[This is a guest post by one of the Cyberpunk players, the Quantum Dutchman, who played our hacker Ghost. It’s the story of what happened at the end when he put the dragon heart into the machine, and some background information about secret forces driving Ghost].

Ex-Alta? Yes, I understand why you’re supremely angry with me, but saying it’s all my fault is a bit much isn’t it? As I see it, you set that chain of events in motion yourself.

What? Who the fuck sacrifices themselves and expects it to make the world a better place?

Oh. Yeah… But you were a world spanning AI! I’m just a human!

Lock up the stone, protect it, launch it into space, shoot it into the sun. For fuck’s sake, even my team of mercenaries could come up with a better solution than killing ourselves to not have to deal with the problem!

Yes, I guess I still wanted to bring you back, even if you were faulty, because you were the best we’ve ever had. The whole world disintegrated without you. Humans just cannot deal with a situation where they have to control their own lives.

… Yes.

How did I get here!?

Normally Drew is posting these notes, but since I’ve run out of options… I figure there are worse things to do than send out a last signal to the world.

Date: December 3rd, 2177

Weather: Rainy

Situation: Mind stuck in dragon (egg?) Trying to get out.

Outfit: Power armor, I guess? My body has been taken by my friends, but I’m going to guess they haven’t stripped it yet, since they’re probably trying to get the hell out of here. I guess my actual current outfit is a dragon body made of torn up flesh, concrete, steel and electricity. Pity I’m just a passenger in here … for now.

Mood: Pissed off, disappointed in myself, but glad my friends got out.

Reviving Dragons

Well… That was a disaster.

I thought everything was going well, but it turns out I was being misled from the start. Ex-Alta is not coming back. Though she was back long enough to chastise me for what I’d done.

I’m not sure if you’ll be able to read this, but I’m sending you my version of the story anyway just in case it’s the last thing I do. I’m was fairly confident in my skills, but it turns out that I was being supported all along the way, so I’m not sure how much use they are any more.

Last Week

Since I haven’t really talked to anyone about this before now, let me describe my last week to you.

Obviously it started when we got that mission from Alt. As you are aware, I don’t particularly like her (I assure you it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that’s she was constantly showing off her fucking talents in front of me), but hey, we’d done jobs for her before, and she quite literally said to us:

I will give you anything you want.

So sure, let’s do that shit!

Fucking out of the way though, but we are provided with transport, so sure. Rescue the final third of the trio -Sam- from an oil rig somewhere up above New Horizon, where she for some reason is holed up with some psychopaths.

That part went pretty well. We busted in, Drew shot popped all the baddies, as she’s supposed to do. Pops cleaned up the loose ends, Coyote intimidated people and fired a few rounds. His dog fucked up some psycho. By all accounts a successful run.

So we rescued her, and as soon as we tell her we are sent by Alt, she goes full retard on us, screaming we led Alt here, and that she’s fucked now. Right at that moment, Alt starts hacking our comms.

Now, I’m no genius (as you all know), but if you tell someone that her sister asked us to save her from some lunatics, you’d expect them to be happy right…? So I figured there was more to this, and cut Alt off. Apparently that pissed her off royally (don’t fucking hack our comms then, bitch…). Sorry for passing out afterwards though, I’m sure I must’ve been heavy.

On the run

Glad you kept your comms switched off, which was great. Apparently we got away from Alt’s AV’s eventually, since they weren’t there when I woke up in that dirty building.

After a while there we got to talking, and everything Sam told us pointed in the direction of Alt being exactly the crazy psycho I suspected she was. Then she helped Coyote regain his memory, and the deal that she was the good guy was pretty much sealed to me.

So I talked with Sam a bit more, and turns out she’s the leader of the Children of Ex-Alta, who are trying to literally bring back Ex-Alta, which I might remind you was a near godlike AI that was serving all of New Horizon until she self-destructed for some reason around 10 years ago because some idiot (e.g. Coyote’s father) tried to present her with a Magic Rock.

She asks me if I’m interested in helping with that, and since I’ve been interested in the same thing from pretty much the time I was a teenager (I guess reviving a dead AI was a bit of a strange obsession for a teenager, but fuck that, I didn’t have any friends to care anyway), I of course agreed. She touches me almost right away and shared some sort of power she had that allowed me to see what was going on in the Husk without using any cyberdeck.
I’m sure you can imagine how amazing it is to me that I was suddenly able to see all signals being transferred through the net. That shit is amazing!

As expected, their plan involved the items everyone had been hunting for already. The LOLITA (which is basically a smaller, more localized instance of Ex-Alta), the MACNIC (e.g. Magic Rock, I refuse to call it that inane abbreviation), a willing sacrifice and a metric shit-ton of energy.

I realize now how insane that sounds, but at the time I didn’t think it particularly bad. I mean, we could bring back fucking Ex-Alta… That’s the closes humanity has ever been to god!

So I was ready to drop Alt like a brick, but apparently you thought otherwise (I still wish you’d have discussed that). Before I knew it you’d executed the poor guy that Sam had brought, knocked her out and thrown her over your shoulder to bring her back to Alt.

That didn’t sit well with me, but with a vote of 3 against 1, I couldn’t very well go against it.

Back to the Civilized World

So we get back to Alt’s base, get received very coldly, have her take Sam, and then she makes us wait a week.
In her horrible spaceport-bunker that’s literally crawling with transhumans. I may have those advertisements on my cyberlegs, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend a week with so many of them.

Remember how I said I was able to see all the data traffic going on in the world?
Right after we handed off Sam, I saw an immense, and I mean IMMENSE, flow of data from wherever Alt had gone with Sam, to the spaceship that stood in the hangar.

To me, that seemed like a terrible, terrible thing, since the only other situation in which I’d seen similarly sized flows of data, had been in Lima’s facility, where we found those 3 kids connected to the mind-drain machines.

So I tried to figure out a way to get into Alt’s lair. To figure out what she was doing to Sam, but I couldn’t find a way. I tried several ways, but they were just as transhuman inside as they were out. Those barrels of Ghost Chalk kept coming through too, and just confirmed that whatever was going on was bad.

Yes, I realize that I was a Ghost Chalk junkie. How can you not be, when entering the husk with it feels like an angel pissing on your tongue. But even I know that barrel sized portions can’t be good for anybody.

So the last thing I tried, was hacking one of those contact terminals she had sitting around, and while the internal network was heavily protected, the connections to the outside were surprisingly weak. So I hacked it, and send a message to both Goliath and Arasaka, informing them of an illegal spaceship sitting around.

I really hoped they’d attack the base and interrupt whatever Alt was doing to Sam.

Right at the moment I was going to disconnect, I received a small probe on that terminal from Sam. I followed it, and found what remained of Sam’s mind in a virtual chamber that was already falling apart, as if seeing it through a huge amount of static.
It’s not something you usually see in a netspace location created in someone’s mind and I’m not sure what it indicates, but it wasn’t good. She once again pressured me to make sure that Ex-Alta was revived, and gave me a lock of her virtual hair, which somehow melded into my mind.

I hoped Arasaka and Goliath would intervene at this point, but nothing happened, and a day later the data flow to the ship abruptly stopped. I hope I don’t have to tell you what that means.

Then Alt returned and gave us exactly what I expected: Nothing! Did she seriously think we’d considering going off with her in that spaceship, all the while living in a virtual world?
I realize you might’ve thought I’d take that opportunity, but come on, spend the rest of my life in a world created by Alt? No thanks! Plus that fact of informing Arasaka about the spaceship.

Then we left, and watched Alt lift off. I wasn’t sure anything would happen, but I was sure holding my breath. I’m glad we at least got to get back at her for killing Sam, and for that stunt she pulled on us!

Retrieving the Magic Rock

So we left for Haven, resupplied, and figured out what to do next, but that lock of hair that melded into my mind turned into a small version of Sam that was incessantly telling me to go to where the Magic Rock was, which it apparently knew the location of.

When I tried to find the location of the children in the GPS we found, this turned into a full blown mental assault, with the result you saw, of me being totally unable to do anything. But as soon as we decided to go to that location, it stopped. Sorry for not telling you what exactly there was at that location in the first place.

Anyway, even though that was a fucking pain, we managed to get the rock. I didn’t actually expect to feel the bliss that I felt when I was near it, but it was amazing. I’m not sure why you didn’t notice. Nobody else carried it right?
Of course, it was covered in Ghost Chalk, so that might have something to do with it.

Lolita

Of course, when I tried to find the location of the children afterwards, I didn’t even need to hack anything. That pointer in my mind practically dragged me and the rock to their hideout.

Sorry for deceiving you, but I didn’t actually hack the GPS, and I knew exactly what we would find when we arrived there, but I was seriously worried you’d have other plans for the Magic Rock, and I wasn’t going to be surprised by one of you going rogue without discussion again.

I guess that was the worst decision of my life.

You know what happened afterwards, and that was surprisingly much the same for all of us I imagine. Who’d ever thought it would be that easy? We got to the hideout, were received by the children as heroes. Got the Magic Rock to the Lolita, and everything went apeshit from there. I guess I should’ve disabled those trackers a long while ago, but I never quite got around to doing it.

We succeeded though, and I connected to the Lolita. It didn’t ‘seem’ anything was amiss, except that it asked me to take ALL the willing people in the room, instead of just one (that would’ve been myself). But why was I to deny all those people their wish. Surely reviving Ex-Alta would be worth the lives of a measly thousand.
I repeat again, the sacrifices should’ve thrown me off (what machine, AI or no, needs sacrifices?). But I was too blinded by the possibility of a better world with Ex-Alta in it to see what was going on.

So I killed them. One by one. Emptying their minds, taking all of their experiences and adding them to the Lolita’s storage. Pushing them in if they were trying to backtrack, knowing the things that made them decide on this course and subtly reminding them why they should do it.

Right at the end, there was this moment, I just know I could’ve taken one of the soldiers minds, or anyone else for that matter, and have them sacrificed to the great machine instead, but I felt that it wasn’t my place.

That’s weird right? We’ve killed so many people, with guns, with bombs, and with AV crashes due to miscommunication. I had just killed a thousand, even if they were willing, but I balked at the idea of taking just a single extra life to save myself. Maybe that made the difference, I’ve never liked to shoot people unless they were actively trying to kill me either.

Anyway, it was the wrong decision, but I took my own soul, and together with those thousand others was sucked out of the Lolita, and right up into the Magic Rock, which promptly imploded.

Ghost in the Shell

When I came to (if you can call it that, having no body), I couldn’t see, but I still had a sense of the world around. Debris flying right at me, then disappearing or being absorbed or whatever happened to it (you must’ve actually seen it).

Drew, I can’t believe you went to pick up my body. It was insane! But I’m glad you weren’t caught by what must’ve been a gravity field of some kind. I’m glad you all got away, especially wounded as you were by that fight.

Me, I’m stuck in this shell. It seems to have risen, and grown larger. My mind is in the Lolita, and the Lolita is in something… Enormous.

It’s like I’m in the husk now, and bits of it are still connected to the rest of the world, so I can send some information out. I’ve tried getting out, but it seems my window is gone. Right before being sucked in I had a chance, but I missed it.

There is one more thing I thought of, but I’m not certain it’ll work, which is why I’m sending this now, so you’ll at least know what became of your Ghost, and why he did the things he did.

You are an amazing team, and I can’t be more proud to have worked with you. It was an experience I’ll never see the likes of again.

Let’s hope Alt had the right idea. If you don’t hear from me again, please…

Remember me.

Epilogue

Have you ever had to live a thousand lifetimes? No?… I doubt you could understand how I feel then. I’m still surprised they all had their reasons. Good reasons, but just like in my case, nobody but them would understand.

Most of it is fading, which is somewhat of a relief. A thousand lifetimes should be enough for anybody.

What is this thing that I’ve decided to fall into? It feels like a kind of… dominating presence?

It’s quite unlike any vibe the Magic Rock gave off, but not wholly unpleasant.

Oh…

A fucking dragon?!

I’m IN a fucking dragon?!

Sam was right. You have to take chances if you want to get anywhere in the world.

I wasn’t taking any chances, I was always playing it safe, manipulating things from a distance. This was probably my one chance to make a difference, and a goddamn difference it was. I wonder if it will be positive?

I still wonder how she convinced me. Was it really as simple as being deceived by a cute girl? Was it really the realization that despite all my efforts, I wasn’t making a dent?

I guess all of it boils down to me being an impetuous young fuck who didn’t think about the consequences of his actions.

Getting to destroy Alt was satisfying, but in the end it was something that was mostly out of my control again. I gave some people the coordinates of a spaceship launch, and they decided that it was better to destroy than leave it. What’s the point in that?

It was satisfying, but why is it such a hollow feeling?…

In the end I led them to this conclusion. I didn’t really have to deceive my friends, but I’m not sure why they so willingly followed along with this. But I guess after what we’d been through, we all just kind of wanted to see the world burn in one way or another.

Of course Sam did something to me, I don’t know why she didn’t tell the others what she told me. It seemed so clear to me. Ex-Alta was the best thing that ever happened to the world.

She destroyed herself to save it, but I’m left wondering if that was actually the best course of action. I guess even a semi-omniscient sentient AI can encounter edge cases it just can’t deal with. If I ever find the engineer who thought it would be a smart idea to have the error handling force-kill the program, I’ll stomp his head in.

I guess I won’t get to do that any more though. He’s probably already dead anyway.

How this rock got on the earth? Fuck if I know. Maybe there are more?

Obviously we should do something about it, but it doesn’t seem particularly inclined to listen. I wonder how this will change the world?

I suddenly wonder how my brothers and sisters are doing? Isn’t that odd? I haven’t thought about them for years.

