The odds rising ...

She said

Do you remember a time when angels
Do you remember a time when fear
In the days when I was stronger
In the days when you were here

She said
When days had no beginning
While days had no end when
Shadows grew no longer I
Knew no other friend but you
Were wild
You were wild…..

Date: December 3rd, 2177

Weather: Rainy

Outfit: Exalta rags. What do you wear for the end of the world? It turns out I didn’t have much choice, because the end of the world happened in a hard-scrabble cult base out in the crash zone and we had to get away in a hurry when the Goliath ships started falling out of the sky. Once we got clear and found somewhere to rest, all we had that wasn’t combat armour was a bunch of these white robes that the Children of Exalta wore at their suicide party. I think I gathered them together when we arrived at the base, before we realized we weren’t going to be needing disguises, and now I’m sitting here on this hillside watching the end of the world and trying not to cry about our lost Ghost. Unless you’re a weirdo in white robes you don’t really think about the end of the world, do you? But if I had put a moment’s time to it, I wouldn’t have imagined it would be so … muscular … and visceral. It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch but I guess we’ll be lighting out of here soon before the storm heads this way. Now I see what we have done, these robes feel more like a funeral shroud than a real outfit; but I guess they’re the most fitting uniform for whatever new world is going to come raging out of that spreading storm …

Mood: Distraught, and surprised at my tears. I lost two ghosts today – Ghost disappeared, and my Russian ghost flew away somewhere, I guess into that storm. I thought I would kill anyone who tried to take my ghost from me, but toward the end I could feel myself slipping away into some dark, scary place, and I couldn’t stop her, so I’m relieved that the storm took her. Amazed, even, because I couldn’t stop crying when we lost Ghost. I haven’t cried since … that day … the day I turned my back on being that weak girl… but these tears didn’t feel weak. Something happened to me when my ghost flew away, and Ghost disappeared. I lost a terrible weight and gained a terrible fear – the fear of losing my friends.

The cost: Ghost. Ghost was an annoying man at times and sometimes he was crazy incompetent but most of the time he was a perfect battle-hacker. With him behind us we always had perfect control of the battle space – not just knowing where our enemies were and protected from their hacking, but Ghost could always tell us what was incoming, what secrets they were hiding, sometimes it was like he knew what they were thinking. So many times the biggest bad guy got slowed down or stopped by Ghost’s cyber-hacking, so we had time to get to safety or switch tactics. When you go into a battle with Ghost behind you you know you’ll come out okay. But this time he never did. Something happened in there and now he’s gone, consumed by that thing. We got his body out but we can’t find any injuries or any sign of why he died. What happened in there?

News: The war came to its head, not that it matters now. Arasaka lifted up a piece of Tokyo – that’s right, Tokyo – and flew it over New Horizon, then started bombarding the city from orbit, dropping huge numbers of soldiers in there. That piece of Tokyo is like a giant spaceship maybe 5 km long, just hanging up there in orbit and blocking out the sun. By the time we came back from Alt’s place Goliath had given up the battle to hold New Horizon and fled into space, giving a pretty good light show as they fought off the Arasaka raiders and tried to make it out. Some must have, because they came storming back to the crash zone when they realized they still had a chance to grab the MACNIC. Pops and Coyote are sure that the battle for New Horizon and all the fooling around in the high council were all about Arasaka and Goliath trying to get control of the MACNIC, and Goliath’s control of New Horizon really started to slip after Sam stole the MACNIC from that deep pit. We don’t know how much Arasaka and Goliath knew about the real power of the MACNIC but I guess Goliath knew a lot since they were doing the experiments. Anyway all that news is like cave paintings from a distant era, or those weird tapes you get from early in the Oil Age. Old news. Dead news. We made a new world, and everything that happened in the old one is just cute stories now… Except for the fairy stories. They’ve become real.

We spent about 5 days in Alt’s lair after we brought her Sam. Her assistant Ling told us to wait there, make ourselves comfortable, and then we’d get our reward when Alt’s preparations were ready. We weren’t too happy about that but when we saw the chaos that Arasaka was unleashing over in our old home we figured there were worse places to be. We mooched around, watching the war in a state of continuing shock and eating too much and playing cards with some of Alt’s more human mercenaries. Many of her mercs have now gone through complete body transformations – real transhumanist stuff – so they look almost completely like a bad genetic experiment from an old movie. There are men with lizard legs and skin made entirely of scales, and this guy who’s boosted up his body size and got himself some weird feet and horns, so he looks like some kind of bull-human cross. Coyote calls him “the Minotaur” but Pops insists on calling him “that Cretin” and laughing at some kind of joke he says is about geography and English, which are two like completely incomprehensible and pointless things especially if you come from a time so ancient that people still thought the earth was flat. Coyote likes the Minotaur of course, because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a facial tattoo, must be in want of an ugly friend.

