” ‘Ben’ is breathing heavily, each breath hitching as if his self-control is hanging by a fragile thread. Adrian really is very good at this. “Motherfucker! Alright. I’ll tell you. But it’s your lookout if someone’s listening in.”
“It would be highly unfortunate if you’ve been careless enough to let yourself be compromised. I would hate to think you’re of no further use to us...”
“Shit! No, I don’t think they’re on to me. I just... Fine. It’s fine. I’ll tell you.” All in all, it’s just as well they have a back up plan. And it’s probably a good thing Ben isn’t making this call. He looks rattled just hearing Adrian’s side of the conversation. If he was actually involved, his likely reaction doesn’t bear thinking about.
“Well? I’m waiting.”
“They’re gonna hit Mayfair Green.” Defeat underscores the words; the sound of a man who knows when he’s beaten.
“When?” It’s interesting that the NSA man doesn’t ask ‘why’.
“Friday night. I don’t know the exact time – they’re not that organised.” The best lies contain a seed of truth, and anyone who’s been following Phoenix’ activities is going to have no trouble swallowing that one.
“Is this operation going to involve all of them?”
“Yeah, it’s all hands. Anything less would be suicide. That’s why they’ve called me in, for fuck’s sake!”
“Where will they leave their bodies?”
“In the van, I guess. It’ll be parked somewhere nearby.”
“I’m going to need the make, model, colour and license place number.”
“How the fuck am I supposed to know that? They’re probably just going to rip one off on the day!”
“Do they usually fulfil their transport needs by stealing vehicles?” Before Ben can answer, he continues with: “Never mind. Get the details to me as soon as you have them. Find out as much as you can about their plans, such as they are.”
“I will. But what about my brother?”
“What about him?”
“I’ve done what you wanted. I’ve lived up to my side of this fucking deal. Now let him go!”
“Your side of the deal, Mr Cotton, was to provide us with information leading to the successful apprehension of the Phoenix personnel. Your brother will be released when we have them, and not a minute before.”
“What? But what if you fuck up? They’ve kept ahead of you this far – what if they do it again? It ain’t my fault if you can’t catch them. This info’s good!”
“Whether or not it’s your fault, Mr Cotton, any failure of this mission will certainly be your problem. Consider it an incentive to do your part. After all, it would be most unfortunate if some misguided impulse led you to warn them. No, I think it’s better this way.”
“Fuck you! You...” Adrian trails off, spluttering.
“As eloquent as I’ve come to expect from you, Mr Cotton. Now, I believe we’re done for now. Call this number again as soon as you have something useful. And remember: the clock is ticking. You have a deadline to meet.”
“You gave me until Friday! It’s Thursday – I’ve met your fucking deadline.”
A disappointed sound. “How many times must I explain it, Mr Cotton? The deadline is for apprehension, not for merely contacting us. Now, I shall let you get to work. I look forward to hearing from you soon.” With that, he hangs up.
In an office in Philadelphia, a man sits down at his desk, putting his mobile phone in his pocket as he does so. Tom seizes his chance, leaping out of the phone and ducking under the desk in one smooth motion.  In almost no time at all, he’s inside the computer and watching as the user sets up another BlackNet contract on the Phoenix spooks. That is interesting, if not entirely unexpected. It certainly points towards this group being NSA. They’re going to need something a little more definitive than this, however: a name would be a good start. A little poking around reveals that this user’s login is ‘redfernpa’; likely from P. A. Redfern. (Or, possibly, Redfern’s personal assistant. It’s difficult to tell from just the username.) Unfortunately, that’s as far as Tom gets.
There’s a knock at the door.
“Come in.” Two uniformed men, clearly security guards, enter the room. They’re wearing spook goggles.
“There’s been a spectral security breach, Sir,” says one of them in clipped tones. “We caught it on the camera.” Well, that answers his question about the anti-spook measures.  The guards start to search the room, watched interestedly by Redfern and Tom. Confident that they won’t be able to see him in the computer, Tom remains where he is. Sure enough, they don’t see him, but they don’t give up there. “We’ll have to call in a sweeper,” the first guard says. As he mutters into his walkie talkie, the other one has Redfern empty out his pockets and then strip. Redfern does this with calm professionalism, expressing only a desire to have this dealt with as quickly as possible. There’s another knock at the door.
“Enter.” It’s another security guard, this one holding some kind of handheld device. Barely even pausing to acknowledge the other people in the room, he scans first Redfern and then all of his possessions.
“All clean,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ll have to check the whole office.” Tom takes this as his cue to leave.
From the computer, Tom moves into the wall socket and then out through the power lines. Stepping out onto the busy city street, he notes that he’s on 34th Street, between 21st and 22nd. Unfortunately, he can’t see the office building from here. (He must have travelled a little too far along the power lines before exiting.) Looks like he’s going to have to try again if he wants to narrow down the location. Diving back into the lines, he somehow manages to find his way back to the building. After briefly checking in on Redfern’s office – the security guards are still sweeping the room – he follows the lines back out of the building, only to find himself on a completely different street. This is hard. Rather than risk getting spotted again, he decides to cut his losses and head back to the others. No doubt there’s some heavy-duty discussion going on...
Almost before Adrian has finished relaying the contact’s words, Ben is making plans to bust his brother out of jail.
“He’s as good as dead if I leave him there! I have to go. Don’t try to stop me.” Some of the cooler heads – that’s everyone else – try to talk him out of it, but he won’t be persuaded. In the end, Annie asks Hoyt to go with him. The drive back to the hotel is a tense one. The only thing stopping Ben just getting out and taking the bus – or hiring a car – is that he’ll get to Philadelphia faster with Hoyt driving. He’s out of the van almost before it stops moving, telling Hoyt to meet him at the car as soon as they’ve parked up. Sighing, Annie tells Rory to go with them and keep watch over their bodies. She doesn’t know what else to do.
It’ll be somewhere between an hour and two hours before Ben and Hoyt reach their destination. That means they’ve got that long to come up with a plan of action if they want to try to persuade Ben not to go ahead with the prison breakout. So, how do they get the NSA off their backs using what they’ve got so far?
“We could go to the press,” suggests Annie. “We don’t have any conclusive proof yet, but we can probably leak enough to make it seem that we do. That should get the NSA’s attention.”
“We can go much further than that, dear girl.” Adrian is back to sounding like his old self again, much to his relief. “There is a government conspiracy to kill Phoenix employees – American citizens! Well, mostly. The press will be all over that. Mix in the chips, and we’ve easily got enough for a story. If anything happens to Ben’s brother after that, it’s going to look extremely suspicious. The NSA aren’t going to risk exposing themselves for something as petty as revenge, especially if we convince them we’ve got more than we have.” The others don’t take much convincing – something to do with a lack of viable alternatives. They’re going to have to move fast, though. The first task is to get hold of Ben and persuade him to come back. For this to work, they’re going to need him to be one of the faces – it’s his family and friends who are being threatened, after all. He isn’t happy about leaving his brother in jail any longer, but he agrees to do his part.
“This had better work.”
John takes some time away from wading through financial data to find someone who will buy – and, more importantly, broadcast – their story at short notice. Given the timescale, it has to be one of the TV networks, and not one of the most reputable or widely known ones. Still, it’ll get the job done. They’re even going to pay for the story.
“It’s not as much as I could have got if we’d had more time,” John notes. “But it isn’t bad under the circumstances.” Anything is better than nothing, especially since they’re going to have to pay for a short-notice MRI scan. It’s necessary to prove the existence of the chips – without it they might as well just be another group of tinfoil-hatted conspiracy nuts. After a brief discussion, it’s decided that Annie will get the MRI scan. She’s going to be the main spokesperson, aiming squarely for the sympathy vote. (If ‘young, pretty  and pregnant’ doesn’t give them a bonus for winning over the audience, they don’t know what will.) Once the interview is out, Adrian – as himself, this time – calls the number again. To no one’s great surprise, the call goes straight through to voicemail. He leaves a brief message.
“There’s an interview you should watch, if you haven’t already.” He gives the details. The NSA almost certainly knows about it already, but it’s best to make sure. A warning is pointless if the intended target is unaware of it. “If you do not acknowledge receipt of this message within forty-eight hours, the rest of the story goes out. You can contact us via e-mail.” He gives an anonymous and disposable mailbox address – one that Shelley has set up specifically for this purpose. “If anything happens to Ben’s family or friends, the rest of the story goes out. If anything happens to any of us, to our families, or to our friends, the rest of the story goes out. If you so much as look at us crosswise, the rest of the story goes out. I hope we understand each other. We await your response.” Later that day, an e-mail arrives in the designated mailbox. It says, simply:
Just in case the NSA is motivated by such things as petty revenge, the group decides someone should keep an eye on Ben’s brother for a few days. Chet is the best one for the job, being both a sleeper and an ex-army man. He readily agrees to take on the task. Ben seems to rest easier knowing that his brother has a bodyguard. He’d be even happier if Mike was out of prison, but the only way to do that is to prove that he was framed. Possessing the arresting officers might be able to tell them that, but how do they convince a judge? While they consider the problem, they concentrate their efforts on clearing up a few more jobs. By the end of this week, they hope to be at a point when they can focus all of their attention on important things like, say, the upcoming apocalypse. As James puts it:
“Who knew saving the world would come with an overhead?”
