Science Fiction


I wonder if my rope’s still hanging from the tree
By the standing pool where you drank me
And filled me full of thirsty love
And the memory of water?

I wonder if a king still fishes there
His back towards the burned-out air
His laughing catches singing loud
The memory of water

 

Our heroes have explored the area around the river near their Ark, and after raiding a radio station full of cannibals they feel stronger now, and their Ark is stronger too. But they are not yet ready to fight the Helldrivers they know live south of the river, and since they fortified the Ark and returned from their last mission carrying a katana, they have begun to wonder if they are safe from those dangerous men with their vehicles. They are separated from the Helldrivers by a river, but the river still has a few bridges that cross it. The nearest functional bridge is to the west of their Ark, inland from the two towers, and it seems likely that if the Helldrivers are to cross the river they must come over that bridge. So the PCs decided they should travel there and investigate the bridge, to see if it offers an easy way across the river and if so, whether they can block it.

Before they left the Ark they contributed to its ongoing project, to establish a system of hunting parties. This month they stumbled upon great success: Lonnie, stalking south east of the Ark, found an abandoned complex of cages and enclosures full of animals. The walls and barriers of the enclosures had long since broken apart and decayed, but many of the animals remained in the shelter of the enclosures, protected from the elements and the wilder predators of the Zone. Unfortunately they had not expected Lonnie to find his way through the outer barriers of the ancient zoo and begin picking them off for food, nor did they expect him to tell the Ark and bring a steady crew of hunters over the next few weeks. With this discovery the Ark’s food supplies grew, and a new guild of hunters established themselves. Around trashfires and in the meagre allotments at the centre of the Ark, people began to whisper hopefully of the possibility that tomorrow might be no worse than today.

Still, the People were not satisfied just to have more food. The Helldrivers had vehicles and gasoline, which the Ark lacked, but perhaps they could do something to improve their mobility and their power in war. They began a project to construct a stables, converting the remaining covered car park of the stadium into a dry area where they hoped to raise bitterbeasts that the hunting party would slowly catch in the wilds to the South. Not an easy project, but with the future promise of great things. The People set this in train, and then the PCs decided to head East to find the second bridge.

This expedition would be longer and more dangerous than anything they had previously tried. They would need to head west across uncharted lands in the sector north of the Dark Tower, then after some travel through the next sector they would need to turn south and pass another sector to the bridge. That would be a two day journey, two day’s back, and enough grub and water to survive the journey and any battles in the interim. Bloody Jack set about some racketeering to try and raise the necessary grub and water but his efforts were dismal, and in the process one of his gang turned on him, switching sides to join Li’l Kim. Vowing to make the filthy turncoat pay, Bloody Jack chose three of his best followers to go with them into the wilderness, and they set forth with all they had.

First they headed east, into a wide open area of low grasses and scrub north of the Dark Tower. Some distance into this sector was a small hill that they could use as a vantage point, and from this hill Lonnie could scan the surrounding areas. To the south he could get a glimpse into the Dark Tower, finding himself looking into an open courtyard inside the walls. Zone crows constantly circled, breaking his view, but he could make out a skeleton clothed in some gaudy outfit, lying in the middle of the courtyard with a long weapon of some kind discarded next to the body. Nothing else moved, and the whole area seemed to have several doors opening into walls and further buildings inside the outer walls. It was a large and forbidding complex.

Looking west, Lonnie could see a road that ran through the next sector before turning south and heading to the bridge. This road was relatively free of rubble and overgrowth, and though it would not be a perfect way to travel it was obvious that the Helldrivers could bring their vehicles to the Ark along that road. They definitely needed to get to that bridge…

They set off along the road into the next sector. This sector was a forest of dead trees standing sentinel in a misty expanse of ruined, collapsed buildings. Almost nothing stood more than a metre above the ground, and in between it all rose the trees, stunted and broken, grey and leafless. As they passed the trees Barathos touched one and the branch crumbled to dust in his grip, giving off a rank smell. Rank, stinking water ran sluggishly between the trees, trickling in streams and rivulets of rot down to the distant river. A single broken tower loomed over the expanse of decay, just the concrete and steel skeleton of the building remaining. Some giant force had blown across this area, destroying smaller buildings and reducing the largest tower to a burnt husk. In places the dead trees had collapsed, forming open spaces that the PCs had to struggle to cross, picking their way over entangled boughs and trying not to fall into the gurgling streams of rot. Here the branches and trunks of the trees sagged into the creeks, and slowly suffused with rot that had begun to turn them into blocks of toxic petrified wood. They hustled, moving as fast as they could to get through the rot.

The hustle was exhausting and distracting, so they missed the Trash Hawk until it fell screaming from the leaden grey sky. Fortunately they heard the wind whistling through its massive feathers, and though it struck them first they were not flat footed. It attacked them when they were halfway across one of the broken open spaces, so they were forced to scatter amongst the fallen trees. It struck at one of Bloody Jack’s gang but missed, landing amongst them with a beating of huge wings, a body the size of a large van that stank of dust and rot smashing down into one of the trees. Huge, vicious claws struck at the gang member, and the beating wings raised a storm of dust and rot. They all struck at it before it could take off, and with a lucky strike Grimshaw smashed its head in like a melon. The Trash Hawk grunted and sank dead to the ground.

“This beast must have a nest,” Lonnie observed, and their gaze turned to the single high point in the entire sector – the shattered hulk of the high rise building. With a sigh, they set out to climb it.

It was empty, the entire west face scoured by fire and the rest of the building reduced by fire and wind to just empty, wind-blown chambers. They dragged themselves up endless flights of spiraling stairs, eventually emerging onto a windswept rooftop covered in bones and guano. This was the home of the Trash Hawk. At one corner of the rooftop they found a huge edifice built of office furniture and chunks of dead tree, crowned with bedding of fresh grasses, torn up cushions and car seats – the Trash Hawk’s nest. They approached cautiously, but this time they checked the skies too, so they saw the second Trash Hawk coming.

Forewarned is forearmed, but that was not enough for Four Armed Marl, who was hit by the beast and lifted from the ground before they could attack it. Fortunately Four Armed Marl could hang on grimly as the bird rose, and Barathos blinded the bird before it could flee far, stopping it from taking Marl too high. The rest of them fired slingshots and arrows at the thing, and managed to knock it down before it could take Marl over the edge of the building. It fell screaming and Marl rolled free with only a little damage.

Inside the nest they found bodies, which carried bullets, and a couple of eggs, giant things that would obviously soon give birth to Trash Hawks. Everyone thought of the stables, and they agreed that this would be a project of the Ark. Why have bitterbeast stables, when you can have Trash Hawk stables? What would the Helldrivers do then? They agreed to take the eggs back to the Ark after their journey was complete.

They trudged down from the building, stopping halfway down to rest and eat, and returned to the road that had carried them through this sector. They followed it west a short distance to a point where the dead trees began to falter and fall, and the land rose slowly into a new area of crumbling ruins. The air cleared and the road descended in amongst the ruins, their previous smooth journey returning to the familiar jumble of rubble, broken buildings and dense undergrowth. They picked their way through the ruins, seeking paths where they could move more quickly, and after perhaps an hour or two of careful walking stumbled into an open space rich with menace. It must have once been a junction or a market area, because it was wider than a simple crossroads. On four sides it was surrounded by the shells of old buildings, broken now but still stretching three or four stories towards the low-hanging clouds, and plunging the entire area into partial shadow. The fifth side of the place was open, but standing in the middle of this area was a kind of obelisk on a plinth, reaching perhaps 30 metres up. A skull and crossbones had been painted onto the plinth, standing as a stark warning – but against what? Did it mean they should not proceed further west beyond this square? Or did it mean they had already come too far?

In the middle of the square a hole opened into the ground. Surrounded by twisted metal railings, a set of steps led down into darkness. Was the skull and crossbones a warning against this? They moved closer and sniffed, but there was no scent of rot, just musty old empty tunnels. They decided to go inside.

You are here

The stairs led down into a semi-circular room, dark and musty but not rotten. Their lantern revealed more tunnels leading down further into darkness, with a strange barrier of intermittent metal blocks standing between them and these further tunnels. On one wall of the room, hidden behind mould and fungus, they found a strange diagram, all coloured lines and dots, that seemed to have a huge place of prominence in the room. They carefully peeled it off the wall and rolled it up to take back with them to the Ark, though they were not sure what it was. Then they headed past the strange metal blocks and on to the next tunnels, which plunged down into darkness at a steep angle. Footsteps clanged on metal steps as they began to descend. One of Bloody Jack’s gang balked at the darkness and fled in terror for the light, but Nischata and four-armed Mort stayed with him, and down they went.

They were halfway down when they heard them coming. They barely had time to react before the ceiling above the stairwell collapsed on them and they were attacked. They caught a brief glimpse of grey, slippery skin and huge dark eyes, mouths with many teeth, before someone smashed the lantern out of Nischata’s hands. There was screaming and chaos, but after a moment Barathos engaged his mutant power and the stairwell burst into light. They found themselves facing off with eight hideous monsters, naked humanoid figures with slimy grey skin, huge eyes and wicked claws and teeth. The beasts shied back from the light, their advantage in the darkness suddenly reversed to weakness in the light, but they did not run. One was already dragging Nischata down the stairs, leaving a great bloody smear along the side of the narrow stairwell from a huge wound in her ankle, and she was too stunned to fight back. Down below chittering and hissing sounds suggested that her fate would be brutal and slow.

They fought back. The battle was vicious and the grey men gave no quarter, but in the harsh glow of Barathos’ radiance the beasts eventually relented. The last two fled down the stairs and Grimshaw and Bloody Jack followed, but they decided against chasing these beasts too far into their own world. At the bottom of the stairs they found a long, narrow tunnel with a walkway on one side, which appeared to end at gateways to other tunnels and more stairs. Deeming it too risky to explore just yet, they retreated upward.

In the room with the metal blocks they found Bloody Jack’s cowardly gang member, Bennie, dismembered and half eaten. They fled to the surface, emerging into the half light of the shadowed square at a sprint and only stopping to rest when they were far away in the direction of the river, standing in a patch of pale sunlight. Barathos unrolled the strange picture and pointed to a spot with a larger circle and special writing. “I think we’re here,” he said, and drew his finger east and north in the general direction of the Ark. “Are these tunnels? These grey men – they can come up anywhere!”

They shuddered in horror, but there was nothing to be done – yet. Once they had weapons, and rocket fuel, then they could go back into those tunnels. Until then, they would have to trust the Ark’s defenses to hold…

They headed south to the river, and soon found themselves facing the bridge. The road rose a little and then joined the bridge, a long, simple structure with low balustrades on both sides, now overgrown with grass and bushes and fungi but not heavily enough infested to stop the helldrivers if they came over in force. Hopeful of finding some blockage further across, they ventured out onto the windswept open sweep of steel, picking their way between bushes and huge fungi.

They were halfway across when Grimshaw triggered something, and a huge explosion threw fire, twigs, grass and burning toadstool all over them. They hurled themselves away from the blast, and Barathos found himself lying on the ground staring at an unexploded bomb. Backing away carefully, he warned everyone not to move and began searching the rest of the bridge. He found more of the bombs – many more. Sometime long ago a flight of bombs had hit the bridge and somehow all of them had failed to explode, and now here they lay, waiting for some foolish traveling mutant to trigger them. Grimshaw had set off a bomb near the edge, but Barathos calculated that if the one in the middle of the bridge went off the damage would be devastating.

It only took them a moment to grasp the implications before Barathos set to work, carefully jury-rigging the entire collection of bombs into a single linked explosive. If anyone tried to drive across the bridge, they would bring the whole thing down. The work took him several hours of tense, careful work, but when he was done the problem of the helldrivers was solved. They could not now cross the bridge, and the explosion would be so loud that they might even hear it at the Ark. A perfect trap!

With that they retreated carefully from the bridge and returned to the Ark, skirting the entrance to the grey men’s lair and making time to collect the Trash Hawk eggs as they went. They were forced to sleep in the tower beneath the Trash Hawk’s nest, and returned exhausted and hungry to the Ark the following afternoon. The People greeted them in triump, cheering their egg prize, and speaking eagerly of hope for a better future. At the end of another hard adventure, our heroes stood at the gates of the Ark, looking south towards the distant river, and for just the briefest of moments as the clouds parted and the sun shone through, they felt their was some hope for them yet.

