Science Fiction


I got plans for more than a wanted man
All around this chaos and madness
Can’t help feeling nothing more than sadness
Only choice to face it the best I can
When the war is over
Got to start again
Try to hold a trace of what it was
Back then
You and I we sent each other stories
Just a page I’m lost in all its glory
How can I go home and not get blown away

 

Our heroes have been betrayed, set up by an unscrupulous Johnson and framed for the attempted murder of the CEO of Oakheart Corporation. They have a history of trouble with Oakheart, and somehow it doesn’t surprise them that they were chosen to be the fall guys in Oakheart’s scheme to win its CEO a position on the ruling corporate council of New Horizon. Unfortunately for Oakheart, however, they made a small mistake: They failed to kill the group, and now the group want revenge.

But first they had to escape New Horizon. Their ship, HS Fortuna, had been sequestered somewhere in Havensport by Mr. Lao, the head of a criminal gang called the Goldsharks who were sympathetic to the PCs’ situation. From their safe house at the edge of Sai Kung the PCs had to find a way to get to the ship, and get out of New Horizon. After a night with little sleep they put in some calls to old friends, and confirmed what they had all suspected from the moment they saw their faces on the news: Their network in New Horizon had burnt to the ground. Friends had changed numbers, old allies were not answering calls, or took the phone only long enough to wish them good luck. Genji’s daughter had been picked up by the Sumiyoshi-kai, a well-placed Yakuza gang who had past, friendly dealings with the PCs, but when Genji put in a call to the gang’s maitre d’ Niwa san they proved suddenly very stubborn: they were holding his daughter “for her own protection” and would not release her until the PCs had resolved their conflict with the Oakheart Corporation. Lee, Jayden and Zenith encouraged Genji to let this go, pointing out that his daughter was much safer under the protection of the Sumiyoshis than she could ever be on the HS Fortuna, but it took some effort for Genji to recognize that their current situation was too precarious to admit family ties. All of them sat in their safe house, steaming with rage at Oakheart as they cycled through their contacts and found them all burnt.

Finally they found one contact they could rely on. Jayden put in a call to Koucha, the old troll shaman they had helped out by slaughtering a bunch of neo nazis, and received a positive response. They had done that job for free, and in return Koucha had promised that if every they really needed to hide he would bury them in the substrata of meta human life that thronged in the poorest parts of Sai Kung. When Jayden called him he proved true to his word, and offered to arrange an escort through hidden ways as far as Havensport, and to get in contact with Mr. Lao for them to organize a meeting. They packed up the few belongings they planned to take, jumped into Zenith’s van, and drove to the meeting point Koucha gave them.

They could not be on the road for long, though to their relief Zenith’s van had not been included in the multiple descriptions of them being broadcast on every media channel. They took quiet side streets and narrow alleys to the meeting point, a neglected auto parking spot under a huge multi lane highway flyover. Here Koucha waited for them as promised, accompanied by a couple of dour-looking Orc bodyguards. He greeted them warmly, accepting Jayden’s gift of stinky tofu warmly and sharing it with his guards. They drove their van into the shadows of the park and crouched behind it with Koucha, listening to the latest news. The contract on them had been opened up beyond the corporations that had issued it, so now every Shadowrunner in New Horizon who needed easy money would be thinking to jump them, and their old haunts had become officially death traps. They definitely needed to get out, before bounty hunters started squeezing their contacts for information and tracking down every trace of their unofficial lives.

Koucha had organized it all. They would be escorted by two of his orc guards to a canal some distance from their meeting point, where they would meet an agent sent by Mr. Lao. That agent would guide them up the canal in a boat and take them to their ship, where Mr. Lao himself would meet them to discuss whatever payment he had in mind for securing their ship and helping with their getaway. Koucha made his distaste for Mr. Lao clear, but also seemed sanguine about whatever possible price Mr. Lao would extract. “If he thought it was a price you couldn’t pay, he wouldn’t waste his time asking. Busy man, Lao.”

At this point they were not in a position to haggle. They secured their van, which Mr. Lao’s contacts would come and collect later, and set off with Koucha’s guides to take a circuitous, quiet route to the rendezvous. “Go well,” Koucha offered by way of farewell. “Remember vengeance can taste so sweet that it beguiles the senses and becomes a poison. Think carefully about it before you return.” Jayden shrugged and patted his knife, Genji sneered, and Adam Lee took in the sage advice with alacrity. With that final warning they set off.

Their path took them on winding routes through stormwater drains, old building sites, narrow alleys lined with crumbling and deserted shops, and ruined industrial estates. Occasionally they had to cross areas with more people, quiet shopping centres or markets where old women haggled over mouldering fruit stalls, but the orc guards guided them faultlessly away from the busiest and most crowded parts of Sai Kung. They marveled at the strange musty landscape they were led through: Here in New Horizon, one of the most densely-populated areas on earth, they had never guessed they could find so many silent cul-de-sacs and empty promenades. Koucha’s men knew this city with a care and detail that none of the group had ever been able to muster.

