Monsters


News continues to trickle out concerning the latest bullying scandal in American academia, on which I reported briefly in a previous post. Through the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog I found a link to this excellent Twitter thread on the damage done to the humanities by celebrity academics like Ronell. These celebrity academics don’t just exist in the humanities, and not just in the “literary theory” cul-de-sac of humanities. They also exist in the physical sciences (think of people like Dawkins and Davies), and they are also a thing in public and global health. In public and global health they are typically characterised by the following traits:

  • They build large teams of staff, who are dependent upon the celebrity academic for their positions
  • They have a flagship project or area of research that they completely dominate, making it hard for junior academics outside of their institution to make progress on that topic
  • They attract very large amounts of grant money, a lot of it “soft” money accrued through relationships with NGOs and non-academic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, AXA, the World Health Organization, and similar bodies
  • They have cozy relationships with editorial boards and chief editors, so that they get preferential treatment in journals like The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, etc
  • They attract a lot of applications from students and post-doctoral fellows, who often bring in their own funding in the form of scholarships and prestigious fellowships
  • They often have a media presence, writing commentary articles or having semi-regular invitational positions on local and national newspapers, in medical journals and on certain websites
  • They are on all the boards

This means that these celebrity academics are able to drive large amounts of research work in their field of expertise, which they often parlay into articles in journals that have high impact through friendly relationships with their colleagues on those journals, and they also often get invited into non-academic activities such as reports, inquiries, special seminars and workshops, and so on. Even where these celebrity academics are not bullies, and are known to treat their staff well and with respect, and to be good teachers and supervisors, this kind of celebrity academia has many negative effects on public health. Some of these include:

  • Their preeminence and grip on grant funding means that they effectively stifle the establishment of new voices in their chosen topic, which risks preventing new methods of doing things from being established, or allows shoddy and poorly developed work to become the mainstream
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals pushes other, higher quality work from unknown authors out of those journals, which both reduces the impact of better or newer work, and also prevents those authors from establishing a strong academic presence
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals enables them to avoid thorough peer review, enabling them to publish flawed work that really should be substantially revised or not published at all
  • The scale and dominance of the institution they build around themselves means that young academics working in the same topic inevitably learn to do things the way the celebrity academic does them, and when they move on to other institutions they bring those methods to those other institutions, slowly establishing methods, work practices, and professional behaviors that are not necessarily the best throughout academia
  • Their media presence enables them to launder and protect the reputation of their own work, and their involvement in academic boards and networks gives them a gatekeeper role that is disproportionate to that of other academics
  • Their importance protects them from criticism and safeguards them against institutional intrusion in their behavior, which is particularly bad if they are abusive or bullying, since junior staff cannot protest or complain

This is exactly what we are now learning happened to Reitman from his lawsuit – he tried to transfer his supervision to Yale but discovered the admissions officer there was a friend of his supervisor, he tried to complain to a provost who also turned out to be a friend of his supervisor, and he could not complain while a PhD student because of fear that his supervisor would destroy his job opportunities through her networks. We also see that Ronell (and friends of hers like Butler) have a disproportionate academic influence, which ensures that they maintain a cozy protection against any intrusion into their little literary theory bubble. Ronell’s books are reviewed (positively) by Butler, who then writes a letter defending Ronell from institutional consequences of her own poor behavior, which no doubt Butler knew about. There’s a video going around of a lecture in which Ronell’s weird behavior is basically an open joke, and in signing the letter some of the signatories basically admit that they knew Ronell’s behavior crossed a line but they saw it as acceptable (it was just her “style”). We even have one shameful theorist complaining that if she is punished, academics in this area will be restricted to behaving as “technocratic pedagogues”, because it is simply impossible for them to teach effectively without this kind of transgressive and bullying behavior.

One of the best ways to prevent this kind of thing is to prevent or limit the ascendance of the celebrity academic. But to do so will require a concerted effort across the institutions of academia, not just within a single university like NYU. Some things that need to happen to prevent celebrity academics getting too big for their boots:

  • Large national funding programs need to be restricted so that single academics cannot grab multiple pools of money and seize funding disproportionate to their role. This already happens in Japan, where the national grants from the Ministry of Education are restricted so that an academic can only have one or two
  • Private and government funds such as Ministry funding, and funding from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, needs to be more transparently accessible from outside the academy, and also more objective and transparent in assessment – you shouldn’t be able to work up a large amount of money for your research group just by being able to go to the write cocktail party / hostess bar / art gallery – basically at every level, as much as possible, grant funding should be competitive and not based on who you know or how much money you’ve already got
  • Journals – and particular senior journal editors – should stay at arms’ length from academics, and journal processes should remain transparent, competitive and anonymous. It simply should not be possible – as often happens in the Lancet, for example – to stitch up a publication by sending an email to a senior editor who you had a chat with at an event a few weeks ago. No matter how many times you have published in a journal before, your next submission to the journal should be treated in substance and spirit as if it were your first ever submission
  • Journals need to make more space for critical responses to articles, rather than making stupid and restrictive rules on who and what can be published in response to an article. I have certainly experienced having a critical response to an article rejected on flimsy grounds that I’m pretty sure were based on a kneejerk response to criticism of a celebrity, and it’s very hard to publish critical responses at all in some journals. A better approach is that pioneered by the BMJ, which treats critical responses as a kind of comment thread, and elevates the best ones to the status of published Letters to the Editor – this insures more voices get to criticize the work, and everyone can see whose critiques were ignored
  • Institutions need to make their complaint processes much more transparent and easy to work with. Often it is the case that serious harassment cases – physical or sexual – are easy for students to complain about the smaller and more common complaints, like academic misconduct and bullying, are much more difficult to complain about. I think it is generally true that if an academic is disciplined early in their career for small infractions of basic rules on misconduct and bullying, they will be much, much less likely to risk major misbehavior later
  • Student complaints need to be handled in a timely manner that ensures that they are able to see resolution before their thesis defense or graduation, so they can change supervisors if necessary
  • Academic advisors should never be able to sit on their own student’s dissertation committee, or on the committees of their close friend and co-author’s students, since this gives them undue influence over the student’s graduation prospects and kills dead any chance of a complaint (I can’t believe this happens in some universities!)
  • The academic advisor’s permission should never be a requirement for submission. At the very least, if your relationship with your advisor goes pear-shaped, you should always be able to just tell them to fuck off, go off and do the work by yourself, and submit it to an independent committee for assessment

I think if these kinds of rules are followed it’s much harder for academics to become celebrities, and much harder for their celebrity status to become overpowering or to enable them to stifle other students’ careers. But a lot of these changes require action by editorial boards, trustees of non-profits and NGOs, and government bodies connected to specific topics (such as ministries of health, or departments responsible for art and culture). Until we see wholesale changes in the way that academics interact with editorial boards, grant committees, private organizations and government agencies, will not see any reduction in the power and influence of celebrity academics. In the short term this influence can be fatal for students and junior academics, but in the long term – as we have seen in literary theory, it appears – it can also drag down the diversity and quality of work in the whole discipline, as a couple of bullies and pigs come to dominate the entire discipline, ensuring that no one deviates from their own line of work and no one ever criticizes their increasingly weak and low quality work. Academia as a whole benefits from genuine competition, diversity of funders and fund recipients, spreading grant money widely and fairly, and maintaining rigorous standards of independence and academic objectivity in assessing work for publication. Celebrity academics weaken all of those processes, and bring the entire academy down.

A final note: I cannot believe that academics invite students alone to their houses, or (as in this case) invite themselves to their student’s houses. There is no legit reason to do this. Every university should tell its academics, from day one: if you invite a student alone to your house and they lodge a sexual harassment complaint against you, you’re on your own – we will believe them every time. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances. And they should tell students from day one: if your supervisor (or any academic) invites you alone to their house, report it immediately. It’s simply terrible behavior, and no good will ever come of it. Reading the report that this student lodged against his supervisor, it’s simply impossible to believe that she wasn’t up to no good, and simply impossible to accept that the university did not uphold his complaint of sexual harassment. He has now launched a lawsuit, so we can now see all the details of what happened to him and how he dealt with it, and it looks like a complete disaster for NYU and for the professor in question. If the university had disciplined this woman much earlier in her career for much lighter infractions; if it had a clear rule forbidding these one-on-one home-based “supervision” arrangements, or at least making clear that they are a sexual harassment death zone for profs; and if the university gave its senior academics a clear sense that they are not protected from such complaints, then this situation would never have arisen. There is no excuse for this kind of unprofessional behavior except “I knew I could get away with it.” And the academic world needs to work to ensure no professor can ever know they can get away with it, no matter how famous and special they are or think they are.

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Recently I had the opportunity to watch three movies in quick succession: Solo, Death Wish and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Solo was kind of fun but overall these three movies were pretty ordinary, and none of them is really worth its own separate review. I thought I’d put reviews of all three in one post, as exemplars of how America’s cultural industries are falling apart before our eyes. It’s worth noting that all three of these movies are either remakes, sequels or part of a “franchise”, so there’s nothing truly original in any of them. In many ways they’re also movies that are designed to appeal, well, not even to the worst elements of our nature, but to the most banal elements of our nature. Is this how western civilization ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but a long drawn-out sigh of boredom?

