Project Aphelion Solo Play #042: The New Normal

Our campaign against d’Venescu is over. Chloe and Fayette are safe, and Tomorrow can finally live her life the way she wants. But does she even know what it is?

We’re getting back in time to the beginning of the month!


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June 1st, 2056

‘How’s your future sister-in-law doing?’ 

‘I don’t know if that’s where it’s heading, but they seem doing well at the moment. I think she’s alright.’

‘That’s weirdly tepid of you.’ 

Sarah blows into her mug, pushing away the fragrant steam of her hot tea. ‘Well, I don’t know. Chloe is happy. Fayette seems perfectly friendly and nice, and not at all how I expected her to be. She’s just… Normal. Natural. Adjusted. I get that she probably either already worked through her trauma or just isn’t sharing it with me, because I’m no one to her, but I just can’t get the connection.’

‘Are you still angry at her?’ Adam looks at the contents of his mug as if it offended him. ‘And since when do we have earl grey in his house?’

‘I got it from a secret admirer. Guess he’s in the UK now. I’d sent him something back, but wherever the war is on the British Isles right now is not a good postal address. Especially as I’m sure the name he gave me is a fake.’

‘Can you at least tell him there’s a war in Amazonia? They have good coffee there.’

‘I’ll keep that in mind if we ever meet again. And no, I’m not angry at Fayette, not really. I get that it’s not her fault – neither her fucked-up father, nor the fact that Chloe got messed up in this, nor that they got separated and Fayette got a much better deal. But, you know.’ She shrugs helplessly. ‘I’d rather have Chloe not go through all that shit.’

Adam puts an arm around her and she falls easily into her favorite position, nestled on the couch, with her head on his shoulder.

‘It is almost over. He already can’t hurt Chloe. He’s a wreck and you stole his lunch money.’

‘I did, didn’t I? God, I’m such an asshole.’

‘You also spared his life. Don’t tell me it wouldn’t be equally easy for you to break into there while he’s in his room and just finish it once and for all. You’re a ghost.’ 

Sarah sighs. It takes her a while to come up with an answer, and when she does, it’s quiet. ‘I don’t want to do it.’

‘Then don’t? But I thought you were rather on the ball with the whole geek-the-mage idea.’

‘Oh, yeah. He needs to go. But, you know, this is no longer my fight. Chloe is safe. Now that they’re together, nobody will try to capture my sister to get to Fayette. D’Venescu knows where to find his daughter. And if she wants her old man dead, she has more than enough money to hire somebody to do it. I’m not her assassin. I just want my sister happy.’

‘It does seem like they make a good team. And that they are both committed to finishing off what you started.’

‘They can have it. The hard part is already done. Now, it’s kicking an old man while he’s down and stealing his lunch money.’

Adam calmly drinks his tea, as if they were discussing a trid. ‘You pity him?’ 

‘Well, he is an absolute monster. I get the lure of more power, like, seriously, I do. But murdering your wife over it? Wanting to murder your own fucking child over it? And yet, he’s been trying to complete this ritual for twenty years now, Adam. No ritual would stay open for so long, it already failed. When I was doing my research, I found some rumors… I think somebody else has achieved what d’Venescu has failed to do. He’s desperately hanging on to the idea that killing Fayette will bring him his magic back, that he’ll appease his gods, and strike whatever deal he was trying to make… He has failed, he is doomed to fail, and even if he succeeded at his plan, he still won’t get what he wants. If he had any sanity left, he’d know that.’

‘So you do pity him. Softie.’

‘Well, can you imagine losing your mind?’ She gets up from the couch, collecting empty mugs, and puts them in a sink, for once doing the dishes by hand. ‘He obviously needs to go down, he’s like a rabid dog. But just like the dog, he’s not in control of his actions. He’s criminally insane. He’s a Batman villain, just a very pathetic one. The type that you beat into submission and then declare that they’re not worth the time killing.’

‘Those people have a habit of crawling back. Especially if, like you say, they’re incapable of acknowledging defeat.’

‘I know. But I won’t go and kill him for Fayette. It’s her problem, not mine. He has no power, no money, Aztechnology is actively fighting both him and his sole ally. Chloe will see it through. I might as well just get back to my shit. They’ll bleed out without me.’

‘That’s good.’

‘Yeah,’ she answers with hesitation. ‘I think it is… I need to find a new hobby.’

‘Poor birdie. No more excuses, huh? Time to finally do whatever you want?’

‘I guess. A great tragedy, right? Free time.’ She shakes her head, leaning against the kitchen counter. ‘It’s fine, a have a pile of shit to work through. I need to rebind my elementals, and there are some research projects I was putting off, I got so much catching up for uni, Crowley wanted some help with the metaplane, I wanted to enchant a focus for myself…’ Sarah trails off as she looks at the stack of books and notes on her desk, then shrugs and returns to the couch. ‘I also want to get married.’