John is still wading through oceans of financial information, making the numbers talk. He keeps his clients up to date with the more interesting – and useful – discoveries. Immediately following the Orpheus attack, a number of large payments were made from what they’re calling ‘The NSA account’. Some of these were to a certain Herbert Mol.  The dates and amounts match the payments they know Mol received for killing John (and for their faked deaths). This is clear evidence that the account has been used to fund criminal activity: assassination. (However, it also suggests that they weren’t actually behind the New Year’s Eve attacks; they just decided to mop up the stragglers afterwards. This fits with the theory that they’re trying to keep something secret from the authorities. Whatever it is, maybe it wasn’t a concern as long as the projectors were still under Orpheus’ control.)
Now all they need is proof that it belongs to the NSA. Before he starts on that undoubtedly mammoth task, however, John has a bombshell to drop. They already know that the account was set up in the early nineties, a little before the Orpheus Group’s official formation in 1994. Apparently, the date was not coincidental. Before it became Orpheus, the group was a cryogenics company called JDG Cryogenics. Wealthy people with terminal illnesses paid the company huge sums of money to put them in suspended animation until such time as there was a cure for their condition. (As Orpheus, they adapted this technology to make the sleeper cradles.) Their first success story was a woman called Jane Kennedy. When she came out of the deep freeze, she claimed to have been out of body during the whole of her time in stasis; a claim backed up by knowledge she couldn’t have acquired any other way. Other clients reported similar experiences. Jane’s experience was the first fully documented case of projection. She worked with the proto-Orpheus group to explore the phenomenon, going on to become a member of Orpheus’ board. The NSA account was set up shortly after Jane came out of the tank and the first payment went towards purchasing a controlling interest in JDG Cryogenics. Effectively, the NSA effectively set up the Orpheus Group.
“Huh.” Annie is the first to break the stunned silence that follows John’s announcement. “Looks like Berkeley had the right idea, but the wrong organisation.”
“What do you mean?” James looks at her quizzically.
“Roy Berkeley was a ghost that me and Teresa passed over during our first Orpheus mission,” explains Tom. “He was a conspiracy nut. Had a bunch of crazy theories.”
“I remember,” says James, nodding. “The guy whose crazy theories seem to be true.”
“He claimed that Orpheus was a pawn of the CIA,” says Annie.
“Huh.” There isn’t a lot more to say to that.
Radio Free Death’s warning about there being more places like Mayfair Green has got the group worried. One enemy stronghold is bad enough. They’re going to have to do something about this, preferably before these other places become as entrenched as Mayfair Green. A systematic search of the entire city will likely take more time than they can spare. To speed things up, they consult the Mole People and the Brook House ghosts – their best sources knowledge regarding ghostly goings on in New York. Tom goes to see Alice. She isn’t currently available, but some of her people agree to pass a message on.
Annie visits Brook House. The place is still crowded, but it isn’t quite as packed as was before Tom found them another building to use. Many of the residents greet her as she passes through – she’s spent quite a bit of time here, helping to break tethers and pass ghosts over. Also, she is fondly regarded for her part in rescuing Mona from Forrester’s trap.  The time she spends helping out here always seems to lift her spirits, even though it’s usually hard, exhausting work. Somehow, it makes her feel more human. As she makes her way to Mona’s office, she makes a mental note to try and come over for a bit some time over the next week. Over the past month or so, other things seem to have gotten in the way. Mona is busy, as always, but she manages to spare a few minutes.
“Yes, I heard the broadcast,” she says, nodding. “I know a couple of the places he’s speaking about.” She describes where they are.
“Thanks.” Even though she’s in gauze, Annie’s stomach flutters with unease at the thought of going near anywhere that can be described as being “like Mayfair Green’. Still, the sooner they deal with these places, the easier it should be. In theory.
“Be careful, Annie.” Mona is looking worried. “There are monsters – spectres – there.”
“We assumed there would be.” She tries to sound confident, even though she’s anything but. At one time, she would be afraid of being killed by them. Now, she knows they can do much, much worse things. “We’ll take care, don’t worry.”
Mona doesn’t seem reassured. “They’ve killed ghosts who were poking around there. I’ve been speaking to one who managed to get away – he saw swarms of the creatures. They tore his friends apart in front of him.” She shudders. “He’s still in shock. Even thinking about it can send him into fugue.” The ghost looks a little shell-shocked herself, undoubtedly due to the memories being stirred up. She’s had her own experience of being torn apart by spectres, after all.
“Are you okay?” Concern for her friend keeps Annie’s own nightmare memories at bay. ‘I should definitely spend more time here.’
Mona thinks before answering. “Getting there. There are still times when... Some days are better than others. But it’s getting better. Easier. Keeping busy helps.” She grins lopsidedly. “Luckily, there’s no shortage of things to do around here.”
“I can see that. I’ve been meaning to come and help out here a bit more, but...” The words trail off under Mona’s suddenly thoughtful gaze.
“What about you? How are things?”
Annie considers her reply. “Better. There are good days and bad days, but overall its getting better.” She shrugs. “There’s a lot to keep me occupied.”
“I suppose saving the world is a full-time job.”
“That, and trying to do something about the people trying to kill us.”
“I saw the interview. It was very... moving.”
“That’s thanks to Adrian. He may call himself an actor, but I think there’s a would-be director in there, too.”
“Are they still after you? These government people?”
“Probably,” she sighs. “The publicity will hopefully make them back off for the time being, though, and we’re working on a way to get them off our backs completely.” A self-deprecating shrug. “Then we can get back to saving the world.”
“Well, good luck.”
“Thanks.” ‘After all,’ Annie thinks ruefully, we need all the luck we can get.
On Saturday night, Tom, Annie and James go to sleep in their own beds... and wake up on the floor of a large, airy stone room. Large windows show the city spread out beneath them, but of more interest is what’s in the room. An altar stands at one end, and behind that is a young Japanese woman dressed in robes of concrete grey. Annie quickly scrambles to her feet, looking around in something approaching panic. This doesn’t feel¬ like the land of the spectres, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. She locks her gaze on the woman, who looks oddly familiar, somehow.
“Who are you?” she demands to know. “Where is this?” Tom and James get up more slowly, keeping a careful eye on the woman to see what she does. All three of them feel like they’re in the flesh, but none of them know anything that can bodily transport living people. Surreptitiously, Tom concentrates on expressing the lowest possible level of witch’s nimbus. The attempt’s success brings him – and James – a certain amount of relief. In the meanwhile, the robed woman is responding to Annie’s (rather brusque) questions.
“This is the dream of the city,” she pronounces in measured, even tones. “And I am its priestess.”
“Is this a real place?”
“What is real?” The woman’s expression is one of utter serenity, her body language suggesting calm and poise.
Annie sighs heavily. “Is it a realm of matter or of spirit?” She’s fairly certain it’s the latter, but it can’t hurt to be sure.
“Ah, but what is matter?” The cryptic responses are starting to get on Annie’s nerves. Pushing her irritation aside, she tries to come up with a question that might have a fighting chance of getting a clear answer.
“Did you bring us here?”
“Yes.” That’s a start.
“The City called, and I answered.” Apparently Annie got her hopes up for nothing. Still, the more the mysterious woman speaks, the more information she gives away. Maybe not from what she says, but from how she says it.  Japanese-speaker, but fluent Anglophone, with an accent shaped by the sounds of San Francisco. Likely raised in that city, by Japanese-speaking parents. Speech patterns at odds with her evident youth. It remains to be seen whether that’s real or affected, although Annie suspects the latter. Maybe another question might help to narrow it down.
“Why did you bring us here?”
“The City needs you.”
“The city needs us?” Tom echoes, wondering: ‘Does the city know our hourly rate? “What does the city need us to do?”
The self-styled priestess turns to him, her body language earnest and open. “There are cancers in the City, like the one you’ve encountered before. It... Umm...” She stumbles over her words a little, hesitating, then continuing in a halting way until she regains her flow. “The City needs to come together. The ghosts of the City need to come together.” The style is definitely something she’s affecting, rather than simply being the way she speaks. Despite her apparent serenity, there’s a tension about her that expresses itself in small, fidgety motions. To Annie’s eyes, she seems nervous. Perhaps the speech patterns are her way of asserting control over the situation; of better filling the role. “Your group has been active in fighting the cancers and the entities behind them. I brought you here to help you. I can give you information.” She looks at them expectantly.
“Anything you can give,” says Tom. There’s so much they don’t know – where do they start?
“What do you want to know?” Apparently the priestess doesn’t know where to start either. The three Phoenix spooks look at each other and shrug. What do they want to know? What don’t they want to know?
“Start at the beginning?” Suggests James.
“Tell us about the City,” says Annie. That seems like as good as a beginning as any.
“The City?” The priestess takes a breath, calm settling over her like a mantle. “Very well.”
“The City has a story. It starts seven years ago in a prison called Marion.” That provokes three simultaneous indrawn breaths and an exchange of meaningful glances. “The City wasn’t the City then. It was but a man; one of the inmates of the prison. Men in suits came and took some of those condemned to death for experimentation. Some died – we know not what happened to them. Some survived and left their bodies behind, becoming... something else. They split into groups. One came here, to his birthplace, where he eventually became the City.”
“Did he used to be Terrance Green?” Annie asks. She keeps her voice soft, not wanting to break the spell of the story. “I believe that was his mortal name, yes.”
“What about the others?” Tom wants to know. “Can you tell us about them?”