Pacific Rim: Uprising

I want to start this review by pointing out that just a few years ago, when the Lord of the Rings, was first made (or was it the Hobbit? I forget and don’t care) a bunch of LoTR fanboys were ruing the fact that Guillermo del Toro didn’t get the gig as Director. Surely he, more than Jackson, would have been able to make these movies soar? Well now, having watched him royally fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, are you still sad that he didn’t get to make a movie with dragons and elves? A man who can fuck up a formula as invincibly, trivially easy as giant robots would surely have made an absolute dogs breakfast of something as subtle and culturally significant as LoTR. Thank God Jackson pipped him to that one, because this movie – even more than the shit sandwich that was the first one – was an absolute disaster. The worst thing about it obviously is the two people operating the one machine, in the bullshit “neural mesh” setup, who despite being neurally enmeshed have to operate their stupid giant robot by physically doing whatever it does. Watching the scenes of the soldiers in the brainpod (or whatever stupid name it has) I could only think of those ‘90s comedy skits in which terribly earnest acting school students pretend to be trees or ducks or something. What a fucking joke. Don’t get me wrong, if some idiot paid me a million bucks (or a fraction thereof!) to pretend to be running inside a giant robot I would be all in on that shit, but let’s not pretend it’s a contribution to western civilization. God no, burn that crap down. Also is it just me or is there some new phenomenon in action movies, let’s call it jockburn, where the lead characters are first introduced into the mess hall/ bunk room/ shower room where the other soldiers eat/ reside / fuck and your heart sinks when you realize that you are now going to have to sit through several minutes of macho posturing that is obviously meant to be in the vein of Aliens, but you know before it starts that it isn’t going to come close? And then there is the related experience where the leader is about to make a big speech, and suddenly you know the big speech is coming and you’re going to have to sit through about 20-30 seconds of “stirring” speech about how everyone has to fight and die for glory / the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child / a sack of French porn and you know it’s going to be a disappointing and shamelessly unselfconscious pile of cliches that will just make you squirm? What do we call that feeling? I think it’s an identifiable and common experience in modern action movies. Occasionally you get a good one (the one at the Gates of Mordor, the speech about taking chances in Rogue One) but mostly they’re just shit. And they aren’ t improved when, as in this movie, they refer to the speech in the previous movie (because that’s how low we have sunk) and try to pretend that this one won’t even be trying. Look, Guillermo (or whoever else squatted out this pile of shit), if your work is so bad that you know ahead of time that it isn’t going to compare to even the last steaming turd you dumped on us, please don’t insult us further by pointing out that you aren’t even phoning it in. Just fuck off home and don’t make this waste of pixels. Oh, and while you’re listening to tips from me, can you please please please drop the daddy issues? They weren’t constant and overwhelming in this movie like they were in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (thank the gods of shit movies that that arsehole had some trouble buried in his twitter feed! Now if we could just kill off the cast we can all go home happy!) but right at the peak of the movie, when they’re about to save the world, someone manages to make the resoundingly important point that the lead character is going to make daddy proud. Really? He’s going to risk his life saving the world and all those billions of people are going to be looking up at him as the dude who saved the world but his real single only concern is that his dead daddy will finally love him? He’s an adult, right? What is wrong with Americans and their daddy issues? Also what is wrong with the Chinese people in this movie? I can’t figure out if they’re meant to be the bad guys or patsies, if there’s a message about copying technology in there, or something else, but why did they have to be such arseholes? Also, when you choose to portray America’s current Big Trade Enemy as arseholes in an action movie, can I suggest that you perhaps go and check on how the Japanese were portrayed in the 1980s and ask yourself if perhaps, just perhaps, you’re just repeating a massive flyblown cliche? Because at this point in the cultural cycle of the west, any opportunity to do something original would be appreciated kthxbai. This movie also suffers from another weird problem of action movies that needs a name, perhaps something like self-referential SNAFU, in which there is a central problem or barrier that they have to overcome through some special means, but at some other point in the movie they immediately do exactly the thing they said they can’t do. In this case we’re told that you can’t make the giant robots (I refuse to call them Jaegers, fuck off) fly because there is no fuel that powerful, but in the very first action scene the stupidly named giant robot with the enormously stupid flail (fuck off already I cannot believe how stupid that flail is) jets out of the ocean and onto land using just the rockets in its feet which is exactly what they said these things can’t do. Also we’re told that they had to build these giant robots to fight the giant monsters because the giant monsters are invincible, presumably cannot be beaten with say a rail gun from space or a missile, but then their solution to the final massive, extra super powerful monster, is to drop a disabled giant robot on it from space. Now I don’t know how much these giant robots weigh but right now the Falcon Heavy rocket can put 64 tons of material in space, so it seems pretty easy and cheap to me to hoist say 600 tons of material into space, stick it all together, and drop it on your annoying giant monster. Why build stupid giant robots that need two terribly earnest method actors to neurally mesh (impossible – method actors don’t have brains) when you could just use your reusable rocket to build a makeshift rail gun at a fraction of the cost? This is the self-referential SNAFU I mentioned earlier. To be clear I don’t care if the pretext of the movie is that we need to build giant robots that can only be driven by method actors but I want the movie to stick to the pretext throughout. Failure to do so bursts me out of the bubble and just leaves me disappointed and feeling ripped off. Which is probably the best description for how this movie leaves you feeling. In conclusion: this movie was a joke of a reheated disaster, and if you can fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, you should fold up your director’s chair and go home.

Death Wish

This movie is a straight remake which has the single redeeming feature of having Bruce Willis in it. Bruce Willis is a legend, and anything he touches is made better (although I note that he was not in either Pacific Rim movie and I think we all know why). I haven’t seen the original but I remember when I was a kid it was hugely controversial because of its ultra violent story and the perhaps morally neutral approach towards vigilantism. Now, 40 years later, as militias roam the landscape and Sasha Baron Cohen can convince American politicians to advertise gun self defense schools for four year olds, we can look back to that time of controversy as a purer, more moral era. Now we can watch as the movie-maker postures through the issue by having talk radio hosts debate whether vigilantism is right or wrong without ever making a decision one way or the other, because heaven knows it would be terrible for someone’s career if they made an actual moral judgment on something as grey and uncertain as whether vigilantism is okay. So it is that Bruce (let’s not waste our time pretending his character has any other name) wanders this morally free and pure space murdering random criminals and getting his own back on the people who refrigerated his wife. Unfortunately for the pretext of this movie, the dudes who refrigerated his wife didn’t really even want to, and they’re just small time criminals, and two of them didn’t really even come across as especially bullying, and we didn’t see their faces, so it’s really really hard to get any strong feeling of revenge when he murders them. In fact it seems pretty clear that two of the criminals, at least, were strong candidates for rehabilitation – they were clearly intending just to rob him, they wanted as little trouble as possible, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, they clearly knew that rape and murder are wrong and should not be done, and they were just trying to make a buck. This isn’t to say they were nice people or anything but here’s the thing: this is a vengeance movie. I absolutely love watching bullies get murdered, beaten up, humiliated and destroyed, it’s pretty much the only reason I am still sitting through Game of Thrones. But for my bullies to deserve brutal murder instead of say 10 years to life, they need to actually appeal to my baser instincts. They need to be real arseholes. Not participants in an armed robbery that went wrong. This is why the only really truly satisfying murder is the death of the Ice Cream Man, who steals children’s money when they walk to school and shoots them in the foot if they don’t pay up. His death – and the subsequent looting, essentially, of his still warm corpse by the residents of the block – was the only satisfying death in this bland flick. The deaths might have been slightly more appealing but there was this additional subtext in this movie that made it really hard to fully get behind our hero Bruce – America’s ridiculous and unsustainable levels of inequality, and rich people’s fear of what will happen when America’s poor decide to do something about it. Bruce is a doctor, he’s obviously super rich, and he works in a hospital – a US hospital. We all know that hospitals in the US are key drivers of inequality, and the doctors who work in them get rich working in institutions that refuse healthcare to people who can’t pay, and bankrupt people who come to them for healthcare with bullshit emergency services like charging $500 for an aspirin. So some poor people break into Bruce the emergency doctor’s house to steal some of his ill-gotten gains, and their theft goes wrong because they’re idiots, so they kill his wife, and then this man goes on a spree, murdering poor people across the city. Additionally, at one point he goes into a gun shop and a smily second amendment girl called “Bethany” tries to sell him some guns and makes it really really fucking clear that she doesn’t care who he is and will sell guns to anyone (though she makes the weak sauce excuse that she doesn’t sell them to criminals haha). This entire fucking movie wouldn’t happen if the gun shop was closed down, “Bethany” was put out of a job (sorry Beth!) and everyone got access to universal health coverage. Bruce wouldn’t have got robbed, nobody would have been able to shoot Bruce’s wife and daughter, and Bruce would be able to go home from his job satisfied that he had spent all day saving lives rather than worried deep down inside that he actually spends all day saving only wealthy lives. And we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the (only very partial) thrill of watching a rich man hunt down and murder poor people for doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a world with no universal health coverage, no minimum wage, no gun laws and no sense. Now I guess someone is going to come on here and make some stupid point that I’m making excuses for murderers but I hardly need point out that anyone who defends Bruce is also making excuses for murderers. You can’t watch this movie and not make excuses for murderers (well, I guess you could tut!tut! at everything but where’s the fun in that). And if you live in Japan (as I do) you can be confident that nobody’s going to murder you for your watch, certainly not with a gun, and everyone can afford healthcare at Bruce’s swanky hospital, so Bruce’s riches are genuinely morally deserved, and he can be confident that his valet isn’t going to take a screenshot of his navi (except perhaps to steal his daughter’s underwear from the washing line). Call me a sad-arsed SJW if you will, but a movie where Bruce hunts down some people who brutally murdered his family for shits and giggles is slightly more engaging than a movie where Bruce the rich doctor hunts down and murders a bunch of poor people because they tried to rob his wife and daughter in a society where they can afford guns but can’t afford healthcare. (And don’t even get me started on how the cops are underfunded and overworked!) It’s not like these movies can’t be made! Korea makes awesome gangster movies, and Korea has gun control and universal health coverage. When a rich doctor goes on a murder spree in a Korean gangster movie I’m all in. Not so much when it’s against a backdrop of a crumbling empire with a huge inequality and gun problem, the contradictions of its own oligopolic order now so apparent that you simply can’t squint past them anymore. It steals some of the thrill, and it also makes the whole thing just … boring. In crime movie genre terms, making a boring revenge flick is like making a bad giant robot/monster movie. It should be impossible, but somehow whatever loser made this reboot managed to do it. Thanks for your efforts Bruce, but this wasn’t your best showing.