He smirks in response. ‘I’m sure we can get that arranged. Do you have some great plans for the wedding?’

‘I don’t know. Do you want one?’

‘Not particularly, but if you want guests and a party, feel free to throw it.’

‘Well, I don’t want anything that my Italian, Catholic mother would call a proper wedding. I wouldn’t mind a small party here. I’d like my sister to be there, with her plus one, I suppose. And Lil, she can pop in for a couple of hours through astral if not in person. And Tonight, obviously. Sal would also make a cut, but then it’s with Gargoyle, and then it’s with the rest of the Hounds, and then we can basically throw a reception in the bar downstairs and sneak out to a more private party of two after an hour.’

‘It’s not a bad idea, actually. All my potential guests are already here, especially if we invite Friese. And Bunny.’

‘You’re not inviting your brother?’ 

‘You’re not inviting your parents?’ 

‘You know I’m not. A, they don’t approve. B, they don’t deserve it. But neither of those reasons apply in your case, I think, so stop avoiding my question.’

Adam reaches for her hand. His fingers slide across the engagement ring, catching on the sapphire set in it. ‘No, those reasons don’t apply. But I sleep better when my brother doesn’t know exactly what I do for a living. Maybe we can visit him later. At some point.’ 

‘Of course, babe. Whenever you want. But now…’ She grins mischievously and winks once she’s sure she has his complete attention. ‘I’m gonna get back to work. That degree ain’t gonna finish itself.’


Welcome to the Rest of Your Life

Nothing but arcane research.

Yeah, no, this would be boring. However, Project Aphelion actually has the rules for research and innovation, and we will be using them between all other messes in Tomorrow’s life. But I don’t expect to ever focus on it. As much as she thinks she’d like to be a wizard, the warlock/rogue vibe is strong in this one.

For now, Tomorrow really has a list of things to catch up on:

  • upgrading Steven and Jade to R4 elementals;
  • replacing her stealth suit with a better one (one that will protect her from her own grenades);
  • raising her primary skills, especially conjuring, because R5 elementals > R4 elementals;
  • solving mysteries, creating new spells, creating magic items, and investigating magical phenomena to unlock Career Rating 4 – I need 20 counts in either of those, and the highest we got is 6. Enchanting/magic items might be our fastest way there.
  • finish a research project that will mechanically be enough to get her rewarded with a Trophy – gotta get that degree somehow, right?
  • it’s a new month, so there’s also an Income Scenario to play and get some cash in;
  • we had some plans for the advancement of the Faction – I wouldn’t mind a third dice on the Faction Layer.

Let’s start from the easiest one.


Skill Learning

We’re skipping Chloe, because if it wasn’t obvious from the narrative of the previous episode, this month we say ‘bye’ to Chloe and move her into the NPC section. The hacker has her own life now and will not stick around just to make sure her sister makes progress in her arcane studies. Tonight, as a loyal ally spirit, has no reason to leave. We’ll see what happens in the following months, though!

Tomorrow:
(Teaching+1, 3v2=2) Conjuring 5, 5v8=2 +1 previous = 3/5 (by June 5th)
(Teaching+1, 3v2=3) Sorcery 6, 5v8=3 +1 previous = 4/6 (by June 11th)
(Teaching+1, 3v2=3) Diplomacy 4, 5v6=4, skill raised (by June 15th)
(Teaching+1, 3v2=2) Stealth 5, 5v8=2/5 (by June 20th)
(Teaching+1, 3v2=3) Negotiation 3, 5v5=4, skill raised (by June 23rd)
(Teaching+1, 3v2=3) Electronic Warfare 3, 5v5=2 +1 previous = 3, skill raised (by June 26th)
(Teaching+1, 3v2=3) Hacking 2, 5v4=4, skill raised (by June 28th)
(Teaching+1, 3v2=3) Conditioning 2, 3v4=2, skill raised (by June 30th)

Tonight:
(Teaching+1, 4v3=3) Negotiation 4, 5v6=3 +3 previous = 6, skill raised (by June 4th)
Conditioning 1, 4v6=3, skill learned (by June 5th)
Performance 1, 5v6=4, skill learned (by June 6th)
(Teaching+1, 4v3=3) Diplomacy 5, 5v7=3 +2 previous, skill raised (by June 11th)
(Teaching+1, 4v3=2) Teaching 4, 4v7=1 +2 previous = 3/4 (by June 15th)
(Teaching+1, 4v3=2) Perception 2, 3v5=5, skill raised (by June 17th)
Biotech 1, 3v6=1, skill learned (by June 18th)
(Teaching+1, 4v3=4) Con 5, 5v6=3 +3 previous = 6, skill raised (by June 23rd)
(Teaching+1, 4v3=4) Leadership 4, 4v5=3/4 (by June 27th)
(Teaching+1, 4v3=4) Sorcery 2, 3v3=3, skill raised (by June 29th)
(Teaching+1, 4v3=4) Software 2, 5v3=3, skill raised (by July 1st)


Elemental Upgrades

Steven (air elemental) and Jade (earth elemental) do not have the convenience of upgrading themselves every time our Conjuring skill goes up. They are treated as drones, which means we need to run a crafting project to make them better. Which is, in itself, not a problem, it just requires some time, money, and effort.