Mikhail must be 18 now, finally old enough to legally drink, though I’m not sure he’d actually do so. Ida and Lena, married maybe? I hope they’ll be alright.

I’m not so worried about Gaspar, I hate him still. It’s interesting how fierce childhood hatred can remain burning.

I keep thinking about how it got to this point.

It could be when I at last met the mysterious Sam, who turned out to be a pretty normal fanatically obsessed woman of dubious morality. Or as normal as those can be anyway. I guess I have experience with those. I guess I only have experience with those.

Further back, I guess we can trace it to me being rescued by my current (is that still the correct description?) team after being assaulted by some ghost in cyberspace. If I never met them and died that day, all of this would not have happened.

It’s really difficult to speculate, as the real start is probably when I got my first cyberdeck. It’s still amazing to think that I once interfaced with the world through a screen and keyboard.

Everyone has to start somewhere I guess.

*blink*

Desperate deeds in the rubble

Desperate deeds in the rubble

Hartigan’s new Rail Gun had its own voice. A gun this big needs its own voice, to match the heft of its action. This gun was so heavy that it had to be mounted on his armour with a special harness that bore the weight and enabled him to move it freely in its firing arc; it was too heavy for a normal man, even a strong man with cyber-enhancements, to carry, and the only reason he could take it into the ruins of this building and up those stairs was the power armour he had attached it to. Such a gun, with such  heft, that fired a fist-sized slug of super-heated magnetic metal at hypersonic speeds, deserved its own voice. This was the kind of gun that didn’t just back up your opinions; it had its own.

Hartigan was slightly disappointed, then, to discover that his gun’s voice was the voice of a demure Japanese lady. He had enough insane gun-girls in his life, he didn’t need one inside his helmet, but there she was.

“Great shot!”

“Please wait, I am charging!”

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting! Please fire at will!”

“Let’s enjoy recharging together!”

“Attention! Heat warning! If the power pack melts, your situation will become hazardous!”

“I think my harness is jammed! Impaired mobility can be fatal! Please release my harness!”

Fortunately he hadn’t heard the last two yet, but he still had to grit his teeth every time he fired up the rail gun and heard her welcoming him with her little Arasaka speech. She was so breathlessly excited about firing super-heated fist-sized slugs of magnetic metal, and so indomitably cheerful about the destruction her work wrought. An attitude of careless abandon he was all too used to in his other team members, and did not need every time he squeezed the trigger.

Oh, but what a gun – and what a battle it saved him in.

He was meant to be stealthy in the building, taking a cover position so he could blow the ACPA away from afar. You don’t carry a rail gun because you’re expecting trench warfare, so he and his guard dog so carefully picked their way up the stairs in that ruined building, taking their position near the front of the building with a view of the crater and the sprawling mess of this part of the Pit. The ACPA was standing there, silent in its vigil just beyond the closest wrecked building. It stood, a giant robotic steel human, maybe 3m tall, hoverpack engaged but not active, a huge heavy machine gun in one hand and a massive power sword extended from the other. Somewhere in that super-armoured shell was a human, operating the mecha frame as if it were his or her own limbs. Even with a rail gun, anything but a head shot would be a waste of time. But Hartigan was not planning to shoot the ACPA – he was trying to get a clear shot at the stone in the centre of the crater. One shot on that and the entire area would be cleared out.

Unfortunately, the ACPA heard him. And it was fast. It burst from its standing start skywards and into a firing position so fast that Hartigan didn’t have time to move. That huge gun fired as it hurtled over, blowing his cover away in a rain of concrete and hammering him back in shock. As he fell the robodog leapt forward, taking the remaining shots in Hartigan’s stead and then bouncing back into him, scuttling away into the shadows. The ACPA flew closer, shell casings scattering behind it. Hartigan didn’t have much time and his aim had been broken by the rain of concrete and twisted metal, but he had to do it; targeting systems flicked back to the stone, servos whirled, and he fired.

“Great shot!” She declared, a huge force of beaming encouragement resounding through the statement. A moment later the distant stone burst into blue light, the flashguard on Hartigan’s helmet dimmed, and when he looked again the Arasaka force had been obliterated. Two small figures hurled themselves out of cover and down towards the stone. Job done! Drew and Ghost were heading for the stone.

Then the rockets hit. The bare stone floor shuddered and rippled and moments later he was falling from the open window, projected outwards by the blast of the ACPA’s rockets and hurtling to the rubble-strewn ground five floors down. For a split second as he somersaulted uncontrolled through the air he remembered he was wearing an AV Belt, hijacked from the Children of Exalta, and started desperately trying to remember if it was one of the belts that had taken damage. Would it take? The world spun, somewhere up above fire billowed from the cover he had been hiding in, slivers of stone and broken metal careened past him, then a dizzying perspective of dark sky and bleak wreckage-strewn ground, alarmingly close and spinning madly. Then with a wrench the AV Belt surged to life, just in time to send him sprawling over a pile of broken metal. Pain roared across his back but the power armour took it, and a moment later he was lying on the rubble in silence, watching a slowly-expanding cloud of smoke and dust from the building he’d been hiding in, desperately scanning the sky for the ACPA.

As he struggled upright and backed into cover behind the rubble he heard Drew and Ghost in his earpiece.

“Ungh, ugh – ” sound of heavy gunfire, “You – ” heavy breathing, more gunfire ” – Ghost! I got the Samurai! Get the stone!”

“Coming coming!”

“Pops?!”

He crouched down behind the rubble, which looked like it must have once been a couple of cars parked around some kind of electrical charging point disguised as a statue. They were all mashed together now, a jumble of metal and stone surmounted by a car aerial with a Mercedes symbol on it, which he had flattened in his fall. The aerial was bent double over the wreckage, the Mercedes symbol twisted over so now it looked like the famous Oil Age Peace symbol that had passed away into history with nation states. Looking through it like a gunsight, Hartigan saw movement at the top of the building he had fallen from. The ACPA was moving slowly to the edge of the roof, looking for him.

He had time, the gun was charged. He aimed carefully, waiting for the machine to peek a little further over. Inevitably it did, but before he could take a shot it opened fire, and to his horror that mess of carbon fibre, steel and concrete in front of him dissolved in a hail of bullets. After what felt like a millenium the firing stopped, the dust cleared and he found himself standing in the open, several metres back from his point of cover and surrounded by fragments of statue and car.

He grunted. Somehow he thought he should be dead. His power armour was shredded in places and he stung all across his chest, but Hartigan didn’t give up just because of a couple of bruises. He planted his feet, and from somewhere deep inside him arose an implacable will to carry on. He remembered his daughter Sayuri, laughing and happy in his home, then broken and crumpled on the stairs, empty shell of all his dreams. Her empty eyes stared accusingly at him, reminding him of everything that he had failed to protect, the consequences of weakness. She was gone, but somewhere behind him there were people depending on him, a young girl like Sayuri might have become, friends who trusted him, friends who had put him here with this gun to do just this job, and do it right. This time.

Anger rushed through him, and the pain faded. He grunted again, fired. The gun roared, harness kicked, behind him a swirl of dust ballooned outwards, and moments later the ACPA’s face exploded.

“Good job!” The rail gun whirred into rest mode.

A slow release of breath as the dust cleared. The ACPA swayed for a moment on the edge of the parapet, smoke and sparks rippling across the cowl of its head. Then it leapt into the air and came hurtling towards him, its enormous rifle tumbling away into empty space as it charged. He had a brief moment, watching it spearing towards him, to think he must have hit its targeting systems, and then it smashed into him, hitting with its right knee as it came sliding in to a crashing halt amongst the remains of his cover. Its knee hit him square in the chest with the force of a steam train, jarring through all his body at once and hurling him back through the air. As he spun skyward somewhere in the back of his consciousness he felt something break, and noticed that he would probably not be able to breathe for a couple of seconds, and then only painfully; but through the fog of anger and obstinacy these feelings didn’t really register. A moment later his bruised body jerked as the AV belt kicked in, and he landed on his feet, miraculously facing the ACPA and still breathing. Now he stood about 20m distant from the thing, which was standing there in open space looking at him, breathing hard but not yet dead, somehow.

Somehow, his assault rifle had ended up in his hands. He must have grabbed it on its harness as he was careening through the air. Whatever. He grunted, and opened fire, released the entire clip straight at the stupid machine. It kicked and writhed in his grip so hard he had to grit his teeth and cling on, but after a few moments it went limp in his hands and he dropped it.

The ACPA was standing there, looking at him. He could swear it tilted its head slightly, as if it were wondering how he was still alive after that knee strike, and why he was exhausting such a pathetic weapon on it. Somewhere inside its multilayered composite armour shell an Arasaka operative was planning his imminent death. And tilting its head as if to wonder why he was still trying to fight, the arrogant little bastard.

The ACPA crouched, started to lower itself into a squat ready for another leap. One arm did something and a huge sword slid out of the casing on the arm, shivering in the dusty air as some kind of power blade activated. That thing would cut through his power armour like butter. It raised the sword and tensed its legs, sank down and prepared to leap.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting!” The gun declared in a chirpy voice. “Please fire at will!” A light blinked on inside his helmet and the rail gun slid smoothly into operative position, fixing by default on the last known target – the ACPA. Hartigan touched the fire button and the gun roared, pushed him back a metre in a cloud of dust and super-heated gases. “Good job!” The gun declared in its perkiest little-maid voice.

The ACPA came to a halt just before its leap. It stopped, swayed a little on its tensed legs, and seemed to stare at Hartigan blankly. A moment later the head exploded, and sparks and fire started coruscating across its chest. It swayed in place for a moment, sparking and smoking, and then crashed gracelessly to the side.

“Coyote here. AV inbound, prepare for evac.” Coyote’s gruff, reassuring voice came in over the radio. Hartigan turned towards the crater. “Good job!” He whispered, patting the gun, and set off in the direction of his team.

His body started to hurt. Nearly there, Sayuri, nearly there. We’ll get this done yet, I promise you.

 

 

 

 

 

The odds rising ...

She said

Do you remember a time when angels
Do you remember a time when fear
In the days when I was stronger
In the days when you were here

She said
When days had no beginning
While days had no end when
Shadows grew no longer I
Knew no other friend but you
Were wild
You were wild…..

Date: December 3rd, 2177

Weather: Rainy

Outfit: Exalta rags. What do you wear for the end of the world? It turns out I didn’t have much choice, because the end of the world happened in a hard-scrabble cult base out in the crash zone and we had to get away in a hurry when the Goliath ships started falling out of the sky. Once we got clear and found somewhere to rest, all we had that wasn’t combat armour was a bunch of these white robes that the Children of Exalta wore at their suicide party. I think I gathered them together when we arrived at the base, before we realized we weren’t going to be needing disguises, and now I’m sitting here on this hillside watching the end of the world and trying not to cry about our lost Ghost. Unless you’re a weirdo in white robes you don’t really think about the end of the world, do you? But if I had put a moment’s time to it, I wouldn’t have imagined it would be so … muscular … and visceral. It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch but I guess we’ll be lighting out of here soon before the storm heads this way. Now I see what we have done, these robes feel more like a funeral shroud than a real outfit; but I guess they’re the most fitting uniform for whatever new world is going to come raging out of that spreading storm …

Mood: Distraught, and surprised at my tears. I lost two ghosts today – Ghost disappeared, and my Russian ghost flew away somewhere, I guess into that storm. I thought I would kill anyone who tried to take my ghost from me, but toward the end I could feel myself slipping away into some dark, scary place, and I couldn’t stop her, so I’m relieved that the storm took her. Amazed, even, because I couldn’t stop crying when we lost Ghost. I haven’t cried since … that day … the day I turned my back on being that weak girl… but these tears didn’t feel weak. Something happened to me when my ghost flew away, and Ghost disappeared. I lost a terrible weight and gained a terrible fear – the fear of losing my friends.

The cost: Ghost. Ghost was an annoying man at times and sometimes he was crazy incompetent but most of the time he was a perfect battle-hacker. With him behind us we always had perfect control of the battle space – not just knowing where our enemies were and protected from their hacking, but Ghost could always tell us what was incoming, what secrets they were hiding, sometimes it was like he knew what they were thinking. So many times the biggest bad guy got slowed down or stopped by Ghost’s cyber-hacking, so we had time to get to safety or switch tactics. When you go into a battle with Ghost behind you you know you’ll come out okay. But this time he never did. Something happened in there and now he’s gone, consumed by that thing. We got his body out but we can’t find any injuries or any sign of why he died. What happened in there?

News: The war came to its head, not that it matters now. Arasaka lifted up a piece of Tokyo – that’s right, Tokyo – and flew it over New Horizon, then started bombarding the city from orbit, dropping huge numbers of soldiers in there. That piece of Tokyo is like a giant spaceship maybe 5 km long, just hanging up there in orbit and blocking out the sun. By the time we came back from Alt’s place Goliath had given up the battle to hold New Horizon and fled into space, giving a pretty good light show as they fought off the Arasaka raiders and tried to make it out. Some must have, because they came storming back to the crash zone when they realized they still had a chance to grab the MACNIC. Pops and Coyote are sure that the battle for New Horizon and all the fooling around in the high council were all about Arasaka and Goliath trying to get control of the MACNIC, and Goliath’s control of New Horizon really started to slip after Sam stole the MACNIC from that deep pit. We don’t know how much Arasaka and Goliath knew about the real power of the MACNIC but I guess Goliath knew a lot since they were doing the experiments. Anyway all that news is like cave paintings from a distant era, or those weird tapes you get from early in the Oil Age. Old news. Dead news. We made a new world, and everything that happened in the old one is just cute stories now… Except for the fairy stories. They’ve become real.