Solo: A star wars movie

This movie was actually fun! The train heist was a gas, and although the Mad Max elements were a bit obvious and overdone it was enjoyable watching the marauders having their fun. Han Solo was kind of forgettable and the less said about Amelia Clark’s acting the better, plus the betrayals and double-crossings were predictable and the bad guys were not exciting. But otherwise the movie kind of hung together, and although the whole thing in the maelstrom was sort of tedious bullshit, at least there was a tenuous effort at explaining the Kessel run, and given they took a short cut it made sense to refer to doing the kessel run in 12 parsecs (also I like that Han rounds it down and it actually took 13 parsecs, nice touch). That fixed a minor issue in the original movie that had always bothered me. Apparently – my friend tells me, because I won’t go into any cesspit of star wars fanboys – lots of people are pissed off with the director for fucking up a few parts of the original canon, because (spoiler alert!) at the end Darth Maul makes an appearance. Apparently the same fan boys who were pissed off that he died 12 years ago are now pissed off that he’s not dead, which doesn’t bother me at all because about the only thing that was good about the three prequels was Darth Maul’s fighting style (which I guess we won’t see him repeat since the stunt actor who did it must have retired). Also Jar Jar Binks, whose contribution to star wars lore by setting up a plausible theory that he was a Sith Lord is probably the only good cultural contribution of the three prequels. But I digress! One aspect of this movie that pissed me off was the way it implies Han started the rebellion by giving the hyperfuel to the tween girl in the groovy mask. In a universe of trillions of people over billions of planets, why does every single thing that affects the history of the universe have to hang on the actions of just four people? Can things be maybe slightly less incestuous? (And on a related note, the idea that Rey’s parents are nobodies is a ridiculous joke. There’s no way an American franchise is going to let that happen). So overall this movie was light, bearable fun. But I think it says something about Disney and modern American entertainment culture that a movie written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, set in a classic science fiction setting like this, would be just “light, bearable fun,” and that we are satisfied with this because at least he didn’t massively fuck it up.

Which brings me to my conclusion about these three documentaries on America’s cultural decline. What has happened to the production of cultural stuff in America that three movies set in three basically failsafe genres can be so shit that “bearably not fucked up” is our new standard of excellence? And why is it that they can’t make anything original anymore? Almost every action sci-fi now is a super hero movie from the same dumb universe, with no original thought put into any of them. I think the only original movie I have seen in the past three years was Atomic Blonde, and almost everything else has been either a remake, a fixture in an existing franchise or setting, or a sequel. What has happened in the past 30 years that the industry that produced Star Wars, Rambo, Aliens, Robocop, Last of the Mohicans, and that insanely cool Charles Bronson movie about the dude whose dog dies, cannot now produce a single original or interesting movie, and can’t make even half-decent movies in the genres and franchises it already has at its disposal? What’s going on in America now that what was once its powerhouse of cultural production has become so incredibly lame? And what will replace it?

The journal Molecular Autism this week published an article about the links between Hans Asperger and the Nazis in world war 2 Vienna, Austria. Hans Asperger is the paediatric pscyhiatrist on whose work Asperger’s syndrome is based, and after whom the syndrome is known. Until recently Asperger was believed to have been an anti-Nazi, someone who resisted the Nazis and risked his own career to protect some of his developmentally delayed patients from the Nazi “euthanasia” program, which killed or sterilized people with certain developmental disabilities for eugenics reasons.

The article, entitled Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna, is a thorough, well-researched and extensively documented piece of work, which I think is based on several years of detailed examination of primary sources, often in their original German. It uses these sources – often previously untouched – to explore and rebut several claims Asperger made about himself, and also to examine the nature of his diagnostic work during the Nazi era to see whether he was resisting or aiding the Nazis in their racial hygiene goals. In this post I want to talk a little about the background of the paper, and ask a few questions about the implications of these findings for our understanding of autism, and also for our practice as public health workers in the modern era. I want to make clear that I do not know much if anything about Asperger’s syndrome or autism, so my questions are questions, not statements of opinion disguised as questions.

What was known about Asperger

Most of Asperger’s history under the Nazis was not known in the English language press, and when his name was attached to the condition of Asperger’s syndrome he was presented as a valiant defender of his patients against Nazi racial hygiene, and as a conscientious objector to Nazi ideology. This view of his life was based on some speeches and written articles translated into English during the post war years, in particular a 1974 interview in which he claims to have defended his patients and had to be saved from being arrested by the Gestapo twice by his boss, Dr. Hamburger. Although some German language publications were more critical, in general Asperger’s statements about his own life’s work were taken at face value, and seminal works in 1981 and 1991 that introduced him to the medical fraternity did not include any particular reference to his activities in the Nazi era.

What Asperger actually did

Investigation of the original documents shows a different picture, however. Before Anschluss (the German occupation of Austria in 1938), Asperger was a member of several far right Catholic political organizations that were known to be anti-semitic and anti-democratic. After Anschluss he joined several Nazi organizations affiliated with the Nazi party. His boss at the clinic where he worked was Dr. Hamburger, who he claimed saved him twice from the Gestapo. In fact Hamburger was an avowed neo-nazi, probably an entryist to these Catholic social movements during the period when Nazism was outlawed in Vienna, and a virulent anti-semite. He drove Jews out of the clinic even before Anschluss, and after 1938 all Jews were purged from the clinic, leaving openings that enabled Asperger to get promoted. It is almost impossible given the power structures at the time that Asperger could have been promoted if he disagreed strongly with Hamburger’s politics, but we have more than circumstantial evidence that they agreed: the author of the article, Herwig Czech, uncovered the annual political reports submitted concerning Asperger by the Gestapo, and they consistently agreed that he was either neutral or positive towards Nazism. Over time these reports became more positive and confident. Also during the war era Asperger gained new roles in organizations outside his clinic, taking on greater responsibility for public health in Vienna, which would have been impossible if he were politically suspect, and his 1944 PhD thesis was approved by the Nazis.

A review of Asperger’s notes also finds that he did send at least some of his patients to the “euthanasia” program, and in at least one case records a conversation with a parent in which the child’s fate is pretty much accepted by both of them. The head of the institution that did the “euthanasia” killings was a former colleague of Asperger’s, and the author presents pretty damning evidence that Asperger must have known what would happen to the children he referred to the clinic. It is clear from his speeches and writings in the Nazi era that Asperger was not a rabid killer of children with developmental disabilities: he believed in rehabilitating children and finding ways to make them productive members of society, only sending the most “ineducable” children to institutional care and not always to the institution that killed them. But it is also clear that he accepted the importance of “euthanasia” in some instances. In one particularly compelling situation, he was put in charge – along with a group of his peers – of deciding the fate of some 200 “ineducable” children in an institution for the severely mentally disabled, and 35 of those ended up being murdered. It seems unlikely that he did not participate in this process.

The author also notes that in some cases Asperger’s prognoses for some children were more severe than those of the doctors at the institute that ran the “euthanasia” program, suggesting that he wasn’t just a fairweather friend of these racial hygiene ideals, and the author also makes the point that because Asperger remained in charge of the clinic in the post-war years he was in a very good position to sanitize his case notes of any connection with Nazis and especially with the murder of Jews. Certainly, the author does not credit Asperger’s claims that he was saved from the Gestapo by Hamburger, and suggests that these are straight-up fabrications intended to sanitize Asperger’s role in the wartime public health field.

Was Asperger’s treatment and research ethical in any way?