We can’t upgrade the rating of an item, so we’re basically making them from scratch. First, we need to run an Inventive project for an item with R4; we will call ourselves belonging to a School of Thought here, to reduce the costs, but limit our available projects. In Aphelion, each school of thought covers 6 different types of tech (like lasers, plasma weapons, chems, cybertech, etc.) Because I’m reworking the world and mechanics on the knee, our school of thought is going to cover:

  1. elementals
  2. stealth
  3. foci
  4. magical security
  5. spell research
  6. alchemy

Now, creating a new item requires an R&D Facility. We don’t have one, so running this project will cost us double the deployment fatigue – we’ll need to take some more time off this month, in short. The process isn’t complicated:

  1. Determine desired item rating: 4
  2. Set attributes: Armor 5 (positive +1), Range 2 (positive -2), signature 4, power slots 5 (positive +1), durability 40
  3. Challenge: Rating x3 (because it belongs to our school of thought) = 12
  4. Resistance: 4 (item rating)
  5. Skills reduce difficulty: Conjuring 4
  6. Clout: from AI spell, 5 points
  7. Intel cost: Rating x3 (school of thought) = 12

This means we need to spend 12 points of intel to start (but by now, all intel is created equal, which means we can spend the otherwise useless intel we have on d’Venescu here), which leaves us with 12 – enough to upgrade the second elemental, but I think we’ll stay with just one here. We’ll upgrade Steven, because he is and always will be, Tomorrow’s favorite.

This is not a Faction project, this is an Actor project – we get to roll our 5 Logic dice and apply all other thingies Tomorrow can do, which means: 5 v 6 -4 skill +4 Res -5 Clout = 5v2 = (5+5+5) 15/12. We finish this project with 3 net marks, which actually saved us from negative consequences, because I rolled a 2, now bumped up to 5.

After 3 days of hard work (and I mean hard – for the purposes of free time, it counts as 6 days), we’ve come up with a better air elemental. We pay their Rating x3 in raw materials, and as I’ve already decided we’re paying the SR price for magic supplies, this means 6,000c total. Now, behold a brand new Steven:

Steven (Air Elemental)
Rating: 4
Armor (Soak): 5
Range (Modules): 2
Signature (Astral): 4
Power Slots: 0/5
Durability: 15
Powers:

  • [Investigative] Concealment [P, S. Marks scored provide Resistance against all attempts to spot the target. Max number of targets = Rating.]
  • [Scientific] Accident [M, I, CR=Fitness+Agility. Target loses a number of Physical Actions equal to marks scored as a small accident makes their life harder: they trip, spill a drink, or get dizzy. Net marks reduce Stamina Pool.]
  • [Social] Confusion [M, I, CR=Resolve+Conditioning. Marks deplete Morale Pool.]
  • [Warfare] Elemental Attack [P, I. Ranged attack dealing Stamina damage = marks. Counts as electrical damage.]
  • [Scientific] Movement [P, S, N/A. While sustained, targets can travel modules = marks in a single interval. Max number of targets = Rating.]

Running through this whole process means that we now have a ‘platinum blueprint’ – everything we need to make another copy of Steven for the cheap price of raw materials. This means we can bind an army of Stevens – we’ll still pay the maintenance each month (400c/each), but if we need to, we only need a day to make another copy of this elemental. We can technically even sell them, but we’re not going to.


Money Talks

The rules for Faction Advancement have changed, and we no longer need to run a structured campaign for it – instead, we need to spend Resources equal to the new Rating x10 (and accomplish a deed). This means 30 in our case. Let us see what we can potentially cash in:

Resources:

  • 18 Payouts worth of cash
  • Extra cash: 1,700c
  • 12 points of intel
  • 7 points of Cutters/Hellhounds Influence
  • 38 points of general Influence for Rep
  • Payout 5 Protective Duty project from the Cutters, providing Warfare Focus for a project or Asset

I want to complete the deed ‘Secure Influence equal to new rating times 10,’ which means I can only pay 8 out of those 38 into the pool. We’ll use them, we’ll add 7 points of Cutters/Hellhounds influence (our Familiarity is at 9/10, so we won’t need it much), which brings us to 15. I’ll throw in 5 points of intel (be quiet, my heart) and 10 payouts worth of cash. Money’s generally irrelevant, as long as we have enough to pay the bills.