She nods. “Their story is tied to the City’s. Some went back to the old ways; back to the streets and the leadership of gangs. Two of these still remain in New York. One went back to Chicago, where he continues to hunt. Some of them followed a man called Bishop, who had a vision of a world where he was king.” Her expression grows troubled, her hands twisting around each other in an unconscious betrayal of stress. “And then the war came.” “Did Bishop start it?” asks James.
“No. This was... Monsters came forth from the Tower of Light. The roamed the world, devouring all the ghosts in their path. The City managed to stop their advance by destroying the Tower, becoming the City in the process. The other Flatliners survived, somehow. Eventually, the ghosts started to come back, but the monsters came back with them.” She falls silent, looking down at her hands.
“This was the war that stopped up the Well of Souls?” Annie wonders.
The priestess’ gaze snaps up, curiosity in her eyes. “I’ve never heard that phrase before.” For a moment it looks like she’s going to ask questions, but then her manner becomes aloof once more, wrapping the role of priestess around herself like a cloak. ‘She’s not just nervous,’ Annie realises. ‘She’s scared.’ Of the responsibility? Of what’s coming? Whatever the truth, pressing her about it is unlikely to help.
“A new kind of ghost has also started to appear,” continues the priestess. “These ones are connected to the pigment. It ties them to the world, somehow. I don’t know why. Terrel & Squib use it to make their skimmers.”
“Terrel & Squib have skimmers?” Tom interrupts. This is news to all three of them – they’ve heard of T&S employing ghosts, but never skimmers.
“They have a few,” she confirms. With a shrug, she adds. “I used to be one, but I managed to get away. Now I help the City.”
“What’s your name?” asks Annie, thinking: “She looks around the same age I was when I joined Orpheus.’
“Grace. Grace Ishida.” That sense of familiarity, that one that’s been nagging at Annie throughout this whole conversation, suddenly snaps into focus. ‘Of course!’ Realisation hits like a lightning bolt. ‘I have seen her before...’
“Have you walked in my dreams before, Grace?”
Grace jumps a little, looking away guiltily before meeting Annie’s eyes. “Yes.” 
“And have you met any other dreamwalkers?”
“Just the one I saw in your dreams – I warned him about Terrel & Squib, and the pigment. I haven’t seen him for a while, though.”
“I’m afraid Frank was killed. Bishop has him.”
Grace blanches visibly. “That’s... bad. That’s really bad.” That’s an understatement.
“Tell us about the Mayfair Green,” Tom says, snapping her out of her state of shock. “It’s one of the cancers, isn’t it?”
“Oh. Yes. That’s the one I meant before. It appeared on Bounce Night.” That must have been what they heard, way back on that terrible night; that unearthly chorus of screams. “It’s the largest and the strongest of them. Others have appeared at the sites of those serial killings.”
“We’ve seen them,” agrees Annie. “They seem to be weak points in the boundary between this world and the spectres’ realm. Portals, perhaps.”
“Yes. That’s it. They are blank spots – not truly part of the City anymore.”
“That’s what Alice said to Carlos about Phillipson’s invasion of her domain,” Tom notes.
“And what she said about the murder site in the tunnels,” Annie recalls.
“Alice is to Below what the City is to Above,” says Grace, confirming what Alice said to Annie a few weeks ago.
“Are there other cancers?” James wants to know.
“Some. They appear in places of great despair.”
“Maybe we can counter them with hope, somehow,” Annie muses.
“It’s what you did before, isn’t it?” Tom says. “When the tower came down.”
“Let’s not do that again,” states James.
“There must be a safer way.” Annie frowns in thought. “Maybe we can deal with the smaller areas first – burn them out before they can take root.”
“That’s why I brought you here,” Grace says, looking at all three of them. “As I said, you’ve been active in the fight, and that’s been noticed. If anyone can stop this, you can.”
“Are there others? Can you put us in contact?” James is hoping for reinforcements.
“There are others. Some of them you know already, but some are scattered. I can try to put the word out.”
“How can we contact you?” Tom wants to know.
Grace looks distinctly uneasy. “It’s probably safer if I contact you. Like this. It’s not safe out there. You never know who’s listening.”
“What about an e-mail address? An anonymous one.”
“Maybe.” She doesn’t look convinced. “Do you think it’ll be safe?”
“Just for emergencies. If you need to get hold of us quickly.”
“Okay.” Tom gives her a one of the random anonymous addresses they’re using. She repeats it a few times until she’s certain she’ll remember it.
“What about the rest of the Marion Prison spooks?” asks James. “Do you know where they are?”
“Yes. The City keeps track of them. Tavoularis is in the Tower. Forrester moves around a lot. There are a few places where he tends to hang around when he’s here, but he’s currently outside New York. He’s Bishop’s right hand man here. Torrence is currently in his apartment.” The address she gives is the one Carlos has already managed to link to the spook. “He can move very quickly. Bishop mostly stays outside New York. He’s the most powerful of them. He’s...” Grace hesitates, searching for the right words. “The City says he feels like belief; like faith. He’s a true believer.”
“How does he control the spectres?” asks James.
“I don’t know. The City hasn’t managed to find out yet.”
“Do you know if there are any connections between the Marion Prison spooks and Orpheus?” Annie asks.
“Marion Prison is definitely connected to Terrel & Squib. We suspect it was to Orpheus as well, but we haven’t been able to find any evidence of it. Whether any of the Flatliners are I cannot say.”
“Interesting,” comments Tom.
“Is there anything else you want to know?” Annie, Tom and James look at each other.
Tom shrugs. “Nothing specific,” he says.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Annie adds.
“Then I will leave you to your dreams.” Grace smiles at them, relief in her gaze. “I am glad we had this chance to talk, and I will be in touch soon. Goodbye for now.”
“Goodbye, Grace,” Annie smiles. It’s good to know they have allies out there. With everything that’s facing them they need all the friends they can get.
“Bye,” says Tom.
“See you,” James nods.
“And good luck.” With that, they wake up.
Part Two – Marking Time
“Did you just...?”
“... Have a really weird dream?” Annie and Tom eye each other thoughtfully.
“Hippy chick in robes?” James joins them in the corridor, his customary equanimity undisturbed by the night’s events.
“So it was real,” Annie murmurs. The three of them compare notes, quickly confirming that their memories of the ‘dream’ – or, rather, visitation – all tally.
“You reckon she was being honest with us?” James wonders.
Annie shrugs. “She seemed sincere.”
“Yeah,” Tom agrees. 
“We should tell the others.”
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday pass fairly quickly, if uneventfully. The group’s time is mostly divided between research, planning (that is to say: discussion) and paid work (specifically, highly paid spook jobs). Sunday night’s Radio Free Death broadcast urges New York’s spook population to band together and help Phoenix. Monday brings them the lab report on the dodgy tattooist’s ink. The analysis confirms that the stuff is a little more than a henna-like surface tattoo ink. There are three extra ingredients: dimethylsulphoxide (DMSO), a chemical binding agent and a mixture of organic compounds. DMSO penetrates the skin, allowing other substances to be carried through and into the bloodstream. The binding agent keeps the drug from being washed away. These two components make up the delivery vehicle for the third, allowing the slow release of the active substance into the bloodstream. So far, so standard. It’s the analysis of the last component – the drug itself – that interests them. Like pigment, it’s formed of a mixture of organic compounds. Also like pigment, some of these compounds can’t be identified. However, it isn’t pigment. It doesn’t have the right chemical markers. This is worrying – there’s another kind of spook-interactive drugs out there? Is it also made by Terrel & Squib, or do the company have a rival? It’s something they’re going to have to investigate further.
James receives a message telling him that his guns will be ready for collection on Wednesday. The news leaves him torn. On the one hand, he wants his weapons back. On the other, the NSA may be watching out for him going to collect them. They may also have put tracking devices – or who knows what kind of other nefarious gadgets – in them. He starts making plans. To get to Philadelphia, they can rent a car under a false name. For actually going into the police station, projecting should reduce the risk. Whoever takes him to Philadelphia could drive around with his body in the car until he’s ready to rendezvous. He would also like Annie to go with him for last-minute foreboding. Annie isn’t too keen on the idea, but suggests that he could take Rory along as an extra babysitter. Someone could check out the guns with inhabit; find any surprises the NSA may have left. At James’ request, Kate uses forebode to see if anything’s likely to go horribly wrong if he enacts the current plan: she receives a blurry image of James going into a police station.
The discussion goes back and forth for a bit. While the others understand James’ desire to get his weapons back – and agree that they might end up needing them sooner or later – they’re reluctant to risk it while the NSA are hot on their heels. With some regret, James agrees not to collect them just yet. Instead, he prevails upon one of his Boston police contacts to pick them up on his behalf, storing them in the SWAT armoury until he’s ready to collect them.  It’s something else to go on the list.
Tom visits the Mole People. Alice is still unavailable, but the ghosts seem a little more inclined to talk to him this time. One of them tells him that there have been a couple of attempted ‘invasions’, but they dealt with them by destroying all the spectres there.
“Shredded them to bits, we did,” Alan declares proudly. “Showed ’em they can’t crash our turf.”
“What about the other ones?” chimes in another ghost; Walter.
Alan shoots him a scornful look. “What other ones?”
The old man looks theatrically around before leaning forward and lowering his voice. “I heard a rumour that there were a couple of these places our lot couldn’t touch. Left it too late, y’see. We lost people trying to see ’em off.”
“You’re full of shit!”
