I have just finished reading Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John Pfaff. This book describes the growth of mass incarceration in the United States and describes a set of reform policies to reduce the prison population. In itself this is not unusual – the book takes as its launching point the political consensus in the USA that there is a need to “decarcerate” a large number of people – but this book presents a completely different set of causes of mass incarceration to the accepted story, and lays out a very different strategy for achieving real change. It also argues that the existing reform effort, while valuable, may actually sow the seeds of a long term failure to decarcerate, and risks normalizing a political framework that will be disastrous if crime rises again in America.

Pfaff defines the accepted causes of mass incarceration as the “Standard Story,” which argues that mass incarceration is driven primarily by three factors: the war on drugs[1], excessively long sentences, and private prisons. In the first few chapters he demolishes this story succinctly and using detailed statistics. Only 16% of all prisoners are in prison for drug crimes, and of these a large proportion probably were charged on drug crimes as an easier alternative to conviction for violent crimes; and releasing all of these prisoners would do almost nothing to shift the racial disparities in incarceration, because these disparities are universal. Indeed, since 1990 only 14% of new prison admissions were due to drug use, while 60% were for violent crimes. He then presents a wide range of evidence that prison sentences have not actually increased in length over the past 30 years in the USA: Increased prisoner numbers are due to increased admissions, not larger number of prisoners hanging around longer. Finally, Pfaff drags out the statistics on private prisons, to show that only 8% of US prisoners are in private prisons; and he argues that the lobbying efforts of private prisons are tiny compared to the lobbying efforts of prison guard associations, and from other interests that have greater influence in the zero-sum funding environment of state financing decisions in the USA (most private prison lobbying happens at the state level, where a dollar given to one interest is necessarily a dollar not given to another). In fact, throughout this book Pfaff regularly revisits the power of prison guard associations and lobby groups for prosecutors, and regularly makes the point that the USA’s mass incarceration problem is a catastrophe entirely wrought by public agencies on the public purse. Private prisons in the US might suck, and you might think it’s a bad or a weird idea, or that profiting from human misery is nasty, but they aren’t the cause of the problem.

Having demolished the “Standard Story”, Pfaff then goes on to explain what he thinks are the real causes of incarceration in the USA, which is a complex mish-mash of bad design, lack of political accountability, and public choices, against a backdrop of rapidly increasing crime rates. At the core of his story is the prosecutor. Prosecutors in the USA are the equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service in the Westminster system, but they are radically different from the CPS. They are generally elected in county (local) elections, and funded at this level, so they are answerable to only local political forces. They have complete discretion as to who to charge, how and with what crime, and they typically are supported by a police force that is funded at the county level. Prosecutors typically are always re-elected, and no incumbent ever suffers from being too harsh on crime. But the real problem is in two aspects of the deployment of their considerable discretion: Whether to charge for misdemeanour or felony, and what plea bargain to make. If a prosecutor charges someone with a felony, that person goes to prison (not jail! The US has some kind of weird distinction!) – but prisons are funded by the state, not the county. This means that there is no financial pressure on them not to send people to prison. But it is the state that makes the laws, and at the state level there is often political pressure to create new laws and increase maximum penalties for those laws. So in recent times the prosecutor has been gifted with a wide range of potential felonies that they can threaten suspects with, that carry very large maximum penalties that are unlikely to be enacted by the judge but sound terrifying to the suspect. This means that it is very easy for prosecutors to get suspects to make plea deals for low level felonies, and there is no local pressure for them not to, but at the next election they are most likely to be judged for successfully putting felons away. This increasing freedom and power has occurred at a time when numbers of prosecutors have increased rapidly, and public defenders – the service that the government supplies to suspects – are massively underfunded and often barely have the time to meet their clients, let alone to help them defend their case. Prosecutors are also notoriously defensive about their work, there is almost no data on what they do, and their representative organizations have enormous clout. These are almost always the people whose perspective you see on shows like Law and Order, Major Crimes, etc.: they are the completely unconstrained and unmonitored heroes of the judicial system, and in the past 30 years the proportion of all cases that they decide to recommend for felony charges has doubled, at the same time as the number of prosecutors has doubled, and crime rates have risen. This, Pfaff argues, is the root cause of the growth of mass incarceration.

But beyond this, Pfaff identifies a much more challenging and much more politically challenging aspect of the growth of mass incarceration, which is going to be very difficult to reverse. Most people in US prisons are in prison for real, serious crimes: 60% of the growth in prisoner numbers since 1990 was due to people imprisoned for violent crimes, and people convicted of the most serious violent crimes (murder, manslaughter, forcible sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery) take up a disproportionately large amount of prison space and prison time. Seriously reducing the US prison population is going to require that the US voter be comfortable with releasing these prisoners, and being less harsh on violent criminals in future. This is a very politically challenging project, and lies at the core of the reform process: If the US criminal justice system doesn’t find a way to deal differently with violent criminals, the prison population will never significantly decline. To his credit Pfaff makes a powerful and clear argument that from a human rights and a law enforcement perspective, more lenient sentences and better policing are the key to reducing crime and mass incarceration. I find his argument persuasive, but then I would, wouldn’t I? And if you don’t, then you have to accept that the US is going to have a very large number of prisoners, much larger than most other countries, and there is no solution to this problem.

Pfaff goes further, to point out that much of the rhetoric of the prison reform movement is antithetical to this ultimate goal. Many prison reform efforts are pushed as efforts to release low-level prisoners to make space for those who “truly deserve prison”, and even if this balance is not stated explicitly it is implicit in the argument that prison should be for violent crime. America is experiencing a period of declining violent crime at present, but if that should reverse then this logic of reform will be hard to reverse, and it will be hard to argue for more lenient sentences for violent criminals after years of arguing that prison is what these people deserve. Pfaff also points out that the last 10 years of prison reform efforts – which he argues have been supported by all sides of politics in the US – have shown very limited effect, and that this is primarily because they are focusing on a very small proportion of the US prison population (first time drug offenders) and that they need to move from these “low hanging fruit” to the real drivers of prison growth – and those who really suffer in this system – violent offenders.

Within this story there is a lot of other material to consider – this book is a short and well written work with a rich vein of material to consider. It certainly changed my view of the drivers of mass incarceration in the USA and the real reforms it needs. It also shocked me with how callous the US criminal justice system is, and how shambolic. In contrast to the UK, Japan or Australia, where the prison, police and legal systems are all relatively well organized around a single structure that coordinates well, the US system is fragmented and full of perverse incentives, all corrupted by the horrors of having public servants like prosecutors elected at the county level (shudder!) Pfaff also consistently returns to a discussion of how damaging prison is for inmates, their families and the communities they are drawn from, reminding the reader regularly that prison is a destructive experience for everyone involved, and he also reminds the reader regularly of the US electorates’ appetite for punishment. But the real challenge of this book is his focus on the need to treat violent offenders differently. He even challenges the concept of “violent offenders”, arguing that we should refer to them as “people who committed violent crimes”, and argues compellingly that our attitude to violent crime is completely wrong. This struck me because although I’m generally in favour of not sending people to prison for all the reasons Pfaff describes, I am just as prone as anyone else to demanding people be locked up (e.g. that was my first response to the Grenfell Tower fire) or to thinking a sentence isn’t harsh enough (as if I, someone who has never been to prison or spent any time as a free adult anywhere I didn’t want to be, could possibly comprehend whether a three year sentence is any less harsh than a five year sentence!). And Pfaff’s argument is pretty clearly that probably I, and most of the rest of us, have got it completely wrong on prison sentences – that a suspended sentence or a year or two is probably just as good a deterrent as five or ten years, but has significantly less social and economic cost.

