String Theory Recap: Old Ghosts

At last we reach the conclusion of the Zalozhniy Quartet, at least for my game. In this session of my Night’s Black Agents game, String Theory, the agents obtain the Nigredo, the second half of Philby’s plot to take over Saudi Arabia and become a vampire lord. They also get shot at, punched, robbed, kicked, bitten, and in one case thrown off a skyscraper.

We pick up after the incident at the cemetery in Beirut where Philby’s grave turned out to be a trap.

StringTheory

Old Ghosts

We start with the Heat roll which is currently at difficulty 2 since most of their recent activities happened in Europe. Here in Lebanon, they are still wanted for questioning about the suicide bombing a couple of months ago. They make the roll with a 2.

Guy weaves the van through Beirut while Scarlet patches up the old spy, Nicky. Rifling through his pockets, Nasir finds a wallet and directs them to Nikolai’s address.

Scarlet spends 2 points of Medic to stabilize Nicky.

They find a fairly bare apartment, decorated with orthodox crosses over the doors and windows and a few faded pictures. Guy looks around while they make the old man comfortable. He mumbles in his sleep but doesn’t wake.

The driver finds a pile of folders inside a hidden space behind an air vent. Most of it confirms what they already know: Nikolai is a former KGB spook working for Arkady. He has been watching Philby’s grave for decades. One interesting piece of evidence they uncover however is a set of negatives showing the removal of Philby’s corpse.

While Nasir and Guy develop the photos, Scarlet checks John for signs of infection. What she uncovers is unsettling. The former soldier has contracted a dormant form of the vampire contagion. She confirms the rest of the team is clean.

A good Diagnosis use here. John has the same latent vampirism as the Saudi royal family.

Nasir shows the blown up photo to Guy. The worldly driver identifies the tribe extracting Philby’s remains as members of the al-Murrah, currently located in Saudi Arabia.

On the news, reports of a wild animal attack and the deaths of 3 to 4 people are the only clues to what occurred in the cemetery.

As they watch the program, Nicky wakes up. Groggily he thanks the team and offers to help fill in any missing pieces. One new clue he offers them is that an Arab boy has recently shown unusual attention to the graveyard in the past week. He describes the teenager to them: tall, thin, always on his phone but not really listening to his music.

They soon spot the youth and hack into his communications. He is getting regular text messages from a handler. They seem very interested in the agents’ doings, specifically what happened in the cemetery and if they obtained a certain item. Scarlet soon triangulates the source to a villa near the border between Greek and Turkish Cyprus.

Scarlett uses Electronic Surveillance. She spends a point to trace the signal back to its source.

Guy locates a boat at the harbor that wouldn’t be missed for an overnight excursion and they prepare to pay this mystery person a visit.

Guy uses Human Terrain to find a boat and the Grand Theft Boat cherry to steal it.

That night Guy steers the vessel silently up to the wooden pier. The team quietly ascends the chalk cliff and slips into the decaying mansion. While most of the structure appears abandoned, the kitchen shows signs of at least one person living here.

Guy makes a Difficulty 6 Piloting test to arrive unseen. John then uses Infiltration with the rest of the team piggy backing to get them inside.

Nasir snaps a picture of the map of Saudi Arabia laid out on a table. Several locations are marked in the deep desert. Upstairs they find a single room locked and in use. They decide not to confront their pursuer. Instead they plant bugs around the house and slip back to Beirut.

A Preparedness test to get some bugs.

Early the next day they identify the handler as Menena Chakroun, queen of thieves. She makes several calls to contacts around the region, trying to determine if the DOD, the Conspiracy, or the agents have obtained the two halves of Philby’s plot: the Albedo and the Nigredo.

I’m sad I didn’t get to use my version of Katun. I thought it tied things up nicely. She’s secretly the granddaughter of Philby and after his plot for immortality.

The team arranges a flight to Riyadh, operating under their cover identities. Nasir decides to resurrect his Saudi prince, seeing as he is only wanted in Austria. Somehow he, Scarlet and John (both presenting themselves as unassociated historians) get through security unmolested. Vino Romeo, Guy’s location scout cover, however gets special treatment by customs. As he leaves the airport he also spots some officers tailing him.