Those dusty by-ways and disused alleys were not enough to shield them from pursuit, though, and after an hour Jayden sensed it. Somewhere far above them an eagle screamed, and Jayden’s senses began to tingle. That beggar bundled up by the side of the road ahead – had he not seen that same guy just two kilometres back? And was that a shred of movement in the shadows ahead? In the nick of time he warned the others, and then the ambush was sprung. Six shadowrunners, two on an overhead gantry, two on the ground ahead, two rounding them off from behind, all armed with sub machine guns or shotguns. Jayden’s warning was enough for most of the group though, and they sprang into action before the trap could close. Genji opened fire on a gunman on the gantry while Adam Lee dived into cover inside an alleyway and Jayden surged forward to begin hacking at the group’s leader, a tough-looking orc in heavy armour. Their technomancer Heckerman hunkered down and began hacking smartgun links and cyberware while Zenith the rigger opened fire on the flanking gunmen.

The battle was short and brutal. They ganked the mage where he stood on the gantry, gunning him down before he could cause too much damage with his pain spells, and their leader failed to bring his shotgun to bear on anyone as he constantly fended off Jayden’s hacking, slashing savagery. When the two flanking gunmen fell the remaining gunman on the gantry fled, but Heckerman put a trail on him to make sure he would not bring reinforcements. A few questions to the boss confirmed their suspicions – this was a freelance team making a punt on a rumour, hoping to cash the reward, and no sign that they were being pursued by corporate security. They left the runners nursing their wounds and moved on, hustling now to get to Mr. Lao before they ran into more trouble.

After another hour they reached the canal where Lao’s contact waited for them, a grumpy old troll squatting down in the mist by a small boat. They climbed in, wished their orc guides farewell, and set off down river to their ship. On the river they felt the first threads of freedom, the silent banks drifting by slowly in the near-dawn light, empty of anyone who might be paying attention to their silent progress. Soon they reached the wider reaches of the harbour, and as the sun rose diffuse through New Horizon’s harbourside mists they alighted on a small dock, lifted up by heavily tattooed triad members to stand in a press of cheerful, gap-toothed men. Mr. Lao pushed through, swatting aside his men and greeting them warmly.

“If it isn’t the heroes of Sai Kung!” he proclaimed, arms wide, and gestured them through to a small shelter set up on the docks. Beyond them their ship HS Fortuna loomed tantalizingly in the mist, so near – just one more negotiation and she was theirs. Genji and Jayden glanced around casually, counting numbers, wondering if they could cut their way through, looked at each other and decided this time they did not have the numbers. Talk first…

They noticed Zha, Lao’s bodyguard, standing apart from the rest of the gangsters and looking out to sea. He was stoic about the whole affair, though this was not unusual from the stone-faced mage. He was talking with a man who was clearly out of place, a friendly looking man with a gentle smile and simple suit. The characters felt they recognized them and, seeing them stare, Lao enlightened them. “Yes yes..” he opened. “Here heroes, meet Doctor Guowei, the crazy old man was warned, but couldn’t help but come meet you.”

“Evening friends…” Doctor Guowei moved closer, looking nervous and out of place, his hands behind his back. He gave a tiny bow followed by a smile. “I am Chung Guowei, a pleasure to meet you all.”
Then it clicked, where they had seen this simple man before. In the news. He was one of the many crazy enough to be running for Council of Sai Kung. Doctor Chung Guowei, former professor of New Horizon University of Technology. If it were not enough that hew as NHUT faculty, they had heard stories of the social studies professor gone rogue, having connections with pro-metahuman terrorist cells and the Sai Kung triads.

They stood there blinking. Well… in some sense they, standing there on a dark dock at dawn, with Mr.Lao right next to them, were all outright evidence in support of those rumours. Dr. Guowei shared a drink with them, though there was little need for small talk – he already know their names and roles, likely informed by Mr. Lao, and although obviously nervous around men of violence and misdeeds he also had the confidence of a man who knew his path. Here on the docks at Sai Kung, a plan of subversion began to take shape. After a short while of small talk and discussion he thanked them all for their efforts, telling them that even though this meeting was very risky for him, he couldn’t help but risk it to meet those who were brave enough to declare outright war on the Oakhearts.

“It was about goddamn time,” said Mr.Lao, his golden cyberarm almost knocking the drink out of the good Doctor’s hand.

