Horror


Today I read transcripts of Donald Trump’s post-midterms press conference, and I stumbled upon this fascinating quote:

And Barbara Comstock was another I think that she could’ve won that race, but she did not want to have an embrace. For that, I do not blame her. But she lost substantially lost. Peter Roskam did not want the embrace. Erik Paulsen did not want the embrace. And in New Jersey, I think that he could have done well, but did not work out too good. Bob, you can come, I feel badly, that is something that could’ve been one. John Faso. Those are some of the people that decided for their own reason not to embrace, whether it is me or what we stand for, but what we stand for meant a lot to a lot of people.

And I was struck by this language: I’ve seen it before. The embrace is the process by which people are turned into vampires. This is a direct reference to the process of becoming a vampire in the Vampire: The Masquerade role playing game. This is deeply depressing for two reasons: first of all, because it means that there is a vampire in charge of the nuclear codes; and worse still, because it means the pretentious artistes at White Wolf were right all along[1]. Those bastards!

Once you realize that Trump is a vampire from that RPG, it answers a lot of questions. Obviously the orange “fake tan” is actually some kind of special chemical make up that enables him to emerge in sunlight (presumably he learnt the tech from Tony Blair); I guess Trump’s secret solution to the abortion issue is to make everyone undead, so it no longer matters; and now we know why so many Republicans are paedophiles – it’s a vampire thing, paedophilia. It’s disturbing to know that a large proportion of the US congress are vampires, but judging by Trump’s speech a lot of members also refused to accept eternal life and give away their actual souls in exchange for power; but it’s also very disappointing to know that even though they didn’t actually get eternal life, they still gave up their metaphorical souls for temporal power, which makes one wonder why they didn’t just go the whole hog and accept the embrace? These people are going to hell for what they did, why not trade their full soul for eternal life? This kind of half-arsed equivocation is just pathetic, Representative Comstock!

Anyway, we all know these people are arseholes with bad policy ideas, and that they’re also pathetic cowards, so it’s kind of believable that they would baulk at the full embrace but still enact the policies. The real question is: what kind of Vampire is Trump? What clan is he? There are many clans to choose from, but I have narrowed it down to four possibilities.

  • Malkavian: These guys are insane, described as lunatics and jesters, but also visionaries. Some are fanatics, and some have an instinctive ability to pick apart and reassemble minds. Listening to James Comey’s description of his meetings with Trump, you can imagine Trump is doing that. A Malkavian? Possibly…
  • Nosferatu: These guys are deformed, warped by the Embrace, which would explain a lot. They’re hideous, evil beasts driven by their passions, twisted by the Embrace. Unfortunately the definitive text also says they’re more human than other vampires, and Trump shows no human traits, so … maybe not.
  • Ventrue: I think this is most likely, the clan devoted to power and persuasion. The latest text describes two of their archetypes as “cold-blooded corporate director” and “conservative politician”. The Ventrue use their powers to control both the supernatural and mortal world. They blend in with the leading political, media and corporate figures of their age, which would enable a monster like Trump to fit in and find a way to excel …
  • Caitiff: Another possibility, my personal favourite, is that Trump is a caitiff, someone who was embraced and abandoned and doesn’t know their own lineage. Having discovered himself alone and powerful and prey to the clans, he has decided to go loud, and defend himself by being so public and so powerful that no one can touch him. Everything he does is a desperate thrashing out at the supernatural forces closing in on him. For bonus salivatory fun, he was turned by a Ventrue, who has been staked for making such a disastrous mistake – and who was a democrat. In fact all the major dems are vampires, and Trump is their by-blow. If you doubt me, look at page 103 of the new book – if that’s not Hilary Clinton I’m a goblin.

I don’t know how the White Wolf crew figured this out – perhaps they’re vampires too and this is some cosmic joke – but instead of writing a pretentious and unworkable RPG they should have spent their creative years warning us about the dark powers in our midst. This is particularly ironic given I joined a Vampire game a while back and created a character who lived in the ruins of one of Trump’s failed casino projects.

How can the world have gone so wrong!?

 


fn1: I guess there is also the possibility that Trump is an avid Vampire role-player, and he was just deploying a metaphor. This would be simultaneously great and incredibly creepy. It would be great because it would so wonderfully troll the lefties at White Wolf to know that Cheeto Jesus is a Vampire player; but it would also be deeply disturbing. I have been roleplaying for 30 years and I play some pretty disturbing games but I could not imagine anything as grotesque as Trump, John Kelly, Stephen Miller and Sarah Huckabee-Sanders in the basement of the White House rolling d10 dice pools in some deeply pretentious storytelling game. No! I would rather that Trump were a vampire, and armageddon were incoming!

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So watch the old world melt away
A loss regrets could never mend
You never miss it till it’s gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
We’ll tell our children’s children why
We grew so tall and reached so high
You never miss it till it’s gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
To seasons end
It was the morning of the winter solstice in neolithic England. The PCs stood next to the Chieftain of the People, near the Stonehenge Heel Stone. Ahead of them lay the stones, the gap in the tallest glowing with the faintest hint of dawn’s first light. The high priest stood in front of the Chieftain, facing the stones and composing himself ahead of the festival. Nearby one of his acolytes squatted in the snow, holding a clay bowl heavy with a slop of fresh pig’s blood and earth. Behind them the People stretched out along the avenue, clustered together against the dawn wind but still thronging the avenue in their numbers, the crowd stretching down the hill into the pre-dawn gloom. Here on the slope of Stonehenge the wind had a biting chill, whipping the thin, crisp coating of new snow into a fine mist that somehow managed to creep through even the tightest-clutched clothing. Knuckles turned blue in the chill wind, noses dripped and froze, but everyone bore the chill stoically, for this was the most important ceremony of the year, winter solstice, when the world turned for another year. Everyone wore their finest clothes, the browns and greys of their best quality furs forming a grim smear across the otherwise pristine white of the surrounding hillside. Many were painted in wode and wearing their best seashells and feathers.
To fit the occasion, the characters had come in their military finery, as befitted guests of the chieftain being honoured for their heroic deeds, though perhaps one of them had brought all his most potent charms for baser, more paranoid reasons. They were three:
  • The Dark Ram, a grim old man from an obscure cult that specialized in darkness, stone, fear and cold; once great in his youth, he was now an old man hunched inside tattered robes, leaning on a black staff topped with the horned skull of a great goat
  • Wolfson, a berserker from the cult of blood, standing firm and proud in his hide armour, fine stone axe held proudly in his strong right arm, the antithesis of the Old Ram, youth and beauty and pure violence against the old man’s frailty and grim blood worship
  • Fast Current, a naive acolyte of the cult of the forests, shivering in the chill wind, not yet used to the privations of religious life, eager to be a part of the most important rite of the year

The Chieftain stood, as always, nervous and uncertain, his weak jaw receding into flabby chins, smelling of pig fat and sour mead. They all knew of the rumours and discontent – indeed, Dark Ram had suggested they decline the invitation to avoid being seen to be allies of this fading man, who was once a hero but now a maligned administrator, but no one could look at Fast Current’s eager religious fervour and not allow him to this one special moment in dawn’s fierce glow. Now Fast Current did not notice as the Chieftain stood, impatiently waiting for the whole thing to be over, probably already scheming about what to do with the various factions aligned against him as he stood in the bitter chill of the coldest day of his 57th year, standing silently witness to his 31st winter solstice as chieftain. Tired. Looking for something, anything, to firm up his weakening grip on the People he had spent his life serving.

The time came. The Chieftain raised his arms. The High Priest stepped past the characters and raised his robed arms towards the people, tried to catch that moment when they all breathed out in unison, that was always snatched away by the Henge’s brutal winds. He turned back, began the recitations of the Necessary Invocations, walked his away around the Small Circle and the Lines. The crowd watched in anticipation as his acolyte scampered forward, he took the bowl of blood and soil and theatrically poured it into the ditch of the Henge (Being careful not to let the wind spill any onto his robes). As he did this his priests, standing at carefully spaced locations along the avenue, began the Chant of the New Life, and an astromancer walked slowly down the line of the people, singing old songs about the stars and the rhythm of the seasons. At regular junctures the priests turned to cast fresh pig fat onto the fires burning in the ditches each side of the avenue, ensuring that the People were bathed in the cleansing light of the fires.

