In April 2018 I was struck by Ramsay-Hunt syndrome, and half my face was paralyzed. For about two months I had to somehow struggle through a new job with my face sliding off and my entire body completely exhausted and stricken with pain. I recovered over the following year until my face was about (in my estimation) 90-95% better, and probably no long term consequences. Then two weeks ago this awful condition hit me again, though this time I felt it coming, got the treatment early, and avoided any serious trouble. After this last 18 months of face-eating hell, I feel like I’m an experienced Ramsay-Hunter, but when I was trying to understand this disease last year I found precious little information on the internet about it. So, I have decided to use this blog for what blogs are good for, and to give my experience of Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome, as well as some suppositions and general suggestions for dealing with it based on what I experienced, my own hazy research and discussions with different people. Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome (hereafter referred to as RHS) has a very wide range of effects, if the internet is to be trusted, and a lot of them are pretty subtle and unpleasant. So I’d like to outline here what I experienced, some things I think about the disease based on my experience, and some stuff I picked up around the internet. To be clear if you read on: I am not a doctor, I have no medical advice for you, and if you’re coming to me for medical advice you’re in a dire place. This is just my experience, and you should not use it as anything except supportive anecdotal knowledge. Nonetheless, I hope it will help you. If you have experienced RHS yourself and want to add your own experiences in the comments, or are experiencing it and have questions (or want reassurance) then please also comment.

What is this godawful disease?

Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome is basically shingles inside your face. It is caused by Herpes Zoster (shingles) which is a consequence of being infected with chicken pox when you were a child. Basically the chicken pox reactivates, but instead of coming back as an intensely painful rash on your skin (as happens with most people) it comes back as a vicious, cruel, and completely godless infection of your facial nerve. Once it gets its hooks in it does the following things:

  • It causes intense pain in the back of your neck/head/jaw, that is like no other pain you have experienced
  • It causes a rash in one of your ears and/or your tongue
  • It paralyzes half of your face so that nothing moves. Nothing.

This facial paralysis is the worst part of the disease, because it completely disables half of your face, which makes speaking and eating difficult, and also stops you closing your eye[1].

There is no cure for this disease, because it’s one of the herpes family, a cluster of diseases that were designed by satan to annoy human beings. It is easily treated into remission however using acyclovir, an anti-viral drug. If you’ve had cold sores or genital herpes then you’ll probably be familiar with this family of stupid little viruses and their treatments.

Chickenpox is very common, since the vaccine was only available in 1984 and isn’t on the mandatory vaccination schedule of many countries. So if you’re older than about 38 years old chances are you had it, and if you are younger than 38 but from one of the many countries that don’t (or didn’t) have the vaccine in their schedule you may well have had it. If you’re like me you carry the scars of that idiot little disease on your face, but if you don’t have the scars you may not remember if you ever had it, in which case check with your parents. You need to know what’s coming for you.

The common view seems to be that RHS is triggered by stress, just as shingles is. So if you had chickenpox as a kid there’s basically only one way to prevent it: don’t get stressed. Hrmph!

Also RHS is not the same as Bell’s Palsy. Bell’s palsy is a sudden paralysis of the facial nerve, but it doesn’t come with the rash and intense, unrelenting pain, and it doesn’t do the other dodgy shit that RHS prides itself on (see below). I had Bell’s Palsy about 20 years ago, probably as a result of stress in combination with some stupid infection. Bell’s Palsy is a walk in the park compared to RHS.

What happened to me?

So let’s describe my experience. I was just finishing an extremely stressful job where I had been bullied for years by the most vicious pig of a man you can conceive of, and had secured a new job. I was taking a few weeks off and exercising daily, doing two hour morning kickboxing sessions. One Friday in mid-March I visited my new employer to fill in some forms and was informed that my job was guaranteed and I would definitely be starting on 1st April. When I left the workplace I could feel the stress falling off of me like water, and my spirits uplifted, really uplifted, for the first time in a long time. Since I had been training all week I was tired and I had muscle pain in my left shoulder but I didn’t think much of it.

On Saturday morning I woke up relatively early to go to role-playing, and noticed in the bathroom mirror that my eye and face was a bit weird, but I again didn’t think much of it. It was a bit weird but I’d gone to bed late and I think I’d been having celebratory drinks, so I just figured whatever and headed off to role-playing. By the time role-playing started two hours later I was in great pain that intensified over the day. At first I assumed it was some strain from kickboxing, but by mid-afternoon my face was beginning to fail and my speech was noticeably slurred. The pain by then was intense so I was icing the spot and trying to keep my shit together (fortunately I was playing not GMing). My friends started suggesting the possibility that I was having a stroke (I was 45), but as my face slid off I realized what was happening, and assumed I was just having a bad bout of Bell’s Palsy, brought on by the relief of stress on the Friday[2]. Since I’d experienced Bell’s Palsy before I knew what needed to be done: I had to go to a doctor to get some eye drops, buy an eye patch, and wait a few months. A pretty depressing start to a new job but whatever. So I finished the game, went home, slept as best I could, and the next morning I went to a doctor.