If I had any complaints about this book it would be that although he talks about race a little he doesn’t go into a discussion of race in depth, a problem in the American context. Also, although he repeatedly describes the lack of financial disincentives to county prosecutors sending prisoners to state prisons, Pfaff doesn’t seem to draw the obvious extra lesson here – that county prosecutors might have strong disincentives to send people to county jails, which have much less serious ramifications for their inmates than state prisons. In avoiding a full confrontation with the issue of race, and not fully drawing out all the implied pressures on prosecutors, Pfaff manages to miss the obvious possible extension argument underlying the points he makes: that a lot of prosecutors may well be cruel, racist arseholes, and that a root-and-branch reform of the entire prosecutorial system may be in order. But this is a common problem when confronting Americans’ assessments of their own problems, whether its Bernie Sanders or the gun control movement or Black Lives Matter: The American political system is rotten to its core, and it is going to take a lot more than a few piecemeal changes to parts of it to fix the huge problems lurking at its base. We’ve just passed the 4th July, so it’s probably worth reminding my American reader(s): you could ask the UK to take you back, you know. For all its flaws, the UK’s democracy is vastly superior to yours. You’ll have to give up your guns and you may have to learn to shut up occasionally, but in exchange you’ll get a functioning democracy. Think about it!

Anyway, jokes aside, this is a great book, a truly enlightening exposition of one of America’s great problems. If you are interested in drug decriminalization and have always assumed that this issue is at the heart of America’s prison problems, or if you are generally concerned about the way America needs to reform its criminal justice system to become a better country, then this book is a must read. It’s well written, well argued, dry but not exhausting, and compassionate towards the people at the core of the story: the prisoners, who by now are a large proportion of America’s population. If you care about the human rights of all people, regardless of what you might think of their worth as individuals, then this book is a compelling read. I recommend it to anyone interested in this important topic.


fn1: this is often characterized on the left and by libertarians as “the war on (some classes of people) who use (some classes of) drugs” but this book makes it very clear that the prejudice in the criminal justice system extends across the board, and that singling out one class of crimes (drug crimes) as a cause of racial disparities in incarceration won’t work, because the same racial disparities exist across all laws.

I curate my Facebook feed very carefully so that it contains only nice things. It’s possible that my Facebook feed is the only one remaining on planet earth that still regularly gets cute cat videos in it. I prune my content regularly, and in particular I make sure that I hide or defriend people who regularly clog my wall with nastiness, internecine spats, or heavy quantities of political material (of any persuasion). One of my key considerations for whether to hide/defriend is whether the content a friend puts up regularly shocks me or creates a sudden feeling of discomfort when I see it. I guess, if it triggers me. Usually this is things like people putting up political material that features torture or animal cruelty, people who spam my feed with inspirational pictures, and people who regularly say or upload things that heap scorn on others. By ferociously following this principle, I manage to make sure that my Facebook is a world of happiness and light. But sometimes things still slip through that shock me or make me uncomfortable, and one regular occasional event on my Facebook feed is one of my female friends approvingly posting a Celeste Barber picture.

If you aren’t familiar with Celeste Barber’s work you can read about it in this Guardian profile, and you can see some more pictures here. Basically, she’s a frumpy 30-something (?) woman who takes “real-life” versions of models’ PR pictures and posts them alongside the original pictures on Instagram. For example, a model might take a carefully posed shot of herself “falling” out of bed, and Celeste will take an equivalent shot intended to show her “ordinary” equivalent of this posed shot. Some of these are cute, like the one where she mimics a model sitting in her underwear holding grapes, but Celeste is holding a wine bottle – this makes a nice juxtaposition between the perfect and the everyday. Others rightly take the piss out of some of the extremely silly poses that these Instagram models take (the model falling out of bed, for example). But a lot of them just seem to be making fun of these models simply for making a living by being models, or in some way mocking them for being prettier and more posed than real women.

It’s not clear to me what Barber is actually trying to achieve with these pictures. For example, when she takes a picture of herself in a wet t-shirt and juxtaposes it with a picture of a model in a wet t-shirt, what is she trying to say? Sure, her picture looks slightly silly and stupid and reminds us that standing around in wet t-shirts looking sultry is not what women normally do during their day. But the point of a model’s Instagram feed is that it is not normal – that they are presenting an image of perfection and of things outside the everyday, that we admire and look up to. The point of models is that they don’t look like us, and the idea of a model’s Instagram feed is to showcase her beauty and the best photographs depicting it. Most model’s Instagram feeds are feeds of professional shots, that they may have taken a long time setting up and preparing for – this is why they’re models. If the point of Barber’s photos is to show that models take posed photos that aren’t natural, it’s kind of vapid. We all know that.

But I don’t think this is the point of Barber’s project. I think she aims to mock the standards of beauty that these models represent and embody, more than the silly poses they are adopting. This is why actually many of her photos are piss-takes of relatively unposed pictures of models – that is, the model’s picture is obviously from a photoshoot, but she’s not doing anything super weird or super silly, she’s just being pretty in a picture. Some (like the Zayn Malik lover shot or the doorway yoga thing) could be construed as making fun of the extreme lengths that people go to get a good shot on Instagram[1], but many can only be interpreted as mocking the models themselves. They attempt to show that the models are doing something wrong by contrasting them with what an ordinary person looks like in the same position. She herself says

I get a little miffed with fashionista people thinking that they are much better than other people because they are very slim and have architect husbands and get to wear free stuff

But is this all she’s doing, popping the bubbles of these “fashionista people”? I think this statement artificially conflates being beautiful with being better, which models and fashion people don’t necessarily agree with (I’m friends with one or two models who don’t think like this at all, though I’m friends with one who probably does). She also says she’s campaigning against how the media presents images of women. But is this what she’s doing? Because what she appears to actually be campaigning against is how models present images of models. Is she saying that she herself should be considered as beautiful as these women? If so, how come she uses her photos of herself to mock these women?

I think what Celeste Barber is actually trying to say here is that feminine beauty – or the aspiration to feminine beauty – is wrong, and that it is not possible for ordinary people to be feminine and beautiful. I think she is mocking the ideal of femininity itself. This is why her photos only target female models – she doesn’t, for example, take aim at the ludicrous poses male underwear models carefully adopt, or at the over the top presentation of masculinity and machismo in many male sports and film stars. She isn’t alone in this – our society has a strong undercurrent of scorn for femininity and feminine beauty, presenting it as something that can’t be trusted, a mask or veil over who a woman really is. I think Barber is expressing this undercurrent of hatred. She’s saying that real women, in the privacy of their own homes, in their underwear, are not feminine at all, that femininity is just a mask they pull on to impress others, and that it’s not real or valid, and these models’ instagram feeds full of perfect images of femininity need to be torn down in this way because femininity itself is a problem. If she were trying to present a model of accessible feminine beauty she wouldn’t be mocking these feeds, but trying to reinterpret them in some more viable way. But she’s not – she’s laughing at them.