Then a sound drifted to them on the fresh breeze. The subtle scratching of wood blown against brick – or the snicker of a watching enemy? They thought of the sinister enemy crouching below the ground, waiting to pounce and stock its hideous larder, and retreated behind the newly-build barricades of the stadium.

Out in the dark, large black eyes blinked shut, and the shadows moved with vicious intent. The darkness watched, and waited.

 

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And another thing
I’ve been wondering lately
Am I crazy
To believe in ideals?
I’m a betting man
But it’s getting damn lonely.
Oh, honey, if only
I could be sure what I feel.
What’s my scene? (I’m dying to know)
I’ll never know.
Well, I concede
I’ve been caught in someone else’s scene (but that’s not me).
Where, oh where, oh where can my scene be?
Please answer me
What’s my ..?

 

A month passed after they killed the Purifiers, and nothing came our heroes’ way. Adam Lee spent the time fruitfully, preparing a safe house that they could begin to set up as a base of operations, the others searching out equipment and training. Jayden did a job for some old Filipino friends, the men who taught him how to fight with knives calling him in to do an extraction in New Horizon, for which he was paid with a qi focus[1]. They waited, hiding in their low-rent apartments and waiting for something to come up.

Of course something came up. New Horizon is a big city, and its claws cast long, dark shadows. Anansi called them with an urgent job – a woman called Rosemary from Rego Corp needed their help urgently. They broke off their lazy weekday afternoon and swung around to her offices, a small section of a penthouse space protected by serious troll guards who took their weapons and slapped disabling locks on their cyberware as soon as they walked in the door. This kind of office was obviously not the office of a corp that does anything – Rosemary was a broker for other corps, an agent. She was polite but dismissive – shadowrunners were clearly beneath her, but desperate times called for desperate measures. They wondered how often she found herself in desperate times – perhaps if the desperation is a calendar event, it’s time to start thinking things are going wrong?

Rosemary’s situation was simple. A group of student activists from New Horizon University of Technology – commonly referred to as NHUTs – had taken possession of a pharmaceutical company in the industrial zone, and were threatening to blow it up. They were in a stand off with police, and surely within a few hours it would all come to a head. Rosemary did not care at all about the students, the pharmaceutical company or public safety, but she did care about one of the student gang, a young man called Lionel Harper. She would pay the PCs very good money to get in, get Lionel Harper and get him out. She did not care who died in the process, but it was imperative that no one know he had been there, or that he had been taken out, and he had to come out unharmed.

From the dismissive air of her speech, and the way she spoke about Lionel and the students, it was abundantly clear to the ‘runners what was going on here. Lionel was the child of a rich corporate Somebody, he’d fallen into the wrong crowd, the wrong crowd was about to get wasted, and Daddy wanted Lionel out before whatever second tier corp owned this facility went fully mediaeval on these pesky students. But Daddy didn’t value Lionel enough to cut a deal openly with any other corp, so Daddy wanted to pay a few expendable nobodies to do the dirty work, and if everything went wrong, so what – he wouldn’t lose any money, easy come easy go. No doubt some PR flak was already preparing a story about how Lionel got caught up in a raid during his Work Experience week, poor kid was training in pharmacy so he could help the refugees in the Indo Zone don’t you know, isn’t it sad how these student radicals destroy so much that is good in the world with their misplaced activism? We’ve all seen the news … but better if the future heir is rescued, moderately unhurt, sees his friends (comrades?!) die in fire, and learns the error of his ways. We were all young once, right?

They nodded sagely, took the address, and left. Swung past a few people’s houses to pick up gear, and headed over to the scene of the crime. It was a typical third rate corporate facility, a factory jutting over the river, the front of the building a suite of offices and reception rooms. Like many third tier corporate types the boss had got delusions of grandeur, in this case leading him to build a kind of tower on the third floor of the office space that looked over the factory area. This factory was a series of balconies over a workshop floor, all covered in a glass roof, so the boss could look down on all the work of his eager little minions. The group’s hacker told them that whatever this corp made was semi-illegal, it had a section of the factory overhanging a canal where boats could load and take away whatever semi-dodgy pharma the company was producing, and it was nestled in between two other similarly proto-legal gangster companies. Take one look at the hacker’s report and everyone thought, “Dragon’s balls those students are doing the right thing,” and then “sucks to be them.”

The police and some corporate troops had gathered out front but weren’t going in yet, because rumour had it a senior exec had been inside when the hit went down. The PCs decided not to try and sneak in through the riverside, but instead found an old sewer entry from below that apparently even the corporate owners were unfamiliar with – some remnant from when New Horizon was actually New, that maybe the students had found out in that devious way that students do. Apparently some of these students had studied urban planning, so it stood to reason that they would know about it – though why urban planning majors were raiding a pharmaceutical company armed with AK-97s was outside our ‘runner’s knowledge. Kids today!

They entered the sewers, Adam Lee complaining vociferously about the stench, the moss and the architecture. After a few nasty encounters with the filthy water they found themselves in the older, original works, old stone tunnels that smelt more of must and rot than sewage, and were so dark it felt as if the walls were sucking in the light. Somewhere on that careful journey to the bowels of the corporate office Jayden felt something, a shrieked warning from his eagle spirit, and they stopped at his hiss. They stood in the dripping darkness, filthy water slicking around their legs, and watched as a little distance up ahead something horrid and huge swarmed past them. It wasn’t one thing, but a multitude of large, writhing bodies, glowing subtly in the deep darkness of the pits, skittering and hissing quietly, moving with careful deliberation around the edge of the water. Rats maybe, or lampreys with legs and a shared consciousness – they could not tell in the clammy dark, only that something vaguely luminous passed them by. Jayden held Genji’s arm in an iron grip, invisible in the darkness, Genji held Adam, and in a chain they stood perfectly silent as the throng slid past. They waited for the sound and the glow to subside, and Jayden was just about to motion the passing of the threat when somewhere to their right, in the path of the swarm, someone screamed. A horrible storm of chittering gnawing sounds clattered down the corridor, accompanied by desperate screams that soon faded into begging and then gurgling.

They ran to the entrance to the corporate offices. Here they found a small sealed door that opened into a small antechamber. They pushed in, stripping off protective gear and securing the door behind them. They were in, though they did not know what waited for them above. Adam Lee cast his clairvoyance spell and sent an invisible eye questing, revealing that their room opened into a larger sub-basement room, a kind of control room that held a lot of the equipment for monitoring and controlling the office environment above. This room had been taken over by two students, one of whom was lounging in the middle of the room holding a large pistol, and the other of whom was sitting in a hoverchair holding a pistol and looking intently at banks of CCTV screens. This was their entry.

For lack of any better strategy, Jayden and Genji charged in. They hurled the door open and Jayden was on the standing student before he could blink, wicked knife at his throat, snarling, “Drop it and give in!” Before the student could move Genji had his pistols on the sitting man, and they both decided to surrender. The sitting man was revealed to be a disabled student, the hoverchair his only means of movement, but his chair also contained an advanced cyberdeck. T-Rex, their technomancer, destroyed the deck, and they tied their two captives far away from the room’s controls. They then set about systematically deleting all video of the students’ attack, used the cameras to find Lionel, and turned off the feed.

Lionel was up on level 2, in the factory part of the building, in a group with the two leaders of the raid – an Orc and a human, and a bunch of activists. There were other activists at the front of the building, armed and facing off with the police through a wall of corporate glass across a small open square. The police were moving resources in but not acting too quickly. They had probably half an hour to make their move. They moved up, slipping past the activists in the entry way and taking a set of spiral stairs up to the second level. Here they hid in the shadows of the doorway to the pharma factory, watching the students. There was some kind of argument happening, with the Orc leader and the human leader debating what to do next and some of the surrounding students looking decidedly uncomfortable – perhaps they had realized there was no way out of this occupation except foot first, or covered in disgrace. It was then that the PCs heard that the students had planted a bomb in the basement, where the computer equipment was.

Well then, time to move. They all looked at Jayden. Lionel was in there, and these were students. Jayden could be in there, grab Lionel and get him back – or at least have a knife at his throat – before the rest of the students could blink. The rest, they guessed, would be random noise.

Jayden was just about to move when the back wall of the factory exploded. That wall had two blast doors, sealed now, but they blew in like sheets of china under the force of whatever explosives had been loaded on the outside. Even then they held up for a moment, and instead of a roaring wall of fire everyone inside the factory was treated to a blast of warm air and a loud clang! as the doors fell slowly forward. From the rush of smoke and sparks two men came rushing forward, one an orc in body armour carrying a heavy rifle, the other a pale elf armed with a single assault rifle. As they watched in horror a grenade bounced out of the shadows and burst around the students in a cloud of gas.

Jayden looked around at his team, shrugged, took a deep breath, and ran forward to grab Lionel. The students were falling over in spasms as the gas spread, Lionel the first to drop, but the gas was not enough to take down Jayden, who grabbed Lionel’s supine form, yelled “We’re just here for the kid!” and started dragging him out of the cloud. Genji stepped out of the shadows and opened fire on the elf, while John, who was sequestered on the balcony above, took a shot at the Orc.

That was when the mage appeared, with his three spirits of air. They started laying about them with bolts of lightning while the mage took cover behind a pillar. Two of them killed students, while another laid into Jayden with a huge bolt of force, knocking him back and nearly blasting him into unconsciousness. Holding Lionel’s stunned form, there was nothing he could do. The mage, hidden behind his pillar, made a gesture, and two of the air spirits drifted away down the hallway into the main offices, firing bolts of force as they went. Somewhere out the front, responding to the chaos in the rear, the police opened fire. Their window for extraction had fallen from 30 minutes to three.

The other spirit continued to fire bolts of force down into the gas cloud, killing another student. The Orc fired at Genji, and the elf took down one of the student leaders with a shot to the face. The party, still confused, weren’t sure what to do or who to shoot – until Adam Lee used his telekinesis spell to lift that annoying mage out from under cover and into the middle of the open space above the factory floor. The mage hung there in the air, looking shocked and horrified at his powerless position, calling to his spirit to come and rescue him – and John shot him in the head. Free from the cover, hanging there in open space, he could not dodge or avoid what was coming[2]. Moments later Adam dropped his bloodied, broken form to the factory floor, just to make sure.

They skirmished a little more, but by now Genji had managed to break the Orc, who was now badly injured, and Jayden was dragging Lionel back into cover. Now that pale elf held up his hands and in a decidedly Russian accent yelled “Okay chummers, time to deal! We see you just want the kid! Let’s all chill down and we’ll let you get your mark out!”

They agreed, and the elf gave them a few moments to get their man out. Unfortunately Jayden had succumbed to his injuries while they talked, and Adam had to sneak out of cover to help him up and drag Lionel into cover, the kind of situation that a fast-thinking, cold-hearted elf might turn to advantage, but their mage was dead and the Orc was badly hurt, so probably for the best. Below them they could hear the sound of gunfire and screams as the students went to war with The Man. They dragged Lionel and Jayden out, and headed down.

Their exit took them past the main foyer, which was a hell of gun fire and broken glass as the students tried to hold off the incoming corporate soldiers and police. John grabbed the nearest student as they passed and told him that his leaders were dead and it was all done, tried to grab him away, but the student shook off his arm. He yelled a little more and a few moments later three students – a scared boy, a girl making brave face like a teenager on her first date, and a gruff older man with dead eyes – slipped out with them, taking the stairs down to the basement two at a time. They slammed and locked the door behind them, grabbed the two tied up student prisoners, checked once to make sure they’d locked down the video of the scene, and ran out the basement entrance. As Genji stood at the hatch covering their exit he heard a deep, rumbling roar – the bomb going off in the computer room. Whatever the students had hoped to achieve, it was done.

They left, dragging their five students past the area of the slithering terrfiying sewer monster and out to the more modern parts of the New Horizon sewers. Here they parted ways with a few choice words about student life, and headed back to the surface. Once they had made a suitable distance from the collapsing student sit-in they called Rosemary and made the exchange. It was tense, and there were some blood tests, but fortunately they had grabbed the right guy. They left their job satisfied that they had done all they could not to cause more death than they had to, and that five young people would become perfect students by next semester.

On the far side of town, smoke rose from a shattered building, and the few surviving student activists were led away to be ransomed or indentured. Lionel returned to whatever corporate arcology he had been rebelling against. In the tunnels under New Horizon, hungry things stirred and roiled, thick in the shadows.