Calling forth the New Sun always takes time. The High Priest continued his chanting and his movements in the Circle, as the priests led the chant for the People, and from the hillside a slow sussuration of poetry reached them over the hiss of the wind. In truth the High Priest mumbled, and it was hard for the PCs to follow his words from their lofty position on the hillside away from the clear spoken priests, but they struggled along as best they could. The Chieftain, well-versed by now in all these processes, muttered the words of the prayers to himself and cast his gaze impatiently to the horizon, waiting for the sun to break over the hillside so that he could send the People home and return to his scheming. Everyone’s attitude was divided between the clarion call of the new year’s rituals, and the bitter cold of the hillside. In such strange interstices is the fate of the new year held.

The Priest began to raise his voice, casting some powders onto the wind from his sleeves. He stepped back past the PCs to face the crowd, raising his voice as the Priest’s voices raised to a crescendo, then turned back to the Heel Stone, arms raised wide, the sleeves of his robe slipping back to reveal the tattoos and leathers embracing his skinny old arms, and raising his voice to a loud, powerful call, yelled “Rise, oh sun!” The crowd drew in their breath as one, a brief sharp sound that carried over the whispering of the wind. Everyone faced the stones.

The sun did not rise.

Still, sometimes the Priest’s call could be a little early, and in any case this ritual was powerful. They waited.

The sun did not rise.

They waited some more. Their call had to proceed into the earth, after all, deep into the realms beneath the ground past the silent halls where the dead slept, to the place where the sun slumbered, and raise it up to the sky. Perhaps sometimes it takes time to drag the sun forth (is the sun a man or a woman? Has it a gender? Opinions were divided, but if it did have a gender it might be a stubborn old man, or a wilfull young woman. They could wait).

The sun did not rise.

The land remained bathed in the shadow of pre-dawn. The wind continued to blow, chill and harsh, not softened at all by the knowledge that the new year’s light shone on them. Over the hills and far away was a faint glow, but the sun did not rise. It was cold.

People began to mutter. The sun had not risen. Everyone knew the stories. Recently their crops had been failing, and bad things happening. Some said that the Chieftain’s decision to move the bluestones was the reason – had he cursed the sun itself? Somewhere in the crowd, someone said something. Laughter ripped up the line. That old story! But the laughter stilled quickly, because this was serious. If the sun did not rise … people began to mutter more darkly.

The Chieftain was not stupid, he had not presided over 31 winter solstices because he could not read the mood of his People. “Priest,” he grunted, perhaps more disrespectfully than was appropriate for such a ceremony. “Have you messed up the timing? Are your astromancers drunk again?”

The High Priest apologized to the Chieftain, and stepped back to face the crowd. “It is a cold year, and the sun sleeps deep!” He called in his clearest priest’s voice, the voice that had won him power those years ago when his rivals tried to argue with the people on matters of theology, but he called out to them in pure tones of eager rhetoric. “We must call it together, as one!”

The priests obeyed, raising their voices in the Call, and the High Priest led the people on another round of chanting. Now he had one eye over the shoulder at the horizon, waiting for the moment to raise the call. The chant stretched out, and finally he turned, arms raised, and yelled “Rise, oh sun!”

The sun did not rise.

The Dark Ram spat. He could feel trouble brewing in the bones of the earth. The High Priest looked at the Chieftain, uncertain and pleading. Twenty one years ago the last High Priest had gone against the Chieftain on a matter where religion intersected with popular opinion, and a week later he had been found dead in a gully, apparently crushed under an Aurochs. Everyone knew that the Chieftain had not always been weak. He had not always been desperate either. Wolfson looked around at the crowd, readying himself to fight, and also to decide on which side to fight. Fates seemed, briefly, to hang in the balance.

Below them on the avenue the muttering rose again. Someone called out something at the back of the crowd, people snickered – it was the sound of agreement, not amusement. The light was still dim, but in the ruddy glow of the fires the priests’ uncertainty was obvious. The Dark Ram stepped closer to Wolfson and muttered, “Ready yourself.” He cast a warning glance back to Fast Current, who stood confused in the cold wind, not understanding the flows of religious and popular discontent.

The Chieftain hrmphed gently to himself, the sound of a bitter man making a hard decision. He stepped through the characters to face the crowd, stopping briefly when he was level with their ruddy, wind-blasted faces to whisper to them, “You will follow my lead or your end will be bitter,” and then presented himself to the crowd, arms raised, a sudden picture of confidence.

“Oh People!”, he called out to them, his voice suddenly taking on all the clarion tones of his youth. Suddenly their chieftain was not a weak and fading old man, but had called back the power that had led him to this position at such a young age, and helped him maintain it through many challenges. “We face a mighty test! The sun has not risen! Our priests have done their all, but it has not risen!” At this he cast a grim look back at the High Priest, that spoke of angry meetings yet to be held in quiet groves. “I feared that this would arise, because dark forces work against us.” He paused, to watch the crowd muttering to themselves. Dark forces? What dark forces? Did the Chief know something? “But do not fear, my People, because your fate rests safe with me! I assembled these heroes here against this possibility!” His arm swept around to take in the PCs, and the crowd roared their approval. “Whoever has stolen the sun from us, whatever chains hold her fast in the underworld, they will find her, and bring her back!” Thus it was that with a casual sentence the Chieftain answered the religious debate of the age – the sun was a woman! And also sent the characters to their doom. Hearing his confident young voice come back to him, the crowd roared their approval. “They will set out immediately to find the sun, and to bring vengeance upon whoever dared to interfere with her. Have faith in the heroes of our People, my friends! But now, return to your homes and the warmth. Trust in me, your Chief!”

The crowd roared their approval. The chieftain turned to frown at the characters, and after a nudge from the Dark Ram both Wolfson and Fast Current raised their arms to wave at the crowd. At the urging of the priests it began to disperse, and the Chieftain stepped in close to them. “My hut shortly,” he ordered them tersely. Turning to the High Priest, he snarled, “You two, for what it’s worth!” and marched off.

The Wild Women

They trudged back to the Chief’s hut, which was really not much bigger than anyone else’s, and furnished with the same simple bedding of birch branches and hay, though a little colder on account of its size. The Chieftain sat on his pallet, frowning at the High Priest and sucking down an early mead. He grunted his approval when the characters entered.

“Trouble,” he snapped at them. “We need to fix it, or we’re dead.” He frowned over at the High Priest. “No one knows what’s happening. You have to fix it.”

They stood helpless, unable to refuse or suggest any ideas. Finally the Dark Ram coughed and stepped forward. “Do you have any suggestions about what we should do?”

The Chieftain spat. “You’re the ancient wizard. Fix it!” He looked over at his High Priest. “What about you?! Any ideas?”

The High Priest shuffled his feet. “Well actually … they could try the Wild Women.”

Wolfson and Fast Current shuddered, in time with the Chief. The Dark Ram shrugged. “That is a desperate play. Are you really out of answers?” The Dark Ram was good at hiding his fear.

“There is nothing in the stories of our people to explain this. It is otherworldly. The Wild Women stand between the worlds. Perhaps they will know.” The High Priest looked strangely smug about his answer. Of course, rumour was that the Dark Ram had stolen his lover, back when they were both young and the Dark Ram was still a rutting goat. What better fate for him now, than to face the Wild Women?

The Dark Ram shrugged. “So be it. We will visit the Wild Women. We will save the People.” He turned his dark, blood-tired gaze back on the High Priest. “Our reward will be suitable to the task, I am sure.”

“Yes yes, I’m sure everything will be very fine for you if you just solve this problem,” the Chieftain interjected, hustling them towards the door to his hut. As he pulled the hangings aside and they marched out, he added, “Do not bother returning until you find the sun. You know your fate.”

They separated to their huts to gather traveling equipment, and regrouped a short while later in the snow at the edge of the village, shivering in the cold, and at the task to come. They had all heard rumours about the Wild Women, who live in a swamp near Avebury:

  • They are served by giants
  • They live in another realm and only come to this world to make mischief
  • To lay with one is to gain eternal life, but they only lay with women
  • They are beautiful
  • They are terrible crones

With these conflicting stories in their minds, they prepared to set off for the swamps of Avebury. Before they did, however, Fast Current bid them wait, while he performed a ritual in the forest. They returned to their huts as Fast Current called on the spirits of the trees, drawing forth their knowledge about the land. After some hours of constant chanting a vision came to him, of red-headed children fleeing into the swamp to escape strange snakes made of shadow. Dark things stirred in the land to their north!