I think this is an example of how some feminists have internalized a deeply misogynistic undercurrent in our society. There is a valid critique to be made of unrealistic representations of and expectations of women and women’s beauty, but this critique doesn’t have to throw femininity and feminine beauty out entirely. But this is what people like Barber do. This is why she doesn’t mock firemen’s nude calendars, or bodybuilder’s poses, which are just as ludicrously set up and unrealistic. These are okay, because masculinity and masculine beauty is considered to be healthy and real in our society. This is why we have a special qualifier for masculinity that has gone off the rails (“toxic masculinity”) but “feminine” is itself the special qualifier for ordinary social practices gone wrong (“feminine wiles”). Femininity is seen as an entirely negative thing, which if it is a deep-seated part of a woman’s character is purely a flaw – weak, diffident, vain and shallow – while if it is surface deep, is deceptive and untrustworthy. There is no model of femininity in mainstream society that is considered to be healthy, acceptable and good for a woman to adopt. We don’t talk about “toxic” femininity, because our society sees all femininity as poisonous. This is why feminists will share Barber’s mocking pictures on Facebook – because they think they’re saying something real about the way the media depicts women, when actually what they’re doing is channeling an age-old hatred of how women present themselves and who women really are.

Obviously someone like Barber isn’t going to have much effect on the adult feminists who share her pictures on my feed. But I wonder what impact this kind of material has on young women and girls growing up in our increasingly macho and competitive society. They’re told from all sides that being feminine is wrong, and presented with a world where the only valid form of beauty is masculine beauty, preferably achieved as a by-product of some serious activity (like sports, or soldiering, or firefighting), that beauty as an end in itself is wrong and that feminine beauty is bad for them and femininity is bad. But many women and girls want to be feminine and want to express their femininity through the kind of models of beauty that we see in these Instagram feeds (this is why these feeds are so popular – they aren’t getting all those followers from men). Then their feminist role models – the women who tell them it’s okay to want to work, that you can be anything you want to be, that no one can stop a girl chasing her dreams – put up pictures telling them that any aspiration to feminine beauty or any kind of construction of beauty at all (posing, make up, dream images) is wrong, and sexist. I think this must be hard on young women and I think that feminists watching Barber and reading this kind of thing need to consider the impact they’re having on young women and what space of beauty they leave open for young women to explore. I think that feminists should also consider whether their reaction to models of feminine beauty is first and foremost about whether they’re bad for women, or whether it’s a kneejerk, visceral response in a misogynist christian culture to the very concept of femininity itself. And is this a good thing?

I’ve been in Asia for 11 years now and one thing I have noticed since I left the Christian world and moved to a pagan country is that Asians have different expectations and views of both masculinity and femininity. In particular, they have no cultural attachment to the story of the fall, of the deceptive serpent and the woman who lures the man into sexual knowledge. As a result both masculine and feminine appearance and manners are seen as a much more natural and uncomplicated part of who humans are, and in my experience people in Asia have a much more comfortable relationship with women’s beauty and feminine behavior. I think this is something western people could learn from, and I think in particular western feminism could learn that instead of rejecting femininity and feminine beauty and reacting against it as a terrible expression of female repression, it should be seen as a natural part of who women are, and just as valid a form of expression of gender difference as anything else. It’s clear that many women in the west want to be like the models they idealize, but they grow up in a world where they’re told in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, shallow, or even self-hating to feel this way. But these women’s desires and ideals are not a construction – they’re a real and deep part of who these women are. The kind of mocking that Barber is performing, and the general social acceptance it has in the west, does not help young women to grow up into a stronger model of beauty and better gender relations. It just puts them down. Western feminism needs a better relationship with female beauty if it wants to reform this aspect of gender relations in a way that ordinary women are actually comfortable with, and western feminism needs a more critical understanding of its own assumptions and the role of Christian misogyny in constructing modern feminist attitudes, if it really wants to make a better world for western women. Which could start with not mocking girls who want to be pretty!


fn1: Which, btw, what’s wrong with this and what is up with the constant negative carping about how “fake” Instagram is. Instagram is a site exclusively for sharing photographs. Why would you not go to great lengths to take a good photograph for Instagram?

Gank it!

Gettin’ robbed, Gettin’ stoned
Gettin’ beat up, Broken boned
Gettin’ had, Gettin’ took
I tell you folks
It’s harder than it looks
It’s a long way to the top
If you wanna rock ‘n’ roll

Our heroes stood in the smoking ruins of the abandoned railway platform, the two surviving gangbangers on their knees before them. As they took stock one of the two shuddered and passed out, all his remaining energy draining out of him as the combat drugs he had taken wore off. The other sat quietly on the ground, waiting his fate. Adam busied himself healing John and Jayden, and then while John kept an eye on their prisoner Jayden and Adam shuffled down the platform. At the far end they found a construction zone, separated from the platform itself with a temporary wall covered in DO NOT ENTER signs. The wall was riddled with bullet holes and the door hanging ajar, possibly broken open with a grenade. From inside they could hear heavy breathing and muttering. Assuming this must be Anansie, Adam called out a greeting and they cautiously entered the construction area.

They found Anansie behind an upturned cabinet, seriously injured and leaking from multiple bullet wounds beneath his armoured vest. Adam healed the worst of the damage and they helped him out of the room. As they passed the unconscious gang banger Anansie casually shot him in the head, but they managed to convince him not to waste the last survivor. Moving slowly under the burden of prisoners and injuries, they emerged from the underground into light evening rain, Jayden supporting Anansie and John escorting the gang banger. They all slumped against the nearest wall while Anansie put in a call to “a guy I know,” who turned up very soon after in a spacious van with tinted windows and menacing corners. Everyone piled in and they headed to Jayden’s apartment.

Jayden’s apartment was a shabby little one room carved out of a storage tank in an old water purification plant near the industrial end of Havensport. The water purification plant was no longer used for its original purpose, and its standing water towers had been converted into cheap apartment blocks. Piles of shipping crates had been stacked between them, and people lived in those too, though that lifestyle was barely better than squatting and Jayden, though dirt poor, still had the scrip to elevate himself above them. His room was one of a block of four that had been set up in the rear half of one of the water towers, walled off from each other with cheap drywall and opening onto the front third of the tower, which formed a kind of common area and laundrette. Rickety stairs wound around the tower and into this common area, which they trooped through armed and pushing their prisoner without attracting even a passing glance from the other residents. Either the residents were used to Jayden’s line of work, or they were all into the same business. Inside his room Jayden flung open the windows, revealing a view of looming chemical refraction towers, gestured for people to sit where they could, warned them away from the damp and mould on one wall, and handed around beers. The refreshing sound of cans opening set them all to relaxing, and after a moment to savour a cold beer after a hot day’s work, they all turned to look at their prisoner.

He was remarkably forthcoming, and told them all he knew. The Red Hand gang had a job out on Anansie, they didn’t know why, but all the lowest level squads were out looking for him. Their squad had been directed to his safe house by a higher up in the gang, a woman called Fay, but when they got there they found Anansie gone and the dwarf hacker and the orc dead. So they left, but later they got word that Anansie had been seen and they tracked him to the disused subway station. They went after him and were in the middle of the battle when suddenly their leader got a call – the prisoner doesn’t know who from but guesses it was Fay – warning them that the PCs were incoming. And just when they were about to complete the hit too! And the rest, as they say, was history. He couldn’t tell them why the Red Hand had a job out on Anansie, he was too low down the food chain to learn that kind of info, but no hard feelings and could they maybe see their way to letting him go?

