The media this week are exploding with news that a company called Cambridge Analytica used shadily-obtained Facebook data to influence the US elections. The data was harvested by some other shady company using an app that legally exploited Facebook’s privacy rules at the time, and then handed over to Cambridge Analytica, who then used the data to micro-target adverts over Facebook during the election, mostly aimed at getting Trump elected. The news is still growing, and it appears that Cambridge Analytica was up to a bunch of other shady stuff too – swinging elections in developing countries through fraud and honey-traps, getting Facebook data from other sources and possibly colluding illegally with the Trump campaign against campaign funding laws – and it certainly looks like a lot of trouble is deservedly coming their way.

In response to this a lot of people have been discussing Facebook itself as if it is responsible for this problem, is itself a shady operator, or somehow represents a new and unique problem in the relationship between citizens, the media and politics. Elon Musk has deleted his company’s Facebook accounts, there is a #deleteFacebook campaign running around, and lots of people are suggesting that the Facebook model of social networking is fundamentally bad (see e.g. this Vox article about how Facebook is simply a bad idea).

I think a lot of this reaction against Facebook is misguided, does not see the real problem, and falls into the standard mistake of thinking a new technology must necessarily come with new and unique threats. I think it misses the real problem underlying Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to micro-target ads during the election and to manipulate public opinion: the people reading the ads.

We use Facebook precisely because of the unique benefits of its social and sharing model. We want to see our friends’ lives and opinions shared amongst ourselves, we want to be able to share along things we like or approve of, and we want to be able to engage with what our friends are thinking and saying. Some people using Facebook may do so as I do, carefully curating content providers we allow on our feed to ensure they aren’t offensive or upsetting, and avoiding allowing any political opinions we disagree with; others may use it for the opposite purpose, to engage with our friends’ opinions, see how they are thinking, and openly debate and disagree about a wide range of topics in a social forum. Many of us treat it as an aggregator for cat videos and cute viral shit; some of us only use it to keep track of friends. But in all cases the ability of the platform to share and engage is why we use it. It’s the one thing that separates it from traditional mass consumption media. This is its revolutionary aspect.

But what we engage with on Facebook is still media. If your friend shares a Fox and Friends video of John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is actually a lizard person, when you watch that video you are engaging with it just as if you were engaging with Fox and Friends itself. The fact that it’s on Facebook instead of TV doesn’t suddenly exonerate you of the responsibility and the ability to identify that John Bolton is full of shit. If Cambridge Analytica micro target you with an ad that features John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is a lizard person, that means Cambridge Analytica have evidence that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning, but the fundamental problem here remains that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning. Their ad doesn’t become extra brain-washy because it was on Facebook. Yes, it’s possible that your friend shared it and we all know that people trust their friends’ judgment. But if your friends think that shit is reasonable, and you still trust your friend’s judgement, then you and your friend have a problem. That’s not Facebook’s problem, it’s yours.

This problem existed before Facebook, and it exists now outside of Facebook. Something like 40% of American adults think that Fox News is a reliable and trustworthy source of news, and many of those people think that anything outside of Fox News is lying and untrustworthy “liberal media”. The US President apparently spends a lot of his “executive time” watching Fox and Friends and live tweeting his rage spasms. No one forces him to watch Fox and Friends, he has a remote control and fingers, he could choose to watch the BBC. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or even Fox News’s fault, that the president is a dimwit who believes anything John Bolton says.

This is a much bigger problem than Facebook, and it’s a problem in the American electorate and population. Sure, we could all be more media savvy, we could all benefit from better understanding how Facebook abuses privacy settings, shares our data for profit, and enables micro-targeting. But once that media gets to you it’s still media and you still have a responsibility to see if it’s true or not, to assess it against other independent sources of media, to engage intellectually with it in a way that ensures you don’t just believe any old junk. If you trust your friends’ views on vaccinations or organic food or Seth Rich’s death more than you trust a doctor or a police prosecutor then you have a problem. Sure, Facebook might improve the reach of people wanting to take advantage of that problem, but let’s not overdo it here: In the 1990s you would have been at a bbq party or a bar, nodding along as your friend told you that vaccines cause autism and believing every word of it. The problem then was you, and the problem now is you. In fact it is much easier now for you to not be the problem. Back in the 1990s at that bbq you couldn’t have surreptitiously whipped our your iPhone and googled “Andrew Wakefield” and discovered that he’s a fraud who has been disbarred by the GMA. Now you can, and if you choose not to because you think everything your paranoid conspiracy theorist friend says is true, the problem is you. If you’re watching some bullshit Cambridge Analytica ad about how Hilary Clinton killed Seth Rich, you’re on the internet, so you have the ability to cross reference that information and find out what the truth might actually be. If you didn’t do that, you’re lazy or you already believe it or you don’t care or you’re deeply stupid. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or Cambridge Analytica’s fault. It’s yours.