Reading the article, one question that occurred to me immediately was whether any of his treatments could be ethical, given the context, and also whether his research could possibly have been unbiased. The “euthanasia” program was actually well known in Austria at the time – so well known in fact that at one point allied bombers dropped leaflets about it on the town, and there were demonstrations against it at public buildings. So put yourself in the shoes of a parent of a child with a developmental disability, bringing your child to the clinic for an assessment. You know that if your child gets an unfavourable assessment there is a good chance that he or she will be sterilized or taken away and murdered. Asperger offers you a treatment that may rehabilitate the child. Obviously, with the threat of “euthanasia” hanging over your child, you will say yes to this treatment. But in modern medicine there is no way that we could consider that to be willing consent. The parent might actually not care about “rehabilitating” their child, and is perfectly happy for the child to grow up and be loved within the bounds of what their developmental disability allows them; it may be that rehabilitation is difficult and challenging for the child, and not in the child’s best emotional interests. But faced with that threat of a racial hygiene-based intervention, as a parent you have to say yes. Which means that in a great many cases I suspect that Asperger’s treatments were not ethical from any post-war perspective.

In addition, I also suspect that the research he conducted for his 1944 PhD thesis, in addition to being unethical, was highly biased, because the parents of these children were lying through their teeth to him. Again, consider yourself as the parent of such a child, under threat of sterilization or murder. You “consent” to your child’s treatment regardless of what might be in the child’s best developmental and emotional interests, and also allow the child to be enrolled in Asperger’s study[1]. Then your child will be subjected to various rehabilitation strategies, what Asperger called pedagogical therapy. You will bring your child into the clinic every week or every day for assessments and tests. Presumably the doctor or his staff will ask you questions about the child’s progress: does he or she engage with strangers? How is his or her behavior in this or that situation? In every situation where you can, you will lie and tell them whatever you think is most likely to make them think that your child is progressing. Once you know what the tests at the clinic involve, you will coach your child to make sure he or she performs well in them. You will game every test, lie at every assessment, and scam your way into a rehabilitation even if your child is gaining nothing from the program. So all the results on rehabilitation and the nature of the condition that Asperger documents in his 1944 PhD thesis must be based on extremely dubious research data. You simply cannot believe that the research data you obtained from your subjects is accurate when some of them know that their responses decide whether their child lives or dies. Note that this problem with his research exists regardless of whether Asperger was an active Nazi – it’s a consequence of the times, not the doctor – but it is partially ameliorated if Asperger actually was an active resister to Nazi ideology, since it’s conceivable in that case that the first thing he did was give the parent an assurance that he wasn’t going to ship their kid off to die no matter what his diagnosis was. But since we now know he did ship kids off to die, that possibility is off the table. Asperger’s research subjects were consenting to a research study and providing subjective data on the assumption that the study investigator was a murderer with the power to kill their child. This means Asperger’s 1944 work probably needs to be ditched from the medical canon, simply on the basis of the poor quality of the data. It also has implications, I think, for some of his conclusions and their influence on how we view Asperger’s syndrome.

What does this mean for the concept of the autism spectrum?

Asperger introduced the idea of a spectrum of autism, with some of the children he called “autistic psychopaths” being high functioning, and some being low functioning, with a spectrum of disorder. This idea seems to be an important part of modern discussion of autism as well. But from my reading of the paper [again I stress I am not an expert] it seems that this definition was at least partly informed by the child’s response to therapy. That is, if a child responded to therapy and was able to be “rehabilitated”, they were deemed high functioning, while those who did not were considered low functioning. We have seen that it is likely that some of the parents of these children were lying about their children’s functional level, so probably his research results on this topic are unreliable, but there is a deeper problem with this definition, I think. The author implies that Asperger was quite an arrogant and overbearing character, and it seems possible to me that his assumption that he is deeply flawed in assuming his therapy would always work and that if it failed the problem was with the child’s level of function. What if his treatment only worked 50% of the time, randomly? Then the 50% of children who failed are not “low-functioning”, they’re just unlucky. If we compare with a pharmaceutical treatment, it simply is not the case that when your drugs fail your doctor deems this to be because you are “low functioning”, and ships you off to the “euthanasia” clinic. They assume the drugs didn’t work and give you better, stronger, or more experimental drugs. Only when all the possible treatments have failed do they finally deem your condition to be incurable. But there is no evidence that Asperger considered the possibility that his treatment was the problem, and because the treatment was entirely subjective – the parameters decided on a case-by-case basis – there is no way to know whether the problem was the children or the treatment. So to the extent that this concept of a spectrum is determined by Asperger’s judgment of how the child responded to his entirely subjective treatment, maybe the spectrum doesn’t exist?

This is particularly a problem because the concept of “functioning” was deeply important to the Nazis and had a large connection to who got selected for murder. In the Nazi era, to quote Negan, “people were a resource”, and everyone was expected to be functioning. Asperger’s interest in this spectrum and the diagnosis of children along it wasn’t just or even driven by a desire to understand the condition of “autistic psychopathy”, it was integral to his racial hygiene conception of what to do with these children. In determining where on the spectrum they lay he was providing a social and public health diagnosis, not a personal diagnosis. His concern here was not with the child’s health or wellbeing or even an accurate assessment of the depth and nature of their disability – he and his colleagues were interested in deciding whether to kill them or not. Given the likely biases in his research, the dubious link between the definition of the spectrum and his own highly subjective treatment strategy, and the real reasons for defining this spectrum, is it a good idea to keep it as a concept in the handling of autism in the modern medical world? Should we revisit this concept, if not to throw it away at least to reconsider how we define the spectrum and why we define it? Is it in the best interests of the child and/or their family to apply this concept?

How much did Asperger’s racial hygiene influence ideas about autism’s heritability?

Again, I want to stress that I know little about autism and it is not my goal here to dissect the details of this disease. However, from what I have seen of the autism advocacy movement, there does seem to be a strong desire to find some deep biological cause of the condition. I think parents want – rightly – to believe that it is not their fault that their child is autistic, and that the condition is not caused by environmental factors that might somehow be associated with their pre- or post-natal behaviors. Although the causes of autism are not clear, there seems to be a strong desire of some in the autism community to see it as biological or inherited. I think this is part of the reason that Andrew Wakefield’s scam linking autism to MMR vaccines remains successful despite his disbarment in the UK and exile to America. Parents want to think that they did not cause this condition, and blaming a pharmaceutical company is an easy alternative to this possibility. Heritability is another alternative explanation to behavioral or environmental causes. Asperger of course thought that autism was entirely inherited, blaming it – and its severity – on the child’s “constitution”, which was his phrase for their genetic inheritance. This is natural for a Nazi, of course – Nazis believe everything is inherited. Asperger also believed that sexual abuse was due to genetic causes (some children had a genetic property that led them to “seduce” adults!) Given Asperger’s influence on the definition of autism, I think it would be a good idea to assess how much his ideas also influence the idea that autism is inherited or biologically determined, and to question the extent to which this is just received knowledge from the original researcher. On a broader level, I wonder how many conditions identified during the war era and immediately afterwards were influenced by racial hygiene ideals, and how much the Nazi medical establishment left a taint on European medical research generally.

What lessons can we learn about public health practice from this case?

It seems pretty clear that some mistakes were made in the decision to assign Asperger’s name to this condition, given what we now know about his past. It also seems clear that Asperger was able to whitewash his reputation and bury his responsibilities for many years, including potentially avoiding being held accountable as an accessory to murder. How many other medical doctors, social scientists and public health workers from this time were also able to launder their history and reinvent themselves in the post-war era as good Germans who resisted the Nazis, rather than active accomplices of a murderous and cruel regime? What is the impact of their rehabilitation on the ethics and practice of medicine or public health in the post-war era? If someone was a Nazi, who believed that murdering the sick, disabled and certain races for the good of the race was a good thing, then when they launder their history there is no reason to think they actually laundered their beliefs as well. Instead they carried these beliefs into the post war era, and presumably quietly continued acting on them in the institutions they now occupied and corrupted. How much of European public health practice still bears the taint of these people? It’s worth bearing in mind that in the post war era many European countries continued to run a variety of programs that we now consider to have been rife with human rights abuse, in particular the way institutions for the mentally ill were run, the treatment of the Roma people (which often maintained racial-hygiene elements even decades after the war), treatment of “promiscuous” women and single mothers, and management of orphanages. How much of this is due to the ideas of people like Asperger, propagating slyly through the post-war public health institutional framework and carefully hidden from view by people like Asperger, who were assiduously purging past evidence of their criminal actions and building a public reputation for purity and good ethics? I hope that medical historians like Czech will in future investigate these questions.