Nothing had changed.


fn1: Apparently Shadowrun requires you to roll for every effort to spend xp, but our GM has decided we don’t have to do that if we tell a story about how we got our training. I had to roll anyway. GMs – arseholes, all of them!

fn2: Resisting levitation is a Body check, which for a wizard is incredibly difficult. Levitating people and dropping them is absolutely the best attack – especially if your opponent has already burnt all their counter-spelling points resisting a direct attack spell I forgot to mention!

And when I see a shooting star go flashing in the night,
I often wonder if some other beings also see the light,
And are they picking up our signals,
As they spin off into space,
Until the final act is over,
Until every man has spoken,
Until every summer’s gone,
Until every battle’s done,
Until the day,
Transmission ends, transmission ends

 

Our heroes have returned to the Ark, and for a while at least food was plentiful and the People were at their ease. But soon their attention turned to the sword they had seen from afar in their last adventure, and they again began to think that having such a powerful weapon of the ancients in their possession would be their best defense when the Elder died and the delicate tension of the Ark snapped into open war.

While they planned for another mission south of the river they worked furiously in the Ark. They all contributed tirelessly to the project the People had chosen, to build up the defenses of the Ark, and within a few weeks they had successfully strengthened all the entrances to the Ark. In place of simple scrap piles blocking the Ark’s many gates they built proper barriers of old furniture and scavenged iron, reinforced and designed to be much harder to penetrate, and a system was negotiated between the bosses to ensure that someone was at all times patrolling the perimeter, carrying the revolver the PCs had found, ready to rush to the aid of any entrance that was attacked. Watches were fixed on the new embarkations, and people slept safe at night in the knowledge of their new security. The PCs’ thoughts turned to those Helldrivers on the far side of the river – too strong to attack, and just a matter of time before they found a way across, and found the Ark. The party needed more weapons to help defend the Ark, and in that moment of shared work they decided to set out across the river and grab the Katana they had seen from the Tower by the river.

This katana had been set into a large stone on the roof of a building south of the tower. The building was a small, squat, heavyset two storey building, but its roof was surmounted by a strange, delicate tower that stretched up in a spire of wires and steel struts to a cluster of discs at the top[1]. They simply had to find a way into the building and onto the roof, grab the sword, and get out. They set off the next morning.

This time they took two new team members with them, so that their team was:

  • Chang Chang the Fixer, fungal mutant
  • Bloody Jack the Boss, with frog legs, accompanied by his gang members Carrot and Nelma
  • Lonnie the Stalker, a plant man
  • Grimshaw the Enforcer, carrying a mighty hammer
  • Parsnip the Gearhead, a man who can breath fire

They passed through the sector south of the Ark, Lonnie the Stalker entering the wreck of the fallen aircraft and searching through for scrap until he found a note, preserved in a plastic folder but still yellowing and fading. Parsnip and Chang Chang pored over it, trying to decode the strange writing on it, and between them managed to identify it as a love letter. They could not read much, but found phrases about “the sorrow of parting” and “being separated by a great barrier of water” and “thinking of you whenever the sun rises in the east” and “never change my email address” and “Farewell forever”. It appeared that the giant flying craft had traveled across a vast stretch of water much greater even than the River, and carried inside it a person whose lover was on the far side of the great water. What remarkable people were the ancients, to live in such times that they could make love across vast gulfs.

Or have any love at all.

They passed on, climbing the towers and crawling across the gantry to camp in the south tower. From there they crossed into the sector where the radio station was, moving carefully across a wilderness of broken ruins overgrown with moss, creepers, small bushes and trees. They found a huge nest of Rot Ants, not the mobile kind, massive fist-sized ants that had torn book-sized pieces of glass and steel from all the buildings in the sector and formed them into a kind of huge glittering, monstrous mound of glass and steel. The mound was as high as the stadium, and glinted in the pale midday sun, but it also squirmed: the ants brought small animals, rabbits and birds and even small zone spiders, and skewered them on the glass and steel spikes of their home, keeping them there as an outdoor larder that the passing ants snacked on before heading off to explore the sector. Disgusted, the party gave the mound a wide berth.

As they crossed the sector Lonnie had a sense they were being watched, or followed, but could find no sign of any followers and simply put the feeling down to nerves. They soon reached the radio station, and although they scanned it carefully they could see no sign that anyone was there. They perched on a disused ice cream van overgrown with creepers and ruin, hiding behind the reclining ice cream cone on its roof as they surveyed the station with their telescope. The station had on one side an underground entrance, where perhaps once vehicles had entered, a main entrance on the ground level that looked easily accessible, and then a second storey with dark, narrow windows all shuttered. They decided to go in through the main entrance, and approached cautiously.

As well they did, for at the entrance Parsnip found a trap. The entrance was a set of double glass doors that opened into a narrow space ending in another set of double doors. A cabinet had been upended and placed between the righthand set of doors, so they could not be opened fully. The left hand set opened well, but the floor had been dug away to form a pit, full of spikes, that was covered and carefully hidden. They stepped around the trap and into the main room, finding a narrow, long room with a desk on one side, two doors on the opposite side to that which they had entered, and two elevators at one end of the room.

As they entered they were heard, however, and three crazed men came charging out of the furthest door. They were dressed in rags, filthy, crazed looking people carrying spears, and they charged the party without fear or relent. Battle was joined, and it was vicious: though they prevailed they were all injured, and as the battle proceeded two more of these crazed mutant types entered from the far door, bringing more blood and pain. Finally however their five opponents were slain.

They were exhausted though and badly hurt. They considered searching the rest of the rooms beyond the doors, but they were too badly hurt to consider it – they needed rest, and food. They decided to rest here, in the entrance area, where they had already slain five of the strangers and they knew the terrain. They ate, rested, set a watch, and slept.

They were woken by another gang of the crazed strangers attacking them through one of the doors. They were not surprised, because they had set a watch and had expected this, but it was a vicious battle. Behind the five crazed men came a sixth, a towering monster carrying a club and wearing heavy scrap armour. This man was obviously the leader, and a dangerous foe – with the first swing of his club he struck Carrot a crushing blow that knocked him flat left him stunned and broken. Parsnip realized now was his moment to shine and stepped forward to touch the leader and set him roaring with a great blaze, but unfortunately he stepped too close and immolated himself too. Parsnip fell, broken and writhing in agony from his own mutation, but not without killing the leader too, who flailed about shrieking and burning before he fell to ash. The other crazed men did not stop fighting though, and before the battle was done Nelma had been brought down with a brutal stomach wound, and Chang Chang had lost all his teeth and been knocked unconscious.

Now, having killed the leader, they were sure they must be safe. They moved into the room from which their first group of attackers had come, finding a sleeping and living area – it was filthy and dark and stank, but it was a place to rest. Here also they found a few rations of grub, fresh meat of some kind, which Grimshaw and Bloody Jack ate in preference to their own preserved grub, figuring that it was better to eat food that could go rancid before eating their own rations. They slept again, and when they had recovered they explored the rest of the level. They found a room with a large desk and some strange long-dead electrical equipment, that was obviously the boss guy’s private space. Leading off from this were two doors, one of which led to a dark, sealed room with an air mattress and a bunch of trash that was obviously his sleeping room. In here amongst the dust and rubbish they found a jar of fetid water in which floated a perfect set of teeth; initially shocked, they realized the potential and Parsnip carefully smashed out all of Chang Chang’s remaining teeth, replacing them with the perfect false ones[2].

The next room was a smaller room with a desk and a window that had been pushed open, clearly the boss’s escape route. He must have exited through this window, gathered his men and then somehow come up the stairs from below to attack the PCs at night. But now he was dead. Mice, men, all that. Beyond this room was a small room full of electronic equipment, including a battery. With this and the air mattress the PCs had quite a haul of artifacts to take back to their Ark. They had also found some fresh meat and rot free water – quite a good haul!

This was all the rooms on the first floor. They opened the door that their attackers had come through with the leader, and found stairs leading both up and down. They decided to explore up first, since if they could get the katana they would find all battles easier, so they headed up. Loony Lonnie – experienced in sneaking around in dark and dangerous places – took the lead by a small distance, and went ahead to scout the entrance to level 2.

The stairs marched up in darkness to level 2, then beyond to the rooftop where they expected to find the katana. At level 2 there was a heavy door, bolted from the outside, which Lonnie carefully opened. Gesturing to the others to stay in the stairwell, he slipped inside. The door opened into a large room, dimly lit by pale light filtering through blocked windows. It was an L shape, so a section of wall blocked off Lonnie’s immediate view of the room. As he turned around this section of wall he was suddenly shocked by the figure of a looming man, and stumbled back into the main part of the room – and into a waking nightmare! The looming man swung forward, and revealed itself to be a corpse hanging on a meathook, the flesh partially stripped from its bones and a badly damaged face grinning out at him in death. The rest of the room was soaked in blood, full of buckets of meat and cuts of human hanging from meat hooks. On a table in the middle of the room lay a dismembered human body, a few wicked looking knives lying next to it or standing in buckets full of gore. Lonnie wretched, remembering the meat Bloody Jack and Grimshaw had eaten – and heard murmured sobs. In the corner he found a wretched, injured person, chained to the wall and desperately scared. He unchained her and helped her outside, soothing her with calming whispers and shutting the door firmly behind him.

“Nothing in there,” he declared sternly. “Just this prisoner. We can go up.”

The rest of the party briefly demurred, suggesting they should search the room together, but he assured them it was an empty room holding nothing but some chains and a dirty bucket, and they agreed to head up. Trying to hide his tremors, and trying to make sure the freed prisoner’s mutterings did not give the game away, Lonnie led them upstairs.

The stairs opened onto the roof, a windswept and empty expanse of concrete with nothing to recommend it. The struts and spars of the radio mast towered above them and the rock with the katana sat in the middle of the roof. Lonnie stood trying to calm his nerves and hide his fears as Bloody Jack strode forward and drew the katana from the stone in a single smooth motion. The rest of the party cheered, and Lonnie hid his sobs by pretending to pay attention to the freed captive. Shivering and shaking, he followed the rest of the group down the stairs, again assuring them there was no reason to go into that hateful room, and casting Grimshaw and Bloody Jack suspicious looks. Does a man get a taste for this sort of thing. Had they changed? Could he see it in their eyes? What was that hard glint in Bloody Jack’s visage, had it always been there …?

He steeled himself and slid down the steps to the basement, leaving the others on the stairs to await his scouting. The stairs opened into what had once been an underground carpark, the entrance sloping down from the ground level, barricaded with a cunning structure of scrap that had a single old telephone booth as its entrance point. The rest of the carpark was empty except for trash and remnants of the old age, and in one corner a fire and some cozy cushions for a group of five guards. The elevators from above would have exited here if they worked, and the empty shafts were open against one wall. Lonnie moved over to the fire and soon saw what he had expected – a bucket full of fresh meat. He lugged it over to the elevators and cast it down, carefully hid the bucket. Then he went back to the stairs and called the others. Obviously the five men who had attacked them in the second wave had been on guard here: when his first five men died the leader had snuck out of his window and around and down to here, and taken his five remaining men up to attack the PCs. It was done. The nest of cannibals were all dead.

They led the freed captive out into the weak sunlight and back to the ice cream van. On the way she babbled and jittered, and somehow Chang Chang figured it out, but with one glance from Lonnie he, too, decided to keep the whole thing quiet. They returned to the ice cream van, rested, and spoke some more to the captive. Her name was Arabesque, and she claimed to have been alone. They didn’t believe her, and finally she admitted that she had been part of a larger party, and had been abucted by the cannibals. She expected her group had moved on. Freed and exhausted, she agreed to return to the Ark.

A miracle of the ancients

They had not moved more than 30 minutes before three mutants emerged to block their path. One was pushing a miracle of ancient technology: a perfectly cut steel bathtub-like structure, on a single wheel, with two handles sticking out of one end that could be used to carry it. The steel carrier was full of food and water, but as the three men moved into the street it was set down, and the man pushing it pulled a bicycle chain off the top. Another of the men carried a club, and the one at the front held a shotgun.

“She’s ours,” he said.