Facebook offers shady operatives like Robert Mercer the ability to micro-target their conspiracy theories and lies, and deeper and more effective reach of their lies through efficient use of advertising money and the multiplicative effect of the social network feature. It also gives them a little bit of a trust boost because people believe their friends are trustworthy. But in the end the people consuming the media this shady group produce are still people with an education, judgment, a sense of identity and a perspective on the world. They are still able to look at junk like this and decide that it is in fact junk. If you sat through the 2016 election campaign thinking that this con-artist oligarch was going to drain the swamp, the problem is you. If you thought that Clinton’s email practices were the worst security issue in the election, the problem is you. If you honestly believed The Young Turks or Jacobin mag when they told you Clinton was more militarist than Trump, the problem is you. If you believed Glenn Greenwald when he told you the real threat to American security was Clinton’s surveillance and security policies, the problem is you. If you believed that Trump cared more about working people than Hilary Clinton, then the problem is you. This stuff was all obvious and objectively checkable and easy to read, and you didn’t bother. The problem is not that Facebook was used by a shady right wing mob to manipulate your opinions into thinking Clinton was going to start world war 3 and hand everyone’s money to the bankers. The problem is that when this utter bullshit landed in your feed, you believed it.

Of course the problem doesn’t stop with the consumers of media but with the creators. Chris Cillizza is a journalist who hounded Clinton about her emails and her security issues before the election, and to this day continues to hound her, and he worked for reputable media organizations who thought his single-minded obsession with Clinton was responsible journalism. The NY Times was all over the email issues, and plenty of NY Times columnists like Maureen Dowd were sure Trump was less militarist than Clinton. Fox carefully curated their news feed to ensure the pussy-grabbing scandal was never covered, so more Americans knew about the emails than the pussy-grabbing. Obviously if no one is creating content about how terrible Trump is then we on Facebook are not able to share it with each other. But again the problem here is not Facebook – it’s the American media. Just this week we learn that the Atlantic, a supposedly centrist publication, is hiring Kevin D Williamson – a man who believes women who get abortions should be hanged – to provide “balance” to its opinion section. This isn’t Facebook’s fault. The utter failure of the US media to hold their government even vaguely accountable for its actions over the past 30 years, or to inquire with any depth or intelligence into the utter corruption of the Republican party, is not Facebook’s fault or ours, it’s theirs. But it is our job as citizens to look elsewhere, to try to understand the flaws in the reporting, to deploy our education to the benefit of ourselves and the civic society of which we are a part. That’s not Facebook’s job, it’s ours. Voting is a responsibility as well as a right, and when you prepare to vote you have the responsibility to understand the information available about the people you are going to vote for. If you decide that you would rather believe Clinton killed Seth Rich to cover up a paedophile scandal, rather than reading the Democratic Party platform and realizing that strategic voting for Clinton will benefit you and your class, then the problem is you. You live in a free society with free speech, and you chose to believe bullshit without checking it.

Deleting Facebook won’t solve the bigger problem, which is that many people in America are not able to tell lies from truth. The problem is not Facebook, it’s you.

 

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She was right all along!

Today I discovered a really excellent article discussing how American and Soviet scientists and intelligence operatives reported on the collapse of the Soviet Economy, at the Texas National Security Review wtf. The basic thrust of the article is to understand whether researchers in the US national security complex, and associated academics, missed the collapse of the Soviet economy that began around 1966, or whether they were actually predicting the fundamental economic challenges that would eventually bring the Soviet Union to revolution and implosion. Apparently in the 1990s there was a bit of a thing where major newspapers and some politicians accused the CIA and the academics in its orbit of having completely missed the fact that the Soviet Union’s economy was failing, and having driven the US to go into debt peonage in order to achieve massive economic growth that wasn’t actually needed. The article cites a few of these critics saying basically that if the CIA had accurately predicted the trajectory of the Soviet Economy then Reagan wouldn’t have had to build up huge deficits to finance a massive military and economic expansion. Putting aside how ludicrous this is on its face – conservatives don’t care about deficits, for starters, and Reagan was building deficits for a wide range of political reasons – the article dismisses this by showing that in fact the CIA and its fellow travelers did in fact predict the collapse of the Soviet economy, in remarkable detail, and this 1990s criticism is all just silly revisionism.