“It’s true.” The woman had been sitting quietly, staring into the shadows. She was so still, her gaze so distant and unfocused, that she could have been in fugue. Now, she turns to face the speakers, her eyes still faraway. For all that she’s a ghost, she looks... haunted. “I was there. I saw.”
Alan and Walter trade uncertain glances. “What did you see, Em?”
“It was like going into the mouth of hell. Black... foulness was smeared everywhere. You couldn’t pass through it. If you tried, it stuck to you like tar. I still have it on me. It won’t come off.” Emma draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms tightly around them, starting to rock gently back and forth. “They got Mick – just tore him apart in front of me. He was... He was gone before I could even move. He barely even had time to scream. They came for me next. They started ripping chunks out of me, but I just ran. I... I don’t know what I was thinking, going into that place. I just wanted to defend my home, you know?” She laughs, the sound high-pitched and jittery with hysteria. “But then I saw. I know the truth, now. What can we do, really? How can we fight those monsters? I... I couldn’t. Not after... I just ran away. I ran and I kept on running. I must have lost them, I guess.” She sounds uncertain. “I don’t really remember... I did lose them, didn’t I? They’re not here? They’re not still coming?” Her voice is steadily growing more panicked. “Are they coming? Are they coming for me?” One of the other ghosts steps in and tries to calm her down, whispering soothing words in her ear. It seems to work, at least after a fashion. Em is clearly still deeply traumatised, but the raw panic subsides, replaced instead by a calm fatalism. A trembling sigh wracks her whole body as she makes one final, grave pronouncement. “We can’t win.” She speaks with total, absolute certainty. Tom can only hope that it’s misplaced.
John has now procured and analysed a substantial amount of information about the putative NSA account. In 1999 – a couple of years after the Marion Prison fire and five years after the NSA bought a controlling interest in JDG Cryogenics – large sums of money were transferred to Terrel & Squib. After that large initial payment, smaller amounts went out at regular intervals. These regular payments are still being made. Perhaps the NSA paid T&S to set up a long-term project or experiment, one that requires regular maintenance. The financial data also show substantial transfers of money between CellTech and T&S, in both directions. The sums are not huge, but neither are they insignificant. Perhaps this is connected to their ongoing research projects, or maybe it reflects an exchange of technology and/or expertise. By the end of Wednesday, John has traced the account back to a Federal banking code. The money definitely belongs to a government agency, but he can’t tell which one. Unfortunately, that’s as far as he can get without access to the government’s computer systems.
So, where does all this leave them? They know that this Federal money has gone to Orpheus, T&S, CellTech and (perhaps most importantly for their current goals) BlackNet. Through CellTech, it is connected to the implanting of chips in Orpheus personnel without their knowledge or consent. Unfortunately, they can’t actually prove they didn’t consent to the procedure. The lack of a clear and provable connection to the NSA is also a problem. What they need is a smoking gun.
“Do we have enough without it?” Tom wonders. The general consensus is that they don’t know. More information would be useful, but can they afford the time – and the risks – they’d need to get it? There’s also the question of who they can approach with this. The FBI is a possibility, but has the distinct disadvantage of being thoroughly compromised by the NSA. Evidence of malfeasance with Federal funds might be enough to get the Department of the Treasury interested, but none of them have contacts within that agency. It’s possible that an anonymous tip off would be enough, but they don’t necessarily want to bank on that. Things are likely to go much more smoothly if they take their time to identify and cultivate a suitable recipient for the information first.
“Torrence was poking around in Orpheus’ computers.” After going round and round for a while, the discussion has more or less petered out. Shelley’s interjection – unnoticed until she makes the computer beep and flash to get their attention – perks up the flagging spooks.
“When was this?” By common consensus, Tom is the designated Shelley-wrangler of the group. She certainly seems to respond better to him than to any of the others.
“During the attack. He was destroying things – evidence, maybe? But he could also have taken information to somewhere else.” It’s an interesting piece of information. Any information the Marion Prison spooks want to destroy – or take – is information that the Phoenix spooks are definitely interested in. There’s a not-insignificant chance that it might even help them out with their NSA problem. They know where Torrence lives (well, abides), so going after him is a distinct possibility. Unfortunately, his ability to deadwire means that actually capturing him might be a tall order.
“Maybe I could stop him with anathema,” suggests James. He and Tom try a few short experiments, but they prove unsuccessful. Despite James’ best efforts, he can’t stop Tom from escaping via deadwire.
“What about tracking him?” Tom wonders. He turns to Shelley. “You managed to chase down that spook from the FBI building – do you think you could do something like that again?”
“Let’s see.” Shelley can follow Tom, but she needs to be fairly close behind to have a good chance of catching him. If they do decide to use this, she’s going to have to watch Torrence closely to be ready to move when he does. That means she would have to be on site with them; not something she’s entirely happy about. (Given that Torrence is the one who delivered her to T&S, she isn’t exactly thrilled at the thought of going anywhere near him.) It also doesn’t solve the problem of what to do if she does manage to catch him. They switch roles, Tom doing the chasing and Shelley doing the running, but this proves to be far less successful. He can sense that she’s deadwiring away, but can’t quite pin down the direction. If they do need to chase Torrence down, it’s going to have to be Shelley doing the chasing.
“You said the City could track Torrence,” Shelley notes. “Would he remember where he went immediately after the Orpheus attack? If he did take any data from the computers, he’d have to deliver it somewhere.” It’s certainly a possibility. They have Shelley send an e-mail to Grace, asking the priestess to pass on their query to the City. In the meantime, they think about ways to capture – or kill – Torrence. They know that Torrence – or someone using an account in his name – regularly orders pizza and “escorts” from his New York apartment. Next time he does so, they could send along an inhabitor or a skinrider to scout out the place and see what exactly they’re dealing with. If and when they do move against him, they could use this trick to get inside, and maybe even carry some anti-spook cuffs with them. At this point, they’re more interested in the hypothetical data than in Torrence himself, but maybe they can kill two birds with one stone. After all, time is ticking on...
Less than two months until the apocalypse.
Part Three – Information Retrieval
Grace replies to Shelley’s question that night (Wednesday). She doesn’t send her answer by e-mail, however, instead preferring to pay another dreamland visit. Tom is the one she chooses to contact. He’s in the middle of a dream about attempting to meditate while shadowy figures – possibly NSA-funded assassins – shoot at him from a distance. Exactly why he would do this isn’t clear, but it makes perfect sense in the dream. (He’s spent quite a lot of time lately practicing his meditation techniques, and NSA-related worries are currently at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It makes for an odd juxtaposition.) He’s trying desperately to maintain the lotus position when he becomes aware of a robed figure standing in front of him. A beat after that, he realises that he’s dreaming. There’s perhaps a moment of regret that this may well be the closest he ever comes to actually managing the full-lotus position, and then he focuses his attention on Grace.
“Hello,” he greets her. Untangling his legs, he stands up and stretches.
“The City has answered your question,” she begins without preamble. “After leaving the Orpheus building on New Year’s eve, Ethan Torrence went Below.
“You mean Alice’s domain?”
“Yes. It is hidden from the City’s sight.”
“Do you know how long Torrence was out of sight?”
“I am afraid I do not.” She looks chagrined. “I can ask.”
“What do you... What does the City think he was doing down there?”
“We do not know. But there must be something there that Torrence and his companions do not want the City to see. They would not hide it, otherwise.”
“Perhaps a base of some kind,” Tom muses. “Can you tell me where he disappeared and reappeared?”
“I don’t know where he reappeared. But I can show you where he disappeared.”
“That’ll do for now.” Grace sketches out the location, carefully reciting the street and district names. Tom memorises the information – it isn’t hard. “Is that everything?”
“Yes, I... Oh! No, it isn’t. There’s something the City thinks you might be interested in. There’s a DEA agent called Jude Forster who’s investigating the smuggling of pigment into New York. He’s focusing his investigations on the docks, but he’s being blocked. Someone’s preventing him from looking at certain areas.  It looks like a government agency is giving the orders, and the City believes it to be the NSA.”
“Don’t say its name!” Tom says, jokingly. “They have ears everywhere.”
Grace looks confused. “I do not think they have any dreamwalkers. At least, I have never encountered any.”
“Never mind.” Apparently, she wasn’t chosen for her sense of humour. “That’s interesting, though. Thanks. And please thank the City for me.”
“I will.” She seems to have recovered her composure. “How goes your investigation of the hives?”
Tom looks blank. “Hives?”
“The cancers,” she elaborates. “The places that the spectres are making.”
“Oh, those. I’m afraid we haven’t quite got to them yet. We’ve been too busy trying to keep the NSA off our backs.”
“I see. Well, perhaps the information about the DEA agent will be of some help with that.”
“Hopefully.” They need all the help they can get.
Back in the waking world, it’s time for some good old-fashioned investigation, seasoned liberally with discussion. They’re working on the assumption that Torrence dropped off the City’s radar to transfer data he took from Orpheus’ computer systems. It’s a big assumption, but not an unreasonable one. According to Shelley, he would need access to data cables. Power lines are fine for general travel, but to actually carry data with him, he’d need to be in something designed to handle that kind of thing. Additionally, this secret facility would have to have something capable of receiving and storing whatever he took. So, they’re looking for computers at the very least. It’s possible they may be talking about an actual server farm. This gives them somewhere to start. Annie and James hit the computers and phones. Annie is looking at local power consumption. James is hunting for companies with server farms. Carlos pays a visit to City Hall. Tom goes to scout the area out physically.