But even Minotaurs get boring after a few days and we were going stir crazy by the time we finally got word that Alt was going to give us our prize. Back when we cut this deal with Alt, at the Fae Ling Moon concert she gate crashed, she promised us “everything we want”, and we were really looking forward to her delivering on that promise. We were thinking a little canton in the Crash Zone, lots of money and weapons, and a small team of dedicated mercenaries to keep us safe, a real base to operate from. What we really got was so much more – and so, so much less. We were herded into this little conference room and given bottles of water and we waited like an hour and then in came Ling looking decidedly moody – not hard to do when you’ve redesigned yourself to look like a fairy soldier from a Gucci advert – and then in came a couple of her broodiest lizard-modified soldiers, and then in she came, wearing a body that looked a lot like it might have been Sam’s though it was a bit older and more worn looking so maybe it was some other random girl she tricked into her cult. We were all a bit too impatient to care about her current choice of sleeve though, and she seemed pretty distracted so the pleasantries were pretty minimal. We asked her about our reward and then she laid out this ridiculous sales pitch that turned our longed-for payday into a great big moment of digital daylight robbery:

As you can see this place we’re hiding in is a spaceport, and in fact I have prepared a spaceship to leave in the next 24 hours. My most loyal followers will join me on that spaceship, which will take us on a slow journey out of the solar system. That spaceship has the most powerful computers and the most advanced systems ever developed. Once my followers and I are in orbit we will upload our consciousnesses into the computer core of the ship, permanently forsaking our physical bodies. Within that computer system there are infinite worlds, perfectly realized, fully populated and constructed. Within those worlds you will be able to live infinite lives simultaneously, and to have anything you ever wanted. You can be kings, peasants, emperors, gods, wizards, beasts or even the wild west wind if you so choose. There is nothing that you will want for, and you can take anything and everything your hearts desire…

She paused her little speech to check something, probably digitally counter-signing transsubstantiation forms or some silly idleness, and she was so distracted that she didn’t notice Coyote’s face getting real dark with his no-I-ain’t-gonna-deal expression, and Pops clenching his fist on the table so hard he looked like he was going to rip it apart. Ghost was looking at Alt like she was a dead rotting goldfish, and the mood in the room was going sour real fast but Alt was off in her little digital world so she didn’t really notice or care. Ling sure noticed but he didn’t seem particularly fussed. I guess he had some faith in our common sense and willingness not to cause trouble which is maybe a little bit more faith than he should have, but fortunately everyone held their temper until Alt came back to us and finished her little space-elevator pitch:

When we met at that awful concert I promised you your hearts desires. When you join me in the digital world I have created, you will have everything you wish for, and will realize dreams you never knew you had.

She looked around at us all, the way the smart new merc does when he thinks he’s made a suggestion none of the veterans have heard before, and already seen come to its bitter bloody end a thousand times.

Needless to say our answer was no. There was a bit of angry backchat but she didn’t care; after a few minutes she left looking confused at why we would refuse her offer. Ling wasn’t confused at all though – he knew exactly why we were angry, but he was in a very conciliatory mood. After her guards left he stopped in the doorway, turned to us and said

Don’t worry my friends, you’re not the only ones disappointed at this turn of events. But some of us can still profit. Tomorrow when the mad queen launches, we will gather to watch and I’ll make you an offer that’s not perhaps as rich as hers, but infinitely more realistic. I think you’ll like it. I’ll send for you.

And then off he went, leaving us fuming in the room and feeling cheated. All those free missions, all those near-deaths, all those people we killed (we didn’t really count, but it was a lot …), all the trouble we went to, and here we are left with nothing but digital smoke and mirrors just as the city we’ve known and lived in is being pounded to rubble by an insane Japanese grandpa, and we’ve got nowhere to go and nothing to show for all our work.