They negotiated. The men soon relaxed when they realized the party meant them no harm, and they talked. Arabesque’s group had come from far away, on a pilgrimage to the Oracle of the Silver Egg, who could “make your dreams come true,” but they had been ambushed one night and two of their party abducted. They had been hanging around waiting for a chance to go in and rescue their group when they saw the PCs – Lonnie had been right that they were being followed. They decided to wait and see if the PCs rescued Arabesque or weakened her abductors.

“Well met then,” Chang Chang said, “because indeed we did. Now … would you like to make a deal?”

And so it was that all four of them decided to change their plans, give up their journey to the Oracle, and join the Ark. They rested near the ice cream van, and the next day all of them returned bearing the air mattress and the battery to the Ark, Bloody Jack now armed with a katana.

And only Lonnie and Chang Chang knew what their friends had done.


fn1: A radio station.

fn2: Chang Chang’s critical injury says he has a -1 to Manipulation and other charm rolls for two weeks while it heals; with the new teeth in he took a point of damage and gained a permanent +1 instead.

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During a moment of sudden frenzied violence in yesterday’s Shadowrun adventure our wizard character Adam Lee deployed an indirect mana attack spell for a grand total of only 2 or 3 points of damage. Immediately afterward our opponent – a russian Shadowrunner mage – dropped an indirect attack spell on me that something like 8 points of physical damage even though I have a monumental full defense dice pool, decent armour and good body. This prompted me to declare that “Direct spells are shit!” Today I thought I’d check this statistically, and see if I can identify some guidelines for using direct and indirect attack spells. There seems to be a general consensus that direct spells are better against people with heavy armour and high body, and reliably deliver damage while indirect spells have bigger upper limits. Is this true?

This post assumes the reader knows the Shadowrun 5e rules.

The difference between direct and indirect spells

Direct spells use the force of the spell as a limit on the spellcasting check, and target either body or willpower only. So for example our wizard Adam Lee, with a 14 dice spellcasting pool, will be making a challenged check against the body or willpower of the opponent, which will typically be 4-6. In contrast, indirect spells use the spellcasting skill with the same limit against the opponents defense (Intution+Reaction, no limit). Any net hits then do damage as a weapon with damage Force and AP -Force. So it appears that if you can get through the defense you can do a lot of damage, but high dodge opponents will be a challenge for this spell.

In practice it looks something like this: with a direct spell Adam can expect an average of about 5 hits, while the target can expect 1-3, so Adam can expect to fairly comfortably deliver 2-4 damage at a low risk of drain. With an indirect spell Adam will also get 5 hits, but the opponent will be likely to get 3-5 hits so perhaps half the time Adam won’t hit, and when he does hit he will get 1 net hit. But that net hit is added to the force of the spell, so e.g. with a Force 6 spell he might do 7 damage that is then challenged by the opponents soak with AP-6. If the opponent has body +armour of 17, this means the opponent rolls 11 dice, gets about 4 hits, ends up taking about 3 damage – so it seems like it levels out in these kinds of scenarios, but that the direct spell is more reliable. Is this correct?

Comparing effectiveness using average hits

I ran a brief comparison of the average damage to be expected from Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spell using a basic excel spreadsheet. Here I calculated the average hits for each spell, the average defense, calculating damage for the indirect spell only if the average spellcasting hits were bigger than the average defense hits, and then using average hits from the soak check to further reduce damage. I did this for a target with defense pool 10 and with body values of 3, 5 or 8. I ran the analysis for spells of force 3 to 8.  For each level of force I calculated the minimum armour value at which the direct spell did more damage on average than the indirect spell. This is the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell. For example at Force 4 the direct spell is better against anyone with armour higher than 7, largely because the net hits from the indirect spell attack are so low (due to the Force-based limit) that it can’t do much damage.

My first interesting discovery was that this armour threshold is independent of the target’s Body – it is approximately the same for all three simulated Body values of 3, 5 or 8. This surprised me, because I thought the direct spell would really lose out against higher body, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. I also found that as Force increases, the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell really skyrockets. Figure 1 shows this for a target with Body 5 and defense pool 10 (it is approximately equivalent for other Body values), and you can see that for a Force 8 spell the target needs to have armour of 23 or more in order for the direct spell to be better than the indirect spell. This is because a force 8 spell has 8 acc, 8 damage, and AP8 – it shreds through anything except the scariest armour, and in fact this spell is basically as good as the best sniper rifle in the game.

Armour threshold for effective direct spells by spell Force

So my first finding is that while in theory direct spells might be useful against heavily armoured foes, they typically are only better than indirect spells at very high levels of armour, and if you’re playing a mage capable of spells of force 6 or higher you are unlikely to be meeting the kind of armoured foes against whom you need to deploy your direct spells.

When is an indirect or direct spell better than a gun?

Next I conducted a few rough calculations to see when either of these kinds of spell is better than a good old fashioned lead injection. For this I posited a street samurai with a 14 dice pool to hit using a Colt America L36, which is Acc 7, dam 7P, AP1. Can’t go wrong with those stats! I compared it to Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spells against a couple of targets: one with defense pool 7, and total soak of 12 or 20; and one with defense pool 12,  and total soak of 12 or 20. I found that in all cases the indirect spell was better than the gun at Force 6. This was independent of the total soak or defense pool. In some cases the direct spell was simply never better than a gun, but interestingly for the higher defense pool against the higher soak, even a Force 4 direct spell was better than a gun.

The reason for this is that as the Force of an indirect spell increases its damage increases even more. Assuming you can hit on average, even the thinnest margin leads to increasing damage with increasing force, and the damage increases by more than the force. For example, against someone with defense pool 10 and soak 12, the average damage of the indirect spell ranges from 0 at force 3 (it doesn’t hit) up to 8 at force 8. At higher force values, damage increases by 1.3 – 1.5 for every unit increase in force. This is because the increased force simultaneously increases damage and decreases armour, so even when the force-based limit is well beyond what your mage can expect to roll on average (e.g. Adam Lee expects about 4-5 hits on average, so any spell of force 5+ applies a higher limit), you still see your damage increase.

This means that in general, as you increase the force on your indirect spell to make it do more damage, you also raise the threshold above which a direct spell of the same Force would be any use. And you make your spell increasingly better than a gun. And it appears that Force 6 is the sweet spot beyond which a readily-available and relatively dangerous gun is no longer better than a spell for a relatively beginnerish mage.

Direct spells as one-shot killers

There is a way to make a direct spell a one-shot killer, though: cast it at low force and Edge it. Remember, Edge adds 3 to your dice pool, sixes roll again, and you get to ignore limits. This means that a Force 4 direct spell has no upper limits, but is defended against by a very small dice pool. Adam Lee, Edging the spell, will likely get 10-11 hits, with no upper limit on how many he can get, but the target having to roll just 3-6 dice to defend. Chances are this will do 7-9 damage, which brings a single target perilously close to death. A similar indirect spell is much less likely to achieve this, because the defensive dice pool is larger and has no limit.

This strategy is especially effective against targets with very high dodge, because it ignores dodge, and it’s particularly effective for GMs to deploy against PCs since the NPCs don’t need to save up their Edge for later. If the opponent is protected by a mage they may get some counterspelling, and they can Edge the defense, but even then it is likely that by pooling all of that together they will still have a smaller dice pool than the attacker. If there is no mage in the party then even Edge is going to be of little use, and the spell is going to cause a lot of trouble. This is especially true for those mages who have both a stun and a physical damage direct spell in their arsenal, since they can choose the spell to match the target – a troll street samurai deploying Edge will likely still only get 6 dice to defend a stun attack. Note that Edging an indirect spell to make into a killer is less effective, since the real power of indirect spells lies in their high damage rating and armour piercing, so they are at their most effective when cast at the kind of Force ratings that do not put crippling limits on the caster’s success.

A final note on the effectiveness of attack spells in Shadowrun

Above I found that a 14 dice attacker with magic is only more effective than a 14 dice attacker with a basic pistol at Force 6. This is a big problem for magic, because Force 6 will cause physical damage on the caster unless they have a very high magic attribute, and for an indirect attack spell to be significantly better than a gun it will need to be Force 8 or 10, at which point any human mage will be risking very large amounts of physical damage that cannot be healed. I think this under powers magic a little relative to the other fighters in the game, unless the PC is somehow carefully balanced to make sure that it can be super good at resisting drain and casting spells, probably also with a high Body. One way to get around this could be to relax the limits on Magic attributes, allowing them to become 7 or 8 in basic characters, which means that a combat mage who really focuses on that aspect of their character could be able to sling around Force 7 or 8 spells without suffering physical damage. Another option could be to drop the rule that drain can become physical when the Force exceeds the Magic attribute – it means that Force 8 spells are still high risk but not fatal. This is particularly important because Force acts as a limit on spellcasting rolls, and if you can only cast Force 5 or 6 spells you are suffering a significant reduction in maximum attack capability compared to say a street samurai (7 with a katana) or a sniper (8 with some rifles). I think in general the rules on limits may be a problem for high level characters – when you have a limit of 8 on the number of hits you can roll, but your opponent has 30 dice in dodge and no limit, you’re simply never going to hit, and fights are going to become very long and boring as people trade blows that never hit or only barely hit and do little damage. I think a quality that allows you to increase accuracy, or some other property for higher level characters, might be useful. At the moment wizards have the ability to exceed all limits by casting high Force spells but in reality they never will – a Force 10 spell will carry a large risk of serious injury for a wizard. I think it would be more exciting and make wizards more dangerous if they did not face this extreme risk. Remember that wizards have low initiative and weak armour (in general), and everyone aims to gank them, so it would be nice if they could be more able to take these risks in the one round of combat where they’re still alive.

Another possibility is that mages just aren’t that powerful in Shadowrun, and that it is better to play a mage who is good at a single material thing (e.g. shooting a pistol) and give him or her moderate background magic for support – healing, armour, that sort of thing. But even then, a PC who can get a maximum of +3 to your armour for a short time is not an especially great contribution to the party, especially if their shooting is good but not top notch. I think a few things here need to be tweaked to make mages more dangerous at the extremes of their range.

 

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On the fat of the land I been living
Now it’s only a matter of time
Sooner or later, you open your eyes
And return to the scene of the crime
Dig deep at the top of the heap
Now you’ve bitten off the hand that feeds you
You got nothin’ but your soul to sell
You got nothin’
When the river runs dry
You will return to the scene of the crime
When the river runs dry
Salvation will rain on you one last time

 

Things fester in New Horizon. Out in the zones, away from the Claws, where the poor strive and toil and graft their way through life, jumping from paycheck to scam to paycheck to grift and back again, life is a hard scrabble, and you’re always just a step away from failure. When you fail – or when the system pushes you over the edge, into the shadows – you have to look for help among other people with the same hard luck and hard stares as you, and it doesn’t always end well. But sometimes you find a community, people who have something in common with you beyond being a ragged survivor of a hard world, and then you have a chance, at dignity if not at wealth and security.

Being non-human marks you out, and all across the sprawling ruins of the edge of New Horizon there are groups of metahumans who make it together, because they have something they can recognize each other by. Sometimes those bands don’t work out so well – sometimes they bring the shadows with them, and looking inward as they do, cloak themselves in darkness.

In a world of augmentation and magic – things can get very nasty down there in the shadows.

That’s why Anansie contacted the characters with an urgent job – a missing person’s case. An elven girl had gone missing, and after they exhausted all their own options her family called on shadowrunners to try and find her. Anansie did not know the details but he said there would be some money in it, maybe contacts, and it probably wasn’t such a tough job. So they headed off to the south end of Havensport, where the hard scrabble folks live.

For this job Anansie had hooked them up with new members, because their technomancer and their mage were on other work. Their new team members were:

  • Zenith, an Orc rigger, the driver who took them to the Troll gig on their last little outing
  • Jo, an ex-corporate human hacker

Anansie did not know if they would need a hacker for this job – “there is always a phone, is there not John?”, he had asked rhetorically when he introduced them – but he assured Jayden and John that Jo could handle herself in a fight, and if they were going to be cruising the badlands looking for detritus they would need a driver, so Zenith was their man. The two were waiting at the bar where they always met Anansie, Jo looking trim in armoured suit and Zenith casual in jeans, a t-shirt and big brown boots – classic rigger work wear. They hopped into his big, tint-windowed van and cruised South to the badlands.