This is not just a historical matter, either. I have colleagues and collaborators who work in countries experiencing various degrees of authoritarianism and/or racism – countries like China, Vietnam, Singapore, the USA – who are presumably vulnerable to the same kinds of institutional pressures at work in Nazi Germany. There have been cases, for example, of studies published from China that were likely done using organs harvested from prisoners. Presumably the authors of those studies thought this practice was okay? If China goes down a racial hygiene path, will public health workers who are currently doing good, solid work on improving the public health of the population start shifting their ideals towards murderous extermination? Again, this is not an academic question: After 9/11, the USA’s despicable regime of torture was developed by two psychologists, who presumably were well aware of the ethical standards their discipline is supposed to maintain, and just ignored them. The American Psychological Association had to amend its code in 2016 to include an explicit statement about avoiding harm, but I can’t find any evidence of any disciplinary proceedings by either the APA or the psychologists’ graduating universities to take action for the psychologists’ involvement in this shocking scheme. So it is not just in dictatorships that public policy pressure can lead to doctors taking on highly unethical standards. Medical, pscyhological and public health communities need to take much stronger action to make sure that our members aren’t allowed to give into their worst impulses when political and social pressure comes to bear on them.

These ideas are still with us

As a final point, I want to note that the ideas that motivated Asperger are not all dead, and the battle against the pernicious influence of racial hygiene was not won in 1945. Here is Asperger in 1952, talking about “feeblemindedness”:

Multiple studies, above all in Germany, have shown that these families procreate in numbers clearly above the average, especially in the cities. [They] live without inhibitions, and rely without scruples on public welfare to raise or help raise their children. It is clear that this fact presents a very serious eugenic problem, a solution to which is far off—all the more, since the eugenic policies of the recent past have turned out to be unacceptable from a human standpoint

And here is Charles Murray in 1994:

We are silent partly because we are as apprehensive as most other people about what might happen when a government decides to social-engineer who has babies and who doesn’t. We can imagine no recommendation for using the government to manipulate fertility that does not have dangers. But this highlights the problem: The United States already has policies that inadvertently social-engineer who has babies, and it is encouraging the wrong women. If the United States did as much to encourage high-IQ women to have babies as it now does to encourage low-IQ women, it would rightly be described as engaging in aggressive manipulation of fertility. The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended. [Emphasis in the Vox original]

There is an effort in Trump’s America to rehabilitate Murray’s reputation, long after his policy prescriptions were enacted during the 1990s. There isn’t any real difference between Murray in 1994, Murray’s defenders in 2018, or Asperger in 1952. We now know what the basis for Asperger’s beliefs were. Sixty years later they’re still there in polite society, almost getting to broadcast themselves through the opinion pages of a major centrist magazine. Racial hygiene didn’t die with the Nazis, and we need to redouble our efforts now to get this pernicious ideology out of public health, medicine, and public policy. I expect that in the next few months this will include some uncomfortable discussions about Asperger’s legacy, and I hope a reassessment of the entire definition of autism, Asperger’s syndrome and its management. But we should all be aware that in these troubled times, the ideals that motivated Asperger did not die with him, and our fields are still vulnerable to their evil influence.

 


fn1: Note that you consent to this study regardless of your actual views on its merits, whether it will cause harm to your child, etc. because this doctor is going to decide whether your child “rehabilitates” or slides out of view and into the T4 program where they will die of “pneumonia” within 6 months, and so you are going to do everything this doctor asks. This is not consent.


The fellowship was composed of five members:

  • Tywyl Neidr, a hobbit and the sole survivor of the sacking of Rhosgobel
  • Eisa the Axe, Dunlending, an Eye of Saruman and Neidr’s oldest adventuring companion
  • Simir the Swan, a Wainrider from the East who sought the secret to his people’s troubles with the Shadow
  • Mercy, a Barding warrior-woman on a quest to avenge the death of her family
  • Olaf, a Barding archer

It was 2946, five years after the battle of the five armies. The fellowship had first met during that battle, and adventured together briefly in the aftermath, chasing Orcs and worst back into their rotten lairs in the iron hills. The fellowship had broken up but they had all made a solemn pledge: That if after five years of peace they still felt that the Shadow was undefeated, they would meet again and reform their fellowship, to commit again to struggle against the creeping evil from the south. Their appointed meeting place was the Easterly Inn, a small inn run by a hobbit family in the far north of the Vale of Anduin.

So it was that five years after the battle of five armies they met again in the Easterly Inn, all grimly certain of their purpose and bearing dark tidings of the Shadow that continued to hang over the west, and especially over the wilderlands. As soon as their greetings and reminiscences were done, they sought a task through which they could rekindle their fellowship.

The innkeep himself offered it to them. Rumour had been flying that the High Pass through the misty mountains was under siege from dark forces, and passage through it growing more perilous with every season. The innkeep had sent his own brother through the pass during the summer to return to the Shire for important supplies – pipe weed, brandy, the usual accoutrements of a well-stocked hobbit tavern – but now his brother was late and as the high summer passed he began to fear the worst. He needed reliable heroes to travel to the pass and find what had happened to his brother, and he was willing to offer a small portion of treasure for their troubles, as well as free lodgings in the Inn this coming winter.

That was all the trigger the heroes needed. They would investigate the High Pass, find the forces troubling it, and see what could be done to rescue the Innkeeper’s brother, Dilly. The following morning they set off.

The first stage of their journey was easy, taking a trade boat down the Anduin River as far as the Old Fort. From there they would need to take the Forest Road west into the Misty Mountains to where it rose into the High Pass. They reached Old Fort without incident and from there headed west, finding the going easy at first but increasingly perilous as the road rose towards the High Pass. Hunting became difficult and the journey wearisome, and on their first night they were forced to camp in a stinking bog where they were plagued by ferocious biting insects. Still, such minor inconveniences are of no account against the maraudings of the Shadow, and so they passed on into their second day.

The second night they set up a good camp in a secluded patch of woodland and old ruins, near the road but safe on slightly raised ground. In the evening as they settled down to eat they were disturbed by a weary, dirty stranger who came shambling out of the woods and set himself down at their fire, introducing himself as Shambler. As soon as he arrived Tywyl slunk off unnoticed into the shadows to search the area, and the rest of them set to interrogating this strange and arrogant newcomer. He claimed to be traveling east and simply seeking rest, but something was off about him. After a few minutes he pulled out a pipe and began smoking pipe-weed, which further bothered them – could this be weed from the hobbit caravan?

Meanwhile Tywyl moved quietly through the bushes until he had a view of the area between their camp and the road, and soon saw them – four men moving stealthily through the long grass, knives and swords out, intent on the fellowship’s camp. He returned stealthily to the camp and placed himself in position where Eisa the Axe could see him, gesturing the number four to her. She did not hesitate, swinging up her axe and striking Shambler full in the face where he sat at the fire. His rotten tooth flew out of his cruelly sneering mouth and he fell backwards away from the fire as the four men burst into the ring of its light, intent on doing evil but ferociously out-matched by their targets. The battle was over in but a moment, with three men beaten down and the other two desperately surrendering.

They revealed themselves to be bandits, but opportunists, who had decided to rob the camp when they saw it from the Forest Road. They had not robbed the hobbit caravan, but had bought a little brandy and pipe-weed from it some days ago when they came across it in the High Pass. They did not know how far behind them it might be, but it appeared to have been fine when they saw it. The hobbit’s bodyguards, four beornings, had been sufficient warning to the gang not to try robbery, and so they had done business and moved on.

This night they would not move further. The heroes tied the bandits to trees, and in the morning rebuked them with a good solid kicking before breaking camp and proceeding west along the Forest Road.

That day and night were uneventful, and the road now began to break apart as it rose into the mountains. The following day and night the road ascended sharply in switch backs and sweeping turns, and by evening they found themselves bracing against a chill wind, now in the highlands proper. They found a good place to camp, but something about its atmosphere disturbed Eisa. Checking tracks carefully, she noticed that wagons and traveling groups seemed to have come here to camp, but left behind no evidence of having ever actually left. The area seemed suffused with some bitter evil. She warned the rest of her fellowship, and they set a trap for whatever fell beast prowled this place.

It came in the deepest part of the night, first a creeping mist enveloping the camp and then a sinister dark shadowy figure gliding smoothly over the cold earth and into the camp. When it made to attack Tywyl the group sprung their trap, everyone surging up to attack it at the same time. Tywyl and Eisa both struck the tall wraith-like beast with their weapons, and felt a horrific jarring cold run through their arms, and a fear clutching their breast. Mercy struck but missed, and then Simir the Swan charged through the mist on his horse, striking the beast in the chest with his lance and breaking it apart into a million torn fluttering fragments of shadow. It disappeared, and the mist dispersed. Tywyl, versed in Shadow Lore, suggested that it must be the restless spirit of some long dead man, and so they searched the area for signs of remains. Finally in a bog they found the bones of a long-dead warrior, his body submerged in the bog, its armour rotted and ruined. They drew up the remains and took them to a hilltop far from the ambush site, giving them a proper burial that the spirit would never rise again. Then, exhausted, they broke camp and marched into the chill dawn.

During that day’s travel they found signs of goblins, and that evening they found what they sought – the hobbit’s wagon. On a hillside near the path a huge fire burned, and in the far distance they heard drums. Drums! In the Deep! A force of goblins must be on the march. They sent Tywyl ahead off the track to investigate, and he returned quickly to report that the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards were drawn up in a small hollow off the road, where once an ancient hill fort had stood. The wagon had been settled inside the partial protection of the fort’s old outer earthen rings, and they had lit a great fire to keep the night at bay. The beorning guard had been reduced to three, all of whom looked exhausted and injured. The drums, they guessed, were goblins coming to finish off the beornings and steal the wagon’s contents.