They set off into the grey pre-dawn afternoon, marching north first through a patchwork of forest and small communities, dotted with fields and little wattle-and-daub huts, until the land slowly gave way to the full, thick forest that ruled the land beyond the communities. A narrow path cut through the forest, beaten down by generations of the People walking the path from Stonehenge to Avebury, and said to be safe but for the odd bear. The huge trees of the ancient forest loomed over the path, casting it into near darkness in the dawn light. They picked their way carefully along the path, vigilant against the strange horrors Fast Current had seen in the dreamings of the tree-spirits, but emerged safely after a few hours onto a sweeping vista of swamp and open hills, the heaths and swamps to the west of Avebury. The distant hills hung like low clouds on the horizon, barely visible in the dawn glow. Below them the swamp stretched to the east and north, a grim smear across the landscape. Mostly it was tall reeds and strange, stunted trees, shrouded in a dark and unwelcoming mist, but at some points ancient trees rose above the murk, vine-festooned branches reaching out to the sky as if they were trying to claw their way out of a stagnant pond.

They walked down the hill towards the swamp. Near its edge they found a small hamlet, just a collection of a dozen or so mud huts, and bargained with a farmer to take one of the town’s least popular members as a possible sacrifice to the Wild Women. The townsfolk let her go easily enough, a flame-haired beauty who they said was no good at farming and always fussed over mud and guts, better suited to sacrifice or religious observance than the hard life of the fens, and they took her with them into the swamp.

They guessed that the best way to find the Wild Women was to walk to the centre of the swamp, and they were not mistaken. After a few hours, as they rested on a tree stump by a foul-smelling stretch of ice-coated water, they suddenly found themselves being watched by a girl-child. This wild scrap of innocence squatted on the twisted bough of a tree some distance from them, ragged furs hanging loose on a bony frame, tearing chunks of meat off of the fresh, twitching corpse of a rabbit with disturbingly sharp teeth. She stared at them with huge, unblinking violet eyes. After a moment, sure she had their attention, she tore the rabbit in half, letting its steaming guts fall to the ground at the foot of the tree, and bounded off into the shadows. Grunting and sighing, they heaved themselves to their feet and marched after her.

She led them a merry chase for an hour, making sure they were thoroughly lost and covered in vile swamp-mud by the time they arrived at a huge, imposing burial mound. This mound was far bigger than those around Avebury or Stonehenge, and by its look far older, perhaps built back when Stonehenge was new. A huge, dead tree grew from the grassy top of the mound, and thick stands of spiny bushes surrounded it. They pushed through and into a dark entry chamber, where suddenly the girl disappeared. Ahead of them in the main chamber of the mound they could see a faint glow; in the side chambers they saw fresh bodies, old bones, and heard the disturbing smacking sounds of something sucking the marrow from bones. They hastened forward, into a huge and shadowed cave, that was obviously much larger than the mound could possibly have allowed. It stank of mud and death, but it was so large that they could not see what horrors might be hanging from its far walls. A shaft of sunlight fell from a huge crack in the ceiling, incongruous given the fractured seasons outside, and lit a strange cascade of thin, semi-transparent discs that hung from the ceiling on inconceivably thin, shiny strands of leather, as if someone in here could spin quartz into thread. On one side of the chamber, near a small fire, lay the broken body of a young man, its guts spilled into a puddle of water, a crow watching them forbiddingly from atop the corpse’s blood-smeared back. Opposite them, on the far side of the chamber, wreathed in shadow, sat an adult woman in a thin robe, lounging on a large stone dais. Something huge moved in the shadows behind them, something they could not quite make out, though occasionally they caught a glimpse of a massive fingernail or an ear or a gleaming yellow eye far above them in the shadows.

The woman held her arms wide in a gesture of welcome. “You seek us, you found us. Explain your needs.” She dragged out the word ‘needs’ in a manner both thrilling and threatening. Fast Current and Wolfson hesitated, but the Dark Ram was in his element. He stepped forward, staff held high, dragging the sacrifice-girl forward by one hand, and pushed her to her knees on the rough floor of the cave.

“We bring a sacrifice. We wish to trade for information.”

The woman shrugged dismissively and ignored the girl, who was doing an admirable job of restraining her terror. For someone fussy about mud and guts, she had surely already seen a lifetime’s worth in morning. She sat still and ready to die as the Dark Ram explained their dire situation, and tried to negotiate the terms by which they could get the information they needed.

It did not take long to settle terms. As soon as the sun rose again, the entire group would come to this mound and serve the Wild Women for a year. In return the woman told them what they needed to know: that there was something wrong at Silbury Hill, and they must go there to find the solution to the world’s problems.

They agreed to the price, and left for Silbury Hill.

The hill

Silbury Hill

To the east the swamp slowly rose and merged into forest, but before they could reach dry land they were ambushed. Emerging from a stand of reeds into a wide, shallow frozen pool they were suddenly attacked by three thick, black snakes that came sliding out of the reeds around the pond. Each was wider than a human leg and longer than a person, and as they slid through the reeds the plants nearest to them seemed to wilt away from them. These snakes emerged from the shadows in a rush, opening wide, toothed mouths and glaring balefully from eyes that were red like fire. Even as they attacked, the characters could tell something else was coming from the reeds, and as battle was joined that thing leapt out into the pool with a mighty huff! It smashed onto the ice and reared up to attack them, a giant dog-like creature with scales like a dragon, and the same fiery red eyes. It’s first act was to spit a massive gob of acid onto Wolfson, and then the battle was joined.

They prevailed, but Wolfson was injured and they were all exhausted and feeling physically sick. Even as they stood in the ruins of the battle, the frozen water of the pool seeping through their shoes, the corpses of the snakes began to melt and steam, fading rapidly away and leaving only a terrible stench. The dog-demon thing lay dead in the pool, decaying more slowly and horribly than its companions. They gathered themselves together and hurried out of the swamp. These were the things the trees had dreamt, and they guessed there must be more. Where had they come from?

Another long walk took them to Silbury Hill, which they approached in the traditional way, from the east. Here an earthwork causeway connected the hill to the land, bridging the ditch that held the hill apart from the land around. As they approached they could see a dim light atop the hill, as if a fire had been lit. They crossed the causeway and climbed the hill, emerging breathless to its windswept summit to find a scene of murder and ruin.

The light did come from a fire, which was still smouldering near the centre of the hilltop. A corpse lay in the fire, partly smothering it and partly feeding it, and two more lay brutalized on the ground near the fire. All three were young, two children and one barely an adult. They were emaciated and showed signs of having been abused for a long while, their bodies decorated with old and new bruises. They wore pathetic clothes, just rags against the cold, and the sores on their feet and faces suggested they had been in the cold weather for some time before they died. The one in the fire had been killed by having his throat cut, but the cut was a fine, clean slice, better than any stone knife could do, and the other two also showed signs of having been repeatedly cut and stabbed with something much sharper than humans could design. Some demon must have come here and killed them.

This, then, was the cause of all their problems. Silbury Hill formed a barrier between the underworld and the real, a kind of sinkhole that could only keep the underworld at bay if it was regularly maintained and prepared, and kept pure. No one should visit it, and anyone who did must observe the proper rituals. Nothing earthly could be done up here – no waste, no sex, no foul words, no birth and certainly no death. Death on Silbury Hill was only allowed in the form of sacrifice, the death of a pure child prepared properly for the ritual of sanctifying the barrier. The kind of profane death they had seen here must only cause pollution.

By killing these children, someone or something had broken the seal between the underworld and the real, stopped the sun in its tracks and unleashed the beasts of hell into the earth. The Dark Ram knew all this, and told them in a steady, cold voice. The damage could be undone, by giving these children a proper burial at Stonehenge where their souls could be recalled and rested, and then performing the proper rituals here to sanctify the place again. But there would be no point if whoever did this simply came back to do it again. They needed to find out why this had been done, and find the perpetrator, and destroy them. A ritual was required.

The Dark Ram prepared one of the bodies, setting it in the proper fashion and painting its cheeks with the correct tinctures. The girl provided the blood, just a smear of fresh blood from a cut on her arm, and then they fell back to wait as the Dark Ram called the body’s soul back from where it had fled, to draw on its memories.

He saw flashing images of horror and violence. A large boat pulling up on the shore and big men in dark armour smashing into a tiny collection of mud huts. A group of them dragged screaming away while the rest died in the river shallows, or in the shade of great oaks where they ran to hide. Fires burned. Then there was a boat, a storm, exhausting flash of water and crash of waves, then peace on the shore and the sound of woodworking. Then flight, a small group of them running into snow and darkness. Hiding on the hill, but found, attacked by the grim dark men, the taste of blood, then fire and death.