They did, Jayden giving him a quiet word about bygones being most certainly bygones before kicking him out the door. Anansie then filled them in on some of the details. Havensport is the turf of a rival Triad, the Golden Dragon, and the Red Hand usually restrict their activities to a different part of New Horizon, but recently they had been mounting raids into Havensport and causing trouble for the Golden Dragon. Anansie is just a fixer, but he has it in mind to start working for the Golden Dragon too, or at least operating with their license in their Havensport turf, but to get such a market position he needs to present himself to the Golden Dragon leadership and he needs to be carrying a strong letter of introduction. His plan had been to form a team of independent runners and send them in to bust up a Red Hand drug factory that had been set up in Golden Dragon turf, and present its destruction to the Golden Dragon as his letter of introduction. Unfortunately the hacker and the street samurai he had intended to be in the team had been slaughtered by some kind of maniac when they came to his safe house, and he had been forced to run when he found the mess, which was why he had not been able to make it to his meeting with the PCs. His plan had been to offer the PCs to join the team he was assembling, and although his plan had been partially derailed by the killing of the hacker and the samurai, he was still up for doing it now before word of his inquiries into the drug gang got out. Would the PCs still be willing to do the raid? They would need to act quickly, because eventually the drug makers would learn of his interest, but if they acted in the next day or two they would surely have surprise on their side.

They asked a few probing questions. The drug makers were a gang under the control of a psychotic dwarven fire mage called Hui. Anansie did not know exactly where they were, but he had narrowed it down to a block of buildings up against the old section of New Horizon superstructure that separates Havensport from the Kwun Tong industrial district. He would pay them 12,000 nuyen as a group to go in, bust up the group, kill Hui and deliver all the drugs and gear to him. They would need to spend some of that on a hacker to help find the exact location, since the hacker he had intended to hire was dead. Once the job was done he would put in a good word for them with the Golden Dragon, so it would be a job with more than just financial benefits.

They agreed. They all needed the money, and none of them seemed particularly unhappy at the idea of busting Red Hand gang bangers after their recent run-ins. With that, Anansie gave them what info he had and disappeared into the night, leaving them to set up their run. Over the next day they acted fast, assembling gear and hiring a hacker to do a more detailed scout of the area they needed to go to. They also hired a getaway driver with a decent vehicle, and got their hacker to break into a cheap van they could use to get close. This took them longer than they thought, so they were only ready to go in on the second night after they rescued Anansie.

In a stroke of good fortune, that same afternoon a storm swept in over New Horizon from the sea, and their approach was cloaked in blinding rain squalls and darkness, the streets empty of bystanders or witnesses. They had found the factory in a building that rested right up against the border wall with Kwun Tong, a huge remnant fragment of the original New Horizon super structure that loomed over the area’s four- and six-storey buildings. This wall was honeycombed with tunnels and roads and even old building structures, and relatively easy for them to move through undetected. Once they reached the building next to their target Adam levitated them down onto the rooftop and they took up positions. John used his low light and thermographic vision to scan the rooftop of the drug house, finding a single guard standing desultorily in the rain. There was only one door onto the rooftop, and their brief reconnaissance of the building itself suggested that the floor below the rooftop was abandoned, with most activity happening on the lower two floors.

Jayden leapt across the gap between the buildings onto the roof of the drug house, and crept up behind the guard while John took aim. Their plan was simple: kill the guard and go down the stairs. John fired, killing the guard with a single shot, and Jayden drifted over to his body to check for access cards and other details. He dragged off a lanyard with a swipe card, and also cut off one of the guy’s fingers just in case they needed prints to get in, and was just moving towards the door to the stairs when Adam Lee, using his magical sight, saw a magical alarm trigger, and something come rising up through the building. The guard had been rigged to give a signal if he died, and the fire wizard had conjured up a fire elemental to clear the rooftop!

It appeared moments later, roaring to steaming life as it manifested right in front of Jayden, but thanks to Adam’s warning they were ready. John shot the thing, and Jayden was able to dodge its first attack. He struck back, but instead of doing any damage found himself engulfed with fire wherever his knife sunk in. He fell back, dodging a second attack, and let John destroy the beast with a second shot from his rifle. The creature disappeared screaming into the abyss, and the rooftop went quiet. Jayden, seriously injured just from standing near the elemental, ran back to Adam’s side, where he was healed, before running over to again take cover behind the door onto the rooftop. John took aim at the doorway and they waited.

They did not have to wait long before a team of men spilled onto the rooftop. The battle was short and brutal, with John picking off fighters from the next building over as Jayden moved amongst them, stabbing and hacking. When Hui emerged, steaming and hurling fire bolts, all three of them focused their fire on him and took him down before he could harm them. Jayden made sure the unconscious mage was permanently out of combat, Adam used his levitation magic to throw a guard over the edge, and the final guard gave up and fell to his knees begging for his life. With the benefit of surprise, darkness, the storm and John’s phenomenal sniper rifle they had made short work of six goons, a fire elemental and an insane dwarven fire mage. They collected themselves, gathered what information they could from their sole surviving enemy, and prepared to head down into the drug den …

Not just a pretty face

He’s a ghost, he’s a god,
he’s a man, he’s a guru
You’re one microscopic cog
in his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by
his red right hand

A wizard, a cyborg and a black man walk into a bar …

  • Adam Lee: A human mage, Korean background, always smartly dressed in a suit and tie, a smooth talker whose negotiation is backed up by an arsenal of arcane tricks
  • John: An elf sniper, heavily cyber-augmented, a long-range killer with limbs of steel and a heart of stone
  • Jayden Roose: Human adept, a drifter, a tribesman from the far south with nowhere to go and nowhere to be

They came to the bar looking for a man called Anansie, a Somalian living in New Horizon who had a job for them. New Horizon is full of people passing through, living unregistered in the shadows between the giant industrial sectors of the harbour, squatting in the walls of the giant canal that cut through the heart of what once, 50 years earlier, was a stunning megalopolis that sprawled over old Hong Kong, and its surrounding seas. The Awakening was said to have started here, when a great dragon of steel and concrete tore itself free from the wastelands on the edge of the city and triggered the rising of the Sixth World. The dragon is long gone, leaving a fractured city in its wake, but where there is mana there is life, and now the city has been repopulated and (mostly) healed over its old scars, though the landscape is new. Arasaka, the great Japanese company that was in a war with Militech and Goliath at the time of the Awakening, grew in power in the chaotic aftermath of the tragedy, and formed a new corporate Shogunate in Japan that rose to its apotheosis with giddying speed and frightening brutality. Where the old Shogunate spawned Feudal lords the Arasaka Shogunate gave birth to subservient companies, great mercantile beasts like Shiawase and Renraku, that owed Arasaka fealty but fought with each other for all the profits they could glean from this new order. New Horizon rebuilt, spread over the old crash zones and recolonized the deserted and shattered outer regions of New Horizon, reconstituting them as floating corporate arcologies and free industrial zones.

The flotsam of a thousand nations came ashore on New Horizon’s outlying Arcologies and trade zones, people drawn to the promise of freedom and wealth from countries newly riven by Awakening, mana storms, metahuman strife, communal violence, war and pestilence. Anansie was just such a person, a fixer and petty criminal in over his head who needed protection from someone or something. So it was that Adam, John and Jayden found themselves in the bar in Havensport, on the eastern edge of New Horizon, waiting for Anansie to arrive and offer them payment for their strength and magic.

But Anansie didn’t come. He wasn’t the unreliable kind, certainly not when business was ready to be done, and after a half hour of waiting their bar maid started to worry. This was Anansie’s business, and he was always there to meet his contacts – perhaps something had happened. The characters pushed her – had someone been looking for him? Was he in trouble? Perhaps whatever he needed protection from had got to him before he had time to secure their help. She remembered that earlier that day a dwarven hacker and an orc had come in looking for him, then left suddenly when the dwarf received a message. Had they found him? In a flush of worry she told them where Anansie usually holed up in the local area, and they left to find him. They all needed the work, and who knew – if he was already up to his neck in trouble maybe they could negotiate a better payment.