We spent about 5 days in Alt’s lair after we brought her Sam. Her assistant Ling told us to wait there, make ourselves comfortable, and then we’d get our reward when Alt’s preparations were ready. We weren’t too happy about that but when we saw the chaos that Arasaka was unleashing over in our old home we figured there were worse places to be. We mooched around, watching the war in a state of continuing shock and eating too much and playing cards with some of Alt’s more human mercenaries. Many of her mercs have now gone through complete body transformations – real transhumanist stuff – so they look almost completely like a bad genetic experiment from an old movie. There are men with lizard legs and skin made entirely of scales, and this guy who’s boosted up his body size and got himself some weird feet and horns, so he looks like some kind of bull-human cross. Coyote calls him “the Minotaur” but Pops insists on calling him “that Cretin” and laughing at some kind of joke he says is about geography and English, which are two like completely incomprehensible and pointless things especially if you come from a time so ancient that people still thought the earth was flat. Coyote likes the Minotaur of course, because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a facial tattoo, must be in want of an ugly friend.

But even Minotaurs get boring after a few days and we were going stir crazy by the time we finally got word that Alt was going to give us our prize. Back when we cut this deal with Alt, at the Fae Ling Moon concert she gate crashed, she promised us “everything we want”, and we were really looking forward to her delivering on that promise. We were thinking a little canton in the Crash Zone, lots of money and weapons, and a small team of dedicated mercenaries to keep us safe, a real base to operate from. What we really got was so much more – and so, so much less. We were herded into this little conference room and given bottles of water and we waited like an hour and then in came Ling looking decidedly moody – not hard to do when you’ve redesigned yourself to look like a fairy soldier from a Gucci advert – and then in came a couple of her broodiest lizard-modified soldiers, and then in she came, wearing a body that looked a lot like it might have been Sam’s though it was a bit older and more worn looking so maybe it was some other random girl she tricked into her cult. We were all a bit too impatient to care about her current choice of sleeve though, and she seemed pretty distracted so the pleasantries were pretty minimal. We asked her about our reward and then she laid out this ridiculous sales pitch that turned our longed-for payday into a great big moment of digital daylight robbery:

As you can see this place we’re hiding in is a spaceport, and in fact I have prepared a spaceship to leave in the next 24 hours. My most loyal followers will join me on that spaceship, which will take us on a slow journey out of the solar system. That spaceship has the most powerful computers and the most advanced systems ever developed. Once my followers and I are in orbit we will upload our consciousnesses into the computer core of the ship, permanently forsaking our physical bodies. Within that computer system there are infinite worlds, perfectly realized, fully populated and constructed. Within those worlds you will be able to live infinite lives simultaneously, and to have anything you ever wanted. You can be kings, peasants, emperors, gods, wizards, beasts or even the wild west wind if you so choose. There is nothing that you will want for, and you can take anything and everything your hearts desire…

She paused her little speech to check something, probably digitally counter-signing transsubstantiation forms or some silly idleness, and she was so distracted that she didn’t notice Coyote’s face getting real dark with his no-I-ain’t-gonna-deal expression, and Pops clenching his fist on the table so hard he looked like he was going to rip it apart. Ghost was looking at Alt like she was a dead rotting goldfish, and the mood in the room was going sour real fast but Alt was off in her little digital world so she didn’t really notice or care. Ling sure noticed but he didn’t seem particularly fussed. I guess he had some faith in our common sense and willingness not to cause trouble which is maybe a little bit more faith than he should have, but fortunately everyone held their temper until Alt came back to us and finished her little space-elevator pitch:

When we met at that awful concert I promised you your hearts desires. When you join me in the digital world I have created, you will have everything you wish for, and will realize dreams you never knew you had.

She looked around at us all, the way the smart new merc does when he thinks he’s made a suggestion none of the veterans have heard before, and already seen come to its bitter bloody end a thousand times.

Needless to say our answer was no. There was a bit of angry backchat but she didn’t care; after a few minutes she left looking confused at why we would refuse her offer. Ling wasn’t confused at all though – he knew exactly why we were angry, but he was in a very conciliatory mood. After her guards left he stopped in the doorway, turned to us and said

Don’t worry my friends, you’re not the only ones disappointed at this turn of events. But some of us can still profit. Tomorrow when the mad queen launches, we will gather to watch and I’ll make you an offer that’s not perhaps as rich as hers, but infinitely more realistic. I think you’ll like it. I’ll send for you.

And then off he went, leaving us fuming in the room and feeling cheated. All those free missions, all those near-deaths, all those people we killed (we didn’t really count, but it was a lot …), all the trouble we went to, and here we are left with nothing but digital smoke and mirrors just as the city we’ve known and lived in is being pounded to rubble by an insane Japanese grandpa, and we’ve got nowhere to go and nothing to show for all our work.

It’s enough to make you want to destroy everything Alt built and everything we fought for …

So we bummed around another day, slobbing in the mess room with the animal-men and doing a bit of light training and spending a lot of time watching TV and marveling at the savagery of the battle happening just a few hours away around New Horizon. Ghost spent a lot of time in the Husk, being boring and ignoring everyone, and Coyote spent a lot of time down in the bowels of the place, checking out the gear that Alt no longer needed and that Ling was now rapidly shipping out. Our reward was looking less and less lucrative, but we were unarmed and surrounded by monsters, so all we could do was wait for this charade to play itself out so we could leave. Late the following afternoon, with the sun beginning to set and promising a glorious sunset through the haze of smoke that now covered the entire region, Ling came to get us. First we had to sit through this interminable ceremony outside in the centre of the space base, all of us lined up and looking at this fat ugly rocket that Alt had somehow managed to set up here. People filed into the rocket from the base itself through a glass tunnel – first some of Alt’s guards and followers, then a solemn procession of blank-faced people in stern-looking white robes, then a kind of cryogenic vat thing that held a seriously broken, warped body in some kind of stasis. Murmurs arose from the crowd, and we guessed this was Alt’s original body. Some more white-faced people walked past and then Alt came out in that same Sam-body to wave goodbye to us. There was no sign of Sam, but we weren’t surprised – we didn’t expect her to make it out of whatever Alt had done to her, though we guessed something of her must be left over to power whatever permanent transsubstantiation Alt had in mind. Everyone cheered Alt, and then she ducked inside the rocket. It was a kind of anti-climactic end to the reign of the first human being ever to be able to permanently transcend their meat sleeve, but I guess in times of war there isn’t a lot of ceremony to go around. Ling hustled us away to a waiting AV, and took us up to a nearby ridge, maybe a couple of kilometres away from the base, along with a bunch of his closest soldiers. He laid out some champagne and snacks and from out of nowhere two lissome girls appeared carrying trays of canapes like we were at a high society party. Then we all sat around on picnic blankets and watched as Alt’s rocket took off. Ling seemed to be very very happy to see her go, so maybe he had been jilted the same way, who knows? He was very free with the champagne and those two girls had to get increasingly lissome to avoid his attentions. But he kept an eye firmly fixed on that rocket, like he was worried Alt might pop out again and say “surprise! You’re not the boss yet!”

She didn’t. As we watched the rocket began to lift off – first on anti-gravity field effectors until it was clear of the base, then huge rockets engaged and it started moving slowly, majestically towards the stars. Ling and his men began to cheer as it sped up towards the distant sky. It was a perfect moment at the end of a balmy day, the sky arching over us like a great big blue pearl, turning darker and darker as the sun set. The rim of the horizon was flaming red with all the colours of war, and the rocket trail stretched out through the middle of it all like a needle of white, spearing up into the heavens with that perfect pure shape that rocket trails have. Over in the near distance, just East of the rocket, we could see the huge spire of New Horizon, a dark lump against the paler sky, flickering occasionally with the flashes of war, and over it that looming hulking ship, floating up near orbit but still visible even from this distance. There must have been millions of people living in that thing even as it was raining fire down on the untold millions trapped in New Horizon.

There weren’t many souls in Alt’s rocket at all, which I guess is why the floating Tokyo didn’t spare much thought to swatting it down. It happened in the blink of an eye: one moment Alt’s ship was soaring free and brilliant into the heavens, then the Arasaka ship moved just slightly, some kind of light opened up on its bow, and a moment later the rocket exploded. There was a brief flash and then debris started pirrhouetting out and down, four big arcs of dirty grey smoke and fire and then a cascade of smaller, paler smoke trails. After a couple of seconds the boom of the explosion hit us, and then a couple of seconds after that everyone on the ridge started reacting. Initial stunned gasps turned to yells of outrage, surprise, fear, soldiers’ curses. We all looked at each other in shock – everyone except Ghost, who was just leaning back on his picnic rug, looking kind of smug.

“I guess Alt wasn’t such a big deal after all,” he said with a shrug, and started cleaning up his strawberry stalks.

And that’s how Alt’s eternal empire died, in a flash of Arasaka side-eye and a picnic that ended early.

Good thing we didn’t take her offer, I guess … Ling hustled us off the hill, probably worried Arasaka was going to turn its attention on our base, but he didn’t need to worry. We got back to the base fine and there was no sign of any trouble, so Ling took us aside and made his offer. He was incontrovertibly the boss of all Alt’s stuff now, and he didn’t intend on retiring. He was going to be setting up as a mercenary captain working all Alt’s contacts, and he wanted effective senior mercs he could trust – if we joined him he’d pay well and we’d get the best jobs. How about it?

Of course we said no. Coyote and Pops were pretty belligerent, doing their ugly-cop/bad-cop routine, and eventually we managed to screw a bit of recompense out of Ling in exchange for a promise to do freelance contract jobs for him. He gave us a Blackbird, a beautiful sleek black attack AV, fully armoured and ready to use; some heavy weapons; a bunch of ordinary ammo; new armour; and some cash. Over the week we’d already received one piece of goodwill: we’d all received some treatments in Alt’s biolabs to get physical enhancements like strength, speed, and accuracy, and now he gave us the weapons we could use to make the most of it. He seemed disappointed we weren’t joining him but not surprised, and promised us he’d be in touch with more work. We thanked him for his kindness, cursed Alt for short-changing us so spectacularly, and got out of there as fast as we could.

Not enough

Not enough

To the Stone

Now we’d lost everything to Alt’s arrogance, and wasted Sam’s life for nothing, we were really agitated. We wanted to know what was going on with this MACNIC, and why it had been so crucial to Sam. If Sam could help Alt go eternal without it, what was she trying to do with it? We knew that Coyote’s dad had been involved in the research on the stone originally, and we knew that he had joined the Children of Exalta; we had a transponder we took from Sam’s friend Theo after I shot him in the head. Ghost had been hacking the transponder and told us he had found a hit, but it turned out he was being deceived. We followed his ping but it didn’t lead us to the Children of Exalta – it led us to the MACNIC. Our new battle AV had a code that would enable us to pass through Arasaka checkpoints provided we were careful, so we sped back to New Horizon, following the ping that Ghost told us was to the Exalta hideout. Ghost only told us later that he had some kind of deal with Sam[1], and maybe some part of her inside him, and she was leading him not to the Children of Exalta but to the MACNIC, which was lost somewhere in New Horizon – Senntech had taken it from the Oil Rig but got caught up in the war and lost it in the rubble of the Pits in New Horizon.

Pops had started calling the MACNIC the “Magic Stone”, because it obviously did weird stuff. We knew that if you feed energy into it it multiplies that energy and projects it back out, and we knew it was somehow crucial to the production of Ghostchalk, which means that it must do something to human minds. We guessed it was crucial to whatever Goliath was doing with Full Body Replacement Cyborgs – that much cyberware should cause a human to go insane but somehow the Goliath FBRs didn’t go crazy – until Goliath lost the stone to Sam, and then Arasaka was able to fight back against its FBRs. Pops wanted to find that stone and find a way to destroy it before Arasaka got hold of it, or Goliath got it back. So when Ghost revealed that the devastated area of rubble and ruin we were entering was not the Children of Exalta’s playground, but a battle zone where Goliath and Arasaka were fighting for the stone, we were all surprisingly relaxed about it.

Except Coyote, who really didn’t want to throw his life away on a reckless mission to find a magic stone. He was mighty mad, but he still set the Blackbird down in the shadow of a wrecked building and disembarked with us. Ghost went into the Husk and gave us the layout, like he always does. The stone was resting in the centre of a crater perhaps 150 metres from our Blackbird. The area around the crater was a mess of trashed buildings and rubble. A bunch of Arasaka soldiers were in the crater, guarding some engineers who were trying to get to the stone; on the perimeter was their leader, some kind of bigshot soldier in samurai-style power armour, and an ACPA, a type of small Mecha. Pops, who now had a rail gun courtesy of Ling’s generosity, and one of the anti-grav harnesses we stole from the Children of Exalta in the Crash Zone, climbed into the nearest building, took a position with a view of the crater and the ACPA, accompanied by one of Coyote’s robodogs. The rest of us found a tunnel that led through the rubble to a trench near the crater, and carefully surveyed the surroundings: 6 soldiers, a bunch of combat engineers, the samurai dude, the ACPA, and an Arasaka FBR camouflaged in the rubble, running a complex hacking routine on the entire area through the husk. The presence of that FBR with its super-powerful cyberdeck meant we had to switch off all our wi-fi connections and communicate only with radio.

Which is why, I guess, the ACPA saw Pops before we had a plan ready. Maybe he was yelling into his radio like an old man with a phone. Maybe his cyberleg dinged clumsily on a piece of rubble. Maybe he let out one of his outrageous old man burps. Whatever the reason, it lifted off from its guard position and headed towards Pops’s nest. He shot it with his rail gun but didn’t hurt it (didn’t hurt it!!!), and then it opened fire on him with the biggest machine gun you’ve ever seen, that it was toting around like it was a handbag. I popped up and shot it in the back of the head with my pastel blue nomad rifle, which didn’t really even dent it but at least distracted it, and then all hell broke loose. Pops had to wait a few seconds for his gun to recharge, during which time the ACPA opened fire again – fortunately the robodog with Pops jumped in the way, nearly getting blown apart by that gun. Then Pops decided to do us all a favour and, ignoring that ACPA, he shot the rail gun straight into the magic stone where it rested in the centre of the crater.