After a small while, the professor-politician bowed his goodbyes and left, accompanied the PCs noticed by a small squad of Lao’s most dangerous looking men. Then they turned to business. Mr.Lao explained to them that it would take a few hours before their boat was ready and Zenith’s van had been brought to the ship. He asked for details on the assassination attempt, dismissing any talk of a “setup” with a wave of his hand and a stern knowing look when they pressed him. Then he told them the simple facts of the matter: They were in a contract with the Sai Kung Golden Sharks from now. When they returned to New Horizon, they would be helping Sai Kung with its resistance to the rulers of New Horizon. “It is a simple contract,” he explained. “And when you return I will fulfill my part of the deal – we will fight the Oakhearts together!” He downed another shot of strong Chinese spirit and slapped a decidedly uncomfortable-looking Adam Lee on the back. “Life and business is nothing else but finding the enemies of your enemies, and sharing a drink with them!” He poured them all another. “So here, friends, let us drink. To the revolution, and the downfall of our enemies!”

They knocked back their last drink on New Horizon’s grubby shores, and prepared to board…

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So to all you feelers and fumblers
Waiting for the fireworks to start
Do it now–blow it up yourself
Unbutton the butcher in your heart
And if I don’t come home before midnight
And I can’t find the keyhole in the dark
You’ll know, you’ll know that I’ve been tempted
You’ll know, you’ll know we’re drifting apart
Everything’s on fire

 

For a week or two after they completed their bug hunt the characters rested, and spent some of their hard-earned nuyen. During this time a lot of things changed in New Horizon, and in particular the PCs discovered a new and disturbing force loose in the shadows of New Horizon: Electoral politics. To the extent that New Horizon had ever been ruled over by anyone, it was managed by a council of major corporations that made important decisions about basic municipal details like garbage collection and road rules, and stayed well clear of each other’s business deals and their shadier engagements with the city’s teeming populace. This council’s memberships were usually organized through backroom deals and money politics, but for some reason one of the CEOs had, when he resigned, thrown his position open to a popular election, based on the full suffrage of the people, and suddenly New Horizon’s shadowed lanes were alive with rumours and political debate. CEOs from a handful of smaller companies jostled for position, as did the leaders of the teamster’s union, a well-known gangster, some independent celebrities and a couple of genuine politicians. In the cramped and humid darkness of the lower levels of the city a new fever gripped the residents, as they tried to understand this strange and alien social landscape. Posters, graffiti, demonstrations, parties – a new vocabulary and a new style of interaction swept across the city. The PCs showed a particular interest because the Oakheart company was heavily involved in all the political machinations leading up to the election, and was running a candidate. Oakheart was the company that they had rescued a rich student from a few months earlier, and its vicious way of dealing with the student occupation of its labs had not endeared it to them. So it was that they found themselves sprawled in the dining room of their ship, HS Fortuna, whiling away their spare time shooting beers and watching this strange new process of “voting” and “canvassing” unfold on their large vid screen.

But if you’re not a politician politics doesn’t pay the bills, and eventually they started hunting for work again. They were contacted after a few weeks by Ibai Texeira, the man who had given them the train job and the smuggling job that got them their ship. It was unusual to be contacted directly by their Mr. Johnson, rather than having him go through their fixer Anansie, and perhaps in retrospect they should have taken that as a sign that the job was too hot – but they had grown to trust Texeira, and so they agreed to meet him.

Only fools trust a Johnson. Fools and dead shadowrunners.

The job was again quite simple, and urgent. A certain scientist named Lincoln Cheng had run away from his employer, carrying a large quantity of valuable research data, and his employer wanted him back. There was an open contract on this Dr. Cheng, but he had gone to ground and no one had found him in a few months. However, Ibai happened to have found out where he would be for a few hours from 4pm this afternoon, very precisely. He wanted the PCs to go in and get Cheng, and hand him over to Ibrahim, in exchange for 40,000 nuyen – half if Cheng was damaged. Ibai cut off their concerns about grabbing a scientist on the Lam by explaining that the data he was carrying was some kind of magically coded poison intended to preferentially kill the Awakened, and he would likely sell it off to finance his life on the run, so it was probably better that he didn’t get too far with it. Perhaps it was the easy money, or perhaps for a moment the thought of a targeted magical virus aimed at the Awakened got the better of them, but they did not ask a lot of questions they should have. They agreed to the job.

Knowledge is power, any decker could tell you that. Their decker wasn’t with them when they cut the deal. They only learned what Ibai wanted them to know – and what he didn’t want them to know could sink corporations.

Lincoln had rented a room in the Eolani Corporation building in the southern part of Sai Kung, from 4pm to 7pm. They had to get into the building and grab him while he was there, and it was 2pm already. There was a big catch though – the building was in front of a large park, and an election rally was being held in the park for the whole afternoon. They would have heavy security, and Ibai wanted Cheng dragged out with “minimum explosions”, as he put it, so they were going to need to find a way around the security in the area. Most of it would be standard New Horizon security services stuff but there might be some special teams on watch because a candidate in the elections was going to be giving a speech.

They shrugged. Stealthy jobs, done quickly and suddenly – that was there thing. No problem! They cut the deal and cut to the chase.