Havensport’s central feature is a massive shopping arcade, perhaps three or four kilometers long, as wide across as a shopping mall at its best parts and as narrow as an alleyway in its dingiest moments. Sprawling over multiple levels, its walls were lined with stalls and shops intermingled with squats, rundown tenements, huge advertising hoardings, car parks and recruiting offices for shipping companies and mercenaries. The locals called it Golden Gai, though no one knew why anymore – any glint of gold had long since rubbed off the shoddy facade of its workshops and tenements, and now it was just a dripping, corroding network of grubby shops connected by a single, tangled walkway and an equally complex tangle of ephemeral allegiances, networks and deals. Anyone who was anyone had a shop front on Golden Gai, and anyone who did business in Havensport – or with the trade that passed through it – had an office in one of the alleys and gantries that wove through and around the ‘Gai. The PCs took those alleys from their bar, down to the Golden Line on the Metro and two stops along to Joystone Path station, a ramshackle little nowhere stop that spilled its metro passengers out into a grubby section of markets and seafood stalls that had obviously seen better days. They took a narrow series of rickety switchbacks up through steaming noodle stores and overcrowded tenements onto the Golden Gai, which at this part of its serpentine route was a rainwashed open expanse of low-rent single story houses and brothels clustered around a series of fresh food markets that were open to the constant rains that swept in off the murky waters of the South China Sea – the roofing that covered many parts of Golden Gai had partially collapsed here, and whatever creaking architecture of interpersonal agreements, family deals and gangland extortionates covered this part of the ‘Gai had never managed to come to terms on how to replace it.

Anansie’s block was recessed into the seaward side of the ‘Gai, entrances to individual apartments suspended in the air above the ‘Gai and connected to the ground through a complex hanging garden of stairs and ladders. Anansie’s apartment was on the street level, the door nestled in amongst the scaffolding and stepways of the other apartments. But now it stood open, and a crowd had gathered. As they approached they could see the telltale red and blue flashing lights of a local security company’s warning poles, and a uniformed guard lounging idly in front of his open door, clear signs of trouble. They pulled back into the shadow of a pistol vending machine and Adam signalled for them to guard him. His eyes turned a neon blue and he sagged against the vending machine as his clairvoyance spell took hold.

Adam’s vision drifted through the doorway and into Anansie’s house, where he found a scene of brutal murder. The dwarf hacker and the orc lay dead inside the first main room of the house, both of them brutally stabbed in the back by what looked like claws or maybe cyber rippers. Their blood pooled on the floor around them but was also splattered over the walls and ceiling of that room. Someone had ambushed them as they entered the room, and they had had no chance. The room itself and Anansie’s bedroom and study had been ransacked, turned over by people looking for something. Whatever they sought had not been large, because the raiders had slashed open cushions and the mattress of the bed looking for it. Drugs? Data? Guns? In his brief disembodied search of the house Adam could not tell, but he did catch sight of a data disk with “CON data” written on it, that had been missed by the intruders and lay discarded on the ground behind a desk. Perhaps whoever searched the house knew they had little time, or their search had been interrupted by the dwarf and the orc. Or perhaps the dwarf and the orc had been the ones searching, and had been interrupted halfway through by a savage killer emerging behind them…

Adam returned to his body with a start and told the others. Then he sauntered over to the door of the apartment to speak to the cop. He spun him a story that his girlfriend had been at the house earlier hint hint, and he needed to find out if she was safe – could he have a quick look round just to see? A tall story delivered smoothly with a small bribe and he was in, though only for the briefest of circuits through the house – enough time to palm the data disc and get out. While he was inside John retreated to a gantry overlooking the whole area, so that he could maintain a clear shot on anyone causing trouble, and Jayden scanned the area for possible belligerents. He soon noticed an Asian woman in combat ready gear who stood in the crowd looking too carefully at the building, and checking her commlink regularly. Fragments of a tattoo sticking out over the neckline of her shirt suggested a red hand tattoo on her back – a gangbanger? When Adam emerged from the apartment he and Jayden sidled over to her for a chat.

They soon found out this woman, Fay, was no disinterested observer. She claimed that she was one of Anansie’s many jilted lovers, a girl he had never called back, and she had come to the scene of the betrayal this evening to confront him and maybe slap him for his rudeness, but had instead found the bodies of the dwarf and orc and made a quick call to the local security franchise. Now she was standing around to see if he came back, so she could administer that slapping. When she found out that the PCs had intended to work with Anansie she told them that she thought she might have seen some other people who had been with the orc and the dwarf, and maybe knew where they went. If they promised to let her have her turn at slapping Anansie when they found him she would take them to the people she had seen leaving the scene. Adam was sure she was not telling the whole story but they had nothing else to go on so they decided to trust her and see where her story took them. They set off along the ‘Gai.

They soon found a man who Fay told them was one of those who had been at the apartment. He was lounging on the edge of a busy vegetable market a few hundred metres down the ‘Gai, looking like he was minding his own business but probably keeping an eye on the road for pursuers. They tried to sidle up to him but he caught sight of them and tried to run. Jayden chased him and caught him, but he leapt over a barricade on one side of the ‘Gai and down to a lower level. Jayden followed, making a huge leap that took him past the place where his target fell, landing with a roll and coming quickly and smoothly to his feet facing the landing spot. The man had fallen into a ramshackle market stall, collapsing its plastic and tarpaulin roof and scattering its wares. The Aunty who ran the stall was stood back yelling at a pile of tarp and plastic in rage. Jayden marched in and hauled back the tarp, to find the man struggling bloodied to his feet, a pistol in his right hand. The man fired on Jayden, who dodged the shot and cut him down with one hard blow from his knife. As the Aunty staggered back from her bloodied stall and Adam and John popped their heads over the barrier up above, Jayden quickly and expertly searched the body. He found nothing but a gun and some body armour, but then he noticed that Aunty was putting in a comms call to someone, probably local enforcers. He decided to strip the body and began piling loot onto the stall’s counter – a gun, a 100 nuyen cred stick, some body armour. Seeing what he was doing, Aunty canceled her call and came over to him, yelling that he would pay for this and he better have enough money. He kept looting the body until he had assembled about 1200 nuyen of resalable booty, at which point she patted him on the shoulder and told him what a good young man he was.

It was then that Jayden saw the body had a red hand tattoo on its back. The same tattoo as Fay, who had somehow managed to make herself scarce during the fight. Was this a trap? He asked Aunty about the tattoo and she told him this man was a member of a gang that had been causing a bit of trouble recently, and they had got in a fight with a black man a short while ago. Two black men in one day! She was going to steer clear of their like from now on, it’s bad enough that you see one black man getting in a gunfight, let alone having another fall out of the sky into your shop. No offense, of course.

That barghest took my baby!

None taken. They dumped the body and headed in the direction of the fight, now keeping a wary eye out for Fay. Their path led them through an alleyway where they were attacked by a Barghest, but they managed to scare it off without anyone getting hurt, and continued on their way to the location of the gunfight. This turned out to be the entrance of a disused railway station, Trimanifest Field, on the old Awakening Line that had been closed before its maiden run because of intense mana disruptions at some parts of the line. Not the best place to go unprepared, but what can you do? In any case they would not be fully unprepared – Adam could reconnoitre without showing himself at all. He sat down in the shadow of an old advertising hoarding and slid off into Astral space.

When he returned he had all the information they needed. There was an escalator down to the platform, which was lined with transparent plastiglass walls to stop people falling on the tracks, and on that platform were five mundane people, four of whom might perhaps be attempting to kill the fifth. If they got down there quickly they might find that fifth man was Anansie – and what better time to negotiate an improved protection deal than when your potential employer most needs you? They sneaked down the stairs.