Their target was a run down stretch of slums and shacks in the very far southern tip of Havensport, nestled in the shadows of a complex of disturbing looking chemical plants. They drove carefully through the sinister smell of unregulated industry and past sprawling slums into a slapped-together township of temporary shacks, stacked container apartments and crumbling converted warehouses to their meeting point – a dusty park from back in the era of state-run schools. The park had long since been converted into a market place, stalls scattered around a central open area scattered with outdoor tables, and it was here that they were due to meet their contact. When they parked their car, however, they realized they were in metahuman turf – not a human to be seen, and the boundaries of the market park patrolled by a nasty looking bunch of troll and orc irregulars. Of course John and Zenith were unbothered by the sight of a few metahumans, and Jayden was so used to being out of place in New Horizon that being confronted by non-humans did not bother him at all, but Jo looked distinctly uncomfortable as they strolled up to a pair of huge troll guards and asked to see their contact, Charcul. They were allowed through with a few grunts and into a largely troll-dominated arena of families and small groups, eating and drinking and relaxing in an unseasonally dry New Horizon afternoon. The entire park stank of stinky tofu, a delicacy from south China and Taiwan that held an almost narcotic appeal for trolls of all races, and which was ubiquitous at all their events throughout Asia. Jayden grabbed a few plates of the stuff as they walked through the park, so when they got close to Charcul and the next round of even bigger, even scarier troll guards approached he was ready with this opening gift. Zenith gave them the code phrase Anansie had told them and, thankfully relieved of their disgusting-smelling cargo, they were able to pass through to a small gaggle of metahumans standing around a tall, proud old troll.

Charcul told them the story quickly enough, in that deep and engaging bass rumble that only old trolls can mange. A young elven woman from the local community called Lin Fei had disappeared about two weeks ago, and they had very recently discovered that she was being held captive by an anti-metahuman gang called the Purifiers. This gang, entirely human, had set itself up above a bar called Akanebana in a nearby area that because of bad blood between gangs and some old agreements, Charcul’s community could not easily enter. He had reached out to Anansie in hopes of finding a team of shadowrunners with at least some human members that he might be able to cut a deal with. The purifiers had a history of torturing metahuman captives – tearing out tusks, rounding off ears, that sort of thing – and the longer they waited the worse it would be for Lin Fei. They assumed she was still alive because the Purifiers usually returned the bodies of their captives once they were finished, so they thought there was still a chance they could get her out. Word in the neighbouring metahuman areas was that she was not the first victim of this gang, and even if the shadowrunners could not liberate Lin Fei alive, Charcul hoped that their going to get her out would send a warning that she should be the last victim they took from this area.

The matter of payment came up. Charcul and his people were obviously not wealthy, and did not have much to give, but they offered 1500 nuyen each and the free takings of anything the PCs found in the Purifier’s gang base if they could liberate Lin Fei or return her body. They looked at each other, nodded, and offered to do the job for free.

Nobody likes Nazis.

Jayden made the offer, and suggested that the only payment they would ever ask was that one day they might need somewhere to lie low. This part of Havensport was a great place to hide, being almost off the grid and well out of the reach or interest of most corporate security teams. People in this part of town did not talk to strangers, and many of the communities down here had ferocious internal loyalties that stopped them talking loosely with their neighbours. For at least a little while a team of shadowrunners could get lost in here, and bonds of community would hold faster than any deal nuyen could buy – if they were owed a favour here, the trolls hiding them would take the secret of their location to the grave with them. Charcul thought the offer way too good, and in truth it was, but they all saw that one day it could be a life saver for the PCs too. They agreed, and the PCs set off to investigate this bar, Akanebana.

Trivial checks by Jo revealed it was a yakuza bar, owned by a small local yakuza family, the Kurosasori, that worked the edges of the sprawlzone. The Purifers must have set up on one of the levels above, and from the plans Jo downloaded it was pretty clear that the only way to the higher floors was to brazen their way through the yakuza bar itself. But this bar was in a human zone, and the yakuza who owned it were notoriously metaphobic, and a more detailed search suggested that although they did not own the building they were on more than friendly terms with whoever did – so getting in to beat up a bunch of tenants was going to be a challenge. They needed a way in that would get them past the bar without a fight.

They put in a call to Mr. Niwa, consigliere for the Yamada family, whose daughter they had previously escorted to a Troll metal gig. Mr. Niwa was a grateful man, and in exchange for the many extra services they had provided him on that mission he was able to arrange them an invitation to the bar, to talk to a Mr. Uesugi about the details of their evening. They made clear their visit was not going to be pretty, and he reminded them that his reputation was on the line. Everyone understood the stakes, so they went in.

The maps they had downloaded showed that the bar took the entire ground floor of the building, which had a large elevator hall near the entryway, but when they entered the building they found a very different setup. Most of the elevators had been blocked off and turned into cloak rooms or staff offices, and the elevator hall had become the entryway for the club itself, where security guards in smart suits greeted them in subdued Japanese style and divested them of their weapons. They were led into a relatively quiet public area, pumping music and a pair of scantily clad human women gyrating in some kind of raised platform at the end of a long, heavily burnished bar. The windows opened onto sedate zen gardens, and a brusque human waitress took their order. They stood there at the bar waiting for the maitre’d to bring them to their assigned seats but before they began their meeting they noticed a single human woman, blonde and muscular, leaning on the bar and looking around with a kind of urgent, uncertain and tense manner. Jayden approached her and discovered quickly that she was looking for her brother, who had disappeared in the area a few months ago – she suspected having joined the Purifiers. Her name was Gillian Payne, her little brother was Max, and plan was to go in and find him. Thinking she might know something about how to get in, they invited her to join them, and went to their meeting with Mr. Uesugi.

The conversation with Mr. Uesugi proved surprisingly easy. They told him directly they were going to go upstairs and get their target out of the Purifiers, and they hoped to come to some kind of arrangement. He told them directly that he wanted all of the Purifiers dead – they had become an embarassment to his gang, and now their rent was due – and he would much prefer someone else did it, so he would happily allow them into the building, clear the bar so there were no witnesses, and turn a blind eye to the slaughter. But he added two conditions: every single Purifier had to die, and the PCs could only take as much loot as they could carry. In particular the Purifiers were believed to be sitting on a large collection of crates whose contents the PCs were not to take or even to look at. They balked at the “every single purifier” condition, but managed to cut a bargain with Mr. Uesugi, that Max Payne could live if Gillian worked for the yakuza for a year. Mr. Uesugi made very clear that he really did not care for Max Payne to live, and he would make the one exception only if Gillian agreed to repay him with work. She agreed, and the deal was done.

The bar experienced a sudden freak blackout, and all the customers were asked to leave and move to a different bar nearby. Zenith slipped out to his car and came back with a drone – a tank the size of a large dog, bristling with guns. They were led down into the basement to a separate service lift by one of Mr. Uesugi’s goons, a massive thug called Takuya – “Takuya’su! Uss!” – and told that it would deposit them on the 2nd floor. They went up.

The third floor was deserted, a big dark common area that led to a kind of dormitory at one end. Here they found sets of bunk beds, with small bags of belongings in lockers at one end of the room. Searching the belongings they soon found commlinks, and Jo was able to hack the commlinks to get their contents. They found Max Payne’s commlink, and by quickly searching through the messages he had shared with a few of his fellow Purifiers they learnt many things:

  • Max was an initiate who was not allowed to do many things, and spent much of his time in lectures and indoctrination sessions
  • The more experienced Purifiers had a private bar/hangout area in the basement, that the initiates were not allowed into
  • Max and his friend had found a secret access shaft that connected all the floors, and even went down to the basement
  • Max’s friend had used the shaft and had stashed a card for the basement security system behind a cistern in the bathrooms
  • Calli was on level 5, and there was a complex they did not visit – where the prisoners were held – on level 4
  • The initiates spent most of their time in level 3, in a training and indoctrination area, and that was where they were now
  • The entire grubby little arrangement was run by a woman called Calli, who as far as they could discern was some kind of technical wizard

They decided to go down and deal with the security guards first, so once they had found the card they got back into the lift and headed down.

The elevator doors opened into a wide open space dominated by a large set of benches with computer equipment in the middle. There were five men standing around those benches, holding drinks and chatting. When the lift doors open they all stared at the PCs in shock, perhaps thinking for a moment they were colleagues from upstairs, and the PCs, expecting some kind of elevator hall or entryway, stared back in shock.

Except Jayden. Jayden is never surprised, so he burst into the room and set to work with his knife. From there the battle was short and brutal, the room starkly illuminated with flashes of gunfire and echoing with the scream of dying men. All five men died without doing any damage to the PCs, barely able to get a shot in before they found themselves face to face with Jayden, or pinned down under a withering barrage of gunfire.

As the last of the men slid groaning to his grim end Jo set to work hacking the computers, and the rest of the party fanned out to search the area. They found a simple bar and lounge, the kind of messy, untidy and comfy place that a bunch of twenty-something men set up when they’re living together. Nasty posters adorned the walls, yelling hateful human supremacist slogans from faces of young men distorted with anger. Pumping hardcore human first music roared through the room, and messages of hate scrolled across the computer screens. A typical human supremacist den.

Jo soon hacked the computer and gained complete access to the entire computer system. She accessed maps of all the other areas, gained full control of the lift, and hacked one of the guard’s commlinks. From this she showed them a feed of events in the prisoner area of level 4. A horrible tableau unfolded before them: the elf girl, Lin Fei, and an Orc man were tied to chairs in the middle of a stark, bare chamber. Around the back walls of the chamber were several cages, in which a couple of weak, sickly and heavily mutilated elves and dwarves were held captive. One cage in the middle held a huge, badly injured troll, who was rattling on the bars and screaming at the room. His tusks had been removed violently and his body was covered in scabby cuts and sores. Both the elf girl and the orc boy were covered in blood, and someone behind the camera was laughing at them. As they watched a rough, heavy-set man entered the scene from the left and slapped the orc, making a joke about how soon the elf girl wouldn’t have a use for him as a boyfriend. Then he turned to the girl and told her it was time for her to lose her ears. Someone behind the camera laughed, and the troll screamed.

This video was being streamed from the commlink in this room to Calli’s commlink, up in her hidey hole on level 5. If the PCs attacked now she would see her guards die and know that the den had intruders; but if they did not, this pair would soon be done for. They had to act now. They ran back to the lift and punched it for level 4.

At level 4 the elevator opened into a small entryway that fed into a wider corridor. They moved quickly down this corridor towards the sound of the raging troll, and ambushed the three guards in here with maximum violence. They were dead before they knew what hit them.

As they freed Lin Fei and her boyfriend, crying and desperately thankful, the Troll raged behind them in the cage. “Free me!” he yelled, and “You treacherous bitch, I’ll destroy you!” Apparently this was aimed at Lin Fei, though they had no time to find out why. By now Calli would know they had invaded her den, and would be planning some defense. Zenith sent his drone back to guard the elevator while they discussed what to do. Finally someone suggested that they free the troll and let him use the elevator to go and get Calli, then follow him. They would have to channel him away from Lin Fei, but everyone could see that he had lost his mind, and there was no hope for him. He was rattling the cage bars and screaming, “Let me at Calli! Let me out! I’ll kill her!”

It was a risk, but they took it. Jayden walked up to the cage and did his best to convince the troll that his enemy was Calli, not Lin Fei, and that he could come back for Lin Fei. Then he opened the cage, and they watched as the troll went screaming along the hallway, smashing into walls and yelling at the ceiling, insane with berserk rage. A troll in his finest fury is a sight to behold, and they all paused for just a moment to show him the respect he deserved before they moved down the hallway after him.

By the time they reached the elevator he had already headed up. They called the elevator back down and followed him, and when it opened on the fifth floor the sense of their strategy was clear. There were three guards on the ground in the elevator hall, all with SMGs that had been pointed at the elevator doors, which were smeared in thick dark troll blood. They found the troll around the corner, dead on the ground, riddled with bullets and what looked suspiciously like dog bites. Zenith looked at the bites and told them he had been attacked by a K-nine, a type of drone with a dog form that was specially designed for attacking humanoids. They advanced past the dead troll, giving him momentary whispers of respectful remembrance, and hit the main room.