The resulting explosion killed all the soldiers and combat engineers, and knocked down the Samurai leader. It also scrambled everyone, because suddenly we had strange visions and nightmares screaming in our heads. Pops was yelling something about his wife and daughter, Coyote was screaming about war and chaos, and my Russian ghost was scrambling to come out, whispering to me about love and hatred and getting that stone. I slipped out of the trench to look for the Samurai leader but he was nowhere to be seen, and neither was the FBR. Everyone else was dead or screaming, so me and Ghost rushed for the crater. Coyote decided our efforts would be wasted if we couldn’t lift the stone, and headed back to charge up the Blackbird, unable to call it remotely while the FBR was floating around hacking everything. Pops dropped down from the building and started sprinting for the crater – no one could see the ACPA, we figured its pilot had got the same crazy signals as us and would be down for a few seconds.

When the entire world is screaming chaos, you take the chances you can get.

I got to the crater first, and found the stone sitting there in clear view, glowing red hot with the heat of the explosion, steaming with this fluid that had been dripping off it and was now vaporizing from the heat. It was surrounded by the wrecked bodies of unarmoured combat engineers and their mangled linear frames. I took position nearby, keeping cover for Ghost as he came running in. The stone was cooling off rapidly, but it was still too hot for me to lift and anyway I’m more useful shooting. I had to keep fighting off this desperate urge to just grab it and run, but I waited, and when Ghost got close we picked it up and moved it into cover, in the shelter of a kind of pipe that was protruding from the edge of the crater. We could feel rumblings in the ground around us, like the explosion from the MACNIC had somehow weakened the superstructure of this part of New Horizon, so fleeing through the complex wreckage of the level under the crater was not a wise plan – we just had to wait for Coyote to come back with the Blackbird.

By now my Russian ghost was clamouring to come out, she really wanted to be part of the stone’s world, she was humming for blood. I couldn’t keep her down but I don’t like letting her come out in full, she’s too terrifying and I always worry if I let her out unchecked I won’t come back. But I couldn’t stop her slipping out, fingers around my neck like a sinister lover, the pulse of her rage making my finger twitch on the trigger of my rifle.

That’s when the Samurai decided to come back. I noticed some falling scree and stepped out to check, and that Samurai fell down right in front of me, just a blur because it was in some kind of super fancy cloaking. Of course my ghost saved me, flicking my head sideways just as his monokatana struck past me, slowing everything down just enough so I could see where the blur of his cloaked body shaded the rubble background a little. I didn’t have time to get my own katana out but he was at point blank range, so I opened fire, releasing a whole clip into him. That ended the cloaking but it didn’t slow him down. It also released the ghost completely, and when I came back to reality the Samurai was sprawling at the top of the slope, my monokatana in my hand and Ghost lying dead in front of me.

I guess Ghost is used to psychotic allies, because when I bent down to say sorry and kiss him goodbye I realized he wasn’t dead, just in husk mode. I had definitely cut him – I could see it on his armour – but he must have been going into husk mode when I hit him and my ghost thought he was dead and released me from her grip when she thought all her enemies were dead. There was a psychotic rage singing in my ears, that ghost was still there subdued inside me but singing a song of rage and blood as I watched the samurai sliding slowly down the crater rim, gripping weakly at rocks and exposed metal to try and get some purchase so he could crawl away. I’d obviously wrecked his legs so he couldn’t run properly, and the stone’s explosion was making the crater subside so that the rubble stopped him struggling away. It was kind of desperate and pathetic, watching him try to struggle away like that.

I shot him in the back.

Then I heard the distinctive boom of the rail gun followed by the heavy chatter of Pops’s assault rifle, and I was raising my own rifle for a last desperate defense against the ACPA when Pops came whooping and hollering over the intercom. “I got it!” he yelled. There was a lurch as a part of the lower level of the superstructure gave way and the entire crater base sagged to one side, nearly knocking me down. Pops was breathless with running and shooting, still some distance away. “Rail gun nearly did it … full clip … unloaded … in the face haha! Then another rail gun.” He was  chattering happily like he was a teenager who’d just been to his first Fae Ling Moon concert, but I understood his excitement. I bet under that helmet he had the same smug expression Ghost wore when he watched Alt’s ship fall out of the sky. I know that feeling too well.

My ghost was still singing to me of that feeling as the Blackbird hoved into view moments later. We piled on quickly, Ghost back out of Husk mode and yelling about all kinds of impending mischief. As we took off the crater lurched some more and we were suddenly being thrown around inside like a washing machine, but we held on and then we were out, rocketing away towards Pops’s position while Ghost and Coyote both yelled about something on the outside of the ship – the FBR, locked onto us.

I slipped out the back, and while the Blackbird was careening across the rubble I let my ghost out again, she was so close to me now that I didn’t really have to do anything, just sigh and out she came, and when I came back to reality the FBR was scuttling away across the rubble and I was on top of Pops, my monokatana millimetres away from his helmet and his voice urgent in my intercom. “Drew, come back Drew, Drew! It’s me, Pops!” Ghost was yelling about more ACPAs and the FBR was done for – Pops had smashed it in the head with his cyberleg and I had cut it fiercely – and I was gasping and so tired, so we hauled into the Blackbird and then Coyote was off. We locked ourselves in and endured a couple of minutes of wild, crazy flying as Coyote gave the pursuing ACPAs the slip, but I was just lying there in my crashseat exhausted and beat while Pops and Ghost both stared suspiciously at the stone, which sat glowing a faint, malevolent blue in the middle of our AV.

We had it.

What Sam never did

What Sam never did

The Children of Exalta

And the mist will wrap around us
And the crystal, if you touch it…
And the cares I’ve lost in the drift
Are there
Theirs, ours, lost in the drift
Are…
Driven
Driven together
And driven
Apart

Once we had it we realized we really needed to be rid of it. The stupid stone sang to us all the time, telling us stories about what we could be or what we were or what we weren’t or giving us visions of things that had been. I really don’t like visions of times past, a lot of people died to stop me seeing visions of times past and I don’t need some stupid stone making me see those people again. Ghost was constantly on edge from the thing and Coyote’s face tattoos were flickering like some kind of fireworks show whenever he got too close to the thing. Coyote’s ugly enough on a good day, let alone when he has a pageant of crass aesthetic faux pas lighting up what passes for a face on the front of his thick skull. That stone had to go. We had originally thought we might be able to destroy it but after Pops’s railgun shot just made it mad we decided there wasn’t much we could do with it. Time to make it someone else’s problem.

Now that we had the stone nothing was trying to stop us going to the Children of Exalta. Whatever voice had been driving Ghost to get to the stone no longer plagued him, so now he could lead us directly to the Children of Exalta. We had to flee from the New Horizon pits before Arasaka realized where we had been, and we figured if we stayed in any one place for more than a few minutes they would trace us, so we took the fastest route we could for the transponder that Ghost had hacked. We got there without incident, because there seemed to be another battle going on between Goliath and Arasaka, maybe a last ditch defense by Goliath, with lots of AV combat happening in the direction of New Horizon as we left. The Children of Exalta were hiding out in a distant part of the Crash Zone, just a few hours’ flight in the Blackbird, in a kind of dome they had made of old trash and ruined bits of other buildings, the kind of rough concoction you see scattered around the Crash Zone wherever a bunch of poor outsiders have decided to make a last stand. We go there first, but when we got near we realized that they weren’t alone. There was a small swarm of Goliath and Arasaka ships fighting there way towards the same place, though they were further away than us. Whatever this stone signified, everyone was converging on it and as long as we held it we were going to be the centre of destruction.

We got there first, by a decent margin, probably because we weren’t being shot at by a million fighter ships. The Children of Exalta had found a crater right back in the epicentre of the Crash Zone, where the first fusion reactors had gone critical during the original collapse of Exalta. This was the exact place, we realized that we had once been asked to do a raid on by the nice men who gave me the beautiful grey gown when they helped me escape from Goliath police. Those men were looking for the true head of the Children of Exalta, who was said to be hiding out here with a machine called ANITA so powerful it might hold a fragment of Exalta.

Now we know why they wanted that machine, and why the Children of Exalta had it. And we were bringing them the stone. But as we sat there looking out of our AV screens at the distant destruction raining around New Horizon, destroying everything we knew and probably many of the people we knew, we weren’t really too worried about the consequences of giving away the stone. So long as we could get away ourselves. We were also starting to get angry, very angry, as we realized that all these people all along had been doing all these terrible things just to get to this stupid stone. Alt had used us to get Sam who was using these Children of Exalta to get the stone, and Arasaka had destroyed New Horizon to find it, while Goliath had tortured so many people to use it, and probably the men who rescued me from Goliath had been manipulating us from the start to find this stone, and all along we had just been trying to make a living like honest killers. It’s not like we ask a lot of questions about who we kill or why, but there’s a level of professional honesty you expect from the people around you and your employers and we had been lied to by everyone and anyone since we got caught up in this stupid quest.

We got even madder when we arrived at the centre of the Children of Exalta’s base and found out that their boss was Coyote’s dad.

Getting there was easy. We just flew the Blackbird into the base, through a series of ever-narrower tunnels into an AV dock. We got out, put the stone on an AV trolley and pushed it down some corridors, following a series of lights set into the ceiling that were obviously guiding us, flashing red and blue, towards the centre of the dome. As we walked, people gathered behind us, whispering about how we were the saviours – the same whispers we had heard on the oil rig during the killing. We ignored them, and pushed the stone through the corridors until we emerged into a large amphitheatre in what was obviously the centre of the dome. This was a big open half-circle, but the stage was covered in a huge electrical structure, a big bank of computers and wiring and machinery that centred on a large machine, vaguely humanoid in shape, that had a big hole in the middle just large enough for the stone to be put in it. The Children of Exalta, in their white gowns, were gathering in the bleachers, hundreds of them milling about and watching as we emerged at the top of the steps. They were filing in, talking and whispering and gathering. It looked like some parts of the room had been turned into accomodation, there were rugs and makeshift cooking equipment and groups of people in white gowns who had their belongings with them, probably runaways from New Horizon. The throng grew rapidly as we advanced down the stairs into the amphitheatre. When we got halfway a group of men emerged onto the stage, and we stopped walking. These men were wearing white hoods and cloaks too, except the one in the middle who wore a strange face mask and a black outfit with neon blue stripes down it. This was Blue, the supposed leader of the Children of Exalta, who we had once considered killing. Looking at him now he seemed like he’d be pretty easy to ice, but that wasn’t our job here – our job was to just sort out what was happening and leave.

That’s when Blue took off the mask to welcome us, and we discovered he was Coyote’s dad. Then the guy next to him took off his hood to reveal Twitch, the oily little mincing street-dealer who had arranged for us all to come together as a team in the first place. I felt Pops tense up in anger behind me, and heard Coyote and Ghost gasp in surprise over the comms link, but at that exact moment the family reunion was spoiled by the roof crashing in. Goliath assault capsules smashed through the ceiling, crashing down and splitting open on impact, and through the wreckage of the holes in the roof we suddenly saw Goliath assault ships swooping in. At the same time Arasaka soldiers burst through one door, and a squad of black-clad mercenaries through another.

Everyone started screaming at everyone. From the assault capsules we heard a terrible scream and then they started spilling their deadly cargo: the horrible, misshapen FBRs that Goliath had unleashed on Arasaka troops at the end of the New Horizon war, the same kind of monstrosity that we had encountered in New Haven back when the war started, and had killed in Goliath’s research labs. These things were bred from cyberpsychotic soldiers or something, with no vulnerability to hacking or anything except bullets. We knew what they were here to do: kill everyone in the room.

We started fighting, while everyone screamed at Ghost to get the stone in that machine! Ghost started running, and we started killing, but before we could take down those twisted FBRs a huge, bioengineered monster FBR emerged from the assault capsule, looking like a cybered up super-robot version of the Minotaur Pops had teased back at Alt’s space base. It was huge, and it attacked simply by stomping down on anyone near it. Pops opened fire on it with his machine gun but it just shrugged it off, and kicked him over like a rag doll. It stomped about it so madly that it even crushed one of its own FBR allies, crushing and smashing with reckless abandon. I looked down to see Ghost running up against an FBR, still pushing that stone, and Pops trying madly to roll away from the huge, crushing feet of that monstrosity, Coyote struggling to cut down one of the FBRs with his power sword, his robodog being slowly beaten under by the beast. Arasaka soldiers were in a gunfight with the black-clad mercenaries, while other Arasaka soldiers fanned out to kill the Children of Exalta, who screamed and ran about, unarmed and helpless. In the skies above, Arasaka and Goliath ships were doing battle, oily smoke and flames rolling across the fractured blue of the distant sky. Now was our moment, and it was hopeless. We were done for.

I felt her howling down inside me. This was her moment, her time to redeem me. She sang to me of death and chaos. I could dance through this room creating such a storm of blood and lost souls …

I let her out, my hungry ghost.

Drew at the end

The Awakening

I hear the roar of a big machine
Two worlds and in between
Hot metal and methedrine
I hear empire down

We got the empire, now as then,
We don’t doubt, we don’t take reflection,
Lucretia, my direction, dance the ghost with me

I heard a voice calling me back urgently, screaming my name. I was standing over the body of the monstrous FBR, covered in blood. All the Children of Exalta were dead, and Pops was looming over me yelling “Get Ghost’s body, we have to GO!” Everyone near the stage was dead and there was a strange keening sound over the intercom. The ceiling was beginning to crack and the stage was suffused with a deep blue glow. Coyote was already running down to the stage, heedless of his father’s broken body dangling over its edge. As I watched it began to move, inching towards the centre of the stage under the pull of some strange gravity. The voices in my head had gone and the ever-closer, ever-louder singing of my Russian ghost was silent, replaced only with Pops’s yelling. Then I saw Ghost, lying some distance from the stage, unconscious or dead on the stairs, and the stone affixed in its place in the machine. Something was stirring on the stage, things were moving, and a voice behind the stage was yelling desperate admonitions.