On June 4th, after Tomorrow ends the phone call where she learns about her new-found glory as an antique rescuer and magical archeologist, she has a good, long laugh and realizes that some people have actually taken notice of her exploits. Which has, of course, both benefits and drawbacks, but it upgrades us to a Faction Rating 3, with the remaining Resources:

  • 8 Payouts worth of cash
  • Extra cash: 1,700c
  • 7 points of intel
  • 30 points of general Influence for Rep
  • Payout 5 Protective Duty project from the Cutters, providing Warfare Focus for a project or Asset

There we go – we’ve spent an equivalent of 150,000c to buy ourselves ONE dice on Faction Layer. Worth it.

In case you’re wondering about our Faction’s total tally of projects (I was), it looks like this:

  • Creative: 0
  • Investigative: 13
  • Scientific: 23
  • Social: 31
  • Technical: 3
  • Warfare: 1

I couldn’t find a better proof that Project Aphelion is not a combat game. It can be, but it’s not a default mode of play.


Back to Work

Next on the list, time to cash in the Income Scenario. As usual, we’re running a magical security consultancy gig for Alp Group, because as much as Tomorrow complains about it not being applicable to her degree, this is literally what she’s good at. She even wrote a thesis (for an initiation) in SR about magical stealth. As always, the Income Scenario doesn’t require a project, and Legwork is done on the same day. Busy June 5th.

R5 (1) Crew: 5 dice, 5 skill, 3 Resistance, 3 Clout, 2 soak, 2 automarks. +1 automark for 1 Actor
Scenario Payout 3
Legwork: 5v1=5+3. 5 net.
Threat Rating: 3v8 = 1 (-2 soak) = 0.
TR 0-3 = 0
Challenge: Payout + 0 = 3.

R5 (1) Crew needs to score 3 marks. Tomorrow is rolling 5 v 6 – 5 (skill) + 3 (Payout Resistance) – 3 (Clout) = 5v1, and starts with 2 automarks, plus scores +1 in each roll. Scenario rolls 3 v 6 – 1 (number of Actors) + 3 (Resistance) = 3v8, and gets hit with 2 points of Soak each interval.

T1: Offense: 5v1=5 +3 = 8. MT 8/3. Defense: 3v8=1 (-2 soak) = 0. MT 8/3 -> Offense wins, with 5 net

3 Payouts of cash, +3 points of Rep for us, +1 to Scenarios won entirely with magic (because why not), and Fam with Alp Group growing to 8.

A consequence roll 3+5 = 8, positive consequence with magnitude 3 = 9. A person from a character’s backstory gets involved with a new Faction in the Sector. That Faction will commit Projects with Payout equal to the magnitude to further that character’s personal goals. Pick which character it entails.

At this point, basically all backstory character are contacts. Let’s generate the Faction and see what fits:

No.NameRatingPrimary Focus, Behavior, & AssetsSecondary Focus, Behavior, & AssetsTertiary Focus BehaviorTrait
233Investigative (hostile growth)
R2 (3) Crew
Scientific (hostile growth)
R1 (1) Crew
(exclusive growth)Exploitative
add 2 priority to Projects acquiring Resources from the environment and gain control of Resource nodes  – whatever fits the Focus.

Oh well. I haven’t planned on this bit coming into play yet, but then, ah, who cares. I’m just having fun here, and I don’t have to worry about novel-style pacing, now, do I?

I am very sorry, but we’re starting a Book 2 about two weeks before finishing Book 1. Cue, more narrative. I had it prewritten for a while, not gonna lie.


June 6th, 2056

The pizzeria is a small, cramped place, utterly devoid of style and even pretense of any effort to make eating there a pleasant experience. Cheap metal tables and plastic chairs are uncomfortable and slightly sticky, and the cook in an oily apron only adds to the general look of dinginess.

‘I can’t believe you like this place,’ laughs Sarah. ‘It has literally the worst reviews in the whole city. To the point where I just assumed it’s a mafia front. I mean, just look at them,’ she whispers, tilting her head slightly towards the two sad men in suits sitting by the table on the opposite side of the diner. ‘They’ve been here a year ago, they’re still here now.’

‘What did you…? Oh right, it’s the same place, isn’t it? The one Slater used to drop that fake intel about BBs.’ Adam looks at the two suits with complete disinterest. ‘I forgot about that.’

How? You literally paid me to break into here,’ she whispers. ‘I wonder if the ice cream machine is still broken… On a second thought, I think I’ll just pass on the dessert. So, what’s so cool about Domingo’s?’

‘I don’t know. I just like the atmosphere, it reminds me of… Something. And they have pretty good garlic bread and olives.’