This wasn’t the part of the article that interested me though – in fact I thought the discussion about why this is important was the weakest part of the article. What I enjoyed was the detailed description of the stages of economic growth and collapse of the Soviet Union, and the description of how Soviet theorists and planners saw it coming from the 1970s onward but seemed powerless to stop it. It tells a detailed and interesting tale of an economic program that seemed so successful (to both American and Soviet observers) in the 1950s, falling into stagnation in the 1960s and then into ruin in the 1970s. It’s a detailed and well-researched description of an economic system falling apart, and it shows that actually the economic analysts of the West really had their finger on the pulse here, and their theories about how economies should work and what was wrong with the Soviet economy proved to be correct in the end. This isn’t just American triumphalism that you might expect from the Texas National Security Review wtf, because the author cites a bunch of Soviet theorists who basically saw all the same issues that the Americans saw, and were unable to come up with any solutions that could work. The story of how they failed to come up with solutions is in itself fascinating, and something I will come back to when I discuss the Chinese communist approach to the same problems these researchers identified. But first I want to ask – did Western Marxists of the 1960s to 1980s see any of these issues in the Soviet economy, and if they didn’t, what does that say about their much-vaunted economic analysis skills?

The rise and fall of the Soviet planned economy

The article divides the Soviet economy into two rough stages, the first lasting from I guess the 1930s or the end of the war up until 1959, and the second starting somewhere in the mid 1960s and running to the fall of the Berlin wall. The first period was characterized by what the author calls extensive growth[1], which appears to be the process of throwing bodies at basic problems like building roads and shit. This period was characterized by rapid growth and social engagement(?), and seems like the kind of period when central planning would be no hindrance, or possibly even beneficial to growth. This is the period of increased steel production, more coal in more burners, the kind of basic economic problems being solved by simple and robust methods. But by the 1960s the Soviet Union had solved these basic problems and had moved into a more complex economy characterized by skilled labour working on more difficult problems of distribution and production, and it could no longer function by simply investing in new plant and equipment. At this point both American and Soviet analysts of the economy noticed that it needed to move to a more mixed structure, and it required engaged and committed professionals rather than hard working industrial hands. Central planning failed at this point, and the social and cultural conditions in the Soviet Union began to hold back growth and achievement, because you can’t get skilled professionals to work for just money alone, and the other cultural and social rewards of engaging in the mixed economy just weren’t there. The economy by this point had also become much more complex and had become too complicated for proper central planners to manage, but the lack of monetarization and small scale innovation and markets prevented it from finding local and specific solutions to complex problems. Both American and Soviet theorists noticed this problem, with the Americans wondering if the Soviet leadership would make radical changes to unleash new energy and creativity, and the Soviet thinkers wondering how to do this and complaining that they weren’t able to come up with solutions to match the problems they had identified[2].

At this point the author also describes a bunch of other problems overwhelming Soviet society that were identified in the west and discussed: declining life expectancy, increasing infant mortality, rampant alcoholism, and endemic corruption. The corruption was seen as a response to the challenges of an economy that simply wasn’t working and the cultural and social barriers to progress, and the alcoholism and infant mortality were seen as signs of a deepening social malaise that simply couldn’t be solved by a planned economy. This part of the essay – which to be fair is a long way in – was powerful stuff to read. It’s a fundamental given of modern development economics that when life expectancy or infant mortality go in the wrong direction, you’re getting something very wrong. That should be a sign that you need to get off your arse now and fix whatever mess you’re facing[3].

What did Western Marxists see in all this?

To their credit it appears that Soviet theorists and planners from the 1970s onward saw the writing on the wall and were at least aware of the need for change, even if the political structures of their economy prevented them from effectively implementing them. But how did western Marxists study their model society and how did they react? While we know a lot of western Marxists went their own way – especially after Hungary and Czechoslovakia – we know that many of the western communist and socialist parties continued to support the Soviet Union for a long time. One of the few remaining claims for which the people of this time get any credit is that while its political prescriptions may have failed, Marxism provided a cogent and insightful analysis of the economic problems facing capitalism, and a definitive description of how economic crises arise and are resolved. Presumably then it would have been able to analyze the problems within the Soviet Union, and presumably at least some of these Marxists would have had better access to information and data coming out of the Soviet Union than did the CIA.