The children were escaped slaves, pursued here and murdered on the hill as punishment for their flight. Some were still abroad, running from their captors. But who would kill children on the hill, knowing the risk? They must find these slaves, and destroy them.

Giants among men

The slavers

They decided first to go to Avebury, which was nearby, and warn the people of Avebury of the danger in the woods around, as well as finding a group of warriors to remove the bodies and take them back to Stonehenge for a holy burial, but they did not reach the town. After just ten minutes on the path to the town they were ambushed by a squad of huge and terrifying warriors. There were four of them, and they gleamed. All four were much larger than the PCs, perhaps a whole head taller and much bulkier. They carried large bows that were much better made than those the group carried, and each had a knife of a strange glowing substance that was much harder and sharper than their own weapons. The leader had plates of the glowing stone-like stuff on his leather armour, and carried a larger knife that was as long as a man’s arm, and terrifyingly sharp. They hurled themselves into battle, yelling strange words in a language the characters did not understand, and the group prepared to sell themselves dearly against these great, beautiful, terrible men.

But the men had no magic. The Dark Ram called forth shadow magic to steal their health, and Fast Current entangled them in vines, and Wolfson went into a berserk rage, and the glowing men did nothing in return. No magic of any kind. Although they injured Wolfson and Fast Current, they could not win. One tried to run away but they managed to catch him and kill him, and then they followed his path over some hills to find a larger camp, with another 6 of the same men squatting around fires, cleaning their strange weapons. Everything these men carried was so much more beautiful and perfect than anything the heroes had ever seen – but they had no magic, so they did not see Fast Current watching them. The PCs sneaked away and continued to Avebury, where they raised a larger force. Within two hours the six big, shining men were dead, ambushed and surrounded and slaughtered by the people of Avebury. In the battle they all saw how the strange men’s amber-coloured swords cut perfectly through flesh, and realized that these must be the men who had killed the children on the hillside.

In the camp they found a single slave child tied up, beaten and cowed and dumped inside a tent – one of the children recaptured. Wolfson, they discovered, spoke the child’s language – he was Welsh, one of the hillfolk who live to the north of the wild seas beyond Avebury. He told them his story. The strange men had come to their village in a huge boat, raided and taken children captive, then returned to the sea. One of the men spoke a little Welsh, and told them that they would be sacrifices in a far land, where these men had come from, and where magic had slowly faded from the world. Desperate to bring the magic back, these people had begun making human sacrifices to the dark gods to try and appease them and stop the draining of their powers, but nothing worked, so they began to sacrifice more. When the sacrifices became too much burden on their own people they began traveling to nearby kingdoms to take slaves for sacrifice, and the easiest place, they said, was this island, because on this island everyone was primitive and stupid and could not defend themselves.

So they had been taken, and they would have gone to this far land to be killed in offering to the dark gods, except that a storm drove their ship ashore and damaged it, and while the men were repairing it half of the slaves escaped. When they came in sight of Silbury Hill their group split, with some heading into the forest to the west, some deciding to hide on the hill, and others scattering east. The slavers had caught the ones on the hill, then headed east and found this prisoner, and they were sending out scouting parties looking for more when the characters raided their camp. The attempt to recapture the slaves was thus broken, but perhaps 10 or 12 more of these men were camped to the north, by the sea.

Epilogue: Futures past

Wolfson put on the armour and carried the sword of the slaver leader when they attacked the slavers at the coast. In battle though, he realized that the armour made him sluggish, held back his frenzy, deadened his sense of the wild. He shrugged it off at last, threw away the sword, and in a killing frenzy beat his enemies to death with a stone he picked up from the beach. It was a bitter fight, the 30 or so fighters of the People up against the 12 slavers, but they won. Wolfson confided in the Dark Ram, and they threw all the cursed goods onto the boat, set it alight and pushed it into the reach. These men had powerful weapons and armour, some new technology that shaped stone to be harder than stone, and made them powerful and great, but somehow it had sucked out their magic. It wasn’t the gods of the underworld they needed to appease, but their own lust for progress.

The People stood on the shore watching the ship slip out to the reach, the fire slowly consuming it. They would stay as they were, and their magic would defend them against whatever strange new age encroached from over the water. They turned to face the newly rising sun, strong in their faith and their confidence in their astrologers, and set their faces to Stonehenge. Let the new era come – they were more than a match for it!

 


Note: this adventure was inspired by the desire to tell the story of the Welsh cremation remains recently uncovered in Stonehenge, as recounted here.

The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

Nail them to the wall

In September 2017 Philip Morris International (PMI) – one of the world’s largest cigarette companies – introduced a new foundation to the world: The Foundation for a Smoke Free World. This foundation will receive $80 million per year from PMI for the next 12 years and devote this money to researching “smoking cessation, smoking harm reduction and alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers”, with the aim to draw in more money from non-tobacco donors over that time. It is seeking advice on how to spend its research money, and it claims to be completely independent of the tobacco industry – it receives money from PMI to the tune of almost a billion dollars, but it claims to have a completely independent research agenda.

The website for the Foundation includes a bunch of compelling statistics on its front page: There is one death every six seconds from smoking, 7.2 million deaths annually, second-hand smoke kills 890,000 people annually, and smoking kills half of all its long-term users. It’s fascinating that a company that as late as the late 1990s was claiming there is no evidence its product kills has now set up a foundation with such powerful admission of the toxic nature of its product. It’s also wrong: the most recent research suggests that 2/3 of users will die from smoking. It’s revealing that even when PMI is being honest it understates the true level of destruction it has wrought on the human race.

That should serve as an object lesson in what this Foundation is really about. It’s not an exercise in genuine tobacco control, but a strategy to launder PMI’s reputation, and to escape the tobacco control deadlock. If PMI took these statistics seriously it could solve the problem it appears to have identified very simply, by ceasing the production of cigarettes and winding up its business. I’m sure everyone on earth would applaud a bunch of very rich tobacco company directors who awarded themselves a fat bonus and simply shut down their business, leaving their shareholders screwed. But that’s not what PMI wants to do. They want to launder their reputation and squirm out from under the pressure civil society is placing on them. They want to start a new business looking all shiny and responsible, and the Foundation is their tool.

PMI have another business model in mind. PMI are the mastermind behind iQos, the heat-not-burn product that they are trialling with huge success in Japan. This cigarette alternative still provides its user with a nicotine hit but it does it through heating a tobacco substance, rather than burning it, avoiding much of the carcinogenic products of cigarettes. PMI have been touting this as the future alternative to cigarettes, and are claiming huge market share gains in Japan based on the product. Heat not burn technologies offer clear harm reduction opportunities for tobacco use: although we don’t know what their toxicity is, it’s almost certainly much lower than tobacco, and every smoker who switches to iQos is likely significantly reducing their long term cancer risk. What PMI needs is for the world to adopt a harm reduction strategy for smoking, so that they can switch from cigarettes to iQos. But the tobacco control community is still divided on whether harm reduction is a better approach than prohibition and demand reduction, which between them have been very successful in reducing smoking.

So isn’t it convenient that there is a new Foundation with a billion dollars to spend on a research platform of “smoking cessation, harm reduction and alternative livelihoods.” It’s as if this Foundation’s work perfectly aligns with PMI’s business strategy. And is it even big money? Recently PMI lost a court case against plain packaging in Australia – because although their foundation admits that smoking kills, they weren’t willing to let the Australian government sell packages that say as much – and have to pay at least $50 million in costs. PMI’s sponsorship deal with Ferrari will cost them $160 million. They spent $24 million fighting plain packaging laws in Urugay (population: 4 million). $80 million is not a lot of money for them, and they will likely spend as much every year lobbying governments to postpone harsh measures, fighting the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and advertising their lethal product. This Foundation is not a genuine vehicle for research, it’s an advertising strategy.

It’s a particularly sleazy advertising strategy when you consider the company’s history and what the Foundation claims to do. This company fought any recognition that its products kill, but this Foundation admits that the products kill, while PMI itself continues to fight any responsibility for the damage it has done. This company worked as hard as it could for 50 years to get as many people as possible addicted to this fatal product, but this Foundation headlines its website with “a billion people are addicted and want to stop”. This Foundation will research smoking cessation while the company that funds it fights every attempt to prevent smoking initiation in every way it can. The company no doubt knows that cessation is extremely difficult, and that ten dollars spent on cessation are worth one dollar spent on initiation. It’s precious PR in a time when tobacco companies are really struggling to find anything good to say about themselves.