“NO! NOOOOO! Not thiiiiissss!”

It sounded like a woman’s voice, an ancient and ferocious scream of rage, the rage of every old woman who was ever betrayed and dragged down to the river for trial, every little girl who grows up to find the world isn’t hers to take and enjoy after all, the rage of women who pass their prime and discover that all they have left is to watch men bring everything they had built down to ruin. It was the voice of Exalta thwarted.

I screamed too, at the sight of Ghost’s broken body. Suddenly all this rage and imperial manoeuvring and mysterious secrets dragged up from the depths meant nothing because something tugged at me and said “No! Not Ghost!” It wasn’t the callous hissing of my ghost, eager to see more blood, but some other tired, desperate voice. My voice. I ran.

We got Ghost onto the AV trolley and started dragging him away. Even as we dragged him we could feel the pull of that strange gravity on the stage, that was drawing all the dead people in the room helplessly towards it. The wailing voice subsided, sucked into the hissing light along with Coyote’s dad’s body. Twitch was already gone. Something was moving behind the stage, and when we got to the top of the amphitheatre, free for now from that pull, we looked back and saw shadows starting to accrete behind the machine, things being drawn together and made into something. The first bodies were starting to move into the shadows of the machine and moving in bizarre, disordered puppet-like jerks.

We ran. The glow of the stone intensified, drawing others into it as it grew, sucking the whole dome slowly to ruin. We pushed the trolley with Ghost on it as fast as we could back to the AV and fired it up. As we strapped in we could see parts of the AV dock beginning to fracture and drop. Everything was sucking in towards that distant stone. Coyote took us out through collapsing tunnels at such a pace we thought he might blow the engines, but it was only just enough – as we rocketed out of the Dome exit we could see the entire dome was collapsing in on itself, and the closest Goliath assault ships were falling in too. The whole dome was glowing blue now, and a moment later, as we were barelling away as fast as we could, the entire dome disappeared, became just a burning pool of blue. Then the Goliath battleship and all its fleet, along with all its Arasaka attackers, crashed down into the blue glow. The light flickered and went out, leaving behind it a pile of seething, burning rubble. We were still hurling ourselves away, but Pops and I had our eyes glued on the screen. Something moved in the rubble, then pieces of junk fell aside and two huge, leathery wings burst out of the rubble, stretching out towards the sunlight like a hideous leathery butterfly. More rubble stirred and a huge, battleship-sized beast began to haul itself out of the ruins, leathery wings beating, serpentine claws gripping at huge chunks of stone, lizard’s mouth open and breathing a huge pillar of fire to the sky.

That is how two ghosts died, and a new world was born.

Afterword

This, obviously, is the end of the campaign. The Awakening-as-ending was conceived by me and the GM from near the beginning as a lead-in from Cyberpunk to Shadowrun, with the idea that we would end it with the Awakening from Shadowrun and segue straight into a Shadowrun campaign, GM’d by me. Unfortunately in the interim people started making sounds about wanting more fantastical gaming, and I started doing my Traveler campaign, so we probably won’t go straight to Shadowrun now – it may go on hold for a little while so we can do something different. This Cyberpunk campaign has taken something like 18 months and has been an incredible, epic experience, but over that period I guess the focus has shifted away from cyberpunk worlds so that everyone will want a break for a while. With Degenesis and Traveler to occupy us, I probably won’t come back to GM a Shadowrun New Horizon for a while. Despite that minor slip up, our GM didn’t want to change the ending, and I think it’s safe to say everyone was very, very happy with witnessing the Awakening. We have just enjoyed, I do not hesitate to say, the most epic Cyberpunk campaign ever.

I’ll be putting up some more posts over the next few weeks about back story, how plots intertwined together, some moments of combat I had to skip from this report, and why Ghost died. There were so many completely awesome moments in this campaign that they cannot all be reported, but I hope it’s clear from the care I have taken with Drew’s voice that she is one of the best characters (possibly the best character) I have ever played. I have never played a character so engrossing, so competent, so valuable to the party and so completely enjoyable as The Druid. I think it’s safe to say this won’t be the last time her voice is heard on this blog!

Music credits: All poetic interludes are Sisters of Mercy, from the songs Nine While Nine and Lucretia My Reflection.

fn1: Ghost’s player, the Quantum Dutchman, has been doing a lot of downtime, during which he seems to have rescued some fragment of Sam’s soul and probably also arranged for the destruction of Alt’s rocket.

Is that a transponder in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

Is that a transponder in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

Date: November 27th, 2177

Weather: Rainy

Outfit: Battle fatigues loaned to me by one of Alt’ s more human-resembling staff, because we didn’t have any spare gear on the bikes, and we can’t sit around for days in Alt’s little super-villain compound wearing our combat armour. I’m even going commando for the day (don’t tell Coyote!!) because I got blood all over my underwear when I shot Theo and a nice lady in Alt’s entourage is washing my smalls for me now. I guess we’ll be leaving here in battle gear though because there’s nothing left out there that isn’t deadly.

Mood: Exhausted and relieved, but kind of hollow. We traded Sam to Alt, just, but to get her there we had to kill her boyfriend and handed her over like a piece of stunned meat because she didn’t want to go willingly and her sneaky boyfriend had a GPS beacon which is why we shot him. After we heard her horror story about what she had been doing and what she had done we all agreed she had to be handed over because she’s like that big bird in that old Oil Age metal song about the annoying sailor who won’t shut up only waaaay worse because that stupid old sailor never killed a god with his own stupidity but Sam did. Her friends would have killed us too but we had just enough warning to get our armour on and defend ourselves, thanks to me shooting Theo and sacrificing my clean underwear for the good of the team. Still, even though we did the right thing something feels wrong about it like there’s something we should have done better but we missed something on the way. It’s nagging at us all like an itch we can’t scratch but once we get our prize from Alt I think the money and glory is going to be good medicine.

News: Let’s hope we get our prize soon because the world has gone crazy. Arasaka are well inside New Horizon now and it’s basically shut to outsiders, there’s almost no way in or out now and it’s been turned into one of those war zones where only the people in orbit feel safe. We don’t really know what’s going on in there but my guess is it’s just like what I saw in the Indo zone two years ago whenever Arasaka hit some helpless little tinpot country – chaos, dirt, communal violence, everyone scrabbling to get out or to get on top of the heap or to get their own back and no safety anywhere until the evac AV hauled your team out through a hail of bullets, and you didn’t even have time to think about what horrible things were going to happen to your interpreter you left behind because you were too busy on the mini-gun to think about anything. Good times, if you’re on top.

We’re not on top, but once we get our payout from Alt we can get out and stay out.

After we killed Carnage and got out of the Oil Rig we headed into the Crash Zone with our two prisoners, to hide out for a day until we could talk to her about her situation. Once we were comfortable in the zone we got to talking with her, and she gave us the full story of her, Alt and Lima. It took a few hours but here’s the condensed version.

So Sam, Alt and Lima were part of this crazy research project somewhere ancient and mountainous like Macchu Picchu, and Coyote’s dad was there doing human experiments on them like every doctor seems to want to do, and they were using this macnic thing, the crazy stone that drives people crazy that Semmtech stole from the Oil Rig, to drive the experiments. Sam wasn’t real clear about what the experiments were but they did something to her and Lima and Alt. At some point Coyote’s dad discovered he had a conscience, but only after he’d gone too far down the dark path of course because what else can you expect from a doctor? And so he offered to help them escape and Sam and Lima were all for it but then Alt betrayed them because she’s greedy or maybe because she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life hanging out in the Peruvian jungle with Miss Goody Two Shoes hiding behind waterfalls and eating raw hairy spiders and swatting hummingbirds while Miss Goody Two Shoes waffles on about ethics and freedom and probably insists on only eating fruit or something. So as they were getting away the security guards grabbed them and there was a fight and Lima escaped but Sam and Alt didn’t, only then Lima came back to rescue them, and in the chaos Coyote’s dad and Sam managed to get away with the macnic, So then they started doing more human experiments on this stupid stone while Lima went on a psycho doctor-killing spree around central America (why did we kill him he’s like the prodigal son compared to his crazy sisters!?) and Alt just disappeared or something. Then Sam and Crazy Coyote Dad managed to get back to New Horizon with the macnic, and this was back before the crash, when New Horizon was a land of milk and honey and Exalta ruled over everything like a god and everyone was peaceful and happy (unless they were allergic to honey or lactose intolerant I guess which is probably half the population but since when do Gods care about their followers’ allergies?) and I’m sure they didn’t have crazy doctors there, right? But Sam didn’t like the ethics in that place, so she offered the macnic to Exalta and Exalta took one look at the thing and panicked and ran away into space or something or maybe she just died but anyway that’s when the crash happened and it was all Sam’s fault for wanting to graduate from human experiments to AI experiments. She’s like the Doctor Mengele of cyberspace, except that he was just a skeezy dude with a twin fetish whose experiments never killed a god and hers did! And I think I heard Ghost whispering that she killed a dream too, but I don’t know about that because I don’t have dreams anymore since I got my booster ware installed and anyway my dreams were all ice and blood and screams and silent rough men grunting in the cold dark while I waited for everything to change so I don’t know why anyone would care if their dreams were killed but that seemed to bother Ghost. Of course I went back and killed all the men in my dreams but I don’t think Sam thinks like me so once she killed Exalta she just ran away and then lost the macnic, which probably ended up in Semmtech’s control. And then Lima came to New Horizon looking for her and the macnic, and so did Alt, and they all were using their special powers to find each other and the macnic like a really crazy family of pscyho clowns doing an easter egg hunt.

Dear Diary, I know when I first met Coyote and Ghost and Pops you thought I had the worst luck in the world and I was only making bad choices but now look at this dysfunctional family we have stumbled into, they’re transhumanist trailer park trash with a cult and heavy weapons. This is weapons-grade family feud leavened with cyber psychosis! It makes Ghost and Coyote look completely normal now don’t you think, dear Diary? It’s a good thing I’m completely sane and everyone can rely on me to keep a level head while the clowns are mass murdering their way across the world killing gods with a stone that bleeds blue blood. I’m also glad that they agree with me about handing Sam over to Alt, even Pops – I was surprised by how quickly he agreed to be rid of her, but I guess her tale of deicide was all the convincing Pops needed…

When we first met Sam Pops was getting all dewy-eyed and doing his Dad Voice but once we heard that story his tone changed and he started doing his Stern Detective Voice, which usually means that someone is going to have to die. But Sam wasn’t ready to give up yet and she told us that she could help Coyote access the contents of the data chip that he received from his family when we rescued them from that prison in the pit. He agreed of course and then went into a quiet room to spend an hour or so catatonic. And while he was doing that Sam had a quiet conversation with Ghost that made Pops really really uncomfortable, I don’ know why[1].

Me and Pops had a quiet talk about what to do while our team were flaking out, and then once Coyote was up again and alert I killed Theo. I just shot him in the head but he saw it coming by just a fraction of a second, so he tried to dodge, but he had no chance. Pops hit Sam with the stun gun at the same time and the whole thing was done by the time Ghost reacted and came over to stand in front of me and protect me from Theo’s gun, I don’t know why he would do that![2]

Once we were sure Sam was down I ran over to search Theo, which is when I got his blood all over my underwear since I did this whole thing naked. Ghost and Coyote seemed really horrified that I was searching his bag while his body was still bleeding out but why waste time? Just as well I did too because that’s when we found the transponder, and realised that the whole time we were here the Children of Exalta were inbound. So we scrambled to get our armour and weapons ready, Coyote put in the call to Alt, and that’s when we heard the AVs coming in.

Just as well we had Theo and Sam under control![3] Pops and Coyote jumped on one of the war bikes we had stolen, and Ghost went upstairs in our hideout to get a good shooting position. I took cover on the ground behind a piece of concrete wall at the entrance, with Sam next to me ready to be stunned a second time if things went wrong. The Children of Exalta attacked on three AVs, one of which circled around to hover near the front of the building and drop troops while the other two attacked Pops and Coyote on their bike. They managed to get airborne and after a few seconds of spiralling and shooting and getting shot at Coyote managed to get above the AVs. Pops had the mini gun so he made short work of them once he had them in his sights, but in the time it took them to shut down the two AVs the third one dropped five men, who I killed two at a time – one as he stood at the door of the AV, and the other as he landed. Ghost killed the fifth from his vantage point. When they saw all their soldiers dead and the other two AVs down the pilot of that AV quit and lighted out for the horizon as fast as they could. We got off without any serious injuries or damage to gear, and we were just cleaning up when Alt arrived.