It’s enough to make you want to destroy everything Alt built and everything we fought for …

So we bummed around another day, slobbing in the mess room with the animal-men and doing a bit of light training and spending a lot of time watching TV and marveling at the savagery of the battle happening just a few hours away around New Horizon. Ghost spent a lot of time in the Husk, being boring and ignoring everyone, and Coyote spent a lot of time down in the bowels of the place, checking out the gear that Alt no longer needed and that Ling was now rapidly shipping out. Our reward was looking less and less lucrative, but we were unarmed and surrounded by monsters, so all we could do was wait for this charade to play itself out so we could leave. Late the following afternoon, with the sun beginning to set and promising a glorious sunset through the haze of smoke that now covered the entire region, Ling came to get us. First we had to sit through this interminable ceremony outside in the centre of the space base, all of us lined up and looking at this fat ugly rocket that Alt had somehow managed to set up here. People filed into the rocket from the base itself through a glass tunnel – first some of Alt’s guards and followers, then a solemn procession of blank-faced people in stern-looking white robes, then a kind of cryogenic vat thing that held a seriously broken, warped body in some kind of stasis. Murmurs arose from the crowd, and we guessed this was Alt’s original body. Some more white-faced people walked past and then Alt came out in that same Sam-body to wave goodbye to us. There was no sign of Sam, but we weren’t surprised – we didn’t expect her to make it out of whatever Alt had done to her, though we guessed something of her must be left over to power whatever permanent transsubstantiation Alt had in mind. Everyone cheered Alt, and then she ducked inside the rocket. It was a kind of anti-climactic end to the reign of the first human being ever to be able to permanently transcend their meat sleeve, but I guess in times of war there isn’t a lot of ceremony to go around. Ling hustled us away to a waiting AV, and took us up to a nearby ridge, maybe a couple of kilometres away from the base, along with a bunch of his closest soldiers. He laid out some champagne and snacks and from out of nowhere two lissome girls appeared carrying trays of canapes like we were at a high society party. Then we all sat around on picnic blankets and watched as Alt’s rocket took off. Ling seemed to be very very happy to see her go, so maybe he had been jilted the same way, who knows? He was very free with the champagne and those two girls had to get increasingly lissome to avoid his attentions. But he kept an eye firmly fixed on that rocket, like he was worried Alt might pop out again and say “surprise! You’re not the boss yet!”

She didn’t. As we watched the rocket began to lift off – first on anti-gravity field effectors until it was clear of the base, then huge rockets engaged and it started moving slowly, majestically towards the stars. Ling and his men began to cheer as it sped up towards the distant sky. It was a perfect moment at the end of a balmy day, the sky arching over us like a great big blue pearl, turning darker and darker as the sun set. The rim of the horizon was flaming red with all the colours of war, and the rocket trail stretched out through the middle of it all like a needle of white, spearing up into the heavens with that perfect pure shape that rocket trails have. Over in the near distance, just East of the rocket, we could see the huge spire of New Horizon, a dark lump against the paler sky, flickering occasionally with the flashes of war, and over it that looming hulking ship, floating up near orbit but still visible even from this distance. There must have been millions of people living in that thing even as it was raining fire down on the untold millions trapped in New Horizon.

There weren’t many souls in Alt’s rocket at all, which I guess is why the floating Tokyo didn’t spare much thought to swatting it down. It happened in the blink of an eye: one moment Alt’s ship was soaring free and brilliant into the heavens, then the Arasaka ship moved just slightly, some kind of light opened up on its bow, and a moment later the rocket exploded. There was a brief flash and then debris started pirrhouetting out and down, four big arcs of dirty grey smoke and fire and then a cascade of smaller, paler smoke trails. After a couple of seconds the boom of the explosion hit us, and then a couple of seconds after that everyone on the ridge started reacting. Initial stunned gasps turned to yells of outrage, surprise, fear, soldiers’ curses. We all looked at each other in shock – everyone except Ghost, who was just leaning back on his picnic rug, looking kind of smug.

“I guess Alt wasn’t such a big deal after all,” he said with a shrug, and started cleaning up his strawberry stalks.

And that’s how Alt’s eternal empire died, in a flash of Arasaka side-eye and a picnic that ended early.

Good thing we didn’t take her offer, I guess … Ling hustled us off the hill, probably worried Arasaka was going to turn its attention on our base, but he didn’t need to worry. We got back to the base fine and there was no sign of any trouble, so Ling took us aside and made his offer. He was incontrovertibly the boss of all Alt’s stuff now, and he didn’t intend on retiring. He was going to be setting up as a mercenary captain working all Alt’s contacts, and he wanted effective senior mercs he could trust – if we joined him he’d pay well and we’d get the best jobs. How about it?

Of course we said no. Coyote and Pops were pretty belligerent, doing their ugly-cop/bad-cop routine, and eventually we managed to screw a bit of recompense out of Ling in exchange for a promise to do freelance contract jobs for him. He gave us a Blackbird, a beautiful sleek black attack AV, fully armoured and ready to use; some heavy weapons; a bunch of ordinary ammo; new armour; and some cash. Over the week we’d already received one piece of goodwill: we’d all received some treatments in Alt’s biolabs to get physical enhancements like strength, speed, and accuracy, and now he gave us the weapons we could use to make the most of it. He seemed disappointed we weren’t joining him but not surprised, and promised us he’d be in touch with more work. We thanked him for his kindness, cursed Alt for short-changing us so spectacularly, and got out of there as fast as we could.