Their rigger Zenith took them to the Eolani building, actually a whole campus of mixed residential and office buildings separated from the park where the rally would be held by a wide road and a small orchard park. They dressed as labourers and got their decker, Jo, to set up a fake business and a fake call, a sudden vermin problem in the basement of the building where Cheng was meant to hide. By 3:50 pm they had their car parked in front of the building entrance and were unloading their gear – a medium crawler drone, their body armour and weapons. As they unloaded Jo explored their surroundings, and Zenith sat tight in the van, body slumped in his seat as he scanned the area in cold VR mode.

Jayden, Genji and Adam Lee would go inside dressed as vermin hunters, ride the elevator the 6th floor and set up in the maintenance room. On the way up Jo told that the rally was being held by Oakheart, and also informed them that she had found a bunch of high end security drones, packing heavy jamming equipment to deter hacking and heavily armed, probably in some sort of crowd security role for the rally. She traced them back to a subsidiary of Aztechnology, which was a bit strange, but not impossible to imagine – perhaps this area had a special security deal with one of Aztechnology’s security corps, or maybe Oakheart’s CEO had a deal with Aztechnology for help on the election – who knew how corps work? They donned armour in the maintenance room, set up the combat drone, and sent Zenith’s flyspy drone down the hallway towards Cheng’s room while Jo sought a map of the building. It was 3.52.

The drone showed them no threats, and Jo identified an empty room neighbouring the one Cheng was due to use. They moved quickly down the hall and slipped into the empty room, keeping the lights off. 3.53. Jo began looking for more information about the next room. The flyspy sat on the wall outside, watching the elevator. Had Cheng arrived already? They could not tell. Jo was in the surveillance cameras, but saw no one coming or going. 3.55.

They waited. While they waited, Genji idly switched his eyes to infrared and began scanning the neighbouring room. He found the heat signature of a person, sitting on the far side of the wall close enough to register, near the window. Was it Cheng? Or was he due to meet someone? They alerted Jo, who began scouting around for any signs of network activity from the room. 3.57.

They began to think it must be Cheng. Adam Lee decided to try getting him to open the door, in the hope that he would at least open it wide enough for the flyspy drone to slip through. He slipped into the hallway and knocked on the door, announced himself as a vermin inspector and asked if he could quickly check the room. His ruse did not work and the door did not open. 3.59.

They were sure now it must be Cheng. They discussed smashing their way through the walls, which were thin enough to allow a heat signature to show, but decided not to. Better to go through the door. Jo informed them that there did seem to be some kind of electronic activity in the room and … oh, well, he had a bomb rigged up to go off when the door opened. She could disarm it but would need a few minutes. 4.00.

They looked at each other, Jayden shrugged, and they decided to go through the front door. This Cheng was a scientist and Jayden was an adept, chances were Jayden would have him by the throat before he could react. Then they would negotiate or drag him out depending on the situation. There wasn’t much else for it, given the situation, and if he was waiting for people from a rival corp to come and start negotiating a transfer then they were going to need to act now, before his corp contact – and associated bodyguards – turned up. They moved into the hall, set the crawler drone with its rifle facing the door, Genji and Lee behind it, and Jayden readied himself to push the door open. 4.04.

Jo contacted them, the bomb was down. They nodded to each other and Jayden reached out, pushed the door open, and coiled up to spring through the door. As the door slid open Jo’s voice came breathless in their ears:

“TOO MANY CONNECTIONS. It’s a trap!”

4.05

The door swung open and Jayden surged through even as Jo spoke. Inside was a dimly lit room, bland corporate day decor, a desk in the far corner, stock posters on the wall, sterile bar, a long wide window sweeping along the whole wall facing the park. Jayden took it all in in a heart beat as he leaped forward at the position where he knew Cheng was.

Cheng was sitting tied to a chair, a gag over his mouth, gesturing madly at them with his eyes and grunting. Next to him on a stand was a large sniper rifle, barrel pointed through the window, some kind of trigger device linking it to the door. As Jayden surged through the door the rifle fired, the window shattered, and with his preternatural reflexes Jayden had a frozen moment as he flew through the air, where he saw that the gun had a perfect view of the speaker’s platform, where Lang Oakheart was just finishing her election speech. As he reached Cheng’s chair he knew she was already beginning to fall, the sniper’s bullet in her heart. He grabbed Cheng’s chair and began dragging it towards the door.

As he dragged the chair Cheng grunted and swore and twitched, and over his shoulder he could feel the security drone rising from where it had been hidden beneath the parapet of the window. He could already hear its autorifles whirring into action. Everyone cleared the doorway in a mad scramble as the drone opened fire, a full automatic roar that tore the door off its hinges and destroyed their drone where it sat vulnerable in the middle of the hallway. Lee, just out of sight of the door, was not targeted, and Jayden and Genji were able to scramble out of the way in time, but Jayden was still inside the room, covering Cheng with his armoured body.