Here again battle was joined, but now their enemy was ready for them and in cover. Calli was some kind of rigger like Zenith, because she had gun turrets set up in two corners of the room and sent a K-nine drone to get them as they approached the room. With the gun turrets and Calli’s remaining guards ensconced behind cover at the far end of the room it appeared to be a death trap, but Jayden did not let this concern him – he charged in and drew all the fire in the room as he ran to the cover, giving the others a chance to get inside the room and take cover in shooting positions. Jayden’s attack was a crazy spectacle of Adept power – he leapt onto the cabinet that Calli hid behind, dodging short bursts of bullets from two turrets and pistol fire from one of the guards as he dived forward to attack Calli. At the same time the rest of the group opened fire on the turrets, and another guard, and Jo hacked the dog drone to try and make it stand down. More gunfire sprayed at Jayden, but he slipped between the cones of fire and jumped down from the barrier to kill Calli. Seeing the trouble she was in, she dropped out of the connection to her drones and fled, leaving the dog and the turrets dead at her feet. The group chased her but were ambushed by another K-nine drone, which slowed them down enough to give Calli the edge, and she leapt into the secret access shaft that linked all the floors together. As she fell Jo fired shots after her, but Jayden did not wait – he jumped in after her in a controlled fall, sliding down the walls and catching himself enough to land on her crumpled body without injury. She was alive but badly injured, so he calmly reached down and cut her throat. Calli was dead.

The others came down to the basement to get her body, and then they moved back to the final floor, level 3 where the initiates were in training. They burst into the training room to find the initiates on their knees, hands up, pleading not to die. Jo, Zenith and John calmly shot them all in the head, leaving only Max kneeling on the ground in his white Purifier robes, spattered with the blood of his friends and sniveling and crying in terror. As Gillian stepped forward to slap her brother everyone else noticed Jo raising her gun to shoot him in the head too. Nobody bothered to stop her, but at the last she lowered the gun and turned away in disgust. They looked through the room for loot as Gillian ranted and screamed at her stupid little brother and then, satisfied that there was nothing worthwhile, moved back to level 4 to free the prisoners and begin the looting.

Two of the elves they found were seriously injured and badly malnourished, in need of immediate trauma care. They had obviously been held here and tortured for some time. An hour after they entered the building the PCs emerged on level 1 to the waiting Takuya – “Takuya’su! Uss!” – accompanied by their injured and shattered charges, and loaded down with loot. Takuya escorted them to their van, made sure they were all inside, and saw them safely away from the building with another final “Takuay’su! Uss!”

They returned to Charcul and a hero’s welcome. He promised them that if ever they needed somewhere to run, if they needed somewhere to hide, they could always count on him and his people. They were thanked effusively, given lashings of intense troll beer and stinky tofu and fried noodles and heavy, fatty grouper fish meat in a delicious rich sweet dark sauce, feasted until morning, and then left, exhausted, to drag their loot back to their safe houses.

In one small part of New Horizon, they had become heroes. In another small part of New Horizon the Kurosasori yakuza gang slid quietly into the silent, bloody halls of the Purifiers, stepping with sneers of distaste over the bodies of the Purifier guards and the congealing pools of blood that ran between them, searching diligently for the crates that they had been assured no one had opened. They found them in the back of a storage room on level 4, untouched, and as the first grey light of dawn slid across New Horizon’s fractured, fractal cityscape they carried the crates silently and carefully down and out to waiting vans. They spared the dead Purifiers only the minimum attention they needed to avoid slipping in their filth. Once it was done a truck backed up to the doors, and heavy bundles wrapped in black plastic were dumped into it, to be driven off to an incinerator outside the city limits.

Nobody likes Nazis.

Save

Save

Maybe, maybe it’s the clothes we wear,
The tasteless bracelets and the dye in our hair,
Maybe it’s our kookiness,
Or maybe, maybe it’s our nowhere towns,
Our nothing places and our cellophane sounds,
Maybe it’s our looseness,

But we’re trash, you and me,
We’re the litter on the breeze,
We’re the lovers on the streets,
Just trash, me and you,
It’s in everything we do,
It’s in everything we do…

The Ark has 174 People but few heroes. This story is not about its heroes, or its champions, only its desperadoes. There are four of them:

  • Barathos, Gearhead, who we find eating food from a can with a faded label of an angry, dangerous cat. His mutation: luminescence
  • Chang Chang, Fixer, sitting on an old packing crate eating his last twinkie. He is mutated into a symbiotic fungal life form, giving off a strange pungent smell and able to explode with clouds of virulent spores. No one knows Chang Chang’s sex, but most of the People think he is both, because he is fungal.
  • Bloody Jack, a smalltime Boss, always accompanied by a couple of her flunkies, today leaning back to eat fresh potato and dried, rot-free fish being fed to her by one of his gang. Bloody Jack is a revolutionary, leader of the 7th Revolutionary gang, which doesn’t mean much because there is nothing to overthrow and no means of production to seize. She flicks through an old comic that teaches her the ways of the Diadactic Materials, a strange cult; in mimicry of their mannerisms she wears a suit and a ludicrous top hat. She has frogs legs, and can leap faster than you can blink to put her knife in your throat.
  • Lonnie, the Stalker – every band of desperadoes has a stalker. Connie is eating white mush from an unlabeled can, thinking it is powdered potato and eyeing Bloody Jack’s real potato with carefully disguised envy. Connie is androgynous, a little slip of a thing in black leather, spends so much time in the shadows no one really knows who she is.

That is the team that Shellah sidled up to, grimacing and duck-walking carefully into the light of their trash can fire, hands close, coat clenched tight around her. Shellah is a stalker, like Lonnie if Lonnie had less charm and more integrity. Everyone calls Lonnie Loonie Lonnie because it sounds good, but nobody jokes with Shellah about being mad. She’s always one twitch away from running or fighting, and she’s seen so much out there in the ruins. Nobody really talks to Shellah at all if they can, because she doesn’t always make a lot of sense and she creeps you out with her stare and her hissing twitching ways. But everyone knows Shellah spends a lot of time Out There, Zone-walking, and she brings things back. Everyone trusts Shellah. But nobody who goes out with her seems to return, so she goes alone. Always alone. But everyone trusts here in the Ark.

This little gang of desperadoes know each other but let’s not wind this story up so tight it snaps like one of the threads on Grim Delilah’s razor-sharp yoyos, the ones she plays with when the Trash Hawks come around: they may know each other but they aren’t friends. They’re gathered round this fire in this trash can on this night because even inside the Ark there’s comfort in numbers, especially now when the Elder isn’t coming out of the gondola and there’s too much coughing and wailing going on in there, and his old speeches are too few and too weak to hear anyway, so that now people don’t come to listen when he drags his old bones out into the little pool of comforting watery sunshine that always bathes the gondola – they’re too busy now clustering around one or other of the bosses, picking sides for the trouble we can all feel is coming. People are starting to look at each other now, not like comrades in the gristle and bones of this shattered world, but like rivals for the last bits of tattered flesh – or like useful idiots in the struggle to put a new boss in the gondola when the Elder’s coughing stops. Bloody Jack is a boss, Chang Chang is a fixer, and Barathos and Lonnie are useful. That’s why they’re hunched around this trashcan, wondering why Shellah is sidling out of the darkness with one of her don’t-look-at-me-I-didn’t-do-it-I-swear-that-thing-didn’t-follow-me-back-from-the-marsh expressions on her face.

It’s Chang Chang who has the best rapport with Shellah, because she finds and he fixes. “What is it Shellah?” he asks all innocent, knowing from the hard squint of her eyes and the frown that she’s going to tell them anyway. “Find something out there?”

She snorts and grabs a can from Bloody Jack, who always has one spare for times like this, squats down and snaps it open with some ingenious tool, slugs it down over a minute or so of furious gobbling, splattering smacking sounds, all the while shuffling and throwing dagger glances all around like there’s a Zone Ghoul right there waiting to pounce as soon as she lets her guard down – which she never does. Throws the can over her shoulder into the darkness, some kind of wicked little knife-fork-opener thing slides away into her coat with a glint of viscous orange trashcan light on pewter. “Yeah Chang-a, yeah yeah, found something.”

She draws a thing out from under her coat, flashes it around just quick enough for everyone to gasp as the amber firelight flickers over the ammunition case’s curves, the bronze glint of bullet casings flashing at them from their rightful place, then slides it away as fast as it came. Her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “Found something, something good.” Takes it out again, where people can see it more clearly: it’s an assault rifle clip, maybe 30 bullets intact in the case, dirty and a bit rusty on the outside but the bullets are as clean as the inside of one of Fanged Rothery’s dinner cans (Fanged Rothery is a rot-eater, teeth like iron and a tongue rich with spines, he can lick a jagged steal tin cleaner than your favourite knife in no time at all).

Bloody Jack reaches for it, just to inspect of course, he wasn’t going to take it I swear! But true to her style Shellah has it back under her coat and she’s right back out to the edge of the trashcan glow before Bloody Jack can get a hand on it. “Not for you Bloody Jack, not yet and not you. We gotta deal to make.” She looks behind her sharp as a Trash Hawk’s claws, like she always does when she has to deal with Bloody Jack. Bloody Jack may talk a lot about justice and equality, but Bloody Jack isn’t above using her little band of zealots to even the scales on her own account, which I’m sure you guessed because as sure as you hear me telling you this, you’ve seen her kind before. So has Shellah, and Shellah is not one to trust anyone more than she needs to.

“A deal, Shellah?” Chang Chang asks, all innocent and surprised like he really thought Shellah was going to keep all thirty bullets for herself, she who never uses a gun and only ever keeps bullets to trade for grub. “What’s that then, you running out of grub?”

Shellah shakes her head and hisses, duck-squats her way back into the light a little. “No Chang-a, I don’t need me no grub.” Brown and broken teeth show as she bares her teeth back and lobs a fleck of spit into the fire. Rumour has it Shellah is a photosynthetic, gets her nutrients from the sun and doesn’t need to eat. A handy mutation, until someone locks you in a box. She looks around at them. “I need me a deal for protection. You know the story People – the Elder’s goin’ inta history, and the Ark’s running out of food, the bosses are startin’ to look at each other like they know what’s what and everyone’s starting to pile up their food, getting it ready for when the time comes. But people like me, me and you Chang-a, we don’t have no gang, and when the trouble comes we aren’t gonna have anyone to look after our backs.” She pauses and Bloody Jack takes the time to look affronted at the mere suggestion that she wouldn’t help out these her dear friends Lonnie, Chang Chang and Barathos. Are they not friends? No one is impressed by her performance.

“That’s why I wanna cut a deal. ‘Coz see I found this bullet case, but I also found the gun it came from. It’s a big gun Chang-a, and whoever or whatever holds that gun is gonna be in a mighty good position when the bosses start quarreling. And I tell you I want to be behind whatever boss has that gun, which is why I came to you first, because I trust you more than them others. I’ll give each of you three bullets now from this case, and tell you where the gun is, if you promise me you’ve got my back when the trouble starts.”

This kind of thing, now this kind of thing to Bloody Jack is like purest nitro to a helldriver. She swings her arms out expansively and begins one of her speeches. “Comrades! Comrade Shellah in particular, on this dark night and in this pinched moment of dire need, when the bosses Foremanize and Capitalistate and take and take, do I seem to you like the kind of Comrade who would abandon her … her duty of … Comradelyshipness, and sell you out to those who would tread the Workerman into the swamps and the rot? No, my gang fights for the good of all, and once we had overthrown the Yoke of Tyranny no doubt I would find a place for you in the new order. There is no need for this conniving and scheming to make deals! Are we not all one in the Eyes of the Great God Of Equals, Marx-who-was?!”

They’ve all heard it before of course and are unimpressed, so Chang Chang waves her quiet and asks in a low voice, “Where is the gun, Shellah?” Shellah shakes her head furiously and points at Bloody Jack. “Make that cursed boss agree, and you all too – even you Barathos, sitting there watching me with your eyes all glowing, I know what you can do and you won’t catch me so quick! Make a deal or I’m off into the shadows to talk to one o’ them up there.” She points to the bleachers, where no doubt some other boss squats in the darkness, scheming or maybe picking the scabs on his feet.

Chang Chang looks around, waits especially for Barathos to nod assent – that this really is a part of a gun, and they really have a chance to find it. “Sure,” He says, nodding quickly. “If you tell us where it is and we think we can get it, you give us the bullets you promised and we’ll go, and Bloody Jack’s gang and all of us will have your back when the bosses start their stoushing. Deal?” He spits.