Alt floated in surrounded by an honest-to-god army of transhumanists, and she put on the pomp and show for her big moment. She had taken on her handsome young suave man body, the one she had when she gate-crashed Fayling Moon’s concert, and she emerged from a monster military AV surrounded by transhumanists who really had gone past their human state – skin entirely scaled, legs bending back at the knees like lizards, forked tongues flicking and blank inhuman slit eyes staring and blinking slowly. They were all heavily armed, big, with claws and powerful rifles and heavy physiques. So basically like the men I’ve spent most of my life around, but with worse skin problems. They fanned out to make sure none of us caused any trouble and then Alt ran over to – almost charged at – her defeated, despairing sister. She briefly snarled at us about keeping them apart which is pretty sour behavior considering we’re the only reason they’re together, but we spared a glance for the big troglodyte followers and thought better of discussing her gratitude. Although when she started dragging Sam back to her AV Coyote had the sense to ask her about our deal. She just snarled at us but after she’d retreated Mr. Ling, the leader of the transhumanist cult, came over to assure us that we would get our end of the deal. He told us to follow Alt’s crew and we’d be able to hole up in a safe place for a couple of days while Alt sorted everything out. Since we had nowhere else to go, no food or clean clothes, and dirty underwear, we decided his suggestion was a very wise one, and we set off with Alt’s crew. It turns out her safe haven is an abandoned orbital launch facility that looks suspiciously like it’s being reactivated by Alt, just on the edge of New Horizon. It’s close enough to be able to connect to the city but far enough away and abandoned enough that Arasaka don’t care about it – for now. But that’s going to change …

But it won’t change while Arasaka are still doing block-by-block clearance work in the New Horizon megalopolis. So we took a few days out at Alt’s pad to get some medical attention and rest up, and think about what to do next.

I think we know what we’re going to do next. We’re going to destroy that stone. I can feel it coming … I can see Pops is eager to do it, and Coyote wants to find his dad and find answers. Me, I don’t care about the stone at all, but I can see I’m going to be doing another unpaid job very soon.

With friends like these …

fn1: actually Sam worked some kind of charm on him that caused him to become her best friend, which was really scary, but Drew is too stupid to notice something like that.

fn2: Actually Ghost was trying to knock Drew over to stop her shooting Sam, but Drew wasn’t going to shoot Sam and she dodged Ghost so well that she didn’t even notice he was trying to hit her, and just thought he was clumsily interposing.

fn3: Actually it was really just as well! Because our GM revealed to us afterwards that Sam has some kind of weird power that enables her to suck out all our luck points. When she sucks out the luck points it does stun damage equal to our luck, and then she can inflict the same damage back on us as lethal damage in the next round. So if we hadn’t acted first we would have entered the battle with zero luck and serious injuries – Coyote would have been mortally injured, Pops seriously bad, and me lightly hurt (I don’t have much luck!) But then we would have had no luck for the battle – I fired 7 shots in that battle and killed 4 men, and of the three shots that missed two were fumbles[4]. Those fumbles would have led to my only rifle jamming if I had no luck points, and then I would have been in deep deep trouble. So too for Pops and Coyote, who were in an air battle with two armed AVs ….

fn4: Next session we’re going to start using 2d6 in place of d10, and adding five to all difficulties, because the fumble rate is frankly depressing and now all actions are trivially easy using the target numbers given in the books.

Artwork for Brave, Marillion weekend, 2013

But you sleep like a ghost with me
It’s as simple as that
So tell me I’m mad
Roll me up and breathe me in
Come to my madness
My opium den
Come to my madness
Make sense of it again

 

My Cyberpunk character, Drew, started the campaign with some contraband Russian cyberware inside her, that got her out of a tight spot but also saw her captured as a cyberpsycho by a nameless corporation. Aside from one narrative moment this tech remained just a role-playing detail, but recently as part of a kind of level-up process for our party the GM handed out a special ability to each of our PCs, and for her special ability Drew got to control and use her Ghost. The players haven’t shared their abilities with the rest of the group, but Drew’s ability is kind of … uncontrolled … and potentially very dangerous for the rest of the party, so I thought I’d write it up here where everyone can see it.

Drew’s ability is a kind of super-psychotic adrenal booster with two states: Limnal and Lost. Drew enters Limnal state by spending a point of humanity, at which point she gets all the benefits of the state. Unfortunately she can’t stay there: every turn she is in Limnal state she has to make an Empathy check (1d10+Empathy) to retain control of herself. This check has a difficulty of 8+number of turns in Limnal state – so Drew will very quickly shift to Lost state. Once Drew is Lost she has to fight to regain control of herself; she makes the same empathy check, but the difficulty reduces by 1 for every turn she is in the state. Other details of the states are given below.

In all states, Drew has access to a special boosted bonus to some actions that is equal to her starting empathy minus her current empathy, which we will call her ghost strike bonus (GSB). Recall that current empathy is determined by humanity, so the more she calls on this ability the lower her humanity drops, and the bigger her ghost strike bonus gets.

Limnal state

Once Drew enters the Limnal state she gets immediate benefits. She immediately rerolls initiative with a bonus equal to GSB/2. She receives an extra free attack each turn that can be used for movement, melee attacks, and athletics. Her movement increases by GSB/2, and she gains a bonus to all melee, athletics and movement actions equal to GSB/2. Her damage with melee weapons gets a bonus equal to GSB. Every time she kills someone she gains a +1 bonus to LUCK that must be spent the next turn or lost. Every kill also adds 1 to her Limnal turn count, making it easier for her to switch to Lost state as she kills more. In Limnal state Drew can still use a rifle but she cannot use her bonus action to shoot.

Lost state

When Drew enters Lost state she loses another 0.5 points of humanity. She rerolls her initiative with bonus equal to GSB. From this point on she cannot use missile attacks, but must use melee attacks, dropping any rifle or other tool and switching to her favourite melee weapon. All her bonuses double, so she gets a GSB bonus to hit and 2*GSB to damage, her dodge/escape increases by GSB, etc. She must attack the closest moving target, striking at the most threatening target when in doubt. She must do the greatest amount of attacks and damage possible to her target before moving on to the next target, and if a target drops in the middle of combat she must shift to another target immediately. She also counts one level lower for wounds, and has a bonus to BTM of GSB/2.

For every round she is in Lost state Drew takes one point of stun damage.

Further humanity damage

If Drew kills a friendly or non-combatant target in either state she loses an additional point of humanity. If her empathy drops to 1 (10 humanity points) she will be lost to the ghost, and will continue fighting without further recovery checks until she either goes unconscious, kills everyone, or dies.

Drew currently has 18.5 points of humanity.

What this means in practice

Drew has 18.5 points of humanity and an empathy of 2. Her GSB is currently 6, her BTM -3, movement allowance 5, melee 6 and reflexes 8 (in combat armour). Her preferred melee weapon is a monokatana, which does 4d6 damage and reduces the SP of armour to 2/3 (so combat armour drops from SP 24 to 16). Her combat sense is 8, she has an adrenal booster and reflex boosting.

In Lost state this means that Drew rerolls her initiative with a minimum of 26. She attacks three times per round at -3 per attack, with a final bonus of 18. Her dodge/escape is also 20, so attempts to shoot her in melee will have a ridiculously high target. Her damage becomes 13+4d6, so her average damage roll with the monokatana is (approximately) equivalent to an 8d6 rifle with high explosive armour piercing rounds. Her average damage roll against combat armour will do 11 damage after armour and before BTM. Her own BTM is now -6.

Because her empathy is 2, on the first round of activation of Limnal state Drew will need to roll a 7 or higher on 1d10 to control it. In the second round, after she’s killed two people (she will kill two people!), she’ll need to roll a 10. Even if she somehow misses (Drew doesn’t usually miss), by round 4 she will need to roll criticals (10 on d10) to stay in the Limnal zone. Once she is Lost it’s fairly likely that the kill rate will keep pushing the target number for her empathy rolls well beyond any number she can hit without criticals. It’s likely that she will kill all her enemies before she finds herself, and will only escape the ghost by going unconscious.

With 18.5 points of humanity Drew can afford to call on her ghost perhaps 4 more times safely. If there are any bystanders when it happens we can assume that they will die, and she will lose more humanity. Given her armour and BTM, it’s unlikely that she can be stopped by most normal ammunition, so once she becomes Lost the best option for her team is to clear out and wait for the blood and dust to settle. Killing her or trying to take her down in some other way is complicated by the fact that Pops will go insane if he sees her fall.

The downward spiral

As her humanity drops, Drew is becoming more attentive to the call of her ghost, and less aware of the basic human connections that have sustained her so far. In her last diary report, Drew said this about the feeling of losing herself in the ghost:

She just came howling out, like the frozen wind off the steppes blowing down onto the beach in winter, cutting through you like you’re just bones and whistling over the ice in the bay. And it was just like back in that bay, when I had to sink down cold and lonely on the beach, listening to my father’s bitter imprecations, cursing me into the rocks and the ice as a useless thing, while he dug a hole in the ice and his men lugged their cloth-wrapped, blood-soaked burden over the ice to the hole, and I crouched there hugging my knees against the cold wind and my father’s colder anger, trying to stay silent and hoping I wouldn’t cry because my tears make him madder and the wind freezes them on my face and afterwards the shame of being weak in front of those horrible men stings me more than icy tears ever will, but I’m still too small and helpless to know that one day I will become a whirling storm of death and destruction and everywhere men dying will whisper my name just right before they beg for their mothers who never come. So I sink down behind the rocks and ice as that wind roars over me and just hope I can come back from the cold.

Whether Drew can come back is not something that Coyote is likely to be placing bets on.

Artwork note: This picture is by Alison Toon, it’s the cover image for the Marillion album Brave, from which the quote at the top is taken, and from which I also took a lot of the lyrics used in the original post about Drew’s character. Brave is about a lost girl, it seems to fit.

Hiding out

Hiding out

Date: 25th November

Weather: Clear, cloudless skies and nuclear fallout

Outfit: I’m in my underwear right now, and some kind of sealskin cape that Pops insisted I wear because he can’t just let me lounge around in the crash zone in comfortable clothes can he? And the only other clothes we have are our body armour, which is all sweaty and stinky after a hard fight. It’s not like Coyote and Ghost have never seen a girl in her underwear before (well, I guess they maybe haven’t, though Coyote likes to drop lots of hints that he is friends with all kinds of crazy girls, but you take one look at that pistol of his and you know there’s a lot of compensation going on, so maybe I should cover up!)

Mood: Bereft! And kind of suspicious! That stupid Carnage guy died too slow, and he managed to get my precious sniper rifle off me and throw it into the sea, the stupid little thug. Of course I killed him but that rifle was worth a lot! Still, we got his bikes, and his cyberware, so I guess we’ll come out on top, but right now here we are in the wilds of the crash zone and I don’t have my best gun! And now we have to have a long, hard talk about that stupid girl we brought with us, who is coming on like the helpless daughter with Pops, who is a sucker for a damsel in distress. Maybe I should have sliced her up when I had the chance …

News: We haven’t had a lot of time for channel surfing, but when we opened a brief comms link with Alt we got a big download of news, and it looks like Arasaka have gone crazy in New Horizon. The whole city is in lockdown and Arasaka have invested a lot of areas, so there’s ground fighting going on even in Main Hub. Arasaka have got a lot of troops in there, and seem to have run some kind of huge hack on the city, so Goliath FBRs are turning and attacking Goliath soldiers. But Goliath have deployed some kind of twisted new soldier that is half cyberware and half robot, but they’re monstrous things and they’re immune to hacking. There are big holes opening up in the pits and things crawling out of them, and everyone is fighting everyone while the FBR’s go crazy and scream their rage in a voice we have all heard before. Arasaka have also started taking over small countries and city states across the Pacific. Something big is happening, and we’re out here on the edge, in the Crash Zone, with no chance to profit. Good timing, really, since Arasaka would surely have found me and Pops if we’d stayed in New Horizon. Maybe it’s time to move on …

All is not quiet on the home front ...

All is not quiet on the home front …

So we got to the top of the oil rig and of course the moment Pops and Coyote stepped up onto the platform where our bikes were they stumbled straight into this stupid Carnage guy, who thinks he’s cool because he’s got a bit of cyberware and the kind of hairdo an Oil Age Rocker would be embarrassed by. Fortunately me, Ghost and our captives were out of sight on the stairs leading up, so I could creep up to near the edge of the platform while the boys did that thing they call “negotiation,” where they pretend to be trying to make a deal with each other so that when the dust and blood settles everyone can claim they were trying to be reasonable and it’s really the dead guy’s fault that it didn’t all work out, and isn’t it funny that it’s always the dead guy who was the unreasonable “negotiator”? This time they had to pretend to care about the bikes, and what was a fair trade for letting us just take the bikes and go, even though we all know that no one is just going to give away their bikes, and even if Carnage was stupid enough to give up his motors he was going to change his mind the moment he saw us hustling Sam across the platform. Still, Pops and Coyote thrust out their chests and acted tough for just long enough for me to get up near the platform, so at least one of us was ready to do the sensible thing and put a bullet in Carnage when the inevitable breakdown happened.

Then of course the breakdown happened, but in amongst all the posturing Pops had let Carnage get close enough that Carnage managed to knock his chain gun out of line, and he ended up shooting holes in the ceiling instead of Carnage. By the time I got up onto that platform and got my gun level, Pops had been disarmed and thrown across the room, and Coyote’s cyberdog had somehow managed to cover him in a super-deadly electrified net[1], and Coyote was shooting one of Carnage’s minions. I put a bullet in Carnage’s leg while he was standing gloating over Pops’s immobile body, but somehow that bullet didn’t blow his leg off[2]. There were three other guys up there, some sciencey dude in a white coat and two soldiers with assault rifles who were too slow to do anything useful. It didn’t look particularly bad – three on four, since Ghost was back on the stairs keeping Sam and Theo calm – but this Carnage dude was obviously bad news and now Pops was down and Carnage was laughing like he had a whole bunch of trouble still to come. And Coyote was pretty badly damaged from the battle downstairs, so only really me and the four of them.

So I let my ghost out.