Still 4.05. The room went silent, only Cheng’s grunts of terror and the smooth hum of the drone breaking the stillness. In their earphones Jo was yelling instructions at them but her voice was broken up by the sudden jamming interference from the drone, just hints of frightened orders coming through static: “… OUT … THEY … GA-…”

Genji looked wild-eyed through the door, saw the expression on Jayden’s face and started running for the stairs at the opposite end of the building. Adam Lee cast an armour spell on Jayden and moved as far from the doorway as he could. Jayden, grim and determined and carrying 40,000 nuyen worth of scientist, started dragging Cheng to the door. Behind him something clicked, and the drone’s missile housing opened.

Clicked again once, fired. The room erupted in fire but but by now Jayden was through the doorway, protected from the worst of the blast. The walls bulged, the whole hallway filled with dust, and Jayden and Cheng were hurled against the far wall. Jayden slipped to the floor, unconscious, to lie on top of Cheng.

4.06. Downstairs at the entryway Zenith had been rudely kicked out of his VR connection to the dying drone, just in time to hear the sound of an engine revving up in the trees about 30 metres ahead. Some sixth sense warned him that he was about to get rammed, so he reversed the van as fast as he could away from the door. By the time he was perhaps 30m back from the door a large, evil-looking grey van came hurtling out of the trees and hauled to a stop in front of the door, rear doors facing it. The doors opened and six heavily-armed men burst out, charging into the building at a rush. Zenith realized that this van was some kind of special armoured combat van, probably with a machine gun hidden in a roof mount, and he needed to clear it away if they were going to have any chance of getting out. He flipped the car into drive and gunned it forward, hitting the van with such power that it bounced into the air, rolled over and landed shattered on its side some distance from the door. Back in his place at the door he hit the comm link and told everyone that they had incoming troops.

Still 4.06. Upstairs Adam Lee cast an awaken spell on Jayden, who emerged from his comatose position and surged to his feet, knife in hand. He sliced Cheng free of the chair and he and Adam ran to the stairs where Genji waited for them, his pistols out. Zenith’s voice broke through the static to warn them of incoming soldiers, followed by Jo telling them the lift was moving. Everything Jo said came through a wall of static, and they had to guess some of her words, but she was delivering. She also told them more drones were coming, and they had to get out. They ran down the stairs. Jo jammed the lift to buy them time, working furiously through the jamming, and informed them calmly as they hurtled down the stairs that she had found a back room on the third floor with an unlocked door and emergency escape hatches in its balcony. Zenith gunned the van into a screaming reverse and hurtled around to the back of the building to park outside the room and wait. “THEY KNOW WHERE YOU ARE, THEY HAVE EYES ON YOU!” Jo yelled at them, then, “TOO MUCH OVERWATCH! GOD IS COMING!” and she was gone.

They hit the third floor, slamming and locking the room door behind them, Jayden standing right by it with knives out, ready for the soldiers. They had passed the elevator on level five at the far end of the hall, trapped between level 4 and level 5, but they were sure that with Jo gone those soldiers would be heading down for them. Adam and Genji scrambled to open the emergency hatch, for the first time in their lives fervently thanking their local ward office for insisting on emergency preparedness drills one Sunday morning every three months, and they began to climb down. As soon as they had Cheng through and the last of them was gone Jayden sprinted to the verandah and leapt down, landing with a smooth roll in the grass by the van three floors down. By the time Genji dragged Cheng into the van he already had his seat belt on.

4.08. They gunned it.

Aftermath of a betrayal

Somehow they made it out, the van screaming through confused and chaotic streets as people fled in the aftermath of the assassination. They left the troops eating their dust, and somehow their van had not registered with the drones so that by the time they cleared the area no one had triggered them, but it didn’t matter. Before they had even made it to their safe house their names were on all the news channels – the team of terrorists who had tried to assassinate Lang Oakheart. Their names, their faces, Jayden’s full real name from his legal national SIN, all appeared on the newscast. Cheng was incriminated too as a member of their gang. By the time they made it to their safe house they had already received a farewell message from Mr. Anansie, their regular fixer, and a contract had been declared on them – strangely, though, a contract that was currently a closed one restricted to a few corporations and not available to shadowrunners generally.

A corporate contract. Ibai Texeira had fragged them. The whole thing had been a set up. If they had acted a little slower, if Jayden had not been wearing Adam Lee’s armour, if they had all gone into the room together instead of trusting to Jayden’s adept instincts, the drone would have cut them all down as soon as the rifle had been fired. They had been expected to die in that room, and only the luck of the shadows had saved them.

They rested in the safe house, watched the news. Corporate police were hunting for them, but Lang Oakheart had somehow survived – a miracle. Lang Oakheart, the new telegenic and super-sophisticated face of Oakheart Industries, who had been struggling to be heard over the media power of the larger corporations, had been badly injured by the bullet but somehow – miraculously – the bullet had just missed her heart. Perhaps it was her patented Oakheart security dress? As the talking heads on the news marveled at her luck, the characters knew the truth: The shot had been intended to miss, because the whole thing was a set up. Lang would recover, her poll numbers radically improved, and would storm home to victory in the election on the back of her near-miss.