The sneaking did not go so well, and by the time Jayden reached the platform they knew he and John were there, though they missed Adam. While Adam and John hung back on the disused escalator Jayden stepped forward to try and negotiate. There were four men visible on the first half of the platform – three humans and a big, nasty looking orc. As they emerged Jayden noticed the orc finish snorting something from a capsule and drop it on the ground – combat drugs. All of them had a wild, twitchy look, the kind of look gangbangers get when they’ve been going hard on the cram. Not the most reasonable people to negotiate with, but still. Adam tried asking them what they were doing and if they had his employer bailed up at the far end of the platform but they refused to talk, telling him instead that he had better go. Things just got worse from there, and before they really had time to make a plan Adam was hurling a manaball down the platform, and the orc was throwing a grenade back at them.

The manaball wreaked havoc on three of the men, and Jayden was able to scoop up the grenade and boot it back down the platform in a smooth footy move before entering melee with a stunned ganger. The orc had to clear out of the blast zone and scuttled straight into battle with Jayden, while the remaining two guards tried to shoot down John and Adam. One hit Adam, who ducked out of sight to heal himself, but the battle didn’t go so well for the others after that. Jayden cut the orc down and John blew away one of the other gangers, and nearly killed a third before they finally surrendered. They dragged them down the platform away from the body of the orc and started asking pointed questions. What was the red hand? Why were they after Anansie? Where was Anansie? The gangers spluttered and blabbered, and told their story …

Save

Awoken!

 

Standing at the limit of an endless ocean
Stranded like a runaway, lost at sea
City on a rainy day down in the harbour
Watching as the grey clouds shadow the bay
Looking everywhere ’cause I had to find you
This is not the way that I remember it here
Anyone will tell you its a prisoner island
Hidden in the summer for a million years

Things have not gone well for Australia’s Aborigines in the 70 years since the apology. Not because the government did or didn’t do what they had to do but because in the years that followed Australia became a banana republic. The world moved on from the oil age, and by 2077 Australia was a relic of a bygone era, a nation of miners and farmers in a world of virtual business and infinite energy. Successive governments, held in thrall to the big resource companies, rich farmers and an agrarian socialist rump, consistently missed the chance to seize on the enormous wealth of the Lucky Country: they missed the solar boom that made energy virtually free for everyone; they missed the asteroid mining industry that jump started a new decade of economic expansion but left terrestrial resource economies staggering in their own dust; they missed the chance to profit from the growth of offshore arcologies and the new Green Revolution. By 2077 the nation had been reduced to a corrupt kleptocracy, a rump of hard scrabble miners and farmers in the interior scraping by where and how they could in the wreckage of the resource economy, while on the coasts a cheap service industry bloomed around elite corporate arcologies and gated holiday homes while the advanced industry of the early millenium moved offshore and disappeared. Cities crumbled, migration slowed, the smartest young people left, and Australia floundered, a land of 1950s ideas squatting in the shadow of 2050s neon.

Then came the Awakening, when the ancient spirits of the world’s First Nations were ripped from their aeons of slumber and returned to the earth. The Awakening rolled over Australia’s Aboriginal people like a wave of enlightenment, affecting them more perhaps than any other indigenous community. Everyone and their Aunty knew someone who had discovered new powers, and the old tribes found themselves surrounded by powers and spirits they had not known since the Dreamtime. It was pure, too, in a way that signified some ancient difference in this ancient people: While the Awakening tore through the bodies of white people on the coasts, ripping them apart and reconstituting them as Orcs, Trolls and Elves, almost no Aboriginal person Awoke as a metahuman. Instead they just … Awoke. Shamans, mages, adepts … every tribe and family suddenly found themselves suffused with the knowledge of the Dreamtime, and the spirits of that time walked the deserts and scrublands where once stockmen and mining companies had their way.

Jayden Roose Awoke in this time, and found answers to questions that had always bothered him. Jayden was a knockabout man, a typical country bloke making his way in this new rough and ready world. He left school … sometime back then … and since then has worked where and how he can: driving cars and trucks for mining companies, helicopters on the big stations, pearl diving in the summer and sometimes working as a tourist guide or a hunter when times were lean. He worked offshore at the crumbling, rusting gas rigs, and then in the dry season moved to Darwin to work as a security guard at clubs and brothels, sometimes mixing in with gangsters or providing private security to the shadier visitors to that wild northern city. Over time he became better at these security jobs, an almost supernatural sense of danger working to protect him even in gangland ambushes or when tense negotiations went wrong. He also found a natural affinity for working with knives, and despite only peripheral involvement with criminal gangs and martial arts teachers across the Top End he found himself an expert in knife fighting, faster and deadlier than almost any non-augmented man around him, even people with many years’ more combat experience. People put it down to his natural affinity as a sporstman, but he was never sure.

In between his knockabout jobs Jayden returned to his tribal home in an inland town, and in those long months of furloughed time he would play a lot of footy. Here too he excelled compared to his peers – people wondered how he could leap so high for the marks, and why he was never seriously hurt no matter how hard the collisions or how vicious the tackle. With his almost prescient ability to judge others’ movement, his seeming immunity to damage, and his powerful leaps, he soon became a valued player in the wild scrubland melees of local pick-up footy matches, and in the local league that his team routinely topped. People said he was just a natural … but he always wondered. And then he Awoke, and discovered that he was an Adept, some kind of spirit-walker who had always had some connection to a deeper well of spiritual power, something he never felt or believed but suddenly understood fully and could use to his advantage. Suddenly he understood how his life had been blessed with the foreshadowing of this power, and he also realized that he had been guided in his travels, to some extent, by a mentor spirit. Wherever he traveled he was never too far from that symbolic Northern bird, the Wedge-tailed Eagle, and now he understood that that feeling of assured confidence he had walked with was not just his own youthful arrogance, but a greater power that had selected him to watch over. His sixth sense for danger, his ability to dodge that backstab or that unexpected kick, to duck just when that man opened fire as the drug deal turned south … it wasn’t just luck, or a steely eye – something soared above him, and in those moments he saw everything around him as if from a great height, through steely predator’s eyes. He was blessed with the mentor spirit of the wild raptors of the North, walking on ground newly sacred, bearing an ancient power in his long black limbs.

This ancient power that Awoke in the Red Centre soon began to tear Australia apart. The spirits of the Dreamtime were back and many of them were angry. Australia’s sclerotic political system, so insufficient for the task of grappling with the 21st century, was completely incapable of dealing with the Sixth World. Connections between states and cities frayed, long-standing political truces collapsed, and the distant lands of the Top End and the far west began to spin away from central control. The lands that Jayden knew from his youth reverted to a wilder, more primal state, and his people began to return – many against their will – to a way of life that some had long pined for, and just as many had forgotten. For Jayden, part of his tribe but not close to it, used to wandering the byways of both tribal and corporate culture, it was all too much. He took one more journey, and this time he ended up in New Horizon, watched over now by the city’s sea eagles, hungry for work, dislocated and looking for new things. New adventures in the shadows now not of a crumbling colony, but a collapsing megalopolis…

Jayden is an unprepossessing man. Simply dressed, with dark skin and the typical wide, cheerful facial features of an Aboriginal man, he looks like nothing special or especially imposing. He moves with a certain unaffected grace, and acts with the confidence of a man who knows he can get out of any spot no matter how tight, but years of rough work and rough sleeping have cleansed him of any belief that he is special or unique or that any great fate awaits him. He is uneducated, simple, rough and pure: what he wants to do he does, and he associates only with people he cares about. He has little care for money and few ideals, though he will not do anything especially criminal or immoral unless the target of his wrath is another, worse criminal. He wears rough jeans and simple linen or cotton collared shirts, usually under a stockman’s coat that is old, dusty and lined with kevlar. He carries a wicked knife that has carried him through many fights, and somewhere inside that coat a plain pistol with no pretensions to grandeur or any kind of Street Samurai heritage – but which has seen more than its share of blood spilled. Laconic, relaxed and simple, his manner puts those around him at ease quickly, and his relaxed, easy style and languid grace hide a deadly seriousness of purpose when the fighting starts. Why be a man of many words, when a few strokes of the knife can tell the whole story? And why waste words on strangers, when a warm smile and an easy hand can smooth over any awkwardness? With this unpretentious and uncomplicated style, Jayden will make a new life in New Horizon – or die trying.