So what did they do with it? Did they see the crisis the way their Soviet colleagues did? I have dug around online and can’t find anything about Marxist critiques of Soviet economic ideas at that time except for this review of a book on Marxist critiques of Soviet economics, that suggests the book is not a comprehensive review of what was said and written in that time. I certainly can’t find any evidence of a famous critical review of the problems facing Soviet industry. One would think that at least in the post-Vietnam era, perhaps in the 1970s, some of the Marxists of the New Left would have been feeling liberated enough to consider critically whether the Soviet Union was going in the right direction. At this time left wing movements in the west had started looking to national liberationist movements in Africa and latin America for inspiration, and these movements were typically less economically and ideologically hidebound than the Soviet Union, though often still dependent on it for economic and military support, so one would think western Marxists would have been able to engage more critically with Soviet economic ideas through these movements. But I can’t see much evidence that they did. What were they doing during this time? Is there a cruel irony where Soviet theorists were applying western market economics to critique Soviet economic systems, while western Marxists were applying rigid Marxist principles and missing the entire point? Were CIA academics more closely engaged with Soviet economic data than the Soviet Union’s supposed allies in the American left? I can’t find any information about this online, and I’m wondering.

How did China learn from Soviet failure?

The article also mentions that Soviet leaders tied economic growth directly to the ideological success of their project. They figured that people would be willing to make political and cultural sacrifices to the revolution provided they saw economic progress, and could look forward to a future utopia, but from 1970 on the economy was stagnating and so they were offering the people decades of austerity and asking them to commit to a political program that offered no future. This fundamental bargain – freedom in exchange for development – seems to me to be at the heart of the Chinese political program, and to have been a huge success for them: basically, so long as everyone’s economic lot continues to improve, the Chinese communist party assumes that the population will tolerate limits on expression, political activity and assembly. It’s a deal that has worked for them so far, and it seems to be at the core of their political program. But it failed in the Soviet Union, so how did Chinese leadership respond to this?

This is another topic that is very hard to assess for a non-expert just using random internet searches. How did China respond to the Soviet Union’s stagnation? Is there a body of work, in Chinese, by Chinese planners and intellectuals, interpreting the Soviet Union’s failure in terms that could be used to improve China’s economic and social performance? Did the 100 Flowers movement or the Cultural Revolution stem from some recognition that Soviet ideological strictness was stopping economic growth and interfering with the basic bargain? I found this critical text from Mao that suggests Mao understood that economic growth cannot be about just industrial development, and that commodity exchange (i.e. free markets of some kind) are essential. But it’s very hard to read – this language is like nothing from standard public health text books! – and it obviously requires a heavy knowledge of pre-existing Maoist and Stalinist theory. For example, Mao repeatedly contrasts the Chinese communist party’s attitude towards peasants with the Soviet party’s, and finds Stalinist thought lacking on this issue that doesn’t make any sense to me.

But it seems to me that the Chinese communist party must have done something right. Under Mao they also went through a period of heavy “extensive” growth, but then under Deng Xiaoping they introduced market reforms that enabled their economy to adapt to its growing complexity, and it is now generally accepted that China runs a mixed market economy that has the flexibility to respond to new economic challenges while retaining the central planning that should, I guess, ideally be able to manage potential crises and balance competing interests. China has also not seen any period of stagnation in health markers – quite the opposite! – and seems to be much better at incorporating foreign capital and foreign ideas into its market (the original article makes the point that the Soviet Union found it very hard to import new technologies, and suffered in productivity as a result). So I wonder – was Chinese communism always more open to foreign ideas and to critical reinterpretation of basic principles? Did they see what was happening in the Soviet Union and think about alternatives earlier and more aggressively? In his Critique of Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR Mao repeatedly returns to the problem of commodity production, and seems to be much more open to market ideas than the Soviets (in his own words), but then at the same time I think he was presenting Stalinism as a betrayal of Marxism for being too westernized or something. So how was China interpreting Soviet struggles? China shows no signs of economic slow down or of economic failure, though of course it is increasingly vulnerable to crashes and crises of a capitalist kind, so it’s not as if it has developed a perfect mixed economy. Did Deng Xiaoping and his successors learn from the Soviet Union, and how? And if so why was their communism open to change but Soviet communism was not? For example, the article presents corruption as a fundamental and unresolved problem of the Soviet Union, possibly connected directly to its economic and political stagnation, but we know that the Chinese government has made fighting corruption an important symbol of progress and has genuinely tried to stamp out the worst of it. Why and how did they make these decisions, and to what extent were their policy ideas driven by reaction to Soviet failure, or to western criticism?