The Cover tests were easy but somehow he failed.

The driver allows them to pull him over on the way to the city. The officers begin to search the car and harass him, except for one nervous looking man. Guy notes down the policeman’s name and then launches into a tirade as Vino, effectively scaring the corrupt cops off with his Hollywood connections.

Guy uses Cover successfully to intimidate the cops. Cop Talk notes the one “honest” police officer.

Guy catches up with the others and relates the incident. They decide to find out who is behind this. Scarlet researches Officer Ahmed and then Nasir intercepts him on his way home that evening. As they discuss figs at the market, the spy intimates how much he knows about Ahmed. He then reassures the scared officer that he isn’t after him. Ahmed confesses he and his comrades have been taking bribes from a powerful criminal group. They have their fingers in everything here. Nasir thanks him and gives him a burner phone should he need to contact Ahmed again.

Some good role-playing, Reassurance, and the assumption that Nasir is with the General Intelligence Directorate and they flip the officer.

After that Nasir and John visit Haroun al-Murrah, current leader of the al-Murrah tribe. Haroun graciously welcomes a visit by a member of the royal family. Nasir explains he is doing research into some of the early history of the kingdom and has questions about an object that was moved by the tribe. This sparks Haroun’s memory and he relates a story from his youth.

His father took him on a trip to the deep desert, something one of the other tribesmen called the Hajj Shaitan. His father referred to special object in cave out there, the other Kaaba. With some cajoling, he and Nasir work out its location on a map.

Nasir’s Cover is pretty much ideal here. He makes a spend to avoid suspicion and then everything opens up to him. Whether Haroun will remain quiet remains to be seen.

Scarlet uses some satellite photos to more precisely map their destination. It is worrisomely close to one of the marks on Menena’s map. Nasir purchases some 4x4s while John gathers vampire hunting materials as well as the supplies needed for the long journey.

Nasir makes another Cover test to avoid drawing attention. John however fails his Preparedness test. I decide to let him have most of his stuff but the antibiotics are out of date and useless. Not that they know that yet.

My notes indicate I should have had the Traitor contact them at this point (in the hopes of obtaining the Albedo). I forgot that though. Oh well.

The trip into the desert is long and lonely. Two hot days and a cold night wear on them as they slowly approach a weathered outcropping,

They find a shaft sunk into the rock, worn smooth by centuries of sand or perhaps desert Bedouin. John drops a flare revealing hundred of bones lining the cavern floor: goats, camels, other animals. And human bones.

He fishes in their supplies for packet of blood. As it hits the cave floor, a pale white thing scrambles over the bones to lick up the splattered red liquid. Bony and misshapen, they can only guess that this is what remains of Harry Philby.

John makes a Preparedness test to have the blood on hand.

Nasir loads a dart gun with antibiotics and fires. The dart sinks into the creature’s hide. It snarls at them, scratching at the cave wall uselessly for a moment before returning to the blood.

Nasir spent enough Shooting for an automatic hit. Too bad his rounds were duds.

The agents look down into the growing gloom. Guy and John walk to the vehicles and pull a 5 gallon tank off the back of one of the 4x4s. They pour it down the cave, splashing Philby liberally as the creature carefully sucks up every drop of blood. Then they drop a second flare.

I give them a Shooting test to cover the vampire completely in gasoline.

The vampire screams in pain as the fire consumes its flesh. It runs in circles surrounded by fire. Eventually it leaps out of the pool of fire and into one of the many tunnels exiting the charnel house floor. The fire gutters out after a couple of minutes.

Philby fails a lot of rolls to put himself out and escape the flames but eventually he escapes. The fire reduces his Health down to -7 and he spends all of his Aberrance pool.

John and Guy look down the smoky hole for a long minute. Then the two spies slowly and reluctantly climb down. They carefully explore the cave, searching for signs of the vampire or its remains.