Last week the Lancet Public Health published a comment piece by me about the challenges it faces in the near future. This comment was linked to a research article that found a huge increase in elderly people with care needs in the UK population over the next 10 years. This article predicted that 10 years from now there will be a 25% increase in the number of people aged over 65 who have care needs, which corresponds to a numerical increase of 560,000 people. The largest growth will be in dementia-related disability, which may perhaps have been a slightly stinging finding for the government given that Prime Minister May had released a deeply unpopular policy for paying for dementia care in the same week. The article and my comment received some media coverage (see e.g. here), focusing on the impending massive increase in care needs and the risks to the NHS. My article made the point that this growth in elderly people needing care comes at a time when a unique combination of policy challenges confronts the incoming government: an underfunded social care service, an NHS in crisis, a looming workforce shortage, and the risk that Brexit will lead to an immediate loss of staff and a long term reduction in the number of staff entering the NHS. I made the simple point that the British health and social care system needs more money and a commitment to expand the local workforce to make up for the looming drop off in European staff. This is particularly pressing for the social care sector, which unlike the NHS employs large numbers of very low paid staff who have a very high turnover rate and are very often European. Once Brexit hits that turnover is going to bite, because new staff simply won’t be there to replace the high churn rate. There is no solution to this problem except to increase pay and improve working conditions to ensure this sector of the economy can attract British workers and retain them.

The problem is not limited to social care, however: something between 5-10% of staff in the NHS are recruited from Europe, which means that even if the final Brexit deal allows existing staff to stay, over the medium term natural attrition will mean that the NHS needs to increase local recruitment to cover that 5-10% of new staff who are not being recruited from Europe. Worse still, Brexit will hit just as the health workforce hits a wave of retirements of staff recruited from the baby boomer generation, and as junior doctors show increasing signs of burnout and the nurses association is talking about striking to preserve pay and conditions (the strikes themselves will not necessarily be a crisis – though I’m sure Jeremy Hunt can turn them into one! – but the underlying problems they signify will be). It takes 10 years to make a new doctor and about 7 years to make a new nurse, so the entire workforce planning system in the UK needs to be restructured and enhanced rapidly in the next 1-2 years if the UK health and social care system is to be ready to handle this. To be clear the issues are huge: A rapid increase in disability and health risks in elderly British people occurring after a decade of leakage of staff back to the EU, as a generation of older staff retire, and just as the cut to the nurse’s bursary and NHS funding leads to a shortfall in new staff, with no way to make it up through EU recruitment. This will affect every aspect of coverage, quality of care, equality of access, and timeliness of access in a system that is already struggling to handle basic pressures.

Today the Nuffield Trust released a report that adds to the pressures revealed by the article I was commenting on, by discussing additional health system pressures that will arise from leaving the EU. This report finds that:

  • If the Brexit agreement does not properly support UK citizens abroad and the welfare sharing arrangements they benefit from, 190,000 elderly Britons will return home and cost the government an extra 500 million pounds a year
  • If these elderly Britons return home they will require hospital beds equivalent to two new hospitals to care for them
  • If the NHS cannot continue to recruit nurses from the EU there will be a shortfall of 20,000 by 2025
  • The 350 million pounds a week that can be saved by leaving the EU was a myth, but in the first two years after leaving there may be more money to pay for health and social care – if the government is willing to spend it

The publication I commented on predicted an extra 560,000 people with care needs by 2027; this Nuffield Trust finds 190,000 more elderly people the study didn’t cover, and suggests they will have significant care needs currently being (basically) paid for by Europe, and it quantifies the shortfall in staff I identified. It’s worth noting that the NHS employs 320,000 nurses, so the 20,000 shortfall is about 6% of the workforce, but this 6% shortfall comes also when a large number of nurses will be retiring, and about the same time as the current reduced nursing student cohort hits the workforce. A lot of these numerical details are very hard to predict, but it appears likely that there is going to be a major reduction in a nursing workforce that is already not well stocked by OECD standards. Nurses are the bedrock of a functioning health system, and although there is no international evidence on the best nursing levels, a rapid decrease in numbers is only a bad thing, especially if combined with a rapid increase in health care demand.

This problem will face whoever wins the election in two weeks, since a lot of these pressures are the result of a Brexit decision we are supposed to believe is set in stone, and population ageing. But any party that does not have a plan to increase the health workforce, to restore funding to social care, and to improve payment, retention, credentialling and work conditions for the workers at the bottom of the social care heirarchy, is not serious about the depth and seriousness of the crisis the NHS faces. Although the Tories like to talk about working better rather than increasing funding, the reality is that the NHS desperately needs more money; and so long as Labour continue to dance around the issue of exactly how they will handle free movement, they present no serious plans to handle the looming workforce crisis. The British people voted for Brexit without having any clear information about what it would mean for the social care sector, while Boris Johnson flounced around the country in a bus that was advertising a clear lie. Now the election looms, and both parties have to come up with policies to handle this unavoidable crisis on a 10 year deadline. I think from a brutally practical standpoint, the real winner of this election will be the party that loses it, because whoever wins is going to be held responsible not just for Brexit’s short term economic damage, but for the long-term health and social care crisis that neither party is properly prepared to deal with.

The NHS needs more money and more staff. Without it, unless the winning party can deliver a truly miraculous Brexit deal, the UK health and social care system is heading for two decades of increasing and unavoidable crisis. I’m not confident that anyone in British politics is ready to deal with this problem, or even listening to the warnings. Let’s hope, for the sake of Britain’s elderly population, that I’m wrong.

Hiding from tomorrow
and hades wrapped in clouds
ride the breeze
so cold as ice

The faithful, the fallen
have faith to the ones with pride
the faithful, the fallen
and glance of day will never shine

We find our heroes at a moment of crisis. They have negotiated their way out of a tense and complex situation with a band of 20 knights of the Order of the Morrigan, an order of ruthless mercenaries who go to war in honour of their foul Fomori wargods. Although they have avoided slaughter at the hands of these evil folk, they watched as 10 of the knights departed in haste for the town of Crois Arald to hunt down the Fomori deserter that the PCs knew was hidden there. Having already hatched a suspicion that these Morrigan were somehow connected to the slaughter of those deserter Fomori, the PCs needed to get back to town quickly to help the lone Fomori hiding there. They took their leave of the leader of the Morrigan and headed as fast as they could back to the town.