‘Good enough to visit every month?’

Adam takes a sip of soda. ‘Apparently. I’m going to remind you that I didn’t force you to come. You invited yourself. You don’t get to complain about my common tastes.’

‘I happen to like spending time with you. It doesn’t have to be in restaurants and opera houses.’ She collects the pizza from the delivery drone and sets it on the table, then picks up a slice. ‘So, how has your day been?’

They fall into an easy conversation, exchanging jokes and banter over the meal. They skip the details, of course. It should be safe, but this close to the Warrens, it would be unwise to advertise exactly who they are and what they do for a living. Yet, it seems like the other people don’t pay any attention to them, each of the few patrons dealing with their own life. Sarah has to admit it is a relief – it’s been almost a year since she broke into the pizzeria to steal intel planted by a self-proclaimed FBI agent; the same intel that directly lead to the turf war, Logan’s removal, and Adam’s subsequent promotion to the head of the Cutters’ local chapter. It wasn’t planned, per se – but then, she cannot be sure if the potential consequences weren’t at least considered ahead of time.

Knowing Adam – they probably were.

By the time they’re done with their meal, most of the patrons have been replaced with the new ones – save for the two sad men, still morosely drinking their sodas in a booth by the window and playing with their commlinks without saying a word to one another. Sarah tries to remember if they really are the same people as last year, when she was casing the joint – but no, they’re just wearing the same suits and expressions of absolute boredom.

She has a hilarious joke about them already written in her head, for when they’re out of the earshot – no point in enraging mafia goons for the sake of a chuckle. She gets up, collecting her things and Adam does the same, before he reaches into his pocket and calmly puts a datachip on the table, next to their stacked plates. Sarah is just about to ask about it, before she glances at Adam’s perfectly neutral face.

Not the right time or place, she decides, conjuring a smile and grabbing Adam’s hand as they leave the pizzeria. They walk towards the car, and she can barely stop herself from looking behind her, not wanting to blow whatever has just happened. And yet, curiosity is my tragic flaw. She takes a step to the side and wraps her arms around Adam, kissing him passionately – and looking over his shoulder at the pizzeria’s interior.

She was right. One of the sad suits is just leaning over the table Adam and her have vacated. The other is already by the door, preparing to leave. She closes her eyes, embracing the con.

‘What did I do?’ inquires Adam when their lips part. ‘Not complaining, just collecting feedback for the future.’

Sarah laughs as if he has just said the funniest of jokes. ‘You tell me. When you can. Your friends are just leaving.’

‘What friends?’ He furrows his brows in uncharacteristic confusion. ‘Are we being followed?’ he asks quietly, pretending to pet her hair, but his other hand is already reaching towards a gun. ‘How many?’

‘I mean the suits, chill,’ she whispers back. ‘They took the chip and are going to their car. It’s fine. Kiss me.’ She takes a couple steps backwards, dragging Adam with her, until her back leans safely against the door of the car. It takes all of her composure to not surround herself with an army of elementals, but then, if they are being observed, it would immediately raise suspicion. Instead, she just controls and masks her aura, so her curiosity and concern don’t show their colors.

She wishes she could do the same for Adam’s – but no, his aura is a tangled mess of confusion, alertness, and adrenaline. She hopes that whoever is watching – if somebody’s watching – will interpret those in a more personal way. She slides her palms along his torso in a passable imitation of a caress, then steals his car keys from his pocket and jingles them in front of his face. ‘Aha!’ she laughs. ‘Mine now. Come on, let’s go home. I got some more things to claim as mine.’

Adam sighs, returning a smile – but he cannot hide the emotions in his eyes. ‘Do you even know how to drive, little bird?’

‘You have a one in a lifetime opportunity to explain it to me. Preferably, before we crash.’

When she gets behind the steering wheel, the two sad suits are already pulling out of the parking lot. She takes note of their license plates, but doubts it will be of any use. They drive west and turn north – this gives her almost nothing; at best, they’re not driving into Warrens. Mafia has no presence there, not since last year, when BBs made that short deal… As she pretends to not know how to drive, she manages to convey the simple message of not now to Adam, who doesn’t acknowledge it in any way, but proceeds to play the part of an amused boyfriend teaching her how to not crash a car.

Twenty minutes later, in their flat, behind a ward and a privacy charm, is when she drops the pretense. ‘So, what was on that chip?’

‘What chip?’

‘The one you left…’ Sarah stops and shrugs. ‘Listen, if this is one of those things that you can’t tell me about, just say so. You know I won’t pry into Cutters’ business. But don’t lie to me.’

There is nothing but pure confusion on Adam’s face. ‘I’m not lying to you, I just honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. What is going on?’