Apparently, the area has a lot of underground storage, mainly using old boreholes that have been sealed and converted. These are mainly used for file and data storage, with a number of small server farms scattered throughout. At least one company keeps their off-site backups down there. One of the data storage companies went bust during the dot com crisis, and then was bought up privately. There is no information on what it’s been doing since. There’s nothing obviously out of the ordinary about any of the others. Tom’s scouting of the surface level – with his deadwire boosted by James – turns up nothing of particular interest.
After he gets back from City Hall, laden with copies of plans, Carlos goes out again in search of Alice. She’s actually available for once, or maybe it’s just that the Mole People like him better than Tom.  Alice remembers Torrence’s brief foray into her domain. It wasn’t the only time – there’s a particular spot that seems to see a lot of spook activity. There are some residents, and a fair number of transients – people just passing through. As well as the rapid movement that suggests someone deadwiring in (or through), she’s also aware of more conventional spook traffic. These others tend to come through in groups of one to five, but she’s not sure how many there are in total. The last large group came through there about a week ago, and she thinks there are currently two or three in residence.
“Do you mind if we take a look?” Carlos doesn’t think Alice will mind, but it probably pays to ask before a group of them tromp through her territory.
“Not at all.” She shrugs. “It’s practically a part of the City Above, in any case. You may use the aura of damaging energy to tunnel there, if you wish.”
“You mean Witch’s Nimbus?”
“Indeed.” After pinning down the location of the area of interest, Carlos asks Alice if she’s aware of any hives down here. She doesn’t even have to think about it. “There’s the numb spot at the murder site.” They’ve poked at that one already. “There were a couple of others since, but I and my people have dealt with them.” She smiles thinly. “We dispersed the spectres and cleansed the areas with fire.”
“It sounds like you have everything under control.”
Later, the group is poring over the tunnel plans, trying to work out a route and a plan. The route is proving somewhat simpler, although they’re still going to have to tunnel through a lot of rock to reach their objective. The main sticking point with the plan is: how are they going to find the information they’re looking for? How are they even going to identify it? There’s a limit to what Tom and Shelley can carry with them, or transmit. Fortunately, Shelley has a solution.
“Why don’t we just take the servers? I can take the time to run proper computer forensics on them, without having to fight off hordes of spooks at the same time. We can get all the data.” The words hang there for a moment or two, and then she adds: “And we deny the enemy access.” It sounds so simple when she puts it like that.
“That’s brilliant,” Tom breathes, voicing what they all feel. It’s such a good idea that they all agree without even having to discuss it. The only thing they have to discuss now is how they’re going to do it.
From the power usage data, Shelley estimates that they’re looking at four racks of twenty servers each. This means that they’re going to need a way to transport them all. Anathema is... not ideal. Not if they want them to actually survive the journey. Perhaps a vehicle? A little investigation turns up the fact that some of the old equipment used in digging the tunnels is still down there, stored at one of the old diggers’ stations. This includes the wide, flat carts used for transporting materials, etc. The vehicles used to pull them are long gone, but juggernaut-strengthened spooks shouldn’t have any problems taking their place. Just to make certain, they make a couple of practice runs before actually making the attempt for real. During the raid would be a really bad time to find out that their cunning plan won’t work. Luckily, a fully-loaded led can be handled by two unenhanced spooks or one juggernaut-boosted one without too much difficulty.
Short of going in through the front door – something they consider, but discard – the easiest way to get to their target is from underneath. The nearest surface access is about half a mile away, and will let them into a network of disused sewer tunnels. Fortunately, these tunnels pass directly below the server room. Tom will have to tunnel up through the rock: this will take time and a lot of vitality, but he thinks it’s possible. Once they’re in, they’re thinking about a simple smash and grab. That is: smash their way in, smash any opposition, and grab the servers. Nice and straightforward. What could possibly go wrong with that?
In the end, it takes Tom about a day to finish the tunnel. They have a constant relay of spooks supplying him with vitality, not to mention boosting him when necessary. The work itself is actually relatively undemanding – all he has to do is light up and make his way steadily upwards, vaporising rock as he does so. (James and Ben take turns using anathema so that he can stand comfortably on the walls of the vertical shaft he’s carving out.) He distracts himself from the tedium by working on his meditation. (Perhaps he’s still trying for that elusive full-lotus.) Towards the end of the day, Carlos takes a slow drive through the district above ground. He sees nothing suspicious, but the area seems to be quite busy. They decide it’s better to go in at night, when there are less people around.
Annie makes use of the time when she’s not on coppertop duty to do some more research. Specifically, she’s looking into ways of getting Ben’s little brother out of jail. First of all, it’s the right thing to do. Second, as long as the NSA has his brother’s life in its hands, he can potentially be compromised. Compassionate, but also practical: that’s Annie. There are a couple of organisations that seem interested in the case, including the American Civil Liberties Union. She passes the details onto Ben, who is both surprised and grateful.
The moment of truth: it’s late Friday night, and the raiders are standing on a ledge in the just-cooled tunnel. The server room is just on the other side of the wall. Using arcs of electricity to burn their way into a room filled with delicate electronics seems unwise, not to mention that they’d lose the element of surprise. They’re simply going to teleport in and them bash their way through the remaining foot or so of rock on their way back out.  Ben and James congeal weaponry: a battleaxe and an assault rifle, respectively. Annie dissolves into a swarm of giant rats.  Carlos reaches into the storm and pulls out a crowbar, the rusted metal dripping with black blood.  Everyone is armed and ready; there’s just one more thing to do before they go in.
“Let there be light,” Tom murmurs. He flares his aura at the lowest possible level – not enough to damage anything or anyone, but enough to provide illumination.  It’s useful to be able to see the opposition.
“Everybody ready?” Nods and murmurs of assent answer Carlos’ question. “Then let’s go.” They teleport to the other side of the wall.
They’re in a room filled with servers; the hum of cooling fans loud in the air. There are two hues wearing purple robes; the same style as the one from the tower. One is seated at a computer and the other appears to be meditating. Neither of them seems to have noticed the intruders... yet.  That changes when James opens up with his assault rifle. He refrains from going full auto, taking precise shots instead. His first target – the one seated at the computer – is dispersed immediately. The second, having seen what happened to his comrade, attempts to dodge out of the way. He isn’t fast enough, and loses his head. Unfortunately for James, however, it rapidly reforms.  Tom tries to finish him off with a bolt of lightning – he isn’t manifested, so the servers aren’t in danger – but misses as the ghost sprints for the exit.
Seeing both Carlos and James start after the fleeing hue, Annie leaves them to it and concentrates on extending her spook senses. If there’s a trap here (or a bunch of spectres, or anything else that’s likely to give them a really bad day), she figures it’s better they find out about it now. There’s definitely spook-tech of some description nearby – possibly the servers – but nothing that feels like an immediate threat. Ben is looking around, bewildered. Perhaps he was disoriented by their brief passage through the storm, or his senses were overwhelmed by the gunfire and lightning bolt. Whatever the reason he doesn’t see an obvious target, so he decides to wait and see. 
James runs his quarry down. Exchanging speed for strength, he grabs the hue and lifts him off his feet. His burden kicks and struggles, but can’t break free of the hold. Carlos keeps an eye out, but the commotion doesn’t seem to have gotten anyone’s attention. (Or, if it has, they haven’t made it down here yet. It looks like this fight is over.
Chet joins them just as James carries the prisoner back into the server room. (Carlos wasn’t able to carry the whole group through the storm so Chet followed afterwards, walking through the wall.) Quickly orienting himself and assessing the situation, he directs Tom and Ben to start making them an exit. As they get to work on the wall, he begins to unhook the servers and stack them neatly in a corner. There’s still no sign that anyone other than that single ghost even knows they’re here, which is just the way they like it. As far as Tom’s concerned, that’s one witness too many. “I didn’t want to take any prisoners,” he mutters. “Now we’re going to have to decide what to do with him, and that might get messy.” He shakes his head. “Much simpler just to take them all out in the first place.” 
Carlos reaches into the storm and pulls out something they can use to restrain their prisoner, freeing up James for something else. He manages to retrieve and old-fashioned but sturdy ball and chain. The ghost doesn’t look terribly happy to have his ankle shackled. There’s a look of fear in his eyes, and he’s muttering something under his breath, over and over. It sounds like he’s praying. Annie tries to work out what he’s saying. Now the prisoner has being secured, James joins Tom and Ben. With the three of them working on the wall, it doesn’t take long for them to make a suitably-sized hole. (Ben helps James to congeal a drill, which speeds the work up.) When they’re done, Tom and James move onto the servers. Ben heads over to Carlos and Annie, who are questioning the prisoner. (Annie has now merged back into human form.)
For the moment, Carlos is trying to find out the prisoner’s name, and what he’s doing in the server room. Unfortunately, the hue isn’t co-operating. He isn’t even acknowledging Carlos. Eyes tightly closed, he just keeps muttering to himself. He’s saying:
“God save my soul; Bishop save my soul,” repeating the mantra over and over again.
“Bishop’s not here,” Annie interrupts, leaning in close so he can’t help but hear her. He just raises his voice, talking over her words. Carlos sighs, handing his crowbar to Ben.
“Here, hold this.”
Ben looks at him, hefting the crowbar experimentally. “What’s this? The crowbar of truth?”