They made their way up the hill to a position with a good view of the action. Eisa and Tywyl crept forward to a position in hiding where they thought the goblins would arrive, and Olaf positioned himself well away from the battle field in a patch of rocky cover. Mercy and Simir waited below, a little distance from the fort, ready for the goblins.

The goblins marched down the hillside from hidden tunnel entrances higher in the mountain’s peaks, a force of perhaps 100 of the disgusting, wretched creatures, led by five Orcs and a giant Uruk Hai leader. They gathered in a ring around the fort, and beat their drums and yelled their cries. They obviously did not want to charge into the light of the bonfire, but the brutal urging of the orcs would surely eventually force them forward. The beorning leader stood atop the hill fort embankment and roared his challenge at them, but his voice was tired and it was obvious that he knew what his fate would be. The orcs laughed and the goblin drums beat louder.

It was time to act! Olaf fired a volley of arrows into the leader as Eisa and Tywyl emerged from hiding to ambush him, and Mercy rushed in to attack an Orc. The leader survived the initial attack, but only lived long enough to be ridden down by Simir the Swan, whose horse bore him on a wild careening ride through the goblin horde so that he could strike the leader with his lance. He charged through and up to the embankment, rearing his horse in silhouette against the golden light of the bonfire and yelling a challenge in his harsh native tongue. At the same moment Olaf blew his hunting horn, and its cry reverberated around the mountains, as if a force of a thousand rohirrim were rushing forward.

The goblins did not break immediately, though. Those nearest who could see the action opened fire, shooting Simir the Swan off his horse and injuring Tywyl and Mercy. Eisa, Tywyl and Mercy joined into a tight group and moved to stand over Simir the Swan’s body, beating off the onrushing orc leaders and killing three more. As Olaf rained arrows down from afar the last Orc died, and the three beornings came charging down from the embankment to crash into the nearest goblins. Fearing they were being attacked from all sides, their leaders dead, the goblins gave up a great cry of rage and despair, and broke and ran back up the mountain.

A solid victory! But followed by grim tidings. Though Simir was not badly hurt and recovered his strength soon enough, the beornings were spent. Worse still, one of the two hobbits in their wagon had been abducted by the goblins and was now surely held prisoner in their hideous lair. Would the heroes save him?

They assessed their wounds, gritted their teeth, and nodded grimly. The goblins would be allowed no victory this night. They urged the beornings to move the wagon to the road and make haste eastward while the goblins were in hiding, and set off up in the mountain in pursuit of the vile, grey-skinned monsters.

They found their lair entrance soon enough, and entered cautiously, Tywyl ahead. He found them the path towards the densest part of the goblin lair, but on the way they soon discovered that the goblins had a cave troll. It loomed ahead of them, snuffling around in the caves where perhaps they could pass it by unnoticed. But while Eisa and Tywyl could perhaps creep by, Simir the Swan was no thief in the night, and Mercy clanked in her proud barding mail. They decided to wait until the troll came close, and put an end to its foul life.

The attack was swift and ferocious when the time came. The troll came ambling around the corner straight into their path and they struck, all hitting it at once. It reeled under the blows but was not felled in the first onslaught, and with a roar of rage struck down with its huge club on Eisa the Axe. It struck a great blow on her shoulder but somehow, staggered though she was, she shrug off all the damage, grunted, “Not this day!” and rose up anew, a grim and dark light in her eyes, to hit it again with her trusty Dunlending axe. Its energy wasted on tough Dunlending sinews, the troll was torn down by the fellowship’s second onslaught, and soon lay dead before them.

They cut its head off and, dragging it behind them like a hideous trophy, moved further into the caves. Ahead they could hear cheers and singing, the goblins singing some hideous song about eating men, elves and hobbits, oblivious to their approaching doom. Hundreds of them had gathered in a large feasting hall just ahead, where they sang the song together to impress their leader, an Uruk Hai who made the leader the fellowship had killed earlier look like a leaf against a tree. They had no chance against that horde.

But they had not come to kill, only to rescue. They found the hobbit in a large room off the main hall, toiling over a multitude of fireplaces, preparing roasted meats and peppered potatoes and cooking furiously in the ruddy heat. As they watched from the doorway two goblins came in, one cursing him and the other cuffing him, and he handed over to them a huge tray of some dubious meats, prepared with the loving tenderness that only a hobbit can bestow upon even the rudest of foods. They cursed him again and sloped off to the main room, labouring under the weight of the tray.

The goblins had forced their captive to cook for them, and would treat him so until his cooking bored them – then he would be in the pot. Hideous creatures!

They crept into the room and replaced the hobbit with the cave troll’s head. From there they retreated quickly to the outside world, running as fast as they could to escape from the caves before the goblins realized their little slave-meal was gone. They burst into the chill of the outside world and sprinted down the mountain, listening terrified for the sound of drums behind them.

They heard none – perhaps their earlier attack had terrified the goblins into retreat, or perhaps they had decided they preferred to finish their feast than pursue a single prisoner. Or perhaps it was that faint glow of dawn on the horizon that stopped them putting up a chase. No matter. The fellowship retreated to the road and made haste downward, stopping to rest only when the sun was far enough over the peaks of the mountains that they were sure they would not be pursued. After a brief and dismal meal and the shortest of rests they returned to the trail, heading east as fast as they could while the sun was high. At dusk they did not stop, but beat their way along the now-familiar road all night to put distance between themselves and their enemies. Only the next day, when they had reached lower ground and begun to emerge into the vale of Anduin, under a bright summer sky, did they stop and rest at last, the hobbit safe in their company.

Their first mission against the shadow a complete success, they returned the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards to the Easterly Inn. It was a humble beginning, but in the ice and darkness of the misty mountains their fellowship had been forged anew, and now they would not rest until destiny overtook them. Only time would tell what future adventures they would find in the wilderlands, and what blows they would strike against the gathering shadows. As summer’s long glow faded into the cool of autumn they rested in the Easterly Inn, sure of one thing: they would do their part against the ancient evil that lay over this land, together, and before their bones were finally scattered across the wilderland, they would have songs sung of their deeds as far away as the shores of Gondor!

I never thought that I would find myself
In bed amongst the stones
The columns are all men
Begging to crush me
No shapes sail on the dark deep lakes

And no flags wave me home
In the caves
All cats are gray
In the caves
The textures coat my skin
In the death cell
A single note
Rings on and on and on

The Ark’s heroes have secured the Dark Castle and looted its treasures, which they found to be tawdry gold- and silver-plated baubles covered in strange glittering stones. Having previously made a deal with an old man to give him a haul of these stones – and one in particular, the koh-i-noor – in exchange for knowledge, they decided that it was time to pay a visit to two old men: The old man who had promised them the knowledge, and their own Ark’s Elder, who they wanted to confront while their power in the Ark – and their confidence – was still high.

The Old Man’s Secrets

They rested for only as long as they needed to recover their strength, and set off for the old man’s abandoned army camp the following morning. They drove to his camp this time in the car they had liberated from the Dark Castle, its boot stuffed with sceptres and crowns and heaped jewellery and gems.  As they approached he emerged from under the attached lean-to, squinting at them in the gloomy zone light and scratching quizzically behind one ear. By the time the car trundled to a noisy halt he had hidden any sign of surprise, however, and had lined up a set of chairs for them. They dragged their loot out of the boot and sat on the chairs.

In exchange for the koh-i-noor and the diamonds the old man was true to his word, and offered them his boat. He even showed how to hitch the trailer to the car, so that they could drive it straight down to the water near the Ark without having to enlist the help of their fellow mutants back at the Ark. They pressed him then for more – the knowledge he had promised them – and discovered that he had lied to them slightly. He would not give them any knowledge, but he could tell them the location of a great library where they could learn everything they needed to about the ancient world. A library with millions of books, that could tell them everything they needed. It was not far, he assured them that it was completely safe, and he had soon explained its location to them. Feeling slightly cheated but hopeful that they would learn more than they had ever expected – and without having to endure his irascible manners – they thanked him and left with the boat.

The great grey librarian

Having learned of this strange new “library” full of books they could read, the mutants decided to delay their visit to the Elder, and to instead immediately fly to the Library. They could not hope to read all the books immediately, so they decided to do a strategic grab. They loaded their Trash Hawks with sacks and set off, hoping to scour the library for its most valuable and immediately important books and return with them to the Ark. As they soared westward they saw the old man, standing on top of his caravan, the koh-i-noor flashing in the sun atop a gaudy golden staff. He did not wave to them.

They soon found the building they had been told about, a huge L-shaped ruin of orange brick entangled with vines and creepers and the ever-present fungal rot of the zone. Its upper floors had been wrecked by some huge blast and lay open to the elements, their books and contents long since crumbled to nothing, but the lowest two levels were still mostly intact, though many windows had been smashed, and as they circled above it they shared high hopes of finding a large haul of books.