And as proof of the PR gains, witness the Lancet‘s craven editorial on the Foundation, which argues that public health researchers and tobacco control activists should engage with it rather than ostracizing it, in the hope of finding some common ground on this murderous product. The WHO is not so pathetic. In a press release soon after the PMI was established they point out that it directly contravenes Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which forbids signatories from allowing tobacco companies to have any involvement in setting public health policy. They state openly that they won’t engage with the organization, and request that others also do not. The WHO has been in the forefront of the battle against tobacco and the tobacco industry for many years, and they aren’t fooled by these kinds of shenanigans. This is an oily trick by Big Tobacco to launder their reputation and try to ingratiate themselves with a world that is sick of their tricks and lies. We shouldn’t stand for it.

I think it’s unlikely that researchers will take this Foundation’s money. Most reputable public health journals have a strict rule that they will not publish research funded by tobacco companies or organizations associated with them, and it is painfully obvious that this greasy foundation is a tobacco company front. This means that most researchers won’t be able to publish any research they do with money from this foundation, and I suspect this means they won’t waste their time applying for the money. It seems likely to me that they will struggle to disburse their research funds in a way that, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do not. I certainly won’t be trying to get any of this group’s money.

The news of this Foundation’s establishment is not entirely bad, though. It’s existence is a big sign that the tobacco control movement is winning. PMI know that their market is collapsing and their days are numbered. Sure they can try and target emerging markets in countries like China but they know the tobacco control movement will take hold in those markets too, and they’re finding it increasingly difficult to make headway. Smoking rates are plummeting in the highest profit markets, and they’re forced to slimmer pickings in developing countries where tobacco control is growing in power rapidly. At the same time their market share is being stolen in developed countries by e-cigarettes, a market they have no control over, and as developing nations become wealthier and tobacco control strengthens e-cigarettes grow in popularity there too. They can see their days are numbered. Furthermore, the foundation is a sign that the tobacco companies’ previous united front on strategy is falling apart. After the UK high court rejected a tobacco company challenge to plain packaging laws, PMI alone decided not to join an appeal, and now PMI has established this foundation. This is a sign that the tobacco companies are starting to lose their previous powerful allegiance on strategy against the tobacco control movement. PMI admits they’ve lost, has developed iQos, and is looking to find an alternative path to the future while the other tobacco companies fight to defend their product.

But should PMI be allowed to take their path? From a public health perspective it’s a short term gain if PMI switch to being a provider of harm reducing products. But there are a bunch of Chinese technology companies offering e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking. If we allow PMI to join that harm reduction market they will be able to escape the long term consequences of their business decisions. And should they be allowed to? I think they shouldn’t. I think the tobacco companies should be nailed to the wall for what they did. For nearly 70 years these scumbags have denied their products caused any health problems, have spent huge amounts of money on fighting any efforts to control their behavior, and have targeted children and the most vulnerable. They have spent huge amounts of money establishing a network of organizations, intellectuals and front groups that defend their work but – worse still – pollute the entire discourse of scientific and evidence based policy. The growth of global warming denialism, DDT denialism, and anti-environmentalism is connected to Big Tobacco’s efforts to undermine scientific evidence for decent public health policy in the 1980s and 1990s. These companies have done everything they can to pollute public discourse over decades, in defense of a product that we have known is poison since the 1950s. They have had a completely pernicious effect on public debate and all the while their customers have been dying. These companies should not be allowed to escape the responsibility for what they did. Sure, PMI could develop and market a heat-not-burn product or some kind of e-cigarette: but should we let them, when some perfectly innocent Chinese company could steal their market share? No, we should not. Their murderous antics over 70 years should be an albatross around their neck, dragging these companies down into ruin. They should be shackled to their product, never able to escape from it, and their senior staff should never be allowed to escape responsibility for their role in promoting and marketing this death. The Foundation for a Smoke Free World is PMI’s attempt to escape the shackles of a murderous poison that it flogged off to young and poor people remorselessly for 70 years. They should not be allowed to get away with it – they should be nailed to the wall for what they did. Noone should cooperate with this corrupt and sleazy new initiative. PMI should die as if they had been afflicted with the cancer that is their stock in trade, and they should not be allowed to worm out from under the pressure they now face. Let them suffer for the damage they did to human bodies and civil society, and do not cooperate with this sick and cynical Foundation.

And she will come from India with a love in her eyes
That say oh how my dark star will rise
In rented gear two thousand years we waited for a man
But with a whispered plea she’d die for us all tonight.
And she will come from India with a gun at her side,
Or she will come from Argentina
With her cemetery eyes that say
Oh, how my dark star will rise,

And she will rise.

Final confessional: Gunfire in the distance, occasional strange sounds, a young woman talking to the video in English that the mutants can barely understand because it is so ancient and rich with the accents of a different world. She is dark skinned, wearing a shroud of tattered cloth covering her hair, her teeth and skin perfect in a way that the mutants viewing the video cannot imagine – she is beautiful in the way all the ancients seem to have been. She is talking about being driven out of her home south of the river, of running out of London and then being corralled back in again – the viewers gasp, was this ravaged city they live in once called London? –  telling the phone that the world is ending, her refugee camp is under attack, they have broken through. As she talks, urgently, low and fast, her voice a stream of lyrical, barely comprehensible English from the Time That Was, they watch in appalled fascination. This is the whole world they never knew, failing before them, and this wonderful mysterious dark-skinned beauty their only tether to it.

She goes on. No one knows what’s going on or how it started, the monsters are everywhere. She knows she cannot last much longer, the city is infested with them and they are so strong, they hunt at night and in the day and the great ones are invincible. She will run, but maybe one day someone will survive, and will want to know what happened. She’s going to leave her phone here with the charger so maybe some survivor in the future can find it and see what happened. She looks urgently over her shoulder one more time, then at the camera with a look of such yearning and loss that it reaches through the phone, across time and into their hearts in the Ark. Then it snaps to darkness.

Fearful flight: Video taken running over rooftops, with fire exploding in the background and screaming down below. Shaking camera as someone runs, a woman’s voice screaming close to the camera. It’s the same woman’s rich and mellifluous voice, but now it’s panicked and yelling in between gasps and heavy breathing. The video might have started with the intent to document what was happening but she has already forgotten that mission as she yells to her friends and screams and pants. Her friends are yelling back and to each other, an indefinite number of other voices further away as they all run across the sloping, red-ochre tiles of the old city. At one point the camera stops and everything lurches as the woman looks down into a gap between houses, where things move and hiss. She steps back and jumps, just covering the distance with a clattering of tiles, then jerks the camera around to show a small group of other running and leaping over the gap. She turns the camera back but jerks it as from behind there is a sudden, blood-curdling yell and someone screaming “They got Johnny!” She gasps but has no time for tears, suddenly jerking the camera left and down behind a stone outcropping on the roof. The rooftops and streets around darken suddenly as a huge shadow sweeps over, roaring, and fire explodes in the street across the road. The shadow slides past with a kind of sinuous, threatening elegance, and from further away they hear other men yelling, screams and weapons fire. She starts up and runs again and suddenly the gunfire is closer. From almost on top of her they hear the heavy chatter of machine gun fire, rough male voices yelling “Down, come down!” then the camera cuts out as they clatter into a dark stairwell.

Mushroom cloud: A shaky video starts with a howling wind and rattling, then steadies, it’s resting on some kind of railing on a high tower. Far away the sky is erupting into a mushroom of smoke rising high into the azure blue of a perfect clear day. Stretching from the horizon to halfway towards the camera is the grey mass of a city, and there are millions of fires sprouting from various places in the middle of the city, smoke haze blanketing the lower parts of the sky below the mushroom cloud. A woman is talking, describing how they had to nuke the city to stop them. It’s the last stand, they’re doing it up and down the country, she says, and then shifts the camera right after a brief flash, to show a more distant cloud beginning to sprout on the horizon. As it rises, after a still moment, there is a distant roar, and then the back of the cloud lights up with a flash from over the horizon. “That’s Southampton, maybe more beyond. We didn’t have a choice.” Then the sound of crying as the wind washes gently by, and the two mushroom clouds rise slowly higher.