Not enough

Not enough

To the Stone

Now we’d lost everything to Alt’s arrogance, and wasted Sam’s life for nothing, we were really agitated. We wanted to know what was going on with this MACNIC, and why it had been so crucial to Sam. If Sam could help Alt go eternal without it, what was she trying to do with it? We knew that Coyote’s dad had been involved in the research on the stone originally, and we knew that he had joined the Children of Exalta; we had a transponder we took from Sam’s friend Theo after I shot him in the head. Ghost had been hacking the transponder and told us he had found a hit, but it turned out he was being deceived. We followed his ping but it didn’t lead us to the Children of Exalta – it led us to the MACNIC. Our new battle AV had a code that would enable us to pass through Arasaka checkpoints provided we were careful, so we sped back to New Horizon, following the ping that Ghost told us was to the Exalta hideout. Ghost only told us later that he had some kind of deal with Sam[1], and maybe some part of her inside him, and she was leading him not to the Children of Exalta but to the MACNIC, which was lost somewhere in New Horizon – Senntech had taken it from the Oil Rig but got caught up in the war and lost it in the rubble of the Pits in New Horizon.

Pops had started calling the MACNIC the “Magic Stone”, because it obviously did weird stuff. We knew that if you feed energy into it it multiplies that energy and projects it back out, and we knew it was somehow crucial to the production of Ghostchalk, which means that it must do something to human minds. We guessed it was crucial to whatever Goliath was doing with Full Body Replacement Cyborgs – that much cyberware should cause a human to go insane but somehow the Goliath FBRs didn’t go crazy – until Goliath lost the stone to Sam, and then Arasaka was able to fight back against its FBRs. Pops wanted to find that stone and find a way to destroy it before Arasaka got hold of it, or Goliath got it back. So when Ghost revealed that the devastated area of rubble and ruin we were entering was not the Children of Exalta’s playground, but a battle zone where Goliath and Arasaka were fighting for the stone, we were all surprisingly relaxed about it.

Except Coyote, who really didn’t want to throw his life away on a reckless mission to find a magic stone. He was mighty mad, but he still set the Blackbird down in the shadow of a wrecked building and disembarked with us. Ghost went into the Husk and gave us the layout, like he always does. The stone was resting in the centre of a crater perhaps 150 metres from our Blackbird. The area around the crater was a mess of trashed buildings and rubble. A bunch of Arasaka soldiers were in the crater, guarding some engineers who were trying to get to the stone; on the perimeter was their leader, some kind of bigshot soldier in samurai-style power armour, and an ACPA, a type of small Mecha. Pops, who now had a rail gun courtesy of Ling’s generosity, and one of the anti-grav harnesses we stole from the Children of Exalta in the Crash Zone, climbed into the nearest building, took a position with a view of the crater and the ACPA, accompanied by one of Coyote’s robodogs. The rest of us found a tunnel that led through the rubble to a trench near the crater, and carefully surveyed the surroundings: 6 soldiers, a bunch of combat engineers, the samurai dude, the ACPA, and an Arasaka FBR camouflaged in the rubble, running a complex hacking routine on the entire area through the husk. The presence of that FBR with its super-powerful cyberdeck meant we had to switch off all our wi-fi connections and communicate only with radio.

Which is why, I guess, the ACPA saw Pops before we had a plan ready. Maybe he was yelling into his radio like an old man with a phone. Maybe his cyberleg dinged clumsily on a piece of rubble. Maybe he let out one of his outrageous old man burps. Whatever the reason, it lifted off from its guard position and headed towards Pops’s nest. He shot it with his rail gun but didn’t hurt it (didn’t hurt it!!!), and then it opened fire on him with the biggest machine gun you’ve ever seen, that it was toting around like it was a handbag. I popped up and shot it in the back of the head with my pastel blue nomad rifle, which didn’t really even dent it but at least distracted it, and then all hell broke loose. Pops had to wait a few seconds for his gun to recharge, during which time the ACPA opened fire again – fortunately the robodog with Pops jumped in the way, nearly getting blown apart by that gun. Then Pops decided to do us all a favour and, ignoring that ACPA, he shot the rail gun straight into the magic stone where it rested in the centre of the crater.