“It might be if he doesn’t start talking.”
Ben grins maliciously. “I can work with that.”
“Right.” Standing squarely in front of the prisoner, Carlos channels vitality into unearthly repose, the power filling him with regal authority. “Let’s start again.” His voice is smooth and resonant, commanding attention. Reluctantly, the ghost opens his eyes, redoubling the vigour of his prayers. “What are you doing here?”
“I do God’s work,” the ghost breaks his mantra to proclaim. “God save my soul. Bishop save my soul.”
“Stop pussyfooting around, Carlos.” Impatiently, Ben steps forward and slaps the prisoner sharply. He uses his open hand, rather than the crowbar, but his target still reels under the blow. Carlos holds out one hand in a quelling motion, still keeping his eyes on the ghost. Ben shrugs and steps back.
“We don’t want to hurt you.” Carlos’ speaks in a low and soothing voice; a voice you can trust. Unfortunately, the target of his overwhelming charisma has focused his attention inwards.
“I do not fear death!” The words are spoken proudly, but the effect is undermined somewhat when the speaker won’t look at the person he’s addressing. “You cannot break me that easily.”
“Do you really think Bishop will come for you? That he’ll save you?” Annie speaks abruptly, angrily; the words’ jagged edges an outward sign of her inner turmoil. This whole situation has her on edge. Her memories if being a prisoner are still too raw for her to feel comfortable on the other side of the chains.
“No one’s coming for you.” Despite being sandwiched between bad cop and worse cop, Carlos somehow manages to sound compassionate, rather than threatening.
“Just you and us, mate.” Ben, on the other hand, is threatening enough for all of them.
“You won’t break my faith!” It’s clear they’re dealing with a fanatic. There is no room for doubt in his mind – his faith is absolute. Breaking through that is going to take more than a few minutes of talk, but maybe they can still shock some useful answers out of him.
“Your faith is misplaced,” snaps Annie. “Bishop has already betrayed you.” Bishop was behind the New Year’s Eve attack; was responsible for what happened to her. It’s his fault the spectres have Teresa. And this man belongs to him. Part of her just wants to tear him apart, as a proxy for his master. To keep the rage at bay, she studies the pathetic creature before her, reaching out to sense his tethers. There’s just one: the endless ocean all hues are connected to. He seems more powerful than most hues – maybe his other tethers have been broken. Still, she can use this against him. “He’s tied you to this world; prevented you from going onto wherever you should have gone when you died. That pain you feel, all the time; the cracks running through your gauze – he did that to you.  It’s his fault.”
“I’ve been chosen. I’m a warrior of God, given guidance through his angel, Bishop. My sacrifices are necessary, and will be rewarded.”
“Bishop is no angel of God,” she spits out contemptuously. “He’s using you for his own twisted ends.” His stubbornness is making her angry. How can he be so blind? The spectres told her she was special. They called her ‘sister’ and said she had a higher purpose. More of their filthy lies, just like when they claimed they were ‘helping’ her. This man may have been brainwashed into his current state, rather than tortured, but that doesn’t make him any less a victim. So, why can’t he see it?
“He said the sinners would try to turn us from our holy purpose. But I will hold to my faith. I am a true servant of God.” There’s still no trace of doubt in his voice. At least he’s talking though, even if he hasn’t said anything useful so far. There are things she could do to make him talk; to punish him for whatever small part he plays in Bishop’s plans. So many things... The whispering voices will show her how, if she only listens to them. But she won’t. She’s stronger than that; better than that. Shutting the dark thoughts – and the whispers – away, she takes refuge in the clinical detachment of her anthropology training. Observe; watch for responses. Look for what’s important. And what’s important is:
“Why do you think Bishop is an angel?”
With pride, he answers: “God’s grace is within him.”
“You’ve seen this for yourself?”
“All not touched by darkness can see the light.” That hits too close to home for her liking.
“And what about Carlos? What do you see when you look at him?”
(Faintly, in the background, James mutters: “His shining aura of awesome.” Ben stifles a laugh.)
The hue scowls. “Servants of the Adversary can adopt a fair seeming. It is their nature to try to deceive the righteous.”
“Like Bishop deceives?”
“How dare you? He...”
“...Is bathed in God’s grace. I know. But doesn’t God’s grace look a lot like a power many spooks have?” While he splutters, she continues. “Another question for you: if Bishop’s cause is holy, why does he use monsters?”
“With a righteous hand, even the devil’s tools can be turned to God’s work.”
“I got another saying for ya,” interjects Ben. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“You must know that isn’t right,” says Carlos, earnestly. The words hang in the air while the ghost struggles for a reply. Just when they’re starting to hope they might be on the verge of a breakthrough, he shakes his head violently.
“You’ll never turn my feet from the path of righteousness!” he proclaims. “God will save my soul. Bishop will save my soul. The righteous will bask in His glory, while the wicked will suffer torments unending!”
“We’ll all suffer if Bishop brings down his vision of hell on earth!” Annie’s control is starting to slip. Being called wicked is too much like being called one of the monsters. “I’ve seen what he’s calling forth, and there’s nothing glorious about it!”
“He brings forth the Lord’s kingdom! It’s only you sinners who will feel His wrath!”
She makes a conscious effort not to shout. “Bishop is working with the spectres. He’s killing and torturing and maiming. Do you call that good work? Do you call it God’s work? Whatever he’s bringing down is not God’s kingdom.”
“No, it’s the truth you’re too blind to see.” She shakes her head in exasperation. “You don’t even realise how he’s chained you. That drug he poisoned you with – do you think it’s brought you closer to God? That’s not where those chains lead. If you’re really lucky, they’ll only bind you here, to this world. If not, the spectres have their hooks in your soul. Once they get their hands on you, oblivion is the best you can pray for.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You belong to them!”
“Bishop gave me to them! He’s the one that killed my friends. He’s the one that let the monsters in. So don’t tell me I don’t know. I know only too well. That’s why I’m trying to get through to you, you idiot! I’m trying to help.” She takes a deep breath, forcing some mental distance. ‘Too emotionally involved, Annie,’ she tells herself. ‘Take a step back.’ In a calmer voice, she continues. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
“You only suffered because you’re tainted,” he starts to say.
“Only since they had me,” she says, tiredly. “The look in her eyes stops whatever response he was going to make. He looks away from her, but doesn’t seem to like the sight of the glowering Ben or the magnetic Carlos any better.
“Maybe if you repent your sins...” The words don’t quite have the same fire as some of his earlier statements.
“I’ve had a blessing from one of Bishop’s own priests,” she says acidly. “The right honourable Bruno Tavoularis, late of Marion Prison. I trust you’re aware he was on death row for murder? Just like your precious Bishop. Anyway, all the blessing did was sap my will for a short time.” Not strictly true, but she doesn’t exactly want to tell him it quieted the whispers, no matter how temporarily. For that matter, she doesn’t want to tell him about the whispers at all. “Seems to me all they’re doing is keeping you docile. Like sheep.”
“If the blessing brought you no peace, it’s only because you cling to your sins.” He’s starting to regain some of his passion. “Perhaps you’re simply misguided, rather than evil. Maybe you really do mean well.” Straightening his spine, he lifts his head and sets his jaw determinedly. “But no matter how well-intentioned, I will not let you draw me from the straight path. If you will not see the truth, then I cannot help you. All I can do is pray.” With that, he starts chanting again. “God save your soul. Bishop save your soul. God save my soul. Bishop save my soul. God save your soul. Bishop save you soul. God save my...”
“Great,” says James, as the hue babbles on. “Now what?”
Part Four – How to Make Friends and Influence People
Time is running out to decide what to do with the prisoner. The pallets are just about loaded up and ready to go. Tom wants no part of the decision. He never wanted to take prisoners in the first place, but he isn’t ruthless enough to suggest dispersing the helpless hue out of hand. So, he busies himself with the servers. After the briefest of discussions – it helps that they really can’t afford to hang around here – the interested parties decide to take the prisoner with them. James congeals a blindfold, and they load him up on the getaway vehicle with the stolen servers. (They’re actually using the mobile base as the getaway vehicle, as it’s the only thing they have large enough to hold all the servers and them. It even has a generator aboard so they can power them up on the move.) Once they slap the spook cuffs on him, the cultist isn’t going anywhere. If they can break Bishop’s hold over him, maybe they can even get some useful information about what their nemesis is really up to. Unfortunately, deprogramming cultists is not a rapid process. Carlos – the nearest thing to an expert they have – thinks they’re probably looking at several weeks to try to get through the brainwashing. In his expert opinion, they need an actual deprogrammer for this, rather than a negotiator. Maybe they can find and puppet someone with the relevant training. (As they’re talking about a spook, simply hiring someone isn’t really an option.)
For the moment, their priority is analysing the servers. Shelley quickly checks over the hardware, but can’t find anything that looks like a tracking device. They weren’t necessarily expecting to find anything like that, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure. What she does discover is a mapped drive containing data whose timestamp roughly corresponds to the time of the Orpheus attack. She can’t be certain without actually going through it, but she thinks it’s a partial or complete data dump from the Orpheus system, presumably obtained by Torrence. In short, they’ve hit paydirt.