They landed in a large plaza in the crook of the L, leaving their birds to preen in the courtyard, and approached a huge shattered entrance. Through the entrance way they found a gloomy, mould-covered entry way, with stairs leading up to a higher level and abandoned counters overgrown with creeping vines and moss. To the left of the entry way was a door, with a grubby sign on which they could partially read the words Exhibition Room. They decided to start exploring there. When they approached the door, however, it exploded backward in a shower of shattered mouldy wood, and a huge grey beast emerged in a furious rush from the shadows of the room. It was three times the size of Grimshaw, covered in a thick scaly grey hide, walking upright like a man but with a nearly featureless face, a mouth distorted by huge fangs and deep set eyes that burnt with an unholy fire. Its hand were huge battering rams ending in three thick, clawed fingers, as did its feet, and its legs bent backwards like one of their Trash Hawks. As soon as they saw it they felt a wave of revulsion and terror, but they knew immediately what they faced – a giant grey man like the one they had found entombed beneath the Ark!

As the beast lunged forward Grimshaw unsheathed his shotgun, Reason, and fired point blank at the beast’s chest, yelling for the others to flee outside. He did not expect to have any success, having seen in the videos that these grey demons appeared to shrug off rifle fire, but was stunned to find that at this range he could harm it – for a brief moment it staggered and the others retreated. They hoped that it would have the same fear of light as its smaller brethren, but they were wrong, and so found themselves fighting it in the murky light of the front entranceway. It fought by slashing with huge claws and unleashing great gouts of concentrated rot from its mouth, which surged over all the mutants in the group and afflicted them terribly. Although it nearly killed two of them, and many of their weapons bounced off of its thick hide, they finally managed to slay it, felling it just inside the entrance. It twitched briefly but then to their horror began to rot and decay rapidly in front of them. Within minutes only bones remained – and it was then that Parsnip saw a necklace around its neck, of gold with a central diamond embedded. One of the Old Man’s … they had been tricked.

They discussed what to do. They were all sure that the old man had tricked them into coming here so that this beast of his could kill them, but they also wondered how could this old man control such a creature? Could it be coincidence? They were also injured and needed time to rest, so they decided that they would not rush back to confront the old man. Instead they would explore the room the demon had been found in, and grab some books from one other part of the library, rest, and then head straight to the old man’s lair to confront him.

In the Exhibition Room they found a collection of ancient books of great cultural value: one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta of 1215, a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah in the composer’s own hand, the original handwritten copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and notes written by Leonardo da Vinci. They had been torn up and strewn around the room, covered in rot and filth, but the mutants managed to recover them. They then went to the science section to grab some important science books, and left the Library to kill the old man.

War for the Ark

They flew back towards the Ark, turning north at the last and dropping in on the old man’s base, but he was not there. His caravan was unattended, and he did not shuffle out from under the lean-to to meet them. He obviously had not fled though, and all his belongings lay where they should be, as if he had tidied up after himself in an orderly way and set out on some errand. Disappointed, they decided to head to the skies and see if they could find him. As they searched in wider and wider circles they finally saw it – smoke rising from the direction of the Ark. They turned their Trash Hawks and headed home.

They soon saw it – a massive attack on the Ark. Grey Men swarmed towards its entrances, whipped on by a pair of great grey demons. In the distance on a hillside stood the old man, holding his staff of gold aloft, the koh-i-noor flashing in the sun. Near him a third demon hulked, and a squad of grey men for his personal guardians. The People fought valiantly, and thanks to the projects the mutants had pioneered the Ark was holding its ground. The barricades on the door held, someone stood in the Sky Temple firing a pistol into the clamouring grey men, the Phantom of the Opera played the Organ in a mighty dirge to support the troops, and the Ark’s organized militia fought in a disciplined style against the beasts. Nonetheless, the situation was dire: they were outnumbered, and the grey men tore at the barricades and swarmed over the facade of the stadium. Fires burnt on the edges and as the great grey demons pressed forward the defenders fell back in terror and disarray.

Their task was clear. They dived their Trash Hawks towards the barricades, and attacked the first grey demon. With her first strike Bloody Jack cut it down at the knees, attempting to knock it over, but failed. As Preacher circled above, exhorting them to greater efforts to the glory of the sky god, they hacked and slashed and fired at the beast until it finally succumbed. Injured but not defeated, they downed their painkillers and soda pop, some of them knocked back hard quantities of booze, and they leapt into the air again, this time to attack the old man himself.

The old man had some special power, which caused them to divert from attacking him to attack his grey demon instead, and with its rot blast it felled Parsnip, but they persevered, fighting both the demon and the grey men. While they fought the old man assailed them with doubt and pain and fire, but eventually they prevailed and finally the demon was felled. With a cry of rage Grimshaw struck the old man in the face, and he fell to the ground with a sick thud. Their leader slain, the remaining grey men fled back to the tunnels from whence they came, leaving behind a small number of dead mutants, and a large amount of damage.

They had come only in the last moment, but through their efforts the Ark had survived. They had prevailed!

The Elder

Having won the day for the Ark, they had one more thing they wanted to do. The next morning, as the Ark was still being repaired, the wounded still tended, they marched up to the cupola lying in the middle of the Ark’s open stadium and demanded admittance to the Elder’s inner sanctum. One of the Chroniclers at the door tried to stop them, but Grimshaw tapped his hammer Justice and with a sigh he allowed them in. Another Chronicler led them down a short corridor to a small, stuffy room that stank of human excrement and decay. On a tiny bed in the corner, heaped high with grubby blankets, lay the Elder. In another corner sat a dour old chronicler, who roused resentfully when the mutants entered and even more angrily when they demanded he clear away the bucket of festering shit that sat in the corner. Chang Chang threw aside the thick curtains, letting in the weak zone light, and Lonnie and Parsnip began cleaning the room. Meanwhile Bloody Jack and Grimshaw approached the bed, pulling back the sheets and filthy blankets to find the Elder, their inspiration and guide over these years.

He was a shell of his former self, a thin, disease-ravaged wreck of a body. He had never been strong or overbearing, always a frail man, but now he had been reduced to a shred of a man, a sack of bones and bed sores. What had happened in this fetid room over the past months as they had been busy at their work and their missions, what had fallen on this man? He was obviously dying, but now they needed to know. There was so much they needed to know: Who were they? Why could they have no children? What did the future hold? What should they do? This man, the source of all their knowledge and inspiration, lay pale and shrinking on the bed, oblivious to their demands.

They cleaned him up and waited, but he lay their in weak disregard, looking away at the faint light from the newly-opened window with obvious desperate longing. Finally Grimshaw lost his temper and, standing up, looming over the old man, began to rage at him, threatening and yelling and demanding answers. The old man ignored him. Then Bloody Jack stepped forward and ordered him to speak, for the Ark, for the People, for the Seventh Revolution! She gave a stirring speech about leadership and command, the responsibility of the leader to the future, and to everyone’s shock he responded. Just briefly his eyes cleared and he turned to face her, spitting an oath of power up at her and reminding her that it was him who had saved them, to him that she and hers owed fealty.

She demanded answers. And he gave them! He told them a story of horror and desperation that they had never heard before:

  • A group of powerful wizards unleashed magic on the world, and with it came demons and dragons and the grey men. No one knows why they did it.
  • The world was overrun and destroyed but many of the creatures unleashed in it could not stay – they were chained to “somewhere else” and had to go back.
  • In their savage return, the demons and dragons and fairies took most of surviving humanity with them
  • This included the apprentices of the powerful wizards.
  • In hell, humans became slaves, food and fuel. But the wizard apprentices found each other and tried to help some humans escape
  • When they got to the gates of hell, a secret way out, they found a gate keeper, and had to cut a deal. He took their future and left them in stasis – destroyed the mutant’s ability to have children – but let them free
  • The wizards took groups of humans through the gate but they all emerged in different places and lost their magic when they emerged
  • But the mutants retained some of the impact of hell, and emerged into the world with powers
  • They set up arks, but never made contact with each other again

Then his head fell back onto the pillow and, spent, he waved them away with a weak twitch of one hand. Their audience was done.

So it was that the mutants emerged into the light of the Ark, newly educated, knowing their place in the world – and knowing they were lost. Their only hope was to find humans who had been left behind on the earth before the apocalypse, and find out if those humans could still make children, or their Ark was doomed, and all their dreams with it.

But that is a story for another time.

 

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.

Is this gonna be a stand up fight, or another bug hunt?

 

Months passed after our heroes captured their ship, and nothing happened. Lean times in New Horizon, first as they hunkered down to avoid attention after their last job, then as they waited out the repairs and reconfiguration of the HS Fortuna. Jayden and Genji moved into the ship and time stretched out, spent cleaning and training, money draining away – HS Fortuna was a great catch, but she cost money, a lot of money, and they were also maintaining a second base, which they called Firefly, a  hidden complex in a waste dump that they had designated as their safe house. Time passed, and money flew.

So it was that they took the first job they could get when they were ready to work again. Anansie set them up of course, a noodle meal at a stall set out in one of the bigger street markets of Sai Kung. They found the stall soon enough, an oasis of quiet and empty seats in a thronged night market, and sat down at an empty bench with a sleazy-looking man in a cheap suit. On the fringes of their noodle stall cold-eyed men stood watch, quietly steering potential customers away from the shop while they ate. Signs of a man working at the edge of the law, with more money than class. The kind of guy the characters needed to do business with.