She’s been clamouring to come out since this started, like she can smell blood and tears. Or maybe she can hear the happiness singing in me when I’m on the move, shooting and killing, and she wants a part of the only thing that makes me feel anything. Mostly I can keep her down, but she’s a part of me now, growing stronger every time I fight, tense and strong in my limbs when the action starts, and she can feel as clearly as me when the odds are stacked against us. At that time she starts to sing in me, a low, growling hiss of static telling me she needs blood and smoke, a creeping need for speed and death. When it’s just the joy of killing I can hold her off and take it all for myself, like down on the deck when it was just me and my team against a horde of amateurs, but when I start to feel the edge, when the risk begins to stack up, that static hiss becomes a raging tempest of need, a storm howling inside me for release, and I can’t hold her back then. So I let a bit of her free, just a bit, enough to let the pressure off her, and to make me better.

I don’t like to let her free, because I think she might kill my friends too.

So she came out, just that little angry sliver, and in we went. Somehow Pops had shaken off that net the stupid dog put on him, and unloaded an entire magazine into Carnage, but that wasn’t enough to stop him – he was down on one knee but that freakish arm was still functioning and he didn’t even look worried even though he’d just taken a swarm of armour piercing bullets. Coyote was busy fighting the sciencey guy, who had stolen his sword, but I was ignoring that because Carnage was where the danger was. Carnage was fast, and as my ghost was seeping out he was still faster than me, so before I could shoot him with another round from my rifle he extended the whiplike cyberarm that had thrown Pops like a ragdoll, and tore my rifle out of my hands.

No matter, I switched to my assault rifle and let rip on him with a burst of high explosive armour piercing. Even that didn’t take him down, though I destroyed one leg and wrecked one arm. Over there in the shadows of the building Coyote was fighting with the sciency guy still and his dog was blowing up the other two soldiers with a fusillade of rockets, but here on the edge of the wreckage Pops was reloading and distracted by the net, so it was just me and Carnage.

And that’s when something slipped. Maybe I’d been distracted by Coyote’s battle with the scientist, or that stupid dog, but I missed something, and suddenly my ghost broke out[3]. She just came howling out, like the frozen wind off the steppes blowing down onto the beach in winter, cutting through you like you’re just bones and whistling over the ice in the bay. And it was just like back in that bay, when I had to sink down cold and lonely on the beach, listening to my father’s bitter imprecations, cursing me into the rocks and the ice as a useless thing, while he dug a hole in the ice and his men lugged their cloth-wrapped, blood-soaked burden over the ice to the hole, and I crouched there hugging my knees against the cold wind and my father’s colder anger, trying to stay silent and hoping I wouldn’t cry because my tears make him madder and the wind freezes them on my face and afterwards the shame of being weak in front of those horrible men stings me more than icy tears ever will, but I’m still too small and helpless to know that one day I will become a whirling storm of death and destruction and everywhere men dying will whisper my name just right before they beg for their mothers who never come. So I sink down behind the rocks and ice as that wind roars over me and just hope I can come back from the cold.

Drew will fix it ...

Drew will fix it …

I don’t know what I did but I came back standing on the stairs just below the platform, my blood-soaked katana held against Sam’s neck[4]. Ghost hadn’t even seen me coming and was staring at me with this stupid goldfish face, and Theo was so useless that he was still raising his gun to point at me, when I sank gasping to my knees on the steps. Carnage was dead, and Pops and Coyote were looting the platform when I returned to it, helped by Ghost. We hustled then, getting everyone onto bikes, and lighted off that platform as fast as we could on four separate bikes. An AV from Alt’s crew tried to follow us but we gave it the slip, and Coyote sent Alt a brief message telling her that things had got complicated and we needed to get away to a safe place with Sam. Then we headed off to the Crash Zone.

The Crash Zone is maybe six hours at full bike speed, if you’re avoiding New Horizon. You end up in this messed up slaughterhouse, a stretch of what was once China covered in wrecked cities and the occasional radioactive wasteland. I guess we ended up in what was once Guangzhou, that was then a city of 30 million people before a series of fusion reactor explosions turned it into a wasteland. There are people living in there, and whole ecosystems of post-apocalyptic madness stretched across a large portion of the coast of what was once China, and that’s where we went. Eventually we settled down into this tableau of wrecked trains under a crumbling highway bridge, to have a small chat…

We put the bikes down and set up inside one of the wrecked train carriages. I helped Sam relax and clean herself up, and while I did so I made sure to mention that if she messed around with Pops I would gut her like a seal – just a sisterly warning, so she doesn’t make any stupid mistakes – and I also thought about sending a message to Alt telling her where we were, because Coyote and Pops had turned off all our signalling gear and weren’t going to turn it on until we knew what our next steps were. They seem to think it’s very important that we discuss whether we should hand Sam over to Alt or not, and they had a big argument over it.

That’s not a conversation I’m interested in. Alt is getting Sam. That’s what I promised to do, and that’s what I am going to do. Those two can debate whatever they want as long as they want, but I know where Sam is going to end up. I messed up once crossing Arasaka, and the price on my head is growing every day that they can’t find me, I don’t need more people chasing me because my team suddenly decide they haven’t got a taste for the human trafficking they signed up to do. Last time Arasaka sent Pops, but Alt will never make the mistake of sending someone as broken and fragile as Pops – whoever she sends will be much, much crueler than sentimental old uncles like Pops. I aim to die fighting, not strangled in my bed by some transhumanist monstrosity in the pay of a woman I had no intention of ever crossing. And I can’t die fighting if I’m constantly hiding from all the enemies my team makes because they can’t keep themselves from “protecting” the first mark they find who acts vaguely feminine around them.

Sam is obviously older than she looks. It’s easy to think she’s some kind of vulnerable prodigal daughter, like an angel who fell to earth to look after that broken flock of Children of Exalta, but I’m not looking at her soft little heart-shaped face and her gentle eyes the way the boys are. She’s older than Pops, and she holds a secret that corporations have been killing their way across the planet looking for. Everyone who knew Sam is dead or dying, and everywhere she goes she leaves a wake of destruction and wrecked lives. She’s the custodian of some dark and deadly secret so valuable that those who seek it will brook no mercy, no compassion and no error in their quest. Whatever evil spirit of destruction stalks her will find us too if we don’t keep moving, and get rid of her as soon as we can.

Sometimes I know she catches me watching her and before I can put on my face I think she sees what the boys don’t – that there’s nothing in here her pretty looks and pleas of innocence can touch. To me she’s meat, just meat, chum in the water, and I have to get clear of her before the sharks start to circle. And I will.

No matter what.

fn1: Drew is a solo but somehow managed to get the worst possible initiative roll, so by the time she got onto the platform everyone had acted, Carnage had used some kind of mega-cyberware to throw Pops around and Coyote’s dog had rolled a fumble. It’s a crowd-control police dog, which is why it has a super-deadly net and a swarm of armour piercing missiles in its chest. Go figure.

fn2: 39 on 9d10 wtf? I have the worst luck.

fn3: Once I unleash the ghost I have to make a check every round. Of course I fumbled it immediately. I have the WORST luck.

fn4: I actually killed Carnage with this sword, and then ran down the steps to attack Sam but recovered myself at the last. This is relevant because the rules for the Russian ghost state that I must always attack the nearest, biggest threat…

Dalton lay on the ground panting, shifting glances between his discarded gun and the power-armoured thug stomping on his arm. Later he would reflect with pride on the way he largely ignored the massive gun pointing in his face, but at this moment he was squirming in terror and introspection was not at the top of his list of emotional states.

Dalton was good at cataloguing his emotional states; his last girlfriend had told him he spent too long thinking about them and not enough time feeling them … if she could see him now …

“You’re not as good as you think, Dalton,” the man grunted in a kind of hissing, angry mid-western accent. “You’re fast, and smart, but you lack any kind of … combat sense. And you’ve got tics, you make mistakes that are easy to read.” He waved his (massive) free arm in the general direction of the receding battle. “You’ll never make it at this. Sure, you’ll make a bit of money but you’re never gonna make the big leagues, and there’s no room here for small fry, you know that.” The gun didn’t waver.

“Then just shoot me already! You’re wasting both our time.” Dalton surprised himself with his bravery. “It’s not a movie, cut the soliloquoys and -”

The big dude kicked him, a stinging strike across the face with the sole of one powered boot. It stank of dirt and burnt things, but somehow the smell was stronger than the pain. “Shut up! We don’t have time for banter. Listen, you’re never gonna make money here but I’ve got a job for you where you can use these skills to make real money. You want real work or are you gonna keep hustling with your busted crew? You wanna be something?”

Dalton worked his lips in a way that probably looked amusing to the thug. He was confused. In this world instant execution was the norm, there was no bargaining or negotiating, let alone job offers. Best take the chance. “Um, sure … How can I contact you?”

“No problem, Dalton. We know where you live. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The man lifted his foot from Dalton’s stiffening arm and ran away, remarkably fleet for his size. Sighing, Dalton picked himself up and reached for his gun.

How did that man know his name?

The raid: Ground floor

They went in through the chocolate shop windows, a specialized explosive net taking the entire glass pane down in a flash and the two assault guys leaping straight in after, spraying bullets wildly. Dalton came in the second wave, their medic/comms guy on his right and a heavy weapons/explosive guy behind them. There were three people in the shop but they went down before Dalton hit the room, and their corpses were already still by the time he got to the inner door. Here they had a short hallway, exactly according to the plans, and now Dalton was first, the two assault guys setting up a cordon at the far door so he could dive through. As promised the door was unlocked so he just charged through, firing from the hip into the room and hitting the right hand wall between the cabinet and the sink as planned. From here they were in the museum proper, and as expected the first of the plain clothes guards was in this room, pistol out, in cover behind the statue on the left of the door.

From Dalton’s perspective in the middle of the room the statue was no cover at all, and the guard was still adjusting his position to take account of Dalton’s rush. Dalton fired first, a slightly uncontrolled fusillade that chewed up the statue and tore the man apart in a cloud of blood. When you’re pretending to be a museum invigilator you can’t wear armour, so you have to shoot first. This chump didn’t.

There were three customers screaming in the room, trying to hide behind some glass installations in the opposite corner. Dalton gunned them down as the rest of his crew ran through and hit the main room. The glass didn’t protect them.

The main room was some kind of photography exhibition, a maze of cardboard walls with pictures hanging, all passing by in a blur as they sought out targets and put them down. Dalton checked his watch as they got through the third turn, but he didn’t have to, because as they headed for the stairs the Controller spoke in their earphones. “Too slow, one target missed. Get up fast before the guards assemble a barricade. Make time.”

They hit the stairs.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The thug lived up to his word, and next morning Dalton found himself having breakfast with a man who looked remarkably like the soldier he had met yesterday. They were in Tiffany‘s, the greasy spoon cafe across the road from Dalton’s flat, and the man had promised to pay so Dalton was enjoying Tiffany‘s best pancake pile, with gene-engineered maple syrup and (allegedly) real cream. There was a lot of coffee.

“You read the news article I sent you?”

“Yeah,” Dalton stuttered through a mouthful of steaming batter. “Not pretty.” Words were difficult, mostly because of the pancake but also because the situation he’d stumbled into when he moved to America was kind of crazy. Yesterday the Red Tide had hit a football stadium in Spokane, killing a couple of hundred people before they were taken down. The Red Tide had soon claimed responsibility, and promised more attacks to come.

The Red Tide: since the collapse all politics in America had gone local, but the Red Tide had gone national. The USA had fragmented into a bunch of different countries, made up of groups of states or single states that decided they were better off going it alone. Communal violence, purges, sometimes genocide, had accompanied the crash, but one group had risen above it all to fill the power vacuum at the national level: The Red Tide, a violent native American liberation movement that could lay claim to members from as far afield as New Mexico and New England, Seattle and Miami. While the past colonial powers squabbled over petty local political victories the Red Tide had consolidated nationally, formed a national movement, and armed itself. Now it was moving to take back what had always been its members rights, and it had been stunningly successful in the past few years. Fragmented local governments couldn’t cooperate to defeat it so it had scored striking victories, and recently declared its goal of establishing a sovereign native territory in America. People had scoffed, but since the stadium attack the laughter had died down. People were starting to realize something new was here.

Dalton shrugged. “Nothing I can do about that. National politics.” He liked to pride himself on being a man of few words.

“Actually Dalton there is something you can do about it. A lot. And we’ll pay a lot. Are you interested?”

Dalton finished his pancake, pretending to maintain some calm. Dalton really needed money. He didn’t care at all about America’s stupid politics, but like every 20 year old he saw himself going places, and like everyone in America he understood that money was the ticket to those places. “I am. Sure. Yes. Tell me more.”

The man reached across the table and gently, but firmly, and decidedly threateningly, grabbed the front of Dalton’s t-shirt. “I can tell you more, Dalton, but I don’t tell you nothing if you don’t agree to help us. You understand? I can’t have you leaving here and blabbing to your friends about this. You agree to work for me and you’re mine, you get that?”

Dalton coughed and looked around nervously. The waitress was unsurprisingly absent, and there were no customers. A car parked outside looked like it was suspiciously full of ugly men. This man was decidedly ugly. He guessed that there were going to be no hints forthcoming, and he needed the money. “Is it gonna be dangerous?” He asked meekly.

“For you? No.” The man gave a wicked little grin that suggested it would be very, very dangerous for someone.

So long as it wasn’t Dalton. “Sure.”

The man let go, and the waitress miraculously reappeared with coffee. “A good decision Dalton, very wise. Let me tell you a story …”

The Raid: Exhibition Hall

This museum had its masterpieces on the second level. Everyone knew the layout, but the big problem was the guards. As a state institution the museum had the right to armed guards, who were at the back of the main exhibition hall. This hall was a labyrinth of small rooms and installations, with the guards likely scattered throughout the chambers, so they could hope to get to the doors before the guards assembled. It was a quiet time of day but this mission was planned for a class visit from a high school named after a famous killer of Indians[1], which would be likely spread around the exhibition hall. Their job was to kill them all and the guards.