Tom, James and Annie divide the data up between them and start going through it. It’s conveniently organised into folders by subject, so each of them simply picks a topic. Tom looks through the finances, mainly focusing on flagging things to pass on to John.  The main thing that stands out to him is that there have been substantial cash transfers into the Orpheus coffers from the NSA account. (They already knew this from John’s investigation of that account, but this is useful confirmation.) The interesting thing is that, without these transfers, Orpheus would have gone under a long time ago. It simply wasn’t making enough money to survive as a commercial enterprise. So, the NSA didn’t just pay for the start up – they were supporting it every step of the way.
James is interested in finding out once and for all whether Orpheus’ ‘Projector Serum’ is actually pigment. This information is likely to be found under the ‘Medical’ category. Fortunately, he has enough training to be able to interpret the relevant information.  Originally, they used an extract from a particular South American plant. One of their chemists – Dr Amours Katiliana – discovered that injecting an extract from this plant aided in the process of separating the spirit from the body. (It’s not clear where and how he discovered this.) He succeeded in cultivating the plants domestically, growing them in a greenhouse. Unfortunately for Orpheus, he died without passing on some important details. They managed to grow the plants, but none of the ones they cultivated seemed to contain the vital ingredient that made the drugs work. They tried to replicate his methods, but failed - even using Katiliana’s own greenhouse didn’t help. It was around this time – 1999 or so – that pigment hit the street. (This was also around the same time of the Marion Prison fire. James wonders if the chemist’s death could be connected to this, but nothing in the Orpheus records suggests anything other than natural causes.)
Noticing that pigment seemed to have similar effects to the plant extract, they obtained some and started doing some experiments. The serum is the direct result of that. Starting with street pigment, they separated it into its component parts and remove everything they can analyse. What’s left was a compound that proved impossible to analyse using standard methods. They mixed this with a mild sedative to make their skimmer drugs. Interestingly, this is also basis for the drugs they gave to sleepers, although they used much lower levels of the mystery compound. (This suggests that there’s a minimum level of pigment that one must take in order to leave a hue, rather than a spirit or no ghost at all.) The files helpfully give the exact composition of the two sera. There’s a third formula in there as well – another sleeper serum, but with a mystery substance concentration much closer to that of the skimmer serum. It’s specifically associated with something called ‘Project Flatline’. That reference sets alarm bells ringing. Sure enough, a little digging strongly suggests that this was the project that resulted in the Marion Prison spooks. It just gets better and better. Cross-referencing with Tom, James discovers that Orpheus was getting its pigment directly from the Black Steel Centipede Triad. Apparently the two organisations had a ‘special arrangement’.
After some thought, Annie pulls up the files associated with Beta crucible and their activities.  Company gossip always said they got the shady jobs. If there’s incriminating information anywhere, it’s likely to be there. And it is. The files are a catalogue of espionage, sabotage and outright murder. They didn’t just operate domestically either – some of these assignments took place overseas. (There were actually quite a number of overseas operations, although the majority were still domestic.) Apparently, there was no job so black that it couldn’t be given to Beta crucible. The icing on the cake is that, according to Tom, the payments for all the really dodgy stuff came directly from the NSA account. Apparently, the NSA weren’t just in it for the research: they wanted (and got) their own spook black ops division.
It looks like this might be the find that lets them finally get the NSA off their backs. Assuming that the federal account code John found can actually be connected to the NSA, they can prove that the organisation was directly funding a plethora of criminal activities. It’s pretty damning stuff – easy to see why they’d be willing to kill to ensure it didn’t come out. They couldn’t be sure who within Orpheus knew what. The spooks were already looking into the chips – and not being overly quiet about it – who knew what else they might have come across? Safest just to mop up the stragglers before they can talk to the authorities. Come to think about it, Tom remembers being followed by various members of Beta crucible just he and Teresa started looking into the chips. Maybe that was at the request of the NSA. It makes sense they’d set their dogs the task of seeing what Tom and co. had managed to discover; perhaps silencing them if they knew too much. Yes, it’s all starting to make sense now. In any event, the information they have is easily enough to hand to the appropriate authorities. Once it’s out there, the NSA will have no further reason to want them dead. (Well, only personal reasons like revenge, but there isn’t a lot they can do about that.) The only thing left to decide is: who do they take this to?
While Annie, Tom and James pore over the data, Carlos has managed to arrange an informal meeting with Jude Forster of the DEA.  If this man is investigating pigment smuggling, then it’s in their interest to help him. Also it wouldn’t hurt to have a friend in the DEA. As their budget won’t really stretch to wining and dining at the moment, he invites the man out for coffee at Starbucks.
Carlos and Ben – who’s along for back up – arrive a little early. Ben takes his coffee and lurks in a corner, finding a position where he can keep an eye on the discreet booth Carlos has chosen for the assignation. Forster – a slight, African-American man – shows up right on time, looking around until he spots Carlos.  They greet each other. Forster has a firm handshake, but an overpowering one.
“Can I get you anything?” Carlos asks.
“Sure. I’ll have a grande latté, thanks.” They settle down with their drinks, Forster shooting Carlos a speculative glance. “So, what can I do for you? Your phone call piqued my interest, but it didn’t really tell me a whole lot.”
“We have a common interest.”
“Yes, you said.” Forster seems wary – not surprising for someone in his position.
“We’ve been investigating pigment as well.”
A raised eyebrow. “We?”
Forster narrows his eyes. “Why, precisely, is Phoenix interested in this? As far as I’m aware, this is a DEA investigation. Not a civilian one.”
“We have our own reasons for taking an interest in this. Let’s just say that your goals are our goals. And we’ve heard that you’ve been having... difficulties in achieving those goals.”
“What have you heard?”
“That you’re being blocked. That you’re running into certain, shall we say, systematic institutional problems.” Government speak for an in-house political conspiracy. Carlos has done his time – he knows the drill. He flashes Forster a wry, weary smile; sympathy between veterans of the game.  For a long moment, Forster considers his words. His face gives nothing away, but his shuttered expression is at odds with the restless tapping of his fingers on the table. He’s hooked alright: if he was going to dismiss Carlos out of hand, he wouldn’t be nearly so agitated. The moment passes. Reaching a decision, Forster leans forward, his entire posture transforming, an eager light in his eyes.
“I don’t know who’s blocking me,” Forster confides, “but whoever it is has enough pull to get me to back right the hell off. The orders are coming from my direct superiors, but they’re not the ones behind it. Someone else is pulling the strings.”
“It’s someone high up, most likely another agency applying pressure. I have my suspicions which one, but so far no proof.”
Forster snorts in disgust. “Politics.” He spits the word like a curse. “I’ve been told the order comes from the DHS. Apparently there’s a ‘conflict with an ongoing terrorism investigation’. Sounds like bullshit to me, but what can I do?” No one wants to get a reputation for being ‘difficult to work with’, especially when dealing with Homeland Security.
“We want to help you.”
“How?” The question isn’t confrontational – Forster simply wants to know what’s on offer.
“We can’t do anything about the red tape, but we do have... unconventional ways of finding things out.”
“If I could produce proof of pigment-related activity, whoever’s behind this cease and desist order would find it much harder to shut me down.”
“I understand you were focusing on the docks?”
“Yes. I tracked shipments to a particular warehouse.” He gives the address to Carlos, who carefully notes down the information. “I’ve done some research, and the warehouse is owned by a shell company that ultimately leads back to a pharmaceutical company called Terrel & Squib.”  Somehow, Carlos is completely unsurprised to hear that. I was organising the search warrants when I got the order to back off. That was a few weeks ago, now.” He sighs heavily. “I never got the chance to gather any proof – it’s all circumstantial at the moment.”
“Well, let’s hope that the necessary proof manages to reach you.”
Forster grins. “I’ll pray for it.”
“I’ve always believed that God helps those who help themselves.”
“Yeah, me too.” He stands, holding out his hand for Carlos to shake. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
“Here’s to our partnership.”
The shell company is in the business of pharmaceutical transport – not a big shock considering who owns it. This tells them that the warehouse likely contains lots and lots of drugs and chemicals. Finding pigment amongst all that may well be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. The other thing they need to consider is that the warehouse may be guarded by anti-spook security measures. In fact, it’s probably safest to assume that it is. So, they’re going to have to narrow the search down and avoid tripping any alarms or guard-spooks. The easiest way to achieve both of those is to steer clear of the warehouse altogether and instead focus on incoming and outgoing shipments.
Using a combination of the private investigator approach (including flashing PI licenses  for those that have them) and Shelley’s ability to retrieve electronic data, Carlos, James and Tom get hold of the shipping manifests for the past few weeks. (To obscure the fact that they’re specifically interested in Terrel & Squib, they also request a selection of records relating to other companies.) Examination of the records yields two obvious points of interest. First, the warehouse has been receiving a significant number of shipments from Columbia. (Extracts from the plant that Orpheus initially used, perhaps?) Second, none of these shipments have ever been examined by Customs personnel. Poring over the relevant Port Authority and Customs organisational charts, Annie surmises that such a systematic exclusion policy must be the result of pressure from above.  It’s not just a lowly inspector taking bribes – this is an executive policy decision. The question is: is this the result of official pressure from whoever’s blocking Forster’s investigation, or is someone at the top taking bribes. If it’s the latter – and they can prove it – that would be a good excuse to bring in the authorities.
The next shipment from Columbia isn’t due for another few weeks, so that gives them some time to plan how they’re going to approach the daunting task of locating the pigment among the hundreds of containers aboard the ship. Once they’ve found it, they also have to arrange for it to come to the attention of the Port Authority, the police or the press. They absolutely cannot involve Forster in this part, or it will smell like too much of a set up. He can’t afford for the people behind the shut-down to have any excuse to throw him off the case.