The PCs would just be collateral damage, roadkill on her path to victory. They had been burned.

By morning the calls had come in. Their old allies and friends saying a final farewell. “No hard feelings, friends, but you know …” Only their friends the Goldsharks in Sai Kung stuck by them – they received an early morning call from Mr. Lao to inform them that he had moved the HS Fortuna to a safe location, and they could come to it as soon as they wanted.

They were wanted, betrayed, on the run. They had to get to the Fortuna, and get New Horizon behind them.

At least until they could come back and get their revenge on every single person who betrayed them, starting with Ibai.

Hidden in their safe house in a rubbish dump in the worst part of Sai Kung, none of them could sleep. They began making lists.

They would be back.

 

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

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

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

The Old Man’s Secrets

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

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

The great grey librarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

War for the Ark

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

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

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

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

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

The Elder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is a story for another time.

 

The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way.

On the 23rd January Ursula le Guin died at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy unrivaled in science fiction, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in and outside of the genre. Ursula le Guin was my gateway to fantasy, and a very important personal influence for me, not only on my reading habits but also on my game mastering, and on my own perspectives on politics, feminism, and race relations. She has received accolades from newspapers and writers across the world, and there’s little that I need to say to add to the obvious appreciation of her contribution on display in all the usual places, so I thought I might say a little about the various and important ways that she influenced me from a very young age. It’s not much, but ultimately this is what writing is all about – the impact it has on its readers.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my introduction to real fantasy, probably the first book I read after the Narnia series, and the one book more than any other that served to kick me into a lifetime of devotion to this genre. I was always an avid reader when I was a child so there was no risk that I would not be reading a lot of books, but it was A Wizard of Earthsea more than any other book that ensured I would commit a lot of that reading time to the fantasy and science fiction genres. It’s a great book to start with, because it is immediately accessible to children, but whatever age you read it you will gain something from it. Indeed, I think I have read the whole series perhaps three times, and the first in the series at least five times. The writing is very powerful and so very simple, every sentence carefully poised to carry as much weight as possible. The original three slim volumes require so little work to read, and have such a powerful impact. For me Ged is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in all of fiction, speaking to me not like a lone magician but like the voice of some eternal conscience, a moral and spiritual force far greater than its possible to believe one literary figure can possess. It surely helps that when I read this book I was beginning to give in to my position as an outsider, always moving around, always rejected by new schools and new communities, living on the edge of things just like Ged when he discovered his powers. This book, simultaneously so forceful and so gentle, was a huge influence on my personality when I was very young.

The Dispossessed came to me at the beginning of university, and is probably the single biggest reason I fell into left wing political views. I was a very naive, very inexperienced boy coming from a very poor background with a great deal of anger about the disadvantage that I, my family and my friends faced, but no sense of how anything could ever be different – or that it even could be. Then, because I had read A Wizard of Earthsea, I decided to read The Dispossessed – and I suddenly discovered an image of a world where everything was different, where there was no inequality and people worked and struggled for very different reasons. This story was about a scientist – a physicist no less! – embarking on a world of political discovery at just the time I was studying physics, and moving from my country town to the big city. Just like Shevek after he left Anarres, I felt again like an outsider, a country bumpkin in amongst all these sophisticated kids from the city who already knew each other and already knew the world they moved in, kids who had spent their whole lives knowing they would be at university, and knew that after they left university they would inherit the world – while I had only learnt what university was a year earlier and did not know where I would go after it finished. Caught in that in between world I read The Dispossessed and suddenly I knew that there had to be another way, that maybe things didn’t have to be the way everyone assumed they had to be. After I read this book I sat with a much older mature age student in the cafe, trying to explain how it had opened my mind to knew ways of social organization, and my anger at how things were, and he suggested that I should join Resistance, the youth arm of the communist party. “I think you’ll hate them,” he told me, “and you’ll leave after a year. But you’ll learn about the things you need to know.” So I did, and he was right in every detail – I did hate them, and I did learn a lot, and I did leave them after a year. Just like Shevek I ended up in between political ideas, but knowing a lot more about myself and what I believed.