Shellah looks around, seems satisfied after a moment and then spits back. “Elder’s Tears, Chang-a, you and me and these here in the light have cut a deal, and only the Elder or the Rot can break it.” She drags herself closer to the fire and hunkers up. “I found it at the base of one of the two towers.” Seeing their disbelieving looks she snarls a curse. “I swear I did! Went down to the river and sniffed around the tower on this bank. It stinks around the river but I’ve been there before, it’s safe if you don’t get too close! No one else goes there so you can find things, and I found this! It was in a patch of fungus at the bottom of the tower, like it fell there. Fell there it did! And when I looked up I saw the gun sticking out of the tower window, way up high. You can climb it I tell you, the outside all covered in leaves and vines or maybe go through the door in the base. The guns there, stickin’ out of the tower window, you can just take it!”

They all look at her in disbelief. The river?! But it stood to reason, if there was a weapon as dangerous as that any closer to the Ark someone would have found it by now. And nobody else would be going down there looking, because that meant slinking past the shadow of the Dark Castle, finding a way through the rot and probably cutting through the Crash Zone, which creeps anyone out. But if they did it … a gun … dreams of power.

They look at each other, shifty like there in the flickering light of the trashcan fire, wondering who amongst them is going to crack or be the first to venture some spirit. Somewhere behind them in the shadows of the Ark someone cried in pain, and a boss’s muffled imprecation followed, a wet thud. Maybe now was a good time to be looking for new weapons.

“Okay Shellah,” Barathos ventures finally, his cracked and deep voice cutting through the sudden silence. “Tell us exactly about this tower …”


They set off the next day, no fanfare, just a quiet exit at dawn into the Zone south of the Ark. The four of them went, packing only three days of food, accompanied by two members of Bloody Jack’s gang, her trusty Enforcers Carrot and Lennie. First they pushed into the sector they knew, sticking to trails everyone had seen before. Here was all overgrown ruins, thick patches of fungus crawling up over broken buildings, bushes and vines curled around and through old vehicles and shattered strange shapes of metal and stone and plastic. It’s clean around the Ark, but soon the fungus and the trees get higher and thicker and the air stills and you can smell it, that strange acrid stench of Rot, the Rot that suffuses this whole stinking Zone and rises from the earth to make the People crumble and fade. You have to move carefully through this place, and if you haven’t got a stalker with you you can get lost in here and then the rot takes you, or something worse gets you first. But Lonnie knows her work and got them to the Crash Zone fine. The Crash Zone was as far as they’d ever been before, and not without trepidation for very long at all. It’s a long streak of destruction through the middle of the Zone, a swathe of open air about a kilometre long that runs from near the slopes to the Dark Castle roughly parallel to the river, ending at the shattered carcass of a giant sky whale, one of those wondrous inventions of the Ancients that could fly even though it was heavier than steel. This one had two decks of seats all the way along, a huge thing bigger than anything the People could dream of building or finding, broken into three parts along the end of the Crash Zone. It used to have wings, or so Barathos insists, but those wings smashed into the buildings along the side of the swathe, tearing them down and making great piles of rubble behind it, shattered arcs of stone and steel and glass spattering out from where it bounced screeching and fiery to its end. You can tell it must have flown on booze or so Barathos says, because the buildings along the way were scorched and burned and if you pick over the ruins of the swathe of open space behind the sky whale you can find blackened stuff from an intense fire, melted so bad it isn’t even scrap. No one usually digs around in the swathe or spends much time in the Crash Zone but they were feeling brave and after a bit of egging on and a spot of booze Barathos ventured into the rearmost section of the whale. Here there were many skeletons still strapped into their seats, many broken badly, bits of roof and seats from the deck above smashed and pushed into the seats below. Some people might have got out or died in the aisles between the seats, and there were grass and moss and fungus and other things growing in between the bodies. He picked over the parts until finally he found a box, made of card and plastic, faded and rotted, and dragged it out. Inside was a little wind up train, made of brilliant green and blue plastic that shone in the pale sun, and a set of lines you could stick together to make it run around when you wound it up. “A clock!” Barathos said, “This can be a clock, look it runs for a time and stops! Maybe we can use it for timing things,” and he packed it up with care he would never show a person and hid it in his pack. Lonnie looked around at the gathering clouds and the distant watery sun heading to its zenith and whispered, “Wanna cross the section before lunch,” and they trudged off, crossed the Crash Zone and headed further than they’d been before.

Past the Crash Zone the ground started sloping up again, until they found themselves on a kind of ridge rising a little above the ruins around. This ridge was covered in small stunted trees and bushes, and gave them cover right up to the tower itself. The tower loomed over them, the tallest thing in the near hereabouts, a squat and powerful thing of stone and verdant overgrowth, still mostly undamaged after all this time since … whenever and whatever happened in the world-that-was. This tower was paired with another one on the other side of the river, and the two were joined near their top by a nastily uncertain looking gantry. The towers, the gantry and all the space between was overgrown with vines, creepers, plants and fungus of all descriptions, with vines drooping down from the gantry to hang over the limpid, dark waters of the river as it sluggishly rolled beneath, stinking and deadly. At the base of the tower near the river, facing the other tower, a kind of barrier stuck out over  the river, pointing diagonally up at the sky like an accusing hand demanding a query of the uncaring sky. “Why me? Why do I have to stand sentinel over this stinking sewer when all the others of my kind were knocked flat in a time before memory!?”

They crept up close to the tower and Lonnie moved ahead to look around. She found the place Shellah said she found the cartridge and there it was, the hole in the fungus patch still glowing slightly as the fungus repaired itself, and up above something sticking out of the tower window, pointing east. What thing? Lonnie couldn’t tell. She moved around a little more and checked the rest of the base of the tower. A kind of path of black stone led into the middle of the tower, which arched over it, ending at the unheeded barrier, and on one side of that tunnel a door barred an entry into the tower. Everything was still and silent. She called them up, and they examined the tower together. Barathos, looking up, grunted and hissed. “Not a gun,” he cursed, though he could not tell what it was.

Discretion would tell them now to retreat and return to the Ark defeated, but that ammunition box didn’t fall from the sky – it must have come out of the tower. Even if the thing sticking out of the window was no gun, there must be something in there. They forced the door and pushed their way inside. Here they found a small room, musty and empty, with stairs leading up into the tower. Another door beckoned, but when they forced it open they were greeted with the deep, repulsive stench of Rot water. Stairs led down into murky blackness, and from down there came the stench of Rot, strong Rot. Chang Chang tried to convince Barathos to go look but he refused, and no inducements could get him near that rot. They headed up, Barathos glowing gently with his strange pale blue luminescence to light the way. His mutant light seeped out of his eyes and through the murk like glowing tendrils, casting a flickering eerie light over the walls of the narrow staircase and putting no one at ease.

At the top they found a large room. A long narrow broken window on the east wall faced along the direction of the river, giving them a stunning view over an endless domain of broken, ruined nature. The wall on their right was also partially open, leading into the shadowed recesses of the gantry that connected this tower with the sister tower over the river, but it was overgrown with vines and shadowy, and they did not want to venture in just yet. There was a single body on the floor, and the whole room was musty and ripe with fungus and small plants. The thing they had seen sticking out of the window was here, on a kind of tripod of metal, dull bronze coloured and standing serene amongst the dust pointing east.

They searched. The strange pole-like thing sticking out of the window had glass ends and after some inspection Barathos was able to identify what it did: It made distant things suddenly closely visible, like the cracked glass lenses that Elomere the Strange wore when he had to stitch up the skin on his constantly-erupting boils, only much more powerful (and with no stench of pus). Barathos took it gently from the tripod and pocketed it. This, he said, could be useful for scouting the Zone. On the body they found a piece of paper in a plastic sleeve, with markings on it, and around the body a few old wrappers of what might have been food. They were just comparing the symbols on the wrappers with a symbol on the paper in the sleeve, and realizing they held a map, when the spiders came.

There was just one at first, crawling silent as the Winter Plague out of the whole in the southern wall, but they felt its malignant gaze and then smelled its corpse smell before it could get to them, and managed to spring away from the body and fight. Bloody Jack was just beating it out of the window when another one emerged, and they were fighting that one when Barathos, leaning out of the window to hit the first one, was hit by its web and dragged outside to dangle upside down from one leg, helplessly twisting in the faint breeze. As he hung there he saw the giant spider hauling its spiny, corpulent bulk back over the windowsill and inside the tower, no doubt looking to snare its next prey, and heard grunts and screams from inside. Looking along the tower’s edge he suddenly realized, as a rare break in the clouds suffused the space between the towers with a golden glow, that the entire space between the towers was spun with many webs of delicate, shimmering filigree. Strange black lumps he had mistaken for fungal growth now revealed themselves to be the cocooned, shrivelled corpses of Trash Hawks and Zone Crows – and there, crawling out from that hideous larder, a third massive spider, scuttling across the wall towards him. He started screaming, and someone hauled him up just in time. They took positions back to back inside and beat off the three spiders, finally killing them all, and a fourth that came skittering out of that wall to join the fray.

Panting and panicky, they ate and rested. While they rested Lonnie and Barathos pored over the paper inside the plastic sleeve, and they both concluded the same thing – this was a map, and the markings seemed to indicate that just south of the river, near the towers, was a food store. They had found no rifle, but they had found food. Again, where wisdom would advise retreat, they pressed on, crawling across the gantry to the tower on the other side. Here they found two more bodies, one carrying an ancient revolver that they tucked away for the Dawn Vault. Then Barathos climbed onto the roof to use his newfound artifact to scout out the surrounding area, and they ventured down to the ground, becoming the first of the People to set foot south of the river.


Following the map they headed west along the river from the base of the second tower. The land here had less ruins than the north side of the river, perhaps because they had been destroyed by some great calamity or perhaps because the city-that-was had been different here. Nonetheless as they followed the path along the rivers edge they could see rubble scattered in amongst the trees and scrub of the sector, and occasional jagged columns of stone or grass jutting out of the vegetation. The path they followed lay close to the river but some 5 metres above it, and the landward side rose steep again to the wooded landscape of the south, meaning they could not get far from the river. They could not head inland in any case, because from her vantage point on the tower Lonnie had seen the telltale yellow mist of acid rain, as low-hanging clouds swept along the southern side of the city streaming vile and deadly rain over the Zone. This rain could be deadly for anyone not under cover, and to trudge through it for an hour or two seeking grub would be a death sentence. Fortunately the clouds were skirting the river, so they were able to find a safe path, but even then they had to deviate inland after an hour of careful walking, because the path entered an area of broken stones and fallen buildings, from which they could see the Sunken Ship.

The Sunken Ship is near to a myth amongst the People. It was once a huge beast of grey and silver metal, festooned with guns and heavily armoured, but when the world collapsed it sank on its moorings so that most of it was submerged in the river. The tips of its guns and the bulk of its mid section still stuck above the water, festooned with reeds and dark vegetation and creating little eddies and muddy streaks in the torpid flow of rotten river water. From the north bank it was visible, rich with the promise of the artifacts of the ancients, but there was no way to get to it without going into the deadly water of the river. The Sunken Ship was also rumoured to be the home of dark and deadly secrets, beasts that come at night to snatch those passing nearby and unseen horrors that will snatch anyone attempting to pick their way over its muddy and partially-hidden deck. Nobody had been this close to the Sunken Ship before, but the explorers did not want to disturb whatever beasts laired there, and so cut inland through the broken piles of rubble, keeping bushes and old stonework between them and the foreboding steel bulk of the thing. Their path brought them perilously close to the acid rain before they could cut back towards the river, but they escaped the pinch safely and soon found themselves climbing another gentle slope, this only lightly wooded, that then broke into a series of culverts leading down to a large, abandoned building. The building was actually a complex of separate sections sprawling across quite a wide area, with big open gateways linking the buildings together. Parts of the roof had fallen in and weeds and bushes had grown up to block some of the pathways between parts of the building, but other parts looked roughly safe to enter. The area was dangerously quiet and they thought they could see evidence of habitation, but they could not be sure. This was the closest they could find to the markings on the map – this was their place. Perhaps once it had been a series of warehouses linked together, or maybe a farmer’s barns or a market – who knew what strange ways the people of the world-that-was held their food? Whatever it had been, now it was the cradle in which their Ark’s future lay – they must go in.