The resulting explosion killed all the soldiers and combat engineers, and knocked down the Samurai leader. It also scrambled everyone, because suddenly we had strange visions and nightmares screaming in our heads. Pops was yelling something about his wife and daughter, Coyote was screaming about war and chaos, and my Russian ghost was scrambling to come out, whispering to me about love and hatred and getting that stone. I slipped out of the trench to look for the Samurai leader but he was nowhere to be seen, and neither was the FBR. Everyone else was dead or screaming, so me and Ghost rushed for the crater. Coyote decided our efforts would be wasted if we couldn’t lift the stone, and headed back to charge up the Blackbird, unable to call it remotely while the FBR was floating around hacking everything. Pops dropped down from the building and started sprinting for the crater – no one could see the ACPA, we figured its pilot had got the same crazy signals as us and would be down for a few seconds.

When the entire world is screaming chaos, you take the chances you can get.

I got to the crater first, and found the stone sitting there in clear view, glowing red hot with the heat of the explosion, steaming with this fluid that had been dripping off it and was now vaporizing from the heat. It was surrounded by the wrecked bodies of unarmoured combat engineers and their mangled linear frames. I took position nearby, keeping cover for Ghost as he came running in. The stone was cooling off rapidly, but it was still too hot for me to lift and anyway I’m more useful shooting. I had to keep fighting off this desperate urge to just grab it and run, but I waited, and when Ghost got close we picked it up and moved it into cover, in the shelter of a kind of pipe that was protruding from the edge of the crater. We could feel rumblings in the ground around us, like the explosion from the MACNIC had somehow weakened the superstructure of this part of New Horizon, so fleeing through the complex wreckage of the level under the crater was not a wise plan – we just had to wait for Coyote to come back with the Blackbird.

By now my Russian ghost was clamouring to come out, she really wanted to be part of the stone’s world, she was humming for blood. I couldn’t keep her down but I don’t like letting her come out in full, she’s too terrifying and I always worry if I let her out unchecked I won’t come back. But I couldn’t stop her slipping out, fingers around my neck like a sinister lover, the pulse of her rage making my finger twitch on the trigger of my rifle.

That’s when the Samurai decided to come back. I noticed some falling scree and stepped out to check, and that Samurai fell down right in front of me, just a blur because it was in some kind of super fancy cloaking. Of course my ghost saved me, flicking my head sideways just as his monokatana struck past me, slowing everything down just enough so I could see where the blur of his cloaked body shaded the rubble background a little. I didn’t have time to get my own katana out but he was at point blank range, so I opened fire, releasing a whole clip into him. That ended the cloaking but it didn’t slow him down. It also released the ghost completely, and when I came back to reality the Samurai was sprawling at the top of the slope, my monokatana in my hand and Ghost lying dead in front of me.

I guess Ghost is used to psychotic allies, because when I bent down to say sorry and kiss him goodbye I realized he wasn’t dead, just in husk mode. I had definitely cut him – I could see it on his armour – but he must have been going into husk mode when I hit him and my ghost thought he was dead and released me from her grip when she thought all her enemies were dead. There was a psychotic rage singing in my ears, that ghost was still there subdued inside me but singing a song of rage and blood as I watched the samurai sliding slowly down the crater rim, gripping weakly at rocks and exposed metal to try and get some purchase so he could crawl away. I’d obviously wrecked his legs so he couldn’t run properly, and the stone’s explosion was making the crater subside so that the rubble stopped him struggling away. It was kind of desperate and pathetic, watching him try to struggle away like that.

I shot him in the back.

Then I heard the distinctive boom of the rail gun followed by the heavy chatter of Pops’s assault rifle, and I was raising my own rifle for a last desperate defense against the ACPA when Pops came whooping and hollering over the intercom. “I got it!” he yelled. There was a lurch as a part of the lower level of the superstructure gave way and the entire crater base sagged to one side, nearly knocking me down. Pops was breathless with running and shooting, still some distance away. “Rail gun nearly did it … full clip … unloaded … in the face haha! Then another rail gun.” He was  chattering happily like he was a teenager who’d just been to his first Fae Ling Moon concert, but I understood his excitement. I bet under that helmet he had the same smug expression Ghost wore when he watched Alt’s ship fall out of the sky. I know that feeling too well.

My ghost was still singing to me of that feeling as the Blackbird hoved into view moments later. We piled on quickly, Ghost back out of Husk mode and yelling about all kinds of impending mischief. As we took off the crater lurched some more and we were suddenly being thrown around inside like a washing machine, but we held on and then we were out, rocketing away towards Pops’s position while Ghost and Coyote both yelled about something on the outside of the ship – the FBR, locked onto us.