Urban horror: The same woman’s desperate sobbing in darkness, then the camera shifts and we are looking from behind a rubbish bin at a long street full of trapped cars. It’s twilight and many of the street lights are broken but the car lights are on and it’s possible to see silhouettes and movement in the light of the cars. People are running from the cars, moving between them, and grey men are leaping across the roofs, jumping onto people and dragging them down and ripping and tearing. Somewhere out of sight there is a deep roar and a much larger figure – familiar now to the mutants – leaps onto a car, screaming in rage. Its scream paralyzes people, who turn and collapse in horror and allow the grey men to catch them. The woman sobs and the camera shakes, then behind her we hear someone saying urgently, “Kara, we have to go! Come, come! Run!” Then the camera jerks and they run into darkness.

Oh when there’s no future
How can there be sin
We’re the flowers
In the dustbin
We’re the poison
In your human machine
We’re the future
Your future

God save the queen
We mean it man
There’s no future

No future
No future
No future for you

 

The Ark’s heroes have returned from pacifying the Doom Cult that they found to the northwest. Now their attention was fully focused on the last remaining aboveground threat, the Dark Castle that lay just to the west of the Ark, menacing and grim broken towers looming over their near horizon. But first they wanted to find Shellah, and investigate the strange black tablet she had shown them before. It must be charged by now …

She found them, however, before they could look, in an urgent haste. They were waiting in their sky temple perhaps an hour before service started, chatting and relaxing, when she appeared from down below in an unusual hurry, not even wearing her outer layer of ragged stinking clothes and in such an urgent rush that her usual caution and reticence was all but forgotten. She produced the black tablet without suspicion or fanfare and swiped a strange, arcane pattern across its face. The thing came to life, a vibrant brilliant screen festooned with bright icons across a background of pure grass and sky. She showed them one particular icon, a white triangle on a grey background, and pressed it. The screen changed, revealing a mosaic of squares with different pictures on them. She pressed the top left one, and they all jumped back in shock as the sound of one of the other bosses, Pieces, jumped out at them. Moments later they realized they were watching a recorded image, and relaxed.

The video had been secretly filmed by Shellah at a waste site near the Ark, maybe 200m away, that the Ark’s members use to discard rubbish and search for old remnants of the ancients. It was taken at sunset, with a pink sky and pink light reflecting off the dome of the ark. There were two bosses – Pieces and Jared – standing alone in a small hollow of the waste dump, the shadows of a few guards visible in the far edge of the video, just visible on the far side of the hollow. They were talking about a plot, and Shellah must have been filming the whole thing from a hiding place within earshot, her camera undetected amongst the junk.

PIECES: It’s gone on long enough yo. The hawks and the church are too much.

JARED: Agreed. Any more of this and she’ll own all the whole rotten bleachers. I’ve got trouble enough with my supplicants, I don’t need her rabble-rousing with her stupid revolution.

PIECES: No helping it now, the stupid bitch is in heat now, and we just gotta deal with the noise. Her gang ain’t the only problem though – she’s got fucking friends.

JARED: We could deal with that. Snag ‘em on a mission, take ‘em down and make everyone think it’s the Zone. We could –

PIECES: Don’t be stupid! If it fucks up, or even one of them escapes, we’re in deep shit. No, mate, we gotta act smart, not brutal. Get the punters to take her down for her own ambition, leave us smelling like roses after she’s gone. Gotta get her smart, mate.

JARED: Smart ain’t your strong point Pieces. Remember when you –

PIECES: Shut the fuck up about that, it’s ancient fucking history. Now listen, I’ve got a plan. We can fix this real smooth if we can set her up. You wanna hear?

JARED: Sure, what’s your bright idea, Pieces? Right now I’m thinking a knife in the dark, but if you got something better …

PIECES: Everyone knows she’s sniffing around the Elder, got in sweet with a Chronicler, right? But right now they all think she’s so sweet she can’t do nothing wrong, but if we turn that on her, she’ll look like the conniving bitch she is, and a crim to boot. We just gotta plant a little something on her to make it obvious.

JARED: How you gonna do that, Pieces? She’s fucking stitched up tight!

PIECES: Not so tight. Her fixer Monja owes me a big line, some shit I sorted out a while ago, been feeding me juice from inside her gang for a while now. Nobody knows. Not even you, you little shit.

JARED: How the fuck, Pieces?! That’s some smooth operating. Looks like I’m gonna have to shake down my gang and flush out your fixes, you little fucker.

PIECES: You won’t find them, pigshit. Now listen. We got an inside in the Vault, right? With Shenagler, the silly old idealist. He tells me he can smuggle out a few pieces of prime goods, small but valuable. A jar of antibiotics, some painkillers and a tattoo kit, he’ll hand them over to Monja right here tomorrow night. Then Monja takes them back and slips them into Bloody Jack’s room while she’s at church. A few hours later Shenagler leads a mob of Chroniclers over to Bloody Jack’s and demands to search the stuff, makes a right fuss about stolen shit. Then bang! Finds them after a bit of faffing around pretending to search, Bloody Jack’s as good as dead. It’ll get the stupid Chronicler she’s hanging with too. The rest of them probably will get away, but if any of them move to help her we can cut them down legitimate. You and me, we have a word with L’il Kim and see if we can’t all three push to break up her gang and have her friends exiled. Problem solved.

JARED: Sounds great to me Pieces. But what do you want me to do?

PIECES: Everyone knows about Bloody Jack and me, but they think you’re mostly out of it. I want you to step in and make my case. I’m gonna be doing one of my boys, nowhere to be seen, innocent as the driven snow. You gotta provide the muscle to make sure it works out – have your gang get there in time to make sure the search ain’t interrupted, have your men rile up the crowd when the time comes, get the mob up and at ‘em. It needs to look like it’s the real deal, not a set up by the guy everyone knows is Bloody Jack’s enemy. You do it, and we split her gang and her stuff. But I get the stalker, Lonnie, that’s the deal. I wanna find out if it’s a man or a woman. Not that it matters, once I’m done with it it’ll wish it had never been born. Had my eye on Lonnie for a while, that’s my personal treat from this little mission.

JARED: Alright then, so tomorrow night, sometime after church? Get my gang ready for some rabble-rousing and a bit of security for the Chroniclers. Hang Bloody Jack and her pet Chronicler out to dry, hand Lonnie over to you, exile the rest. Split the stuff.

PIECES: That’s right. Remember the man who’ll be making the case is Shenagler. Don’t fuck it up, okay?

JARED: I won’t, Pieces. But hey, how many Chroniclers have you got in your pocket, anyway?

PIECES: More than enough, man. More than enough. I’ll get to the Elder eventually, don’t you worry.

JARED: That’s heresy, you fucker.

They slapped hands, and scramble out of the hollow in two different directions. The video ended, to the sound of gentle sighs from the assembled group.

They all looked at each other. This video was taken yesterday, and Shellah had only just brought it to them, so time would be tight. They had to get something organized by the end of the church service or they would all be exiled … or worse. And Lonnie … They needed to act.

Breaking the Bosses

Their plan was simple. They would grab Monja when she slipped into Bloody Jack’s room, and offer her the choice of death or turning double agent. Then Monja and Shellah would take the stolen artifacts and hide them in Pieces’ room, somewhere where it looked obviously like he had been keeping them to himself. When the crowds came to Bloody Jack’s room she would open it for inspection, and then some of Bloody Jack’s contacts and gang in the crowd would begin demanding that Pieces room be searched. While everyone prepared their trap, Preacher gave a resounding speech in the church of the sky god about how they were all a community now, and they must have rules and that anyone who went against the common good was betraying all of them, working the gathered mutants in the church into a fever pitch of righteous anger about theft and breaking the rules. As the speech came to an end Pieces seized the moment to declare that he had evidence right now that one of the mutants had stolen from the Ark, and they must show the righteousness of Preacher’s ideas by holding this person responsible.

While Preacher preached the party moved into action. They ambushed Monja as she was in the act of placing the goods, and caught her hiding behind a curtain. She agreed to help rather than face the inevitable bloody end that her betrayal warranted, and accompanied Shellah to Pieces’ headquarters to bury the stolen goods in a suitably incriminating place. By the time the agitated crowd arrived at Bloody Jack’s quarters, led by Pieces, Jared and Shenagler, everything was ready. Bloody Jack blustered and played her part, but welcomed them in to search the quarters, where they found nothing. As the search came to its conclusion Shellah and Chang Chang began to yell in the background, and Chang Chang revealed the video recording. The entire over-agitated crowd then went to Pieces’ quarters, where they found the stolen goods exactly where Monja had placed them. Monja claimed to have had a change of heart and returned them to their original place in Pieces possession, and the trap was sprung.