His name was Yap Wei Man, one of those sleazy property magnates that thrive in Sai Kung like cockroaches behind a noodle stall. He flipped contracts, took over crumbling blocks and “relocated” their residents quickly to enable rapid renovations, dealt cheap rentals between slum lords the way a street dealer cuts low-grade cocaine to college kids, backed up by the same quality of muscle, muscle he could bring to bear with a grim, jaded patience on laggards, people who thought they had rights, families who couldn’t afford to see their whole pay packet squandered on greasy six-mat rooms but had to anyway. The kind of man they all hated.

The kind of man they had to do business with, because business was not good. Not for them, and not for Yap Wei Man, who had made an investment he wasn’t turning around. Pearl View Complex, a big ugly nightmare of interconnected tower blocks long since backslid into slums, coffin apartments and illegal extensions, the kind of tower block where tenants disappeared in a typhoon, where shady businesses took over the basement and the car park had long since been converted into a night market, or a drug market, or worse. These were the kinds of properties that Yap san flipped, but not Pearl View, because people were disappearing – well, he should clarify, more people than usual were disappearing – and tenants were starting to get queasy, moving out, missing the rent, and if yields dropped much more Yap san wouldn’t be able to flip it on, and then he’d be saddled with a loss, and worse still with the tedious task of daily managing rent collection and the desperate poor. No thank you, chummer, he did not need that. And so he needed a group of people who could do dirty jobs quietly, subtle people not afraid of deploying a bit of muscle, but able to keep it quiet. Anansie had recommended them – urgent jobs done subtly, he was told – and so here he was, their humble supplicant. He wanted them to go in, find out what was causing the disappearances, and stop it – all quietly enough that no one who might be looking in the direction of the property with a commercial eye would even notice. He offered them 3000 nuyen each, nothing if the job was not done quietly.

A room of one’s own …

They agreed, and set off to explore the complex. It was two separate blocks, the north eastern a more upmarket tower of actual apartments, mostly legally occupied, while the south western block was a nightmare of subdivided rooms, surreptitious hostels, businesses, and redivided spaces. The two were linked by a complex network of walkways, mostly ad hoc swing bridges of dubious design. The roof of the north eastern tower had turned into a kind of residents-only night market, the bottom two levels of the south eastern block had long since fallen into disrepair, abandoned by tenants and converted to darker, more subterranean uses.

They split up to explore the building and search for clues, and they soon found two. One part of the south western block had been taken over by a gang, the Ascendant Rats, who had slowly begun blocking off the hallways and entries to their part of the block. They had been dealing medical goods and medical care to the poorer members of the block, and seemed to have a good reputation, but about two weeks ago they had aggressively sealed up a lot of entrances to their part of the block, and stopped communicating with the rest of the block. Meanwhile down in the basement there was some new religious group that had moved in a few months ago, the Clarity of Unity. They had been painting art works around the building, and with a bit of careful mapping and thought Adam was able to confirm that yes, the art works were images of arcane power, that had been placed in the positions necessary to establish the Clarity of Unity’s home base as a magical lodge. Someone was working powerful magic in the basement.

First they visited the section held by the Ascendant Rats. They found it empty, and disturbingly so. The rooms were smeared with dried blood, holes in the walls, one room that had obviously been the scene of a vicious battle had a hole in the floor that fell through many levels below, into darkness. As they explored the dark, silent rooms they found strange new walls that had been erected, of smooth extruded concrete that held a faint astral presence. They also felt themselves watched, heard strange clicking sounds, like the voices of aliens – or spirits. In particular a malevolent, six-eyed shadow that they saw watching them from the end of a hallway, clicking menacingly. They retreated to the thriving life of the rooftop market and put in a call to Mr. Yap – he had a vermin problem, and they were willing to fix it, but it would cost him. He agreed – bring him proof, and he would give a hefty bonus. Details were not discussed, but an understanding was reached. They decided to examine the Clarity of Unity, though they were already sure what they would find.

First they visited them at the time of the evening meal, having heard that they ran a soup kitchen. They were welcomed into an old parking space at the ground level, that had been converted into a kind of open air church and food area. Benches were set out, and a big serving area where anyone who asked for it got a big hearty bowl of congee and some slabs of cheap chicken. The PCs did not eat any, and found themselves speaking to stony, closed faces as soon as they started asking questions about the Clarity of Unity’s purpose. Before the meal started an old, weary-looking man emerged, and the crowd began to whisper his name – “Rahman, Rahman.” He gave a short, strangely perfunctory speech about finding clarity in unity before retiring and leaving everyone to eat.

The PCs were not satisfied. They left, and worked their way through the basement to the area behind the Clarity of Unity kitchens. Soon enough they found it – a tunnel that did not match the structure of the building, leading down into fetid warm air. Down they went, heading deep beneath the original structure of the building into a warren of tunnels, all made of the same extruded, concrete-like substance they had seen above in the lair of the Ascendant Rats. They had found the vermin nest.

As they descended deeper into the nest they began to hear the sound of clicking and hissing, always a little way ahead, always fleeing. They were being led into a trap and they knew it – but that’s what they were being paid to do. They advanced slowly and steadily, Jayden in the lead, following the clicks. Somewhere far above, Jayden’s guardian spirit soared in the sky, heedless of barriers of stone or mud, lending him that strange and supernatural sense of danger that enabled him to walk into any trap already prepared. No one would surprise them while Jayden led the way. Behind walked Adam Lee, moving slowly, half his sense in the astral plane, watching for signs of the spirits they were sure would ambush them.

Eventually they found the centre of the nest, a huge cone-shaped cavern far beneath the apartment, shrouded in darkness and stifling with hot, stinking, moist air. Their commlink lights did not reach far enough to light the whole place, but they showed enough: a mound of earth and junk in the centre of the cavern; beyond it a hulking, shadowy structure rising into space; and around them strange pulsing blue sacks stuck to the wall. In the darkness Adam Lee stumbled into one and shrunk back in disgust; Jayden, unfazed by mere horror, stuck a knife in the thing and tore it open, revealing a living cat encapsulated in its pulsing blue goo. The slime fell out, the cat keening and dying as it slid off Jayden’s razor sharp knife. Adam stepped back in disgust and as he did his gaze chanced up, commlink lights reaching out to strike a similar glow from larger egg shapes – and up there, at the edge of vision, the silhouette of humans inside the eggs.

Adam screamed, John opened fire on the distant shape, and they all charged forward. In the half light they saw a horrid, pulsing thorax, a quiescent monster rising above it into the shadows. It was guarded by four strange humanoid creatures, men whose bodies had been hideously reshaped so that they had mandibles protruding from scaled faces, arms grotesquely distorted to protrude behind their backs, ending in wicked insectoid claws. One through a barrier of thin concretoid excretion around the queen and the rest attacked. Behind the queen Rahman stood, arms raised in ecstasy, droning some ancient wicked ritual to the insect gods.

The battle was brutal. From the walls enormous termites emerged, firing noxious spray or attacking with huge mandibles, trying to defend their queen. The queen herself began to stir, slowly waking from some long slumber and beginning to shake herself free of her egg sac, massive angel-like wings twitching. They realized that the cone-shaped cavern opened to a wide, sweeping tunnel that must reach up to the surface, and that the queen was going to escape into the city if they did not stop her. They fought desperately, trying to reach Rahman before he could complete the ritual of awakening, but the termites and transformed humans blocked them, and more kept emerging. John fell to the blows of the termites and Genji fought against a fog of confusion from the termites’ poisonous breath, the queen shook more, Rahman laughed in sick glee between the beats of his ritual … but at the last Jayden was able to push through the final guardian and hit Rahman with his full might, slicing and dicing in a whirl of super-fast knife blades, cutting both of Rahman’s arms and slicing through his spine, bringing his evil chant to a halt moments before its crescendo. He fell without even screaming, too badly hurt to do anything except gasp and bleed, and the queen collapsed back into senescence. Around them termite soldiers and mutated humans reverted to uncontrolled madness, the spirits inside them free. The characters, realizing their job was done but only madness would follow, fled, dragging John with them.

Minutes later, panting and exhausted, they emerged into the dim light of the Pearl View courtyard. They dumped John in the shadows of the tower and sagged against the wall, panting and cursing. The distant sound of shrieks and clicks faded as the termite spirits returned to their home plane, or killed each other, and somehow they knew that the queen would die. They had done it. The strange curse of Pearl View Complex was lifted, and just as its seedy owner had demanded, no one would know. Somewhere down below the encapsulated Ascendant Rats would wake up in their suddenly disenchanted sacks of insect pus, to be slaughtered and eaten by their enraged captors, but our heroes had no intention of going back in to rescue them. Jayden looked over at Adam Lee, pale and exhausted, leaning on the wall fighting off the sickness of too many spells, and saw him shake his head gently; looked at Genji, leaning panting over his sword, wiping ichor off his face, and heard him grunt a gentle “fuck it.” They had no spirit to fight. They retreated, and put in the call.

Below them a gang was eviscerated, a queen died, spirits slunk away to their own realm. Ahead of them money, and sleep.

All was right with their world.

 

 

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