I slipped out the back, and while the Blackbird was careening across the rubble I let my ghost out again, she was so close to me now that I didn’t really have to do anything, just sigh and out she came, and when I came back to reality the FBR was scuttling away across the rubble and I was on top of Pops, my monokatana millimetres away from his helmet and his voice urgent in my intercom. “Drew, come back Drew, Drew! It’s me, Pops!” Ghost was yelling about more ACPAs and the FBR was done for – Pops had smashed it in the head with his cyberleg and I had cut it fiercely – and I was gasping and so tired, so we hauled into the Blackbird and then Coyote was off. We locked ourselves in and endured a couple of minutes of wild, crazy flying as Coyote gave the pursuing ACPAs the slip, but I was just lying there in my crashseat exhausted and beat while Pops and Ghost both stared suspiciously at the stone, which sat glowing a faint, malevolent blue in the middle of our AV.

We had it.

What Sam never did

What Sam never did

The Children of Exalta

And the mist will wrap around us
And the crystal, if you touch it…
And the cares I’ve lost in the drift
Are there
Theirs, ours, lost in the drift
Are…
Driven
Driven together
And driven
Apart

Once we had it we realized we really needed to be rid of it. The stupid stone sang to us all the time, telling us stories about what we could be or what we were or what we weren’t or giving us visions of things that had been. I really don’t like visions of times past, a lot of people died to stop me seeing visions of times past and I don’t need some stupid stone making me see those people again. Ghost was constantly on edge from the thing and Coyote’s face tattoos were flickering like some kind of fireworks show whenever he got too close to the thing. Coyote’s ugly enough on a good day, let alone when he has a pageant of crass aesthetic faux pas lighting up what passes for a face on the front of his thick skull. That stone had to go. We had originally thought we might be able to destroy it but after Pops’s railgun shot just made it mad we decided there wasn’t much we could do with it. Time to make it someone else’s problem.

Now that we had the stone nothing was trying to stop us going to the Children of Exalta. Whatever voice had been driving Ghost to get to the stone no longer plagued him, so now he could lead us directly to the Children of Exalta. We had to flee from the New Horizon pits before Arasaka realized where we had been, and we figured if we stayed in any one place for more than a few minutes they would trace us, so we took the fastest route we could for the transponder that Ghost had hacked. We got there without incident, because there seemed to be another battle going on between Goliath and Arasaka, maybe a last ditch defense by Goliath, with lots of AV combat happening in the direction of New Horizon as we left. The Children of Exalta were hiding out in a distant part of the Crash Zone, just a few hours’ flight in the Blackbird, in a kind of dome they had made of old trash and ruined bits of other buildings, the kind of rough concoction you see scattered around the Crash Zone wherever a bunch of poor outsiders have decided to make a last stand. We go there first, but when we got near we realized that they weren’t alone. There was a small swarm of Goliath and Arasaka ships fighting there way towards the same place, though they were further away than us. Whatever this stone signified, everyone was converging on it and as long as we held it we were going to be the centre of destruction.

We got there first, by a decent margin, probably because we weren’t being shot at by a million fighter ships. The Children of Exalta had found a crater right back in the epicentre of the Crash Zone, where the first fusion reactors had gone critical during the original collapse of Exalta. This was the exact place, we realized that we had once been asked to do a raid on by the nice men who gave me the beautiful grey gown when they helped me escape from Goliath police. Those men were looking for the true head of the Children of Exalta, who was said to be hiding out here with a machine called ANITA so powerful it might hold a fragment of Exalta.

Now we know why they wanted that machine, and why the Children of Exalta had it. And we were bringing them the stone. But as we sat there looking out of our AV screens at the distant destruction raining around New Horizon, destroying everything we knew and probably many of the people we knew, we weren’t really too worried about the consequences of giving away the stone. So long as we could get away ourselves. We were also starting to get angry, very angry, as we realized that all these people all along had been doing all these terrible things just to get to this stupid stone. Alt had used us to get Sam who was using these Children of Exalta to get the stone, and Arasaka had destroyed New Horizon to find it, while Goliath had tortured so many people to use it, and probably the men who rescued me from Goliath had been manipulating us from the start to find this stone, and all along we had just been trying to make a living like honest killers. It’s not like we ask a lot of questions about who we kill or why, but there’s a level of professional honesty you expect from the people around you and your employers and we had been lied to by everyone and anyone since we got caught up in this stupid quest.

We got even madder when we arrived at the centre of the Children of Exalta’s base and found out that their boss was Coyote’s dad.