Pieces and Jared tried to fight, but they had been caught red-handed. By the time full night was upon the Ark they were hanging from ropes outside the upper halls of the Ark, and their gangs had been broken up, the leaders exiled and the rest returned to lives of toil and insignificance. The Ark had gone from four gangs to two, and L’il Kim’s gang was now on the outer, weakened by her tacit submission to Pieces’ heretical plans. Bloody Jack and the group were in the ascendant, and their thoughts turned now to the last remaining task – reckoning with the Elder and the neglect of the Dawn Vault.

But before they did that there was one final threat to the Ark they needed to extinguish – the Dark Castle. They began their preparations.

Visions of the Apocalypse

Before they headed to the Castle, though, there was something else they needed to do – Shellah’s tablet. They realized that if she had been able to film Pieces’ and Jared’s conspiracy then whoever had owned that tablet in ancient times must have been able to film the world before … the old world. They wanted to look through all the other videos they had seen on that screen, and see what they could learn. Had this tablet’s owner filmed the apocalypse itself? Could they see what had really happened when the ancients’ world fell? They sought out Shellah on the higher steps of the bleachers, and sat with her to watch the videos on the tablet.

They were right. The previous owner of the tablet had filmed the apocalypse. They watched in horror as the world fell under a wave of fiery monsters, and its people were consumed by an army of Grey Men – and their gigantic cousins.

The things that ended the world were swarming in the tunnels beneath them.

The Dark Castle

They decided to tackle first the last of the aboveground threats, and the next day, flush with their victory over the bosses, they gathered their forces and headed west to the Dark Castle. The Dark Castle was a brooding hulk of shattered stone surrounded by solid high walls and a moat of foetid, rot-filled water, that could be accessed by a small gate on the riverside, or a bridge crossing the rotten moat from the west. They did not like the look of the river at this point at all – it was dark and stinking, it’s torpid surface occasionally disturbed by the splashings of large, unseen beasts. At the western edge the bridge was largely intact, though only wide enough for them to cross two abreast. The thick dark waters of the moat reached almost up to the bridge, and a fine oily mist hung over the still mire, giving off a dreadful smell. They were halfway across the bridge when a huge eel-like creature surged out of the water and grabbed Bloody Jack. It was followed by a second one that hit Chang Chang. These things had huge muscly tubular bodies, mouths that hinged open in four directions, and four beady, malicious eyes. Once they hit their targets they writhed and splashed and tried to drag them into the water, but fortunately both Chang Chang and Bloody Jack were able to stand their ground as Grimshaw and Bloody Jack’s gang members hacked into them. The beasts let go and slithered back into the water, only to attack again a moment later. This time, though, the group was ready, and managed to hack the eel creatures to death. They twitched and spasmed on the bridge, flooding it with a vile slick of greasy black blood, before they slid off and floated away into the mist. As the mutants stood on the bridge panting and checking their numbers, something grabbed the corpse of one of the eels from below and it sank under the bilious surface of the moat, which began to churn with the movements of a swarm of scavengers. Disgusted, the mutants ran across the bridge to the far side and the shelter of the entrance gate.

Already damaged after just one battle, they retreated into the shadows of the gateway and sat down to rest, eating grub and drinking clear water and recovering. The gate formed a tunnel stretching through the wall to a narrow pathway between the outer wall and a thinner, smaller inner wall that was broken and crumbling in many places. Once they had rested they went through this inner wall and into the inner courtyard, which was ringed with buildings. In the middle of the courtyard was the main tower, a crumbling wreck of white and brown masonry thronging with trash crows, huge evil-eyed raven creatures perched all atop the wall and looking silently down at them as they entered. The ruined main tower was surrounded by thick grass, but the northern side of the courtyard was paved, and on that paving lay a horror show of scattered bones and corpse parts. Mostly they were animal bones, but in amongst them lay many human bodies. At the foot of the tower on its southern side an intact car lay untouched in the long grass of the courtyard.

First they ducked into a ruined building immediately to the left of the gate through which they had entered, uncovering a functional blowtorch that could be used as a weapon and a jar of antidepressants. Then they moved to the western side of the courtyard, where a skeleton clothed in tattered red cloth lay in wild grass. From that body they recovered a polearm that Grimshaw declared would make a fine weapon. Then their attention turned to the car. They approached it, but as their gearhead attempted to move into the long grass it began to swirl and curl around his legs, trying to drag him in as the blades began to sweat acid. They grabbed him and dragged him out just in time, but realized that the car was surrounded by acid grass, a deadly hazard of the Zone. Fortunately Grimshaw had brought his scythe, the Law, which was perfect for cutting grass. Sweeping the wicked weapon ahead of him, he cut a safe path to the car, and once there their gearhead was able to drive it out safely.

All the while the Trash Crows stared silently down at them.

They decided to drive the car around to the north of the tower, with most of the group inside it, Bloody Jack on top, and two of the group walking behind. However as soon as they approached the butcher’s arena to the north of the tower the Trash Crows leapt into the air and began to dive bomb the group, targeting Bloody Jack and the people behind the car. They turned the car around and fled to the house at the gate of the compound. As they drove they attacked the crows, but nothing worked – there were so many, swarming thick and fast around them that they could not do any damage with sword or hammer. Only fire could work! Fortunately Chang Chang had the blowtorch! He turned it on and set the gas canister to fully open, flooding the swarm with fire as Preacher chanted and sang and encouraged the gang. The fire of Preacher’s words inspired Chang Chang to reckless abandon with the blowtorch, and soon he had turned the entire swarm to cinders. Safe!

They explored the rest of the outer rooms in the tower, and the bones on the north of the tower, finding various treasures of the Ancients: a broadsword, a semi automatic pistol, a compound bow, a shotgun, and a suit that offered almost perfect protection against the rot. They also found an ID card of some kind. Then they opened the door to the northernmost building, which they guessed must hold the treasure they sought.

As soon as they opened the door they were attacked by a gang of wild dogs, who had made their lair inside the shattered remnants of the western half of the building. The dogs attacked fast but were no match for the group, who cut them down quickly, leaving one wounded one to run away yelping in fear through a gap in the far wall of the building. Here they found the building was split into two halves; they had entered the western, crumbling half but the eastern half was intact and the door to it locked, protected by a small box with a single blinking red light on it. They touched the ID card to the box and the door slid open, dim lights flickering on in a long corridor. This corridor ran between two walls of glass, behind which lay the treasures they sought: Many gaudy gold and silver sceptres, crowns and tiaras embedded with a furious assortment of tacky gems. And there in the middle, on a mouldering cushion, lay the huge chunk of diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor. They smashed the glass, grabbed the Koh-i-Noor and as many of the gems and over-shiny settings as they could, and fled the Dark Tower.

They had the gem they had sought. Now it was time to have two conversations with two very different old men. They would return the Koh-i-Noor to the old man north of the Ark, in exchange for whatever secrets he knew; and they would finally demand an audience with the Elder.

Since they had broken the bosses and the Dark Castle their view of the landscape had changed. As they trudged home across the gentle grass slopes north of the Dark Castle they looked across the ruins to the distant Ark, and they all agreed: This is ours, it is no country for old men. Let us take it from them!

I screamed aloud to the old man
I said don’t lie don’t say you don’t know
I say you’ll pay for your mischief
In this world or the next
Oh and then he fixed me with a freezing glance
And the hell fires raged in his eyes
He said do you want to know the truth son
I’ll tell you the truth
Your soul’s gonna burn in the lake of fire

 

When we last left our heroes they had returned from a successful overland mission, bearing a new gift for their Ark and wary of a new threat. Over the ensuing weeks and months their new gift came to fruition, and eventually the Ark had its Trash Hawk stables, and our heroes became the first to ride them from the Ark. This time their goal was to explore the areas north and northwest of the Ark, to see if there were any threats there and if possible to eliminate them. From the hill north of the Tower they had seen a damaged military base with only an old man living in it, and further to the west of there a stretch of ruins infested with nightmare flowers. They aimed to explore both of these places.