A final note

This has been a blogpost only of questions – I don’t know anything about these issues, but I find them very interesting. I think I have said before on this blog that I think China’s future progress offers a key challenge to capitalist market democracy. Until now the only real challenge to the orthodoxy of western capitalist democracy arose from the Soviet Union, and it was a dismal failure (as is its gangster successor). But if China can make one party non-democratic Chinese communism successful, then it will offer a real alternative to capitalist democracy. In the past I have said that China needs to negotiate a series of complex challenges but that if it does it may prove its system a viable alternative to capitalist democracies. I think it’s safe to say it has shown itself to be a much better alternative development model than Russian communism, which when you’re coming from the background Chinese communism was coming from is a pretty big claim to success. But now it has moved into the intensive development phase identified in the linked article at the Texas National Security Review wtf, the question is whether it will continue to adapt in the way it needs to to show that its political model can deliver the economic boons that its fundamental contract demands. This question is further complicated by the abolition of term limits and the possibility that Xi Jinping is becoming a new Mao[4], which could undo all the gains of the past 10 or 20 years and return China to a period of madness or Soviet scleroticism[5]. I guess also the lessons of Soviet history are less important to Mr. Xi than they were to Mr. Deng, and Mr. Xi faces an environment that is in some ways much less challenging (development is complete), but also much more challenging (Trump!) Are Chinese planners moving on from the lessons of Soviet failure to the lessons of capitalist failure?

I think it’s possible that we are seeing a new era of failure in American capitalist democracy, and there are many countries in Africa that are desperate for political and economic development models at a time when China is becoming increasingly assertive about the rectitude of its own model. By looking at how previous systems have learnt from their mistakes, perhaps we can see how the Chinese government will adapt to future challenges, and also how the American government will – or won’t – learn from its own litany of errors. How will this affect development in Africa, and how will it affect the response of the big economies to the fundamental environmental and economic challenges that threaten to destroy us all? I think we need to look to China for the answers to many of these questions, and in seeing how previous regimes learnt about their own and their enemies’ weaknesses – and how they failed to adapt – perhaps we can see where our current leadership are going to take us, and worse still – how they are going to fail us.

 


fn1: It’s possible that in reporting the author’s work I will significantly dumb it down, so if any descriptions of what the author wrote seem trite or simplistic please blame me, not him

fn2: These theorists were operating in the post-Stalin era, which I guess was freer, but I hadn’t realized so much self-critical work was allowed in the Soviet Union during Khruschev and Brezhnev. But it appears that there was no translation of critical thought into action, even where it was tolerated.

fn3: Modern America is facing a challenging problem along these lines, of declining life expectancy due to middle-aged mortality, increasing maternal mortality, and growing inequality in infant mortality. Is this a sign that America’s economy is going the same way as the Soviet Union?

fn4: I think he’s not, but if he does then I think this shows a fundamental and important instability in these one party systems, that they don’t just produce occasional madmen – they return to them. The madman could be the stable attractor in these systems. But if, for example, Xi goes through three terms, China continues to develop and liberalize and then he retires, what does that tell us?

fn5: Though it’s worth remembering that even under Mao China made huge progress, probably because it was in this extensive phase of development where progress is easy if you have strong central government and central planning


The fellowship was composed of five members:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I 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…

Best not annoy the PLA!

Wolf Warrior 2 is an entertaining Chinese action movie set in Africa. It is the story of Leng Feng, a former special forces soldier in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who lost his job after killing a corrupt gangster in China (in front of about 10,000 cops, natch), and ends up working in Africa, possibly as a mercenary and bodyguard. Things go wrong for him though when some random bunch of western mercenaries team up with local rebels to try and overthrow the government of the unnamed country where Feng is working. These guys are bad news, too – they don’t have any scruples at all, and are happy to do things like fire rocket propelled grenades into buses full of civilians, and destroy a Doctors Without Borders hospital after executing all its staff. As the rebellion grows in force all the international militaries leave the region, leaving just a couple of Chinese navy ships offshore – but they are unable to interfere because they are not allowed to intervene without UN authorization. China, good global citizens!