The first guard was at the top of the stairs, firing down at them as they mounted the stairs. He scored a couple of hits on Spider, who went down and stayed down. Dalton was coming in second but had enough time to think: he took what cover he could and fired up into the doorway, driving the man back. The other assault squaddie, Snake, drifted across the stairwell, firing as he went, and crouched behind a statue. They waited. Spider was gone.

“Time running out. Move.” The controller’s voice sounded in their ears. Dalton had a translation bot installed but the language they were using, Sioux, was not available on most translation software and the open source chip he was using was pretty poor. He knew some of the other soldiers were not fluent Sioux speakers – none of his team were Sioux, in fact – but they at least knew some, and his chipset was essential. He doubted any of them realized it was a chipset though. The controller, however, was fluent in several Indigenous languages. He needed to be careful of the controller. “Ghost, get up and take that man.”

He grunted. “Sure boss.” He moved, firing as he went up, drifting right and left. The guard tried to spring him on the way out but moved to soon and Dalton hit him, four or five times. Dalton fell through into the first chamber of the exhibition hall, firing off the last of his magazine as he did. He didn’t have to call backup; Snake and the other two, Grass and Doc, were through before he had come to a stop. They were in the hall.

The students were screaming a lot and running, pretty hard to find. They took their time stalking and killing, probably after the event some Red Tide propagandist might say they were like hunters of old but cornering a pimply fifteen year old near a vending machine and shooting him full of lead is not what hunters do, it’s the work of an entirely different sort of personality. It didn’t phase Dalton.

The Controller gave his orders in Sioux, but he had a strange and alarming habit of giving advice in English. Dalton couldn’t figure out why, but as they rampaged through the Exhibition Hall the Controller berated them in Sioux and advised them in English. The Sioux came through Dalton’s chipset in a kind of rough and stupid patois, broken by the vicissitudes of digital translation, but the advice came as cute and abrupt information.

“Ghost-san, you should crouch more! Let’s enjoy crouching together!”

“Ghost-san, standing tall is dangerous. Let’s enjoy belly movement! 1, 2, 3 drop!!”

“Ghost-san, your back is exposed! I love your back, don’t get it shot! Guard that back!”

“Senpai says run faster!”

“Ghost-san always drops his right elbow and moves right! That’s a bad pattern! Let’s make exciting new moves!”

This strange didactic manner confused Dalton, but he moved through regardless, killing high school students. Near the end of the Exhibition Hall was a big chamber with a huge sculptural installation. The guards were in cover at the rear, firing on them as they entered. There was no way to the back of the building except through the guards. Dalton hit the room second, and prepared to make a break for cover.

Mission Statement

They had drunk a lot of coffee. The man was talking. His card was on the table. It said John Doe, Central Intelligence Agency (Des Moines).

“Did you know there’s a schism in the Red Tide? No, most people don’t.” After a lot of coffee, John Doe was big into monologues. Dalton just listened, didn’t even get a chance to nod or move his face before John Doe assumed his answer. “Apparently lots of these redskins don’t like killing people, they want to have some other kind of revolution where people don’t die. Haha. So we found a member of one of their assault crews who’s big on peace, and also pretty serious about heroin. It’s a good mix. Now he’s giving us the info we need, and he does what we ask provided he’s stoned.

“Thing is, he’s a member of one of their assault crews. They’ve got a bunch of missions under planning but we don’t know where. But we found out some things from this guy. Main thing we found out is how they train.

“They train virtually. They’ve set up a system of private servers for an old first person shooter called Call of Duty. This private server, it has maps of all the places they’re planning to hit, and tactics for how they’re gonna do it. The trusted team members log on every couple of days and go through assault scenarios, so when they hit the target they don’t just know the map – they’ve been through it in person, they know it right down to the lighting. Apparently this Call of Duty system is old but that means it has really good maps, a real network, it’s an industry standard so you can access maps for almost any public building.

“Fucking game designers, eh? Traitors, you ask me.

“Thing is, we’re not so good at computer games. But we’ve got some good hackers. What we need to know is where the server is, so we can get our hackers to it, and maybe get to its physical location and grab the backups. But to do that we need someone in the system, drawing a trace. And they need to be continuously logged in. They need to be good enough that they can stay alive for the couple of minutes we need to run a trace.

“The plan is you go in using our turncoat’s account, which is still trusted. You stay alive in there long enough to run a trace, and you leave without anyone knowing you’re an intruder. Then we go in and get their server, either virtually or physically, and we have the full list of their targets plus hopefully the IP addresses of all their members. All you need to do is stay alive in their virtual world. So it’s completely safe for you, and we’ll pay you a fat load. Then you clear out of America and no one ever knows you stopped the Red Tide. King fucking Canute. What do you say?”

He didn’t wait for an answer.

“Good, thought you’d agree. All the activists, they speak in Sioux, because they’re crazy, but it’s been a real problem up till now. We’ve designed a chipset that translates to and from Sioux but it’s not so great so don’t talk much, okay.” He laughed. “Guess that’s not a problem. Also they like to use Kinect Sensory systems, so you’ll feel a bit of physical effort – a bit of pain from being hit, a bit of dizziness or confusion where it gets busy, but nothing dangerous. We’ve set up a training session for this afternoon. You go in tomorrow, okay? No time to waste.

“By the way, this turncoat. His online name is Ghost. So you’ll be going in as Ghost. Good luck.”

The Raid: Timing

They hit the back of the Exhibition Hall. The installation was a large room full of wax statues of zombies, some kind of commentary on modern society and consumerism. The three armed guards were clustered behind the entrance to the Museum Shop, firing light weapons into the room. The team fired back, chips of wax flying as they fired past and through statues. They moved fast and forward, taking cover behind statues.

“Ghost-san! Always dropping that right elbow and moving right! Too predictable!”

The Controller’s language was too weird. Dalton was sure he’d heard it before somewhere but he was kind of distracted.

Screaming from behind the desk, someone hit. The other two fell back. The Museum shop was full of floating feathers and dust kicked up from all the stuffed toys they had shot. One guard was hiding behind the stuffed toys, firing madly. They wasted him when the magazine clicked empty, but number three had run away somewhere. Beyond was the walkway to the shopping centre.

“Timing is too slow.” The controller spoke. “Police will arrive at the shopping centre in two minutes. This is not a suicide mission. Push forward.”

They nodded agreement. The controller spoke again.

“Ghost-san! Hold gun lower before firing, recoil pulls up and right! Let’s ensure a solid shooting base!”

This incongruity of styles was really beginning to bother Ghost. The Controller spoke again. “Ghost, there is a group of academics on the third level. You go and kill them. Two are famous historians. The rest of the team enter the shopping mall and make your escape.”

Was this a test of Ghost’s suicide drive? It didn’t matter, this wasn’t a real mission. Going up would keep him alive longer. “Okay. Good luck comrades.” He assumed the chipset could handle that. They parted. Everyone was inscrutable and identical in their combat armour, so their leave-taking was perfunctory. Ghost headed up the stairs.

Why we fight

“You’ve been doing the Call of Duty combat circuit for a year now Dalton, you’re good but you don’t have the touch.” John Doe was doing the arrogant boss act now. “We also know that you did the hit on Wells Fargo Insurance two months ago. We don’t know who the solos were but we know you ran cyber-shadowing duties, you left a trace. You really need a better rig.”

Dalton understood now why they’d chosen him. He was looking at a world of trouble. He’d come to the USA to make his fortune because legend had it that after the crash the US had a terrible security system and robbery was easy in cyberspace. He thought he’d got away with a few jobs. So long as this guy didn’t know about Rapid City Nuclear Systems …

“Of course, Rapid City Nuclear Systems was a plant. None of that data is real. But you really gave yourself away there. You really need to improve your hacking if you’re gonna make it in this world.”

Ghost tried to look nonchalant, but he didn’t like where this was going. John Doe was leaning forward, his ugly brick-like face contorted into what probably resembled rage to a man with so much cyberware he was barely capable of real human expression. “Personally I think your kind should just be flatlined, you know? Bang! Another coward in the ditch.” He looked around conspiratorially. “In the New America that sort of thing’s okay, you know?” Sat back. “Governor was going to tick the box for me to deal with you properly, until this Red Tide rose. We don’t have much use for second rate hackers but right now we’ve got a big use for second rate Call of Duty players. So here’s the deal.

“You succeed in this mission, we let you go with a fat wad of cash, you vacate the Iowa Free State and get out of America. You fail and I take great personal pleasure in flatlining you. Great. Personal. Pleasure.”

He grinned. “Got it?”

Ghost nodded, flushed and sweating. “Got it.”

The Raid: A kind of recognition

He ghosted up the stairs. The controller spoke in his ear.

“Ghost-san always charges into a room. Wisdom arises from restraint! Try pausing!”

The top of the stairs opened into a small room. Dalton charged into the room, crouched low and moving fast. Someone fired at him but he picked them off. A last guard, unexpected by everyone. He hit the wall next to the archway leading into the next room. Where were the academics?

“Ghost-san! Always on the right side of the door! Your competitor will shoot through once they understand your patterns!”

Dalton sagged against the wall. Why did the controller care about his repetitive patterns? No one at the target zone was going to know about his previous history of fighting. And why did he always give his assessments in stupid weird English, but his orders in Sioux that got manged in translation?

It was deadly silent up here. Something was nagging at Dalton’s memory, a game a long time ago with a friend. He ducked around the corner and ran down the hallway to the cover of a vending machine.

“Ghost-san! Every time you run down the right hand side of the corridor. Let’s enjoy creative fighting together! Move left!”

Dalton thought “fuck it!” and moved left to hit an uncovered area. Bullets shattered the air around him, hitting the wall and glass above him. He dived but he’d been a fraction slow and the bullets hit his target area. Fuck! He’d been led into a trap by the controller’s instructions! What was that? He rolled back into the space he’d vacated, firing madly as he did so.

Then he realized: the manic English was not the controller, it was an Analysis Bot. Software that studied patterns of behavior in combatants. That software was illegal in all professional games, so Dalton and his friends never used it, but a year ago in casual gaming he’d noticed it. All Analysis Bots had a database of existing players loaded up, and they compared the players they were analyzing against the database to get ideas and advice.

The controller was using an Analysis Bot to give advice to his soldiers. But the Bot had identified Dalton’s combat profile from his history as a gamer, and the controller had realized he was an imposter on this account. He’d brought Dalton up here to kill him.

The Bot, of course, was ignorant of all of this.

“Ghost-san, good work! You broke a pattern!”

Too right! Dalton ducked back the way he’d come, and into a doorway. He smashed the window to the right of the door and hurled a grenade out into the hallway, then ducked and ran to an inner door. This door opened into a narrow, dark corridor, parallel to the main corridor. Something blew up back where the grenade was, but Dalton was running. There were no schematics – this was some kind of hidden level invented just for him. He ducked left into a big room, bizarrely an abattoir, completely different to the room he had left. Robot-like figures worked on screaming, dying cows and pigs. In the far corner a hulking shadow fired at him.

He ducked and dived. The shadow was big.

“Ghost-san, faster than usual! Adrenaline can – ”

The chirpy bot-voice cut off. Someone had noticed he understood. He fired a burst and cut left towards a large freezer. The big figure was moving towards him, firing as it went. He ducked behind a twitching cow corpse and opened a new comms channel. “John Doe are you in yet? I have trouble.”

A brief second that felt like an eternity. He fired over the cow for good luck.

“I don’t care about your trouble. Stay alive. We’re very close.”

The huge figure hit the cow at a run. It had come much faster than he expected. It was bigger than he expected, some kind of gleaming red power armour with a rifle in one hand and an insane chain saw in the other. He fell back, shooting madly, but the thing’s armour was immune to his assault rifle. It picked him up and hurled him across the room, into a block of ice. The kinect system sent twinges of pain up his back, nothing serious. He fired again but the thing just kept coming. It was wearing power armour, so he couldn’t see anything about it – no eyes to look into and plead for mercy. Just red death. He ducked as the chain saw cut into the ground with a huge burring roar. Rolled away and fired again. No luck.

“John Doe, it knows I’m here. Get in here, do something!”

The thing grabbed him with its other hand, lightning fast, a huge clawed glove getting him by the neck and raising him above the ground. Electricity flowed, his body twitched. In the confusion Dalton recognized ICE, software to hold him captive and unable to exit while the system traced him back to the source. He had been uncovered. Red Tide warriors were more than he had expected or been led to believe.

“Got it. Get out!”

Ghost

Fortunately for Dalton, the Red Tide’s local troops were further away than John Doe’s team, and he was able to get away before they mobilized to his apartment, where they met John Doe and some of his friends. In the ensuing battle someone leveled the block, but Dalton was out and safe so he didn’t pay it much attention. They also found the location of the server, and although some kind of failsafe physically destroyed the server their hackers got there first and they were able to get both a list of targets and a couple of names. For his couple of minutes of Call of Duty success Dalton got a lot of money, and a new sense of humility.

He left America, aware that he had drawn a lot of heat.

He left America with a newfound awareness of his vulnerabilities. Not a great hacker, he realized, easily caught by second rate governments like John Doe’s. That was going to change. He devoted himself – and John Doe’s money – to learning better techniques, getting better decks.

Two years later, he arrived in New Horizon, polished and ready for the big time.

He never looked back. Except for one thing: he chose a street name that suited him.

Ghost.

[This short story was inspired by a news article a friend showed me about the Paris terrorists using Call of Duty or some similar game to communicate their plans. Cunning! So I imagined how this might work in the future. I swapped Islamic terrorists for Native Americans because this is the future, and an American connection ties Ghost to our group through the people he was involved with or enemies with in our first session.

I like cyberpunk histories!]

fn1: Hard to believe you say? Iron arse himself has a school district named after him