Then they hear it. Turning their flashlights backward they spy the almost skeletal charred creature racing towards them. They fire but in a fraction of a second it pushes John out of the way and digs its fangs into Guy.

The two make their Sense Trouble rolls but fail their Shooting rolls. Philby Throws John away and then bites into Guy, dealing 6 damage bite and healing the same amount. Luckily for it, it still has lots of Hand-to-Hand.

John pulls himself off the ground to watch in horror as the creature’s hide begins to regenerate with fresh blood. He levels his assault rifle into it as Guy fires repeatedly with his pistol. What was once Philby stiffens and then collapses to the ground. A dark slime oozes from its wounds and into the earth. The pair spy the thick crystal vial still secured about its neck and wrench it off. Then they hurry back to daylight.

Two point-blank shots do the monster in. Now they have the Nigredo.

Scarlet patches the pair up and they head back through the desert.

The next day as they pass over another dune in the vast desert, the sound of rotor blades emerges from the north. In mere moments, a heavily armed helicopter swings over them. The voice of Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Weddle, Scarlet’s former commander, commands them to surrender or else.

Weddle promises to spare their lives in exchange for the Nigredo. He also informs them that his employers already have the other half of the plague. Nasir has a sinking feeling as he envisions his beach home burning in Karachi. Faced with no option, they give it up to the two men Weddle sends down.

Then Weddle orders them away from their vehicles and opens fire on the 4×4 with the helicopter’s machine guns. Then he leaves the agents there to die.

Guy shrugs and explains the backup vehicle is stowed a few hours walk away. The team rescues what supplies they can while John directs them through the sands.

Guy makes a heroic Preparedness test (Difficulty 8) to have spare vehicle nearby. John spends a point of Outdoor Survival spend gets them home more or less alive.

I give the team a refresh but also subtract 2 Health from each of them.

A day later the team, sunburned and thirsty slip back into Riyadh. Scarlet helps patch them up while Nasir contacts Ahmed. The police officer reveals that they were bribed to let the passengers and contents of two private planes slip through customs uninspected last night. They headed for the Kingdom Centre, a 41 story skyscraper adorned with an elegant sky bridge between the twin peaks of its roof.

kingdom-centre

Scarlet hacks the building’s computer systems, giving them access to video surveillance and the elevators. She notes that some sort of experiment is being set up in the sky bridge. Notable guests include Joe Lisky, members of the WHO, Weddle, and the vampire Simon Thronradel. Two strange blurry figures appear on camera as well. One might be Dr. Dorjiev.

Hacking the security is a Difficulty 6 Digital Intrusion test.

They quickly put together a plan. John and Nasir will slip inside, exchange the Albedo and Nigredo for fakes, and then escape. Guy will cover their escape and destroy their enemies by stealing a helicopter from Overwatch and destroying the sky bridge.

Nasir makes a Preparedness roll to have some replicas ready of the Albedo (the Nigredo looks the same, so they just fill them with appropriate looking liquids).

The first part goes flawlessly. Nasir leads John through the lower levels in disguise, slipping past some Bratva spotters. With Scarlet’s help they avoid the patrols and pass through the upper floors. Meanwhile Guy gains access to the hanger and hotwires the helicopter.

John piggy backs on Nasir’s Disguise test. Guy makes an equally hard Infiltration test. Hot wiring is easy since he has Grand Theft Helicopter.

Avoiding the patrols is much easier with Scarlet’s help. John makes this difficulty 4 Infiltration roll while Nasir piggybacks.

John and Nasir don new disguises before entering the sky bridge. Nasir enters as just another lab technician and slowly works his way over the machinery near the Albedo and Nigredo. John mingles with the other bodyguards.

In addition to the half-dozen techs and three bodyguards, the walkway is occupied by Weddle, Lisky, Dorjiev, some African WHO officials, and the vampire.

Nasir fails to make this Disguise test…

Dr. Dorjiev turns to John and quietly expresses his surprise at his audacity. Then the doctor turns and remarks that Simon has noticed Nasir.

John uses Vampirology here to get a sense of what Dorjiev is. I told him he wasn’t exactly a vampire.