‘That’s my question. We ate, you left a datachip on the table, the sad suits picked it up after we left, and drove away. You’ve been there. You’ve seen it. You did it, for god’s sake.’ Sarah sighs. ‘So, I’m going to ask: what are you doing, how much of a mess is it, and how can I help?’

‘I’m not doing anything,’ he repeats. ‘I know nothing about any datachips. We ate, we left, you started kissing me in a parking lot, talking about my friends. I thought we’re in danger.’

‘Shit, we might be.’ Sarah bites her lip and looks at Adam with clear worry. ‘Babe, I love you. I trust you. Whatever the hell has happened there, we’ll figure it out. Coffee?’ 

He nods stiffly and sits down on the couch. ‘Coffee. I know what happened. You know what happened. One of us is obviously wrong. I’d rather it wasn’t me.’

‘Well, it was either a hallucination, an illusion, a fake memory, or a memory removed. I’m not on any drugs or cyber, so it would have to be magic in my case. Memory magic is freaking hard and invasive, illusions are much easier. Of course, that would mean that somebody can benefit from me – or another person – seeing you leaving that chip and it being collected by the suits.’ She pours hot water over ground coffee and brings the mugs to the coffee table, not bothering with milk or sweeteners. 

‘Always a possibility of a set-up,’ agrees Adam. ‘Either that or I’m missing a memory? Well, I’m not on any drugs either.’

‘What chips are you running? Maybe you had a glitch or something?’ 

‘A glitch could explain the pizza place, but not the fact that I have no recollection of ever burning that datachip or getting it from somebody.’ Sarah’s expectant expression reminds him he skipped the first of her questions. ‘I’m not running anything out of the ordinary. One financial soft I haven’t unplugged since morning and smartlink’s activesoft. Same thing as usual.’

‘What’s the third one?’ She picks up a mug and blows into it before taking a sip.

‘I don’t have a third…’ Adam raises a hand and runs his fingers over his chipjack behind the ear. ‘Oh. It’s just all the boring stuff I need for my job.’

‘Darling, at the risk of sounding like an absolute asshole… Which job?’ 

‘What?’ 

‘You heard me.’ Raven, I beg you, let me be wrong. ‘Take it out. Please.’

Sarah can feel her point of perspective move, as if her mind split from her body and observed the events from a safe distance, from a vantage point. She can see Adam’s obvious distress, his sudden anxiety. The chip slides out from the socket and Adam brings it in front of his eyes, looking at the tiny letters on the flat surface. Suddenly, his pupils widen and his face turns pale. He puts the chip on the table and stares at it without a word. 

Please, let him be himself. Please, don’t let him hate me. 

‘Adam?’ she asks gently after a while, before her heart breaks into pieces. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I think so.’ He picks up his mug of coffee and drinks half of it in one go, even though it’s still hot. These is no tremble in his hands and his voice sounds almost normal. Just… Confused, decides Sarah. The question is, what comes after. 

She extends her hand and touches his arm, relieved when he doesn’t pull away. ‘I’m here for you.’ She hopes the promise in those words won’t be one she needs to break. ‘Tell me how I can help.’

‘Oh fuck.’ It’s almost as if only now he realized she’s around. He turns his head towards her and Sarah feels that she could drown in the depth of the emotions painted across his face. ‘Sarah, I am so sorry. I…’

She wishes she could sound more friendly when she opens her mouth, but she feels so cold that she can barely move. Somehow, she finds it in herself to ask: ‘Do you want me to leave?’ 

‘No!’ This must have come out stronger than he planned, because he visibly forces himself to calm down. ‘Please, stay. I just need to sort through this. It’s a lot to process. Give me a moment.’

She nods and lets her hand fall into her lap, focusing on releasing the tension from her body. Switching her perception to the astral plane, she watches him with the corner of her eye. His aura looks so similar – the same healthy green, with a dark spot near his temple and black smudges of his rewired nervous system. The confusion is going away, replaced by calm determination. There’s more to his emotions, but she’s not that good at reading auras – Tonight would know. 

The situation feels too private to get even the ally spirit involved. Not yet. Not until I know how fucked up it all is. Not until I need to run. 

It takes a couple of minutes before Adam takes a deep breath and turns towards her. ‘Sarah…’ 

‘Who are you and what did you do to my fiancé?’ She really tries to make it sound light; she manages, mostly. But her words have the desired effect: they break any opening he has carefully prepared and force him to answer a simple question. 

‘It’s still me.’ There is no shade of lies in his aura, and it makes her breathe a little easier. ‘I didn’t go anywhere.’ He reaches out and grabs her hand, his fingers feeling against her skin exactly the same as always. ‘I still love you.’

‘We’ll get back to that.’ She nods with a forced smile. ‘Who do you work for?’ 

‘I can’t tell you.’

‘So, the feds. Do Chloe and I need to lawyer up after everything that happened here?’ 