This is disaster for a small bunch of Chinese workers left inland, cut off and surrounded by bloodthirsty rebels and their nasty western backers. Fortunately Feng is there, so he grabs a truck and heads inland to save the day. He is accompanied by an American nurse who speaks perfect Chinese (and who knows the Americans will save her because she “tweeted at them on Twitter” haha), a retired Chinese soldier, and a spoiled Chinese boy who comes good at the end. Saving the Chinese workers means a long series of brutal battles with the African rebels and their western paymasters, which includes a pretty cool tank battle and a lot of slaughter of innocents (by the thoroughly reprehensible bad guys).

This is actually an excellent movie. It got a 70% critics review on rotten tomatoes, and an 80% audience review, and it deserves the 70%. The action scenes are well executed, the cinematography is good, the scenery and sets are great, and it has some big set pieces and novel ideas that take the action genre forward a step, to the extent that such a narrow and limited genre can progress at all. It also has a reasonably good sense of humour, decent dialogue and okay acting, which is actually more than one can expect from all but the best action movies. The plot makes sense, though some parts of it are thrown in without much explanation or build up so that they seem more like devices to make the violence hang together rather than a fully developed story. It doesn’t mess around with nuance – Feng isn’t an anti-hero or a conflicted reluctant hero – but in my opinion this is a good thing in action adventure movies. Those grim and conflicted action heroes are just embarrassing, generally – simple, straightforward heroes who do what they have to do and do it well are what we want, and Feng definitely does what he has to do very well. Like most modern action movies it’s too long, and could probably stand to lose a few scenes and be about 20% shorter, but I’m starting to accept that short movies are a thing of the past – 2 hour bloat is just normal in modern cinema.

So overall it’s a fun romp through Africa with a driven and determined Chinese dude on a kind of revenge kick (he has a refrigerated ex who is somehow connected to these mercenaries, presumably from the first movie that I never saw). It’s also interesting because it obviously shows a clear sense of how the Chinese government and leadership want their country’s position on Africa and overseas military intervention to be depicted, and overall it’s a fairly positive story. Unlike the Rambos of American cinema, the Chinese military strictly won’t interfere without UN authorization, and unlike a lot of western heroes Feng didn’t blow in with the latest military adventure to sort out some trouble – he lives in Africa and is doing a good job there minding his own business until African trouble sweeps over his home. When we visit the Chinese factory whose workers he is rescuing, we discover that many of the Chinese workers have African wives and family, and when the Chinese factory leader tries to make the Africans stay behind to be murdered while the Chinese flee, we are clearly meant to understand that this is a terrible thing to do – and Feng steps in to make sure everyone can be helped. The movie has more of a sense of Chinese people embedded in Africa, engaged with it and part of its troubles, rather than swinging in to do a bit of wetwork and swing out again. This is very much in keeping with China’s vision of itself as a neutral mercantile nation with a strict non-interference policy, and it certainly is nice to see a movie where the action hero has to go off alone to do his work because the military that backs him up refuses to do anything illegal – a very different kind of situation to Rambo. This isn’t to say that the movie is free of militaristic propaganda, because in fact it’s up to its neck in pro-PLA propaganda, but the slant of that propaganda is very different to American action movies. There are more action movies coming out of Mainland China, and this story of China as a responsible global citizen is also in the upcoming Operation Red Sea. Chinese militarist action movies are a new thing to me, and it’s interesting to watch them and see how they present China and Chinese strategic interests to the world, and what kind of vision of themselves the Chinese are projecting to the world. And it’s certainly different to the American vision!

So if you want to see a good action movie, I strongly recommend Wolf Warrior 2. You’ll find it doubly enjoyable if, like me, you’re interested in how these kinds of movies reflect and project the culture that made them, and like to try and see the national story that the action is trying to tell. You an also enjoy it as guilt free militarist action, since it’s not set in anything that resembles a real geo-political situation, and every bad guy who gets killed in this movie thoroughly deserves to die. Guilt-free, entertaining militarist action with a fresh worldview – what’s not to like? So if you’re into explosions and insane solo bad-arsed action hero madness, get out and see it!

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.