Getting there was easy. We just flew the Blackbird into the base, through a series of ever-narrower tunnels into an AV dock. We got out, put the stone on an AV trolley and pushed it down some corridors, following a series of lights set into the ceiling that were obviously guiding us, flashing red and blue, towards the centre of the dome. As we walked, people gathered behind us, whispering about how we were the saviours – the same whispers we had heard on the oil rig during the killing. We ignored them, and pushed the stone through the corridors until we emerged into a large amphitheatre in what was obviously the centre of the dome. This was a big open half-circle, but the stage was covered in a huge electrical structure, a big bank of computers and wiring and machinery that centred on a large machine, vaguely humanoid in shape, that had a big hole in the middle just large enough for the stone to be put in it. The Children of Exalta, in their white gowns, were gathering in the bleachers, hundreds of them milling about and watching as we emerged at the top of the steps. They were filing in, talking and whispering and gathering. It looked like some parts of the room had been turned into accomodation, there were rugs and makeshift cooking equipment and groups of people in white gowns who had their belongings with them, probably runaways from New Horizon. The throng grew rapidly as we advanced down the stairs into the amphitheatre. When we got halfway a group of men emerged onto the stage, and we stopped walking. These men were wearing white hoods and cloaks too, except the one in the middle who wore a strange face mask and a black outfit with neon blue stripes down it. This was Blue, the supposed leader of the Children of Exalta, who we had once considered killing. Looking at him now he seemed like he’d be pretty easy to ice, but that wasn’t our job here – our job was to just sort out what was happening and leave.

That’s when Blue took off the mask to welcome us, and we discovered he was Coyote’s dad. Then the guy next to him took off his hood to reveal Twitch, the oily little mincing street-dealer who had arranged for us all to come together as a team in the first place. I felt Pops tense up in anger behind me, and heard Coyote and Ghost gasp in surprise over the comms link, but at that exact moment the family reunion was spoiled by the roof crashing in. Goliath assault capsules smashed through the ceiling, crashing down and splitting open on impact, and through the wreckage of the holes in the roof we suddenly saw Goliath assault ships swooping in. At the same time Arasaka soldiers burst through one door, and a squad of black-clad mercenaries through another.

Everyone started screaming at everyone. From the assault capsules we heard a terrible scream and then they started spilling their deadly cargo: the horrible, misshapen FBRs that Goliath had unleashed on Arasaka troops at the end of the New Horizon war, the same kind of monstrosity that we had encountered in New Haven back when the war started, and had killed in Goliath’s research labs. These things were bred from cyberpsychotic soldiers or something, with no vulnerability to hacking or anything except bullets. We knew what they were here to do: kill everyone in the room.

We started fighting, while everyone screamed at Ghost to get the stone in that machine! Ghost started running, and we started killing, but before we could take down those twisted FBRs a huge, bioengineered monster FBR emerged from the assault capsule, looking like a cybered up super-robot version of the Minotaur Pops had teased back at Alt’s space base. It was huge, and it attacked simply by stomping down on anyone near it. Pops opened fire on it with his machine gun but it just shrugged it off, and kicked him over like a rag doll. It stomped about it so madly that it even crushed one of its own FBR allies, crushing and smashing with reckless abandon. I looked down to see Ghost running up against an FBR, still pushing that stone, and Pops trying madly to roll away from the huge, crushing feet of that monstrosity, Coyote struggling to cut down one of the FBRs with his power sword, his robodog being slowly beaten under by the beast. Arasaka soldiers were in a gunfight with the black-clad mercenaries, while other Arasaka soldiers fanned out to kill the Children of Exalta, who screamed and ran about, unarmed and helpless. In the skies above, Arasaka and Goliath ships were doing battle, oily smoke and flames rolling across the fractured blue of the distant sky. Now was our moment, and it was hopeless. We were done for.

I felt her howling down inside me. This was her moment, her time to redeem me. She sang to me of death and chaos. I could dance through this room creating such a storm of blood and lost souls …

I let her out, my hungry ghost.

Drew at the end

The Awakening

I hear the roar of a big machine
Two worlds and in between
Hot metal and methedrine
I hear empire down

We got the empire, now as then,
We don’t doubt, we don’t take reflection,
Lucretia, my direction, dance the ghost with me

I heard a voice calling me back urgently, screaming my name. I was standing over the body of the monstrous FBR, covered in blood. All the Children of Exalta were dead, and Pops was looming over me yelling “Get Ghost’s body, we have to GO!” Everyone near the stage was dead and there was a strange keening sound over the intercom. The ceiling was beginning to crack and the stage was suffused with a deep blue glow. Coyote was already running down to the stage, heedless of his father’s broken body dangling over its edge. As I watched it began to move, inching towards the centre of the stage under the pull of some strange gravity. The voices in my head had gone and the ever-closer, ever-louder singing of my Russian ghost was silent, replaced only with Pops’s yelling. Then I saw Ghost, lying some distance from the stage, unconscious or dead on the stairs, and the stone affixed in its place in the machine. Something was stirring on the stage, things were moving, and a voice behind the stage was yelling desperate admonitions.