‘Not that I know of.’

Still no sign of lies. Sarah sighs and lets her perception return to the material plane, her eyes downcast, so he cannot notice the slight change in them as she refocuses. She gives herself a couple of seconds to regain composure, then looks into Adam’s eyes and repeats: ‘Tell me how I can help.’

‘I’m just here for the Cutters,’ he admits. ‘It’s a big investigation.’

‘Oh, I bet. What is it, a personafix?’

‘A custom one. It doesn’t rewrite all that much, just…’ he stops, looking for a good word.

‘The moral compass?’

Adam nods. ‘Mostly. It lets me do what needs to be done. Things I wouldn’t have done otherwise – oh shit, Sarah, the things I’ve asked you to do…’ He looks at her apologetically, but gets nothing but a vague shrug in response. ‘And, of course, it makes me forget about the investigation. I just collect the data and pass it over, not knowing about it. Makes the job safer.’

‘Good. It’s near suicidal anyway. Do you ever take it out?’

‘It switches off at night, when I’m alone. I don’t remember about its existence otherwise.’

‘You’re never… Oh fuck.’ Sarah hesitantly reaches out and touches his face, her fingers sliding across the chipjack behind his ear. ‘You’ve been running a fucking BTL non-stop since February? How is your brain not fried?’

‘It’s a very good custom BTL? I don’t know, I’m not the one who programmed it,’ he explains with a smidge of annoyance. ‘I shouldn’t be telling you any of this anyway. The whole mission is already compromised.’

‘Chill. I’m not going to sell you out. I don’t give a shit about the Cutters, you know that.’

‘I know,’ he admits, much softer. ‘You literally had me prepare several plans of ditching them without getting killed. Right up to the point of getting to the top of the ladder and retiring with all benefits.’

‘Well, I want you to live a long and happy life. Working for a cartel ain’t that.’ She runs the permutations in her head, not liking any of the odds she’s arriving at. ‘Neither is working against it. What is your plan of getting out? You’ve spent five years here, I can’t imagine you’re planning to do it your whole life.’

‘I’m going to do it for as long as I can. Or until the agency decides to extract me. I don’t really have that much control over this. And it doesn’t account for my personal life.’

‘CIA, then? Makes sense.’ She knows she sounds cold and aloof, but there’s only so many emotions she can allow herself to feel right now. ‘Do you even have a personal life?’

The question takes him aback, and he winces as if she punched him in the stomach. ‘Don’t I?’

Sarah shrugs, letting her helplessness show. ‘You know literally everything there is to know about me. You’ve seen me do all kinds of messed up and illegal shit, some of it for you. You know what I think. What I feel. Months ago, you said that I’ll grow a conscience one day and dump you. Looks like you got there before me, so tell me: is there still anything between us?’

Seconds feel like decades, before he answers: ‘I hope so. I love you. That part of my life was never programmed.’ There is so much honesty in his gray eyes that Sarah can barely stop herself from crying. ‘I know I haven’t had the best… influence on your choices. If it makes it better, I never wanted to mislead you. I fully believed everything I said.’

‘Is everything I know about you a lie?’

‘About my past – yes. It was crafted to let me join the Cutters. Everything that happened after that point is just facts, you can confirm them with Friese if you want. She’s… She’s looking for a way out, isn’t she? No, never mind. Later.’ Adam glances at the chip lying on the table and clenches his fists, then returns his attention to the conversation. ‘But you know me. Like literally nobody else… Sarah? Shit, Sarah, please don’t cry.’

‘I’m not,’ she lies blatantly. ‘I would never ruin my makeup like that.’

He extends his arms to hug her, but the loud knocking at the door interrupts him mid-gesture. Sarah wipes her eyes, straightening her back instantly.

‘Chucky,’ she whispers, relaying the message from her watcher spirit.

Adam grabs the datachips from the coffee table and tosses them onto his desk, away from view, before opening the door and greeting his second-in-command with a relaxed nod. ‘What’s going on?’

Charlie Parker, a tan, black-haired dwarf in mechanic’s coveralls, leans against the door frame, exuding the aura of his usual self-satisfied arrogance. ‘Not much. The delivery has arrived and you said you want to know when it does. I’m doing the exhausting job of letting you know. The guys also wanted to show you a thing in the shop…’

‘Is somebody gonna die if it waits until tomorrow?’

Chucky smirks at the pun, shooting a glance inside the flat. His gaze lingers on Sarah’s teary, red-rimmed eyes. ‘No,’ he answers after a moment, losing a bit of the attitude. ‘Imma tell them you’re busy today. I’ll deal with the rest.’

‘Thanks. Text me in case of any problems.’

‘Will do.’ Chucky nods curtly and disappears down the corridor. Adam closes the door and leans against it with a sigh, knowing the privacy spell will not let the sound go outside the flat.