That night, Tom and James pay a visit to Neil Williams, the head Customs agent for the port in question. (Shelley retrieved the Williams’ home address.) Tom puppets him, looking for the reason why Terrel & Squib’s Columbian shipments appear to have been exempted from the usual search requirements. It transpires that those shipments have been flagged by the DHS as part of an ongoing investigation, and the Port Authority have been politely asked to leaved them alone. This has been going on since 2002 or so. A short while after 9-11, Williams was personally approached by someone from the DHS. He checked their credentials, and found everything to be in order. As for the actual ‘back off’ request – naturally, there is nothing in writing, as that runs the risk of blowing the operation. He simply makes sure – quietly – that no one touches those shipments. As far as Tom can tell, Williams is just an honest man doing his job. These days, that’s a real novelty.
Given the time until the next Columbian shipment, maybe they should focus on outgoing deliveries for the moment. It looks like this is going to be a good, old-fashioned investigation. Just like the old days.
 5 successes to find the warehouse, 1 to orient himself within the building and 2 to locate the security room. [Back]
 A successful [Perception + Alertness] roll to spot this. [Back]
 1 success. [Back]
 3 successes. [Back]
 Shortly after Tom finished his Orpheus training, he blacked out while practicing horrors in his apartment. The next thing he knew, he was standing on the pavement below, watching his apartment burn. At his request, Teresa used forebode to look back to the incident in question and determined that some kind of spark came from the telephone line and went into him, knocking him unconscious. While unconscious, something activated his witch’s nimbus and, as his apartment caught fire, walked him out of the building. Was this something done by CellTech, or did some other party hijack his chip? [Back]
 At this point the players made [Wits + Investigation] rolls, to represent the fact that the characters – who all have some investigative training – should be capable of making an informed choice between the two options. Tom got 2 successes, Annie 3 and James 4. The GM pointed out some of the pros and cons of the two choices. We decided to prioritise outgoings because we figured that tying the account to criminal activity would give us more leverage in the short term than simply tracing it back to the NSA. (That is: assuming that it does belong to the NSA. The circumstantial evidence is rather compelling, however.) [Back]
 He got 2 successes on the roll to find his target, when he needed 3. [Back]
 5 successes on this attempt. Deadwire is active for the scene, so he can jump from hither to yon as many times as he wants without having to spend any more vitality. [Back]
 At this point, the GM made a stealth roll for Tom. Following Annie’s botched forebode roll a few sessions back, we decided that it would be best if the GM made certain rolls for the players. Perception-based rolls are the obvious ones – if you as a player know you’ve failed or botched such a roll, there’s often a tendency to be more cautious than if you’ve succeeded, but spotted nothing. In this case, the secret roll represented the fact that Tom didn’t know if anyone was watching, and didn’t have any way of knowing whether he’d been spotted if they were. [Back]
 Before making the stealth roll for Tom, the GM made a roll to determine whether anyone was actually watching the feed from the spook cam in the man’s office. There was a 1 in 10 chance that they would be, and apparently we were unlucky. Tom’s stealth roll failed, so they managed to spot him as he was diving under the desk. [Back]
 Appearance 4. [Back]
 Herbert Mol is the BlackNet assassin who killed John Reeve shortly after the Orpheus attack. The others captured him and used him to fake their own deaths, ultimately handing him over to the FBI. (The people behind BlackNet weren’t fooled for long, of course. It was partly this that convinced the gang that the FBI’s computers had been compromised seven ways from Sunday.) [Back]
 Mona had been catching glimpses of a man in an orange jumpsuit as she attempted to scry the upcoming apocalypse. This man turned out to be Harper Forrester, one of the Marion Prison spooks. One day, he appeared before her and did something – she isn’t sure what – that left her consciousness stuck in the nightmarish vision. Her particular version of forebode lets her actually interact with the things she sees, a property that ended up being a distinct disadvantage in this case. The apocalypse proved to be a dangerous place, full of things that could – and did – kill her. Whenever she ‘died’ – an event she felt in excruciating detail – the scene reset to the beginning. She died a great many times before the Phoenix spooks managed to rescue her. [Back]
 Lots of successes on a [Intelligence + Linguistics] roll. Annie has Intelligence 4 (with the speciality Analytical, which applied here) and Linguistics 5, so she’s pretty good at this. [Back]
 Frank encountered Grace when he was poking around in Annie’s dreams, just before his disastrous attempt to get into Kate’s dreams via Teresa’s. The two dreamwalkers engaged in a duel of sorts, and then had a brief conversation. She told Frank that Terrel & Squib were their enemies and that they made the pigment. Naturally, Frank didn’t tell anyone about this meeting. Craig found out about it when he puppeted Frank to find out how he, Kate and Annie ended up in Teresa’s dreams. Annie vaguely remembers seeing Grace in her dream, but didn’t hear their conversation. [Back]
 The GM made [Perception + Empathy] rolls for Annie and Tom at this point. [Back]
 1 success on the [Charisma + Etiquette] roll to persuade his contact to do this for him. [Back]
 It belatedly occurs to me that the areas Forster is being prevented from investigating might well correspond to those used by Whole Earth Enterprises. We were pretty damn certain they were smuggling something, and we know they’re connected with the Marion Prison spooks. We also know that they’re happy to do business with Terrel & Squib. It would make a certain amount of sense for them to be connected to the pigment industry. Unfortunately, Annie wasn’t there during Tom’s conversation with Grace. Still, there’s always a chance the penny will drop if the locations do turn out to be the same. [Back]
 6 successes on the [Charisma + Etiquette] roll. [Back]
 Witch’s nimbus comes in two forms: fire or electricity. Tom tends towards the latter, although neither of them is really suitable for use near electronic equipment that they actually care about. The temperatures alone would probably cause irreparable damage, even before factoring in the effects of electrical surges. [Back]
 I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before – and I can’t be bothered to check – but while in swarm form, Annie doesn’t actually make an attack roll. Instead, she just has a damage dice pool, the size of which depends on the form she’s in. The assumption is that, if you surround someone, they are going to get hit. The question is: can you hit them effectively? The damage pool ranges from zero (non-biting insects) to seven (rodents of unusual size). She also gets an initiative bonus, again, depending on the form. Giant rats have around +6 or so. [Back]
 Don’t think we didn’t make Halflife jokes. [Back]
 Zero vitality witch’s nimbus. It doesn’t provide that much light, but it’s enough. More importantly, it shows up spooks, which is really all they need right now. [Back]
 Looking around to work out where we were and where the targets were took an action. If we hadn’t done that, we would have been firing blind, with very little chance of actually hitting anything useful. We didn’t want to delay for a whole round – losing our advantage of surprise – so we all split our actions. Unless using something like juggernaut to give yourself extra actions at no penalty, the first one loses dice equal to the total number of actions taken. Each action after that loses an additional die. We all had two actions this round, with the first at minus 2 and the second at minus 3. [Back]
 For ghosts – and sleepers – vitality is health. This has the advantage that they don’t take wound penalties and can simply turn willpower into vitality to pull their gauze back together again. The downside is that they’re effectively powering horrors with health, and they regain vitality really slowly compared to skimmers (1 vitality per full night’s rest, rather than 1 per hour). [Back]
 Ben takes three actions. Unfortunately, he fails the [Perception + Alertness] check on his first action and botches the next attempt on his second one. Without anyone or anything obvious to hit, he holds his third action. [Back]
 The player may be somewhat biased by the fact that Tom gained some Spite for executing helpless opponents. (They were NextWorld skimmers who’d left their bodies unattended while trying to wipe out the Phoenix spooks – he wasn’t exactly murdering innocent babes in their sleep.) Presumably, killing a bound prisoner would be somewhat similar. If we’d killed them outright, that could be justified as self-defence: they might have turned out to be a threat if not neutralised. Yes, it’s a little tenuous, but the distinction matters for the mechanics. [Back]
 Hues have cracked gauze, which won’t hold more than their maximum level of vitality. (Projectors and spirits can be ‘topped up’ to a maximum of 10, no matter what their usual limit is. Hues can never be ‘refilled’ beyond their natural limit.) Additionally, unlike spirits – whose default state is numbness – hues are in constant, low-level pain. [Back]
 2 successes on the [Intelligence + Investigation] roll. [Back]
 2 successes. [Back]
 5 successes, followed up by 2 successes on a [Wits] roll to get a hint from the GM about what might it be useful for her to focus on. [Back]
 5 successes on the [Charisma + Etiquette] roll. [Back]
 At this point, there was a long, rambling and very silly discussion about how the two men – who have never met – were going to recognise each other. In the interest of actually getting to the meeting, we decided that they’d sorted something out ahead of time. We’re not sure exactly what, but the details aren’t really that important. [Back]
 2 successes on a [Charisma + Etiquette] roll. [Back]
 The spook tech is just a sideline for Terrel & Squib. They started out as a pharmaceutical company, and that’s still their primary area of business. (Given Orpheus’ apparent dire financial straits, it’s possible that the pharmaceutical division is actually subsidising the spook research.) [Back]
 PI license is a background. It reduces the difficulty of relevant Investigation rolls by the background’s rating. This represents the fact that being able to flash the appropriate authorisation expedites the process of acquiring public records and documentation. [Back]
 5 successes on an [Intelligence + Bureaucracy] roll. [Back]