Dorjiev is a cool customer in my game.

Simon hisses, “you,” as he reaches for Nasir.

Panicking Nasir unloads a canister of aerosol antibiotics around himself. Simon reaches into the mist but pulls his hands back quickly in pain.

Nasir quickly makes a Preparedness test plus a 2 point Shooting spend to create a Block around himself. Lucky for him Simon fails his Aberrance test to get through.

As everyone else begins to react, John reaches over to Dorjiev and quickly snaps the old man’s neck. The doctor looks more disappointed than surprised as he falls to the ground. His body crumbles and vanishes.

John uses his MOS Hand-to-Hand to strike the neck and gets a good damage roll.

Stability rolls are made and John loses quite a bit of his Stability. I let him know however that Dorjiev is a tulpa, a living mental projection.

While the guards maintain some composure, Weddle and the noncombatants freak out. As they flee, Joe pulls out a pistol.

Meanwhile across the city, Guy powers up the helicopter, crashes through the hangar door and tears cross Riyadh for the Kingdom Centre.

Guy makes a Piloting roll to get there fast.

John spots one of the bodyguards training a pistol on Nasir. He fires and wings the man. Gritting his teeth at the pain, the bodyguard returns fire. As his shirt reddens with blood, the other bodyguards grab John, trying to drive him to the floor.

John goes first in the first real round of combat. He uses Shooting on the bodyguard and hits for 2 damage. He then takes 6 damage in return. The other guards use Hand-to-Hand to deal another 3 damage.

Nasir stumbles back from the vampire into the counter holding the Albedo and Nigredo. He crashes to the ground trying to grab hold of them. In the confusion the Albedo seems to roll away. Nasir rolls over Nigredo in hand as Simon snarls and pounces on him.

Nasir actually Filches them, switching them out with fakes (and beating Simon’s Alertness Modifier).

The vampire pushes through the mist, which emits a painful hiss as it contacts his corrupted flesh. He grabs the vials from Nasir’s hand, stomps the spy into the ground and then with superhuman speed and strength hurls him through the glass window and off the 41st story of the skyscraper.

Simon makes an Aberrance test to push through the mist. He takes 2 damage from the process. Then he uses Hand-to-Hand and his inhuman speed (spending 2 Aberrance for a third attack) to grab the vial (beating Nasir’s feeble attempt to hold onto it), hit the spy for 6 damage, and Throw (another 2 point spend of Hand-to-Hand) him out a window. Nasir choses not to grab onto the edge of the window…

Remarkably the window itself fails to do any damage to Nasir.

Guy brings the helicopter level with the sky bridge, glancing once at the figure falling away from the building. He lines up a shot on the vampire and opens fire.

Inside John bolts as the machine guns riddle Simon. Without pause he leaps through the broken window, removing his coat and using his wing suit to follow Nasir as he steers his wing suit for a nearby pool.

Guy spends enough Shooting to hit Simon plus more to use autofire. I kind of forgot that the machine gun wouldn’t do much to Simon though. Nasir meanwhile makes his Athletics check to guide his fall with his wing suit so he crashes into a pool. This is all part of the plan!

John follows but also tries to use Preparedness to leave behind a bomb. Sadly he fails.

Then hundreds of crows pour down from the roof to collide with the helicopter. Diseased carcasses splatter as they hit the windows and blades but somehow Guy maintains control long enough to fire the rockets.

Guy beats the crow swarm’s Fighting with his Piloting.

The sky bridge explodes in fire as Guy fires again and again, demolishing the upper stories of the structure. Shattered glass and burning steel crashes down on the streets and buildings below, adding to the carnage. Hundreds die in what will be called Saudi Arabia’s 9/11.

Lisky and the other mortals all die. I check and even Simon dies from the combined fall and fire.

Guy tears off for the desert, ditching the craft once clear of the city. He scrambles into his escape car and disappears. Elsewhere Nasir and John dry off, stowing the real Albedo and Nigredo safely away as they plan to rendezvous with Scarlet.

And the team gains about 7 Heat. The hunt is on.