‘Won’t he get suspicious?’ asks Sarah, picking up her now-cold coffee.

‘He already thinks I’m getting soft because of you, and he finds it hilarious.’ Adam returns to the couch, sitting down a bit closer to Sarah than previously. ‘But Chuck is a good friend, and he’s damn proud of his promotion. If anything, he’ll be happy he can run the circus while I’m not looking. He hopes to take over the whole place at some point.’

‘That’s both good and bad,’ laughs Sarah. She empties the mug, barely paying attention to it. ‘Fuck, Adam… That still your name…? Good, I always liked it. I’m so worried about you. I thought your life was dangerous before, but now… Do you still want me in it?’

‘I do. But I know it’s going to put you at even more risk, so I’ll get it if you want out. I won’t stop you, and I’ll keep your secrets. Just… Keep mine, please. I trust you.’

‘Are you going to remember anything from this conversation when you slot in that chip again?’

‘Not much,’ he admits. ‘But I don’t have to run it. Not all of the time. My position between the Cutters is secure. If somebody notices any changes in my behavior, they’ll assume it’s because of you. Which is a separate set of problems, but much less likely to end up in me getting court-martialed for treason. Much more likely to end up in trouble coming your way, but so far, our co-operation has only made the cartel more profitable, so I don’t think there would be any repercussions in the near future. I became much better at this job than anybody has ever expected me to be.’

She thinks back to all the conversations they had about planning, dealing with enemies, resolving the moral conundrums. Until now, his answers were cold and pragmatic, but she somehow doubts she’d hear the same opinions now. ‘Not running the chip will have you making some damn hard choices to keep up your reputation.’

Adam shrugs, but it’s far from lighthearted. ‘I told you I could never sleep well until you moved in. I don’t think I can hate myself any more for all the things I had to do in the last five years. Without the BTL, I’ll have an actual choice whether to keep doing them, which means I won’t always have to.’

‘Well then.’ Sarah puts her empty mug back on the table and grins, the worries more forcefully pushed to the side than forgotten. ‘I look forward to getting to know you again. You’ve arranged for a day off for yourself, and we already had coffee, so how about you just kiss me and we’ll see how that goes? I think the universe owes us a second first date.’

‘Without blowing up buildings and killing people,’ he adds. ‘And then… I think you need to meet Ben.’

‘Your brother?’ she asks rhetorically, feeling her smile falter.

‘My handler. That’s going to be one hell of a conversation, and I’m very much not looking forward to it. But I’d rather come clean than have to face the other side’s court martial for treason.’ Adam sighs and finishes his coffee. ‘It can wait a couple of hours, though. I believe we had some more pressing matters to sort out first.’

‘Of highest importance.’ Sarah leans towards him, her eyes not leaving his even for a second – not until their lips touch, and for a moment, everything is back to normal.

The new normal. For as long as we manage to pull it off. Oh, Raven. Why can’t life ever be simple?


New Friends!

Enter, stage left, the freaking CIA.

It’s not even my idea, this part is taken straight from our SR campaign. Wheeler has always been CIA mole / sleeper agent, because of course he was. I wasn’t even surprised when I learnt about it. Anyway, CIA is investigating the Cutters, which is also not surprising, because they’re an international gun-smuggling cartel. Obviously, they’re being investigated. According to the series of rolls I’ve made:

  • The new Familiarity with Wheeler is 9 (I literally rolled three nines on that one, so the Universe has spoken decisively). As this is not far from the original 10 to realistically cause anything more than a couple of minor issues, I’m going to just assume they’ll work out their differences quickly and I won’t bother with it. Could be worse.
  • The call with the handler went surprisingly well: they don’t want to close the investigation or extract Wheeler, and they don’t terribly mind Tomorrow knowing about it, so everything stays without any changes at the moment – save for the personafix, which goes deep into a desk drawer.
  • The CIA joins the game and will be treated as Wheeler’s employer, so we’ll see how and where that goes. Maybe we’ll end up slowly undermining the Cutters (which would be a much harder thing to do that quietly fighting a blood mage who doesn’t know about us), maybe we’ll be running a double life, maybe we’ll just go for a quiet extraction in time and a new life in Chelyabinsk. We’ll see.
  • We’re keeping secrets… from basically everyone but Tonight, because keeping secrets from somebody who is your best friend, literally connected with you with a telepathic bond, contractually obligated to be loyal, and potentially vital in case of any SHTF scenario would be pointless.
  • They will commit a project with Payout 3 to our benefit – we’ll keep it as an IOU at the moment, and cash in later.

Coming Up

Plans versus emergent gameplay, I suppose. There are a lot of things to do, and we’ll get to them in the next episode, because this one is already running long.

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