“NO! NOOOOO! Not thiiiiissss!”

It sounded like a woman’s voice, an ancient and ferocious scream of rage, the rage of every old woman who was ever betrayed and dragged down to the river for trial, every little girl who grows up to find the world isn’t hers to take and enjoy after all, the rage of women who pass their prime and discover that all they have left is to watch men bring everything they had built down to ruin. It was the voice of Exalta thwarted.

I screamed too, at the sight of Ghost’s broken body. Suddenly all this rage and imperial manoeuvring and mysterious secrets dragged up from the depths meant nothing because something tugged at me and said “No! Not Ghost!” It wasn’t the callous hissing of my ghost, eager to see more blood, but some other tired, desperate voice. My voice. I ran.

We got Ghost onto the AV trolley and started dragging him away. Even as we dragged him we could feel the pull of that strange gravity on the stage, that was drawing all the dead people in the room helplessly towards it. The wailing voice subsided, sucked into the hissing light along with Coyote’s dad’s body. Twitch was already gone. Something was moving behind the stage, and when we got to the top of the amphitheatre, free for now from that pull, we looked back and saw shadows starting to accrete behind the machine, things being drawn together and made into something. The first bodies were starting to move into the shadows of the machine and moving in bizarre, disordered puppet-like jerks.

We ran. The glow of the stone intensified, drawing others into it as it grew, sucking the whole dome slowly to ruin. We pushed the trolley with Ghost on it as fast as we could back to the AV and fired it up. As we strapped in we could see parts of the AV dock beginning to fracture and drop. Everything was sucking in towards that distant stone. Coyote took us out through collapsing tunnels at such a pace we thought he might blow the engines, but it was only just enough – as we rocketed out of the Dome exit we could see the entire dome was collapsing in on itself, and the closest Goliath assault ships were falling in too. The whole dome was glowing blue now, and a moment later, as we were barelling away as fast as we could, the entire dome disappeared, became just a burning pool of blue. Then the Goliath battleship and all its fleet, along with all its Arasaka attackers, crashed down into the blue glow. The light flickered and went out, leaving behind it a pile of seething, burning rubble. We were still hurling ourselves away, but Pops and I had our eyes glued on the screen. Something moved in the rubble, then pieces of junk fell aside and two huge, leathery wings burst out of the rubble, stretching out towards the sunlight like a hideous leathery butterfly. More rubble stirred and a huge, battleship-sized beast began to haul itself out of the ruins, leathery wings beating, serpentine claws gripping at huge chunks of stone, lizard’s mouth open and breathing a huge pillar of fire to the sky.

That is how two ghosts died, and a new world was born.

Afterword

This, obviously, is the end of the campaign. The Awakening-as-ending was conceived by me and the GM from near the beginning as a lead-in from Cyberpunk to Shadowrun, with the idea that we would end it with the Awakening from Shadowrun and segue straight into a Shadowrun campaign, GM’d by me. Unfortunately in the interim people started making sounds about wanting more fantastical gaming, and I started doing my Traveler campaign, so we probably won’t go straight to Shadowrun now – it may go on hold for a little while so we can do something different. This Cyberpunk campaign has taken something like 18 months and has been an incredible, epic experience, but over that period I guess the focus has shifted away from cyberpunk worlds so that everyone will want a break for a while. With Degenesis and Traveler to occupy us, I probably won’t come back to GM a Shadowrun New Horizon for a while. Despite that minor slip up, our GM didn’t want to change the ending, and I think it’s safe to say everyone was very, very happy with witnessing the Awakening. We have just enjoyed, I do not hesitate to say, the most epic Cyberpunk campaign ever.

I’ll be putting up some more posts over the next few weeks about back story, how plots intertwined together, some moments of combat I had to skip from this report, and why Ghost died. There were so many completely awesome moments in this campaign that they cannot all be reported, but I hope it’s clear from the care I have taken with Drew’s voice that she is one of the best characters (possibly the best character) I have ever played. I have never played a character so engrossing, so competent, so valuable to the party and so completely enjoyable as The Druid. I think it’s safe to say this won’t be the last time her voice is heard on this blog!

Music credits: All poetic interludes are Sisters of Mercy, from the songs Nine While Nine and Lucretia My Reflection.

fn1: Ghost’s player, the Quantum Dutchman, has been doing a lot of downtime, during which he seems to have rescued some fragment of Sam’s soul and probably also arranged for the destruction of Alt’s rocket.

Advertisements