Nightmares bloom

First they flew their trash hawks to the northwestern area, circling over the area to look for threats. Their reconnaissance centred on a theatre at the centre of the sector, which stood at the junction of several wide roads and was surrounded by crumbling ruins. The entire area around the theatre was overgrown with stunted trees and rich fungal growths, the shattered and scattered brickwork of the old buildings slowly being submerged under the unstoppable tide of nature; but near the centre of the sector, around the front entrance of the theatre, the ruins were more clearly visible and the plant growth less abundant. Here the ruins were wrapped in vines as thick as a human leg, which crawled over old lamp posts and up the sides of remnant walls. At the top of these serpentine green cables hung huge scarlet flowers, each the size of a human, hanging pendulous and partly closed over all the area around the theatre. These flowers formed a kind of ring of blooms around an open clearing, which was overgrown with short, dusty fungi and small plants – and in the middle of that clearing lay a half-covered body, clinging in death to a hunting rifle that the PCs desperately wanted to take.

They landed their birds at a safe distance near an old stretch of grass studded at regular intervals with lozenges of concrete. Grimshaw saw a small shed at the edge of this park and decided to investigate, thinking there might be a scythe within – opening the door he was proven right, and was about to lay his hand on it when a massive Zone Spider ambushed him from the shadows of the shack. Fortunately his hammer justice was at the ready, and he dispatched the thing with a hail of vicious blows. Triumphant, he emerged bearing the scythe in one hand, and named it Truth. Better armed, and newly wary of their surroundings, they advanced carefully to near the edge of the clearing. A rope tied about him, Loony Lonnie crept carefully forward into the clearing, manifesting his plant-man mutation to try and appear part of the undergrowth, rather than as an intruder. The plants seemed not to notice him, so he crept in close to the body. The hunting rifle was still attached to it by a strap, so he had to carefully cut it loose, but then he noticed that it had other belongings, and began searching it carefully. First he found some magazines for the rifle, which he pocketed, and then he foolishly cut open the shirt over the skeleton’s shrunken chest, thinking to find something hidden within. But as he pulled open the old, dry cloth of the shirt he found himself staring at a huge human eye, embedded in the middle of the corpse’s chest and connected to all the nearby plants by a complex web of creepers and tendrils. Startled, he fell back in horror, and the plants reacted. At the top of every flower there was a shiver of movement and a ring of human eyes opened, followed almost immediately by the flowers themselves, which suddenly swelled as if taking in deep breaths of air. Then as one they jetted out bursts of brilliant scarlet powder, and Lonnie was lost to view in a cloud of pollen.

Grimshaw charged forward, scythe out, and began hacking at the plants. One of Bloody Jack’s gang rushed forward with him and unleashed a burst of fire into the plants, hoping to burn them into submission, and while the two of them laid into the supporting vines Bloody Jack herself sprung with her frog’s legs into the cloud, grabbed Lonnie, and leapt back out again before she could inhale any of the pollen. She landed back amongst the group carrying a semi-catatonic Lonnie, who lay twitching in her arms, eyes open, mouth wide in a silent scream.

They waited a few hours for Lonnie to recover from his nightmares, and decided to take the back entrance to the theatre.

The Phantom of the Opera

They passed carefully through the strange park of concrete lozenges to get to the back entrance to the theatre. Here they found a small door next to a rubbish dumpster, that seemed to have fresh meat in it. Only slightly perturbed, most of the team entered carefully through the downstairs door while Bloody Jack and one of her gang climbed to the 2nd floor window and crept in through that. Bloody Jack found herself in a make-up room, which opened into a narrow hallway that led to the upstairs entrance to the auditorium itself. Downstairs Lonnie, Chang Chang and Grimshaw picked their way through a different hallway into another entrance to the auditorium, and entered cautiously.

As soon as they were a few steps inside the auditorium they heard a hum and a brilliant column of light picked them out in the musty darkness. The room suddenly came to life, swelling to the tones of a rusty old pipe organ that, after a few bars of some ancient song, moaned and wailed away into silence. It was replaced by a huge booming voice demanding to know who they were. After that voice fell still a much smaller voice repeated its demand in a squeaky, scratchy whine, and they saw a tiny figure running into the darkness somewhere just ahead of them. From under the bleachers the same scratchy voice berated them.

As Chang Chang spoke carefully with the hidden figures, Bloody Jack moved carefully into the auditorium. She saw a kind of gantry on one side of the building near where she had come in, and spotted a tiny flickering light inside, so drawing her katana she advanced into the narrow space. It was empty but for some strange machinery sitting at the end, a single red light blinking on and off. Looking into the gloom of the room she could see the pillar of light striking down from a large lamp in the ceiling, and once her eyes adjusted to the dark and the dust she noticed that the ceiling and the gantry in which she stood were covered with many other similar lamps. Perhaps the machinery controlled the lamps? She considered advancing closer, but with no knowledge of machinery there was little she could hope to do, so she retreated and watched events below.

Under Chang Chang’s careful seductions the voice in the darkness revealed itself. Someone shuffled out from behind mouldy curtains on the theatre stage and drew himself up to his full height – a terrifying 3 metres! The creature they addressed was some kind of manbeast, a huge monstrosity of a mutant grown giant beyond normal dimensions. He argued and threatened Chang Chang, until finally Chang Chang realized what this thing wanted – an audience! So he offered the manbeast a deal, and of course when Chang Chang cuts a deal, he always comes out on top.

They emerged from the theatre a short time later with two new additions to the Ark: the mighty manbeast known as the Phantom, who would perform songs and plays from the old world for them; and his trusty sidekick piggy, a tiny wizened creature that barely seemed human, but seemed indispensable to the Phantom’s threadbare sanity. The Phantom revealed himself to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plays and stories of the ancient world, and he promised to educate all in the Ark through theatre and pantomime. Another win for their slowly stabilizing society!

The Old Man

They returned slowly with the Phantom and Piggy to the Ark, and after a day’s rest set out again, this time flying to the disused military base northwest of their Ark. They circled slowly in the sky looking for signs of danger, but saw nothing moving in the camp. It was a small camp built out of tents and makeshift walls of sand and rubble, already partly overgrown with fungus and creepers and slowly merging back into the blight of the zone. It must have been established a long time ago and long since abandoned or overrun, and it seemed to hold nothing of value except a boat on a trailer in one corner of the camp – and the strange old man who shuffled out from under one ragged awning to watch them land. He appeared harmless, just a bunch of rags with no weapons, but they were cautious nonetheless. They alighted from their birds and sent them back up into the sky, and slowly approached the man on foot.

He greeted them and welcomed them to his camp, but from the nasty looks he cast at Chang Chang they guessed that maybe this old man could read minds. He refused to tell them where he had come from how he had stayed alive so long in the Zone, or why he seemed to be unconcerned about the rot pervading his camp. Sitting them down at old seats under the awning he served them a vile apple liqueur he called “Scrumpy”, and talked to them randomly about many things in the past, but gave them no clues as to who he was or what he was doing in their area. He simply assured them he had arrived there “some time ago” and would leave “when he was ready.” He also saw them eyeing the boat, and then his manner became sharp and clear-eyed, all pretense of muddle-headed senility gone. He would swap the boat with them for a diamond. The diamond he wanted was called the Koh-i-Noor, and it was lost in the halls of the Dark Tower. He wanted brave adventurers to go in there and get it for him – “oh aye! And one o’ them scepters too if ye don’t mind” – but he would not tell them why it mattered to him. He implied that two or three previous groups of mutants had gone in and failed, but shied away from talking about who they were or how they met. He told them he did not need them to rush – “I’ll be ‘ere ’till my time ‘ere be done” – but also implied at some point he would be gone. He also threw in a second offer – bring him the diamond and he would throw in some secrets about the Ancients.

With that they were hooked, and they agreed to his deal. Something about his manner made them sure he really did know things, though they could not say why or how they were so sure. Perhaps he was an oracle, like the distant Oracle of the Silver Egg that they had heard about? Or perhaps he had simply learnt many things in his travels – regardless of the reason, they felt he had knowledge they needed and could not take. They also wanted that boat – they had a plan to build a road to the Two Towers and establish an outpost on their side of the river, and having a boat to operate on the river would strengthen their outpost. Yet somehow it felt deeply wrong to just take the boat from the Old Man – they needed to offer him something. And in any case, everyone knew at some point they would have to penetrate the Dark Castle, and neutralize whatever horrors lay within. Their map of the tunnels under the zone told them that there was an opening north of the Castle through which maybe Grey Men could emerge to harass them; the Dark Castle itself remained an enigmatic and continuing menace to their west. Having secured themselves against a major threat south of the river, they would need at some point to turn their attentions to those closer, but perhaps more quiescent, dangers. They were not quite ready yet, but with a little more time, and a little more delving in the ruins of this world, they would be.

They returned to the Ark, solid in their purpose, to prepare themselves for their next task.

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