The Left Hand of Darkness came after The Dispossessed, again while I was still a callow youth, and it opened my mind about gender the same way that The Dispossessed made me think about politics. It had never really occurred to me that the relations between the sexes were culturally constructed, and the complex relationship between biology and culture described in that wonderful little book was a completely new idea to me (like I said, I was a very naive youth). The Left Hand of Darkness is perfect science fiction, in that it gets you to think about how things are and how they could be and how they should be, but it doesn’t give you any neat answers – it just makes you wonder. After you read a book like that you just want to know more, you have suddenly a whole new dimension of thinking that you didn’t know about before, and suddenly you are open to all the new ideas that flow from it – feminism, post structuralism, whatever. I spoke to a friend after I read this book, an activist in the Australian Labor Party, and he recommended to me an excellent guidebook called Men, Sex, Power and Survival that provided a primer in feminism for men. At the same time the university where I studied was offering basic education in how to behave in a non-sexist way in tutorials and in general at university (a few tips on how not to sexually harass people, that sort of thing) and I think without this book I would have been less open to these things. I don’t credit myself with being “woke” in some dumb-arsed American way, but I think I have lived my life open to feminist ideas and alternative ways of thinking about sex and culture, and I think I can credit Ursula le Guin for this.

So in terms of my main hobby and interests, my main political direction, and a lot of my views about gender and sexuality, I have a lot to thank Ursula le Guin for. Of course nothing is all one person’s fault, and there were other things that influenced me in all these directions – Dragonlance probably cemented my interest in the fantasy genre, and I think Star Wars and a few other movies would have fixed me on science fiction (though I came to sci fi later than fantasy). I guess I probably would have discovered left wing politics anyway, given my class background and my anger, and the university was pushing a strong feminist line when I arrived that might have influenced me anyway, but I’m sure that without Ms. le Guin’s impact I might have been far less committed to or interested in any of these areas of life. She influenced me in other ways, too – I think Orsinian Tales is a heart-breakingly well written depiction of the lives of ordinary people, that really moved me when I first discovered it, and I read a lot of her other work and was duly influenced by that too, but these were the big three ways in which she changed my life.

Ursula le Guin didn’t get the credit she deserved in life, and although as she neared the end of her career she began to get the accolades which she should have got decades earlier, I think she still didn’t get all she deserves. I think she identified this as partly being because of her gender, at least within her field; but she also seemed to be very convinced that it was the genre itself that held back the esteem its authors deserved (not just her; she never seemed to be very proud). She was a staunch and prickly defender of her genre, refusing to apologize for it or to break out of it, and as punishment for that I believe she is not as well rewarded as, say, Margaret Atwood, who writes slightly science-fictiony stories in a mainstream genre and got a lot of respect much earlier in her career. Of course I can’t speak for Ursula le Guin but I think, from what I read of her essays and her writings, that she wouldn’t care about those awards and accolades nearly as much as she valued the impact that she has had on the lives of her readers, the ordinary people from whom she believed all important change arises, about whom she always told her stories, and to whom she so patiently and consistently directed her work. So I wanted to add my voice to all those others this week who spoke up to say how much she influenced them, and how much she mattered to them. Ursula le Guin’s work changed the direction of my life, for the better, and I will always be thankful to her for that, and for her huge contribution to the fields of science fiction and fantasy that have formed so much of the backdrop of my life. She may be gone, but she leaves a formidable legacy that will change science fiction and fantasy forever, just as it changed me.

 

The internet is all abuzz at the moment with the proud news that a men’s rights activist (MRA) has produced a woman-free version of Star Wars’ The Last Jedi, based on a low-fi cam recording from a cinema somewhere in Asia. The stated reason is to (amongst other things) cut out all the scenes which involve women “commanding people around/having ideas” and to get rid of the “girlz powah and other silly stuff”.  This dude’s problems with The Last Jedi seem to be the same as some of the douchier commenters on my (much-read!) review of The Last Jedi, which primarily seem to be that “diversity ruined the movie” and “there were too many women in charge.” These complaints are always associated with some kind of whine about how this insistence on diversity has ruined the original series. For example a random reviewer at Rotten Tomatoes says:

With the clear intention of moving away from the Lucas Legacy, this Director has consumated the machiavellian Disney’s plan of turning SW saga in one size fits all current tendencies: ultra-feminism, anti male, ultra-diversification, pro-millennial ranks…

Suggesting, very strongly, that the original movie did not have a political stance or pro-diversity ideal, and that to do so must ruin the original movie. There’s also no evidence that the bigger plot and consistency problems identified by so many commenters on my blog are of great interest to these MRAs – they don’t complain about the acting, only the fact that the actor is a woman, and (for example) the execrable hyperspace weapon is still in the MRA cut. So it certainly appears that their sole and only concern is that the movie features a) too many non-white male actors and b) too many chicks in charge.