Unfortunately the PCs were slowed down by two wagons – Xenobia of course rode in her noblewoman’s wagon, accompanied by her manservant Wagonsworth, and also by her maid Purple; but they were also slowed down by the wagon of a Korr called Percivole, who they had rescued from the necromancer[1]. So they were not able to keep up with the detachment of Morrigan, and by the time they reached the town the Morrigan had already begun to execute their search. They had begun dragging people out of their houses and forcing them into the central square, while some knights had fanned out to search more outlying buildings. In the center of the square a Far Daragh stood on a platform, massive sword in hand, red armour gleaming in the sun – Far Daragh are Fomori executioners, tasked with killing Fomori who have broken the strange and evil codes of that ancient and vicious race. No one was yet hurt, although they had beaten the sheriff unconscious when he tried to assert his authority, but it was obvious that if anyone resisted they would die. Worse still, the PCs knew that the Fomori deserter, Ilid, was hiding in a building on the southern side of the town, and the Morrigan were approaching it. They were accompanied by a Seacal, a kind of dog-human race that is renowned for its tracking skills. They had to act fast.

They split up. Ichimusai and Leantoir walked towards the main square from the east, to disrupt the rounding up of citizens and in hope of making a distraction. Xenobia and Korr parked his wagon on the road heading out of town, to block entrance to more knights from the north, and headed along a different road to the square in Xenobia’s wagon. Idril climbed a watchtower on the edge of town to get an overview of the area and be able to cast spells at anyone in the area. Fellan slipped into the shadows of the buildings and headed south to try and get to their Fomori deserter before the Morrigan.

Xenobia and Persivore reached the square from the northern road and began talking to the guards just as Ichimusai and Leantoir were stopped by three guards on the eastern road. Ichimusai was wearing a banner that proclaimed him “Ichimusai, greatest fighter under heaven”, intended as a challenge, but the Morrigan were not stupid enough to accept his challenge, so they stood in the road watching each other warily. Xenobia began asking the guards who stopped her what was happening, but as the conversation began the Seacal saw Fellan, and fired at him with a bow. The arrow struck Fellan hard in the side and as he fell the Seacal let out an unholy howl. Hearing that howl the Morrigan grabbed their swords, which Ichimusai interpreted as a challenge, and battle was joined. As the battle started the guards speaking to Xenobia panicked and, thinking her a normal noblewoman accompanied by her manservant, dragged her from her cart and into a nearby building for her own protection, one standing in the room facing the door as a guard while two more stood outside covering the door.

Xenobia waited until the guard’s back was turned and, gesturing to Persivole to draw his pistol, stepped forward, touched the man on the back of the head, and began to rip his soul from his body. He resisted, but the pain and damage was intense, and as he struggled he turned, wreathed in crackling black lightning, to face Persivole, his face drawn and withered, skin taught, veins standing out black and pulsing against unnaturally pale skin, eyes pools of black dripping tears of blood. Persivole shuddered and shot him in the face, blowing his head across the windows and walls and making a huge hole in the door. The guards outside turned in shock, not yet knowing what horrors lay inside that room.

Across the square Ichimusai and Leaintor went to work on their opponents, who acted first, attacking the huge and intimidating druid with their great swords and beating him near to death. Ichimusai killed one with the first swift and silent draw of his weapon, and Leaintor beat on another one. From the tower Idlir cast healing magic on both Leaintor and Fellan, who rushed towards the house where the Fomori was hiding. Unfortunately for everyone, as Fellan was rushing towards the house the Fomori emerged and ran towards the Seacal and one of her accompanying Knights, attacking them in a mad suicide mission. The other two Knights accompanying the Seacal had broken back to the square, hearing sounds of slaughter and gunfire.

Xenobia and Persivole stood in the room, waiting patiently for the guards to enter as Xenobia screamed for help and the Korr reloaded his pistol. Smoke and cordite mingled with the steely smell of blood and the strange, oily stench of dark magic. The guards rushed into the room and Xenobia hit both of them with a crackling nimbus of dark energies, rotting the flesh on their bones as they rushed in to come to her aid. Persivole shot one in the chest, blasting him back out of the door. He flicked the shell from his pistol and tried to act calm as the room filled with the cawing of distant crows and the stench of rotting corpses. Xenobia’s magic has a certain signature.

On the far side of the square Ichimusai and Leaintor pummeled on the remaining two soldiers, killing one and badly injuring another. Idlir stunned the knights facing Fellan and the Fomori as Fellan, dodging another arrow from the Seacal, charged into battle and struck the dog-man in the face with a powerful sweep of his longsword. Now the Seacal was injured and Fellan was whole, the tide of battle turning slightly towards the Sidhe assassin.

In the room Xenobia and Persivole shared a brief glance as Persivole dodged the surviving guard’s sword blow. Xenobia stepped forward and touched the Morrigan, striking him with such a wave of black power that his soul was pushed from his body whole, briefly appearing whole and intact and glowing pure and steady in the air of the room before turning black and crystalline, mouth opened in a silent scream of terror, and then dissipating on invisible winds of dark magic. Somewhere funeral bells rang and the room hung heavy and cloying with the smell of charnel houses and rose incense. Persivole, gagging, flung open the door and fired his pistol at a guard standing on the far side of the square. At the same time Ichimusai and Leaintor entered the square, Ichimusai leaping over one guard to land on the far side of the square facing the guards coming from the south.

Down the south road the Seacal dropped her bow and leapt at Fellan, attempting to knock him over and savage him but missing. Fellan pushed her down and beat her with both his swords, hacking at her head until she lay still and broken on the roadside. Then he and the Fomori set about the callous murder of the other Morrigan soldier while in the square Persivole, Leaintor, Ichimusai and Xenobia teamed up to finish off the remaining three Morrigan. Moments later the battle was done as fast as it had begun, 10 Morrigan and a Seacal dead and the party largely unharmed, except for Ichimusai who stood purring and swaying at the edge of the square, near done for under the weight of multiple sword strikes. Leaintor stepped forward and placed a gentle hand on the giant cat man’s arm, suffusing him with the glow of druidic healing magic. Xenobia moved to pat Persivole on the shoulder in a gesture of triumph, but he ducked away from her touch with an expression of horror. Behind them blood dripped off the windows, and whispering spirits subsided into silence.

They saw the citizens of the town back to their homes and negotiated with the Far Daragh, who looked nonchalantly about him at the ruins of the Morrigan, announced “Nothing to execute here” and walked away. Fellan followed him at a discreet distance, hoping to find out how the Fomori returned to their kingdom beyond the mists. Ichimusai fashioned a banner that stated “Your men were slain by ichimusai, unequalled under heaven” and planted it in the middle of the square. Hours later Fellan returned to tell them that the Far Daragh had taken a horse, and he had lost track of him, but before then the Far Daragh had met with the other half of the Morrigan force and told them about the events in the town. They debated whether to set up an ambush in the town, and finally decided to head out of town and lay an ambush in the hills to the east. If the Far Daragh’s report did not convince the Morrigan to seek vengeance on the party, Ichimusai’s banner surely would.

Before they left the town the Fomori deserter thanked them, and by way of thanks gave them a fragment of a diary she had found in the ruins of a church to the north east. This document described the final movements of a famous woman who had previously defeated the Fomori in an earth shattering war 300 years ago. The Fomori deserter thought that this letter might be relevant to the reason the Fomori had recently made war in this area – perhaps they were seeking the “memento” the woman mentioned in the diary. The characters decided that once they had killed the remaining portion of the Morrigan they would seek more information about the contents of this diary entry. Thanking the Fomori deserter, they headed out of the town towards the east, to set up an ambush for the Morrigan and lead them to a certain fate…


fn1: I completely forgot to mention this in the previous write up. Korr are a kind of dwarf-like race of engineers and grumps, and this Korr had been turned into a chicken by a trap in the necromancer’s lair, but when they killed the necromancer he returned to his previously slightly larger form. They recovered his gear and his wagon, and now he traveled with them