They approached the entrance cautiously, careful to keep under what cover they could find and scanning the silent walls for signs of threat. A large archway entered the building, surmounted by words in some ancient language they could not read, carved in faded and mouldy brass. They ventured in, stepping cautiously over rubble and scrap and looking for signs of ambush. Inside was a large open area, thick with fungus and weeds growing between crumbling wooden carts and tables. It had been a market! They fanned out a little and began searching, moving carefully and slowly further inside.

The rooms here were empty of any food, but for obvious reasons – someone lived here. A group of people probably, who had picked the outer areas clean of any signs of food or scrap and who must be living in the inner area. The group crossed a small road that bisected the buildings and through another archway into a wide path between two buildings. As they moved down it they heard voices, and froze. Lonnie moved stealthily forward and, looking around a corner, saw what they suspected – Zone Ghouls! There were eight of them, skinny dirty humanoid creatures a little smaller than a small adult human, heavily wrapped in cloth over every part of their body, wearing hoods and carrying bicycle chains and slingshots. They were squatting in a group in a kind of semi-protected space made by pulling three rotten wooden stalls into a semi circle. They had a small fire and were eating what looked like fresh food of some kind. Across from them on the far side of the room was a huge pile of cans, all with their labels long since torn away, and also strange plastic packets, bottles of amber and red liquid, even strings of onions, all stacked neatly in many piles. Behind them was a gap and then against the far wall of the building a tiered array of clay and wooden shelves on which stood pots and jars full of fresh herbs and strange red fruits. Further away large tractor tires had been converted into potato beds. It was a utopia of abundance!

Which they had to take. Lonnie moved back to the group and explained the situation. Bloody Jack indicated the roof, and jumped up into the shadows on her strange frog legs, motioning for her two gang members to stay and help. She leapt again to a perch near the broken roof above the Ghouls, and waited. The rest of them moved forward and burst into the room, ready to do violence – only to find themselves confronted by equally prepared enemies. The Zone Ghouls had heard them and stood ready in the shelter of the stalls, slingshots out. Now it was eight against six with no surprise, and no one was willing to act first. Chang Chang tried speaking with them but they could barely understand the Ghouls’ garbled, high-pitched grating speech, and the Ghouls seemed not to understand them. They stood at an impasse for a moment but then finally someone moved wrong, and the whole tense coiled moment sprang shut like a rusty bear trap. The Ghouls started firing their sling shots, Chang Chang dived behind the cans for cover, Carrot and Lennie charged forward, Bloody Jack dropped down from above, and battle was joined.

The fight was short and brutal. The Zone Ghouls gave a good accounting of themselves, hurting Barathos and Chang Chang and Bloody Jack, but six of the Ghouls died before the last two broke and ran. Barathos shot one dead as it fled but Bloody Jack managed to catch the last, springing onto its back from 10 metres away and dragging it down. They dragged the Ghoul back to the warehouse and tried talking to it but it was useless – they could not understand one another. They tore off its hood to reveal a skinny, almost human face, blinking back at them from large, dark eyes before it started screaming at the sunlight. Barathos bound it up tight, and they decided to drag it back to the Ark as a slave.

Their battle was done. They picked up as much food as they could carry and headed back to the Ark, climbing delicately across the tower and down the other side, lugging their prisoner and their food back through the Crash Zone to the comfort of the Ark. As soon as they returned Bloody Jack pressed his gang to work, taking them back to the ruined market to grab as much food as they could. They traipsed back and forth, exhausted and damp and tired and scared, for two days, constantly lugging as much as they could carry, until someone heard a crash and a strange haunting piping wail somewhere in the shadows of the market, and they decided it was too dangerous to stay any longer. After two days of work they had done enough though – the Ark was safe for a little longer, the food crisis averted, the bosses content, their life of hard scrabble unchanged by conflict and death. They handed the Revolver to the Dawn Vault, congratulated each other on a job well done, and tried not to face Shellah when she demanded her rights. For a little longer, the Ark would hold.

But they all knew it was not enough. Where next for their precarious little community, balanced on the edge of starvation and violence, trapped between the Dark Castle and the River? And what could they do now to make a future for the People, and for themselves?

Save

Save

Hey, hey
So why should I care
If somebody let you down?
That’s nothing new
I know just what that can mean
Hey, hey
Well, the way that they talk
The talk is all over town
And it’s no surprise
Little girls hurt sometimes

 

When last we met our heroes they had just blown apart a drug dealing operation with extreme prejudice, pushing back a gang from their turf and doing a big favour for the yakuza gang that officially controls their area, the Golden Dragon. Their Fixer, Anansi, had made contact with that gang, and now they had a chance to make their name known to the criminal bosses who controlled the shadows of Havensport. So it was that they found themselves in a meeting with the Golden Dragon’s boss, Mr. Tsiu, who thanked them for cleaning up the dealers on his patch, and assured them that they could operate with impunity in his territory provided they obeyed his laws – which would of course change at his whim, and in retrospect. Sometime in the future, he promised them, they would receive an opportunity to profit from their newfound position of the trust, and in the meantime they were welcome to make free in his territory on their own business.

But the future is another country, and while they waited to get there they had need of fast cash. Fortunately Anansi was in close with another crime family, a yakuza gang just beginning to spread their wings in New Horizon, in the wilds of Tolo harbour. Their patriarch, Shoji Yamada, had a pressing need of a good team of killers for a very important job: guarding his daughter at a concert by the heavy metal band Troll, a band named after the race of its members that could be characterized by two extreme properties of its performance: volume and violence. Any good girl slumming it in such an environment was going to need bodyguards, especially if her daddy had just started a gang war with a rival triad and was up to his neck in trouble with a bunch of other multinational gangs. Mr. Yamada promised them a decent payment for guarding his daughter; and in between setting the mission, he also .

Having applauded him on his principles of good governance and accepted their child minding job the PCs were on their way, to research both the yakuza daughter and the band. The daughter was as expected – a spoiled sullen brat with a penchant for slumming it in grease paint and crosses. The band was a little more complicated – a Troll heavy metal foursome with a reputation for extreme crowd violence, who run their shows exclusively in illegal spaces in dangerous areas. They would hijack an abandoned warehouse or an old market space, turn it into a killing zone, and rock it out while the crowd destroyed each other, until the police turned up or they ran out of juice. Standard sprawlzone stuff, but not the kind of place for a delicate wannabe rebel girl from a rich family – unless she was guarded by a crack team. Though in truth the PCs were less worried about the crowd than they were about the possibility one of the yakuza enemies would follow them and use the chaos as cover for a snatch-and-grab. Losing this girl in the crowd would be a one way trip to a bad place, no mistake.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and they had a perfect set up really – John capable of killing intruders from orbit, Jayden immune to surprise attacks, and Adam a master of crowd control. For this job their fixer had also set them up with a Technomancer, Heckerman, who could give them some forewarning of any impending assaults. An easy evening at the proms, right?

Their girl, Tegami, met them at the front door of her parents’ sprawling mansion, slouching out from behind a huge iron-studded wooden door through a moss garden to their car, remonstrating the whole way with the house butler, Mr. Niwa. Adam opened the back door of their hired car for her, and she flopped inside with a sneered remark about Koreans in suits. The butler raised an eyebrow at Adam and gave a small nod of shared sufferance before shambling away to the house. They were off.

Tegami chan was dressed in standard punk fare, carefully ripped and textured to look not too new but just stylish enough to mark her out as not from anything resembling the social class of the band she was attending. Nothing screams “slumming it” like a sullen little rich girl in faux dirty designer punk kit, wearing the most expensive make up money can buy (smeared, of course!) and staring resentfully at her bodyguards.

Still, they were professionals, so whatever, right?

They turned up at the gig fashionably on time. Last time Troll had commandeered an apparently abandoned yacht, which had only one entrance, and when the drug lords who owned it turned up to secure the supply hidden in the hull the ensuing carnage had been slightly chastening even for a band of Troll‘s infamous level of chutzpah, so this time they had scoped out their venue with an eye to avoiding suicidal escape stampedes, and set up a series of barricades around a complex of narrow streets surrounding a central square in a largely abandoned industrial park. Ragged semi-abandoned warehouses loomed over the streets on all sides, and the multi-racial, multi-species crowd moved with edgy caution between stalls selling vat-grown sausage hot dogs, Troll shirts (unofficial of course), stimulants and downers and personal defense weapons. The PCs left their hired car within easy calling distance of a larger entrance and walked Tegami chan through a distressingly security-free series of barricades. Troll bodyguards loomed menacingly around them but nobody bothered to check them at all. Normally entering a danger zone armed is sweet relief to a mercenary, but knowing the only reason you’re armed is that nobody checked the rest of the crowd offers cold comfort. They decided to get cautious, and John retired to one of the decaying warehouses, climbing up high to a point where he could get a view of the whole zone. Adam and Heckerman fell back a little, leaving Jayden and his heightened sense of danger to keep Tegami safe while they scanned the crowd physically, astrally and electronically. Jayden stood near Tegami chan, assuring her that all old men just loved the moshpit and she should really try it, thus ensuring that she didn’t go near it for fear of appearing uncool – and protecting her from the crowd of spiky, rage-pissed, insanely high troll fans currently grinding each other to mush in front of the stage.

Unfortunately the threat wasn’t in the stage. At some point a man turned up while Jayden was pushing away some random weirdo, and started talking to Tegami chan in a low voice, pointing back to the heights of a building on the far side of the square and muttering something about a private viewing area. Tegami probably couldn’t hear him over the pulse and throb of Troll‘s most famous song, The Other White Meat, but Jayden wasn’t taking any chances, and moved in to push the dude away from his girl. The man slunk away in short order, but then Heckerman told Jayden that the man had put something in Tegami’s bag.

Jayden didn’t waste any time – he knifed the guy in the back while Adam rushed forward to check the bag. Unfortunately for Jayden the room that ostensibly held a private party actually held a sniper, who hit Jayden with a tranquilizing dart that knocked him out for the rest of the night. Such a shame to miss such great music! As Jayden sank to the ground John shot the sniper in the head, and Adam and Hackerman drove the guy on the ground away. Jayden was down and done for, with no treatment in sight, so they dragged him to a quiet area of the barricades and returned to guarding Tegami chan. Tegami chan, of course, thought the entire scene was so completely uncool and couldn’t they just let her enjoy this great music? So hard to be a teenage girl …

Nonetheless Heckerman managed to check her bag and uncover a bug, which probably no one knew they knew about, and carefully left it broadcasting in the bag. They would tell Mr. Niwa about that later …

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, especially for Jayden lying paralyzed in the shadows of the barricade. Aside from some lethal side-eye from their ward the PCs experienced no other trouble, and things were just beginning to wrap up when the troll and his human buddy emerged from the crowd, clubs in hand, and marched determinedly towards Tegami, damaging intent in their eyes. With Jayden down and out, Adam and Heckerman had to take these two guys on right there in front of the whole crowd, while Tegami clapped her hands and cheered. Fortunately John was in his eyrie, unnoticed by the trolls, and managed to shoot the troll down before he could flatten Adam. In turn Adam and Heckerman managed to subdue the human with a combination of magic and good old fashioned brutality, and were able to drag Tegami chan away before anything really bad happened. They bundled the man into the car but decided that whatever awaited him at Mr. Yamada’s House of Polite Yakuza Questions would be beyond their stomach to bear, and dropped him off a few minutes later. Successfully out from the crowd, they returned Tegami chan to the house of her Honourable Father.

Mr. Niwa greeted them with a sigh of relief, Tegami chan’s rude greetings washing off him like engine lubricant off an ersatz duck’s genomic feathers. They warned him about the bug and suggested that he might want to keep it in her bag and use it to lure in whoever planted it, and showed him pictures of the troll and human who had attempted to hurt Tegami chan at the end of the night. “The Russians,” he sighed with an expression of weary expectation. “I’m sure we will Deal With It.” He thanked them, offered for them to stay in the guest room drinking tea as long as they wanted, and only barely perceptibly relaxed his manner when they declined his invitation and headed home.

Somewhere upstairs they saw Tegami chan’s pale moon face looking out of a window, watching their car pull away back into their wild unfamiliar world, her hand half raised in an unconscious gesture of farewell, make up smeared as if she had stopped cleaning up halfway through and run to the window. The lights of their car drifted off into the humid New Horizon night, leaving sullen little Tegami chan in her gilded cage, wondering at lives that could have been.

They didn’t wave back. They were already counting the money.

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