Which gets me wondering – exactly what version of the original series did these dudes see, and what exactly did they like about it? For example, A New Hope has a core cast of five people – Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. Of those one is a woman who is introduced as a leader in the rebellion, and another is black and a leader of the Empire. Now, you might dispute that Darth Vader is actually black since in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back we see a brief shot of his white head (as we do at the end of the Return of the Jedi), but when you and I went to see A New Hope as callow youths in 1978 or whenever it was, having not yet seen The Empire Strikes Back, we watched a character dressed entirely in black, with a black face mask, voiced by a black man, and we loved him. How is this character not black at the time we saw the movies? We might have imagined he was white under the mask but in doing so we were explicitly disavowing everything the movie itself was telling us. To all intents and purposes Darth Vader was black. But even putting aside that little note of controversy, we still have 20% of the cast being a woman, and she’s in charge – when Luke is going down the death star canyon to stick a photon torpedo up Vader’s arse, he is being directed by Leia from the command center of the rebel base, because she’s in charge. The same rule applies in The Empire Strikes Back, where our cast is further diversified by the inclusion of Lando Calrissian, and in Return of the Jedi we are introduced to Mon Mothma, a middle-aged woman with short hair who is the leader of the rebel alliance (and there are female fighter pilots in the briefing room, to boot).

Then of course there is the small issue that C3PO is super camp, and would be interpreted as a gay stereotype if he weren’t a robot. I’ll forgive MRAs for missing this, since they’re mostly NFL fans which probably means they think high camp is super macho, and misinterpreted C3PO as a football player or something. Also in the original movie we are meant to identify most with Skywalker, which means we’re meant to want to fuck Leia as he does, but in Empire he gets friend-zoned, which is a move that MRAs hate more than almost anything else on earth.

So what about the original movies gets a pass? They’re just as diverse as the Last Jedi, with just as many women in charge, and the key heroes in both sequences are firmly under the control of the chicks: under Leia’s command (Wookiepedia lists her as the leader of the battle of Yavin, for example) and then Mon Mothma’s, while in the Last Jedi they’re under Leia’s command and then Holdo’s. The hero is generally and universally admitted to be a snivelling idiot in the first movie, outshone by Han Solo – who, we are regularly reminded, is a rake and a criminal – and in the subsequent movies he gets friend-zoned and becomes your classic beta cuck, doing all the serious hard work while the rakish fuckboi runs off with the girl we’re all supposed to want.

What exactly in the legacy of the original movies does the Last Jedi betray by having a woman in charge or a black dude in a key role, and how does its pursuit of diversity make it different from the originals in any way?

This matters to me for two reasons: 1) that MRAs suck and I hate that I might be on the same side of them in any debate, regardless of whether our reasons are 100% different; and 2) it’s affecting critical reaction to the backlash against the movie. While 1) might be just a petty personal foible, I think 2) is important. The critics were all wrong about this movie, which was shit, but it wasn’t shit for the reasons that the stupid MRA idiots are ranting about. But the very public, sexist and gross response of MRA manbabies to this movie means that the critics who were so terribly wrong about it can dismiss the backlash against their terrible performance as the disaffected whining of a bunch of MRAs, rather than a genuine critical disagreement. Consider this response to the MRA cut from the website Junkee, which usually does quite entertaining discussion of internet phenomena, in which they say that

a vocal minority of manbabies detested it, mostly because it’s full of women.

A great example of this is the targeted attack on the film’s rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, which led to a 40% discrepancy between the critic and audience reviews, and which was later claimed by the “alt-right” as a manufactured backlash

This makes it seem like the continuing decline in the movie’s ratings on Rotten Tomatoes[1], and all the critical backlash against it, are driven by a small number of MRAs, and manages to escape any kind of serious discussion of what was wrong with this movie. This kind of thing was also visible in other responses (e.g. Vox’s) which dismissed it as due to a sense of entitlement among fans, or grown men being uncomfortable with the diversity of the movie. Given that the movie is no more diverse than the originals, and given that there are serious major problems with the rest of the movie (the casting being the least of them, I would have thought), this means that the critics avoid responsibility by pinning the whole thing on MRAs, and Rian Johnson – and the Disney crew generally – can avoid putting any thought into what they’ve done wrong, and what they need to do right to fix their mistakes in episode 9. Given the response of critics and the director himself to criticisms of the movie, I think we can rest assured there’s no point in expecting episode 9 to be anything less than a shithole. And to the extent that this is because the whining and posturing of MRAs created a false narrative of increased diversity, and saturated debate with their stupid whining about chicks in charge rather than genuine complaints about this woeful movie, then I’m comfortable with blaming MRAs for the death of star wars.

Get back in your basements, you grommits. But before you go I have two questions I’d like you to answer in comments here: 1) how on earth did you ever enjoy the originals when there was a woman in charge and 2) how do you enjoy science fiction at all given that movies like Terminator, Aliens, Mad Max, Ghost in the Shell etc. are full of strong female characters, often in positions of authority? Why do you bother going to science fiction movies at all? Also 2a), how do you watch porn?

Answers in the comments, please! And try not to use pointless MRA jargon like SJW, blue pill, or cuck!


fn1: it’s down to 49% now, from 56% at the time I wrote my review. Well done Rian Johnson!

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

And she will rise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No future
No future
No future for you

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JARED: That’s heresy, you fucker.

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

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

Breaking the Bosses

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

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

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

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

Visions of the Apocalypse

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

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

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

The Dark Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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