So Sunday morning my face was wrecked, and I felt like an operation was being conducted on my jaw. My eye was also now open permanently so things were touch and go, but I got to a doctor by lunchtime. The doctor was a standard internal medicine specialist (in Japan this is basically what you go to when you don’t know what’s up) with a nice surgery who I trusted, and he was very sure it was not Bell’s Palsy. He made me sit in the waiting room while he booked some urgent tests at the local hospital, to rule out a stroke, but then came out after ten minutes or so to check my forehead. He made me raise my brow like a reverse frown (what do you call that?) and upon seeing that my left forehead was completely static – not moving even a millimetre – he decided it must be RHS, canceled the tests, and gave me the medicine I needed. He gave me acyclovir to kill the herpes, pain killers, steroids to help my face recover, and eye drops for my eye. I went to a local pharmacist, hit the drugs, and crashed.

Acyclovir is a miracle drug, it works on the virus fast and within maybe two days the pain was gone, but my face was done for. I had to go into my new job the next week to begin preparing classes, setting up my work space, transferring grants (which takes sooo many forms!) and so on, but I couldn’t work my face at all and also I was exhausted. I could only work perhaps 3-4 hours a day before I had to struggle home and crash. But the worst was yet to come. After 5-6 days the acyclovir finished, and the disease came back within a day – worse than before. The pain was even worse, and it was hellish. This was when the other symptoms began (see below). Fortunately my new work has a very good hospital attached, so I saw a doctor there and they told me that I had been given an older, weaker version of acyclovir, and the steroid dose I’d been given was way too low to help my face. This doctor gave me valacyclovir, which is I guess the incredible hulk of acyclovirs, and nearly doubled my steroid dose. The pain subsided pretty quickly and over the next two weeks things calmed down. By the time April finished the secondary symptoms had gone and my face was beginning to move. In May the doctor shifted me to a rehabilitation plan, and I set about the long path to recovery.

What are the secondary symptoms?

If you google around you’ll hear all sorts of horror stories about this nasty little bug. I read people saying they lost their sense of balance, that they were always dizzy, that they nearly went blind, and that their ability to think or calculate was messed up. I found this out because in that first week I noticed I was doing things that are really unusual for me, including:

  • Taking the wrong train home
  • Getting confused about where in the train platform to go to get to my work
  • Forgetting names, words and basic facts
  • Confusing chats and sending the wrong messages to the wrong people

I went to hanami at my former work near the end of March and met a PhD student who I had known for three years, who had completed a master’s degree in my department and gone on to finish her first year of her PhD: I asked her when she was starting her PhD. I sent messages for my role-playing group to non-roleplaying friends, and vice versa. Also I was getting tired very quickly, and putting on weight (which may have been the steroids I guess). I went back to kickboxing after maybe a month, and that was okay, but for the first two weeks my whole body was a mess. I also discovered, once my eye could close again, that I had become photophobic. I didn’t notice this until mid May, which is when the sun really comes out in Tokyo, and it made my eyes tear up as soon as I went outside.

I’m also sure that this disease fucked my eyesight. I am longsighted and wear reading glasses but between March and May my eyesight suddenly deteriorated so I had to get new glasses. I also thought I was seeing double, but couldn’t get anyone at the eye doctor to believe me or confirm it.

I also had small pings of pain in the back of my jaw and neck for months after the main source of horror had gone away. It was there, reminding me that I was its bitch.

In preparing this post I did some searching and discovered this review article which describes the peripheral nervous system consequences of RHS. It can do a wicked and wondrous array of nasty little things to you, many of which resolve with rehabilitation and treatment, but some of which I think are permanent.

Rehabilitation experience

Rehabilitation for RHS is primarily the task of recovering facial movement, since this is the main physical consequence of it. For this I was given facial exercises (gurning, basically) and massages to do to try and regain facial function. The recovery rates for RHS are apparently not very good – less than 70% of people get full facial recovery, and the chance declines with age of course. I did my exercises reasonably assiduously, and the facial massages, and after a year I think I got back to about 90% function. I have two remaining problems with my face:

  • If I read while I’m eating my left eye gets strained and sometimes lets a few tears out (it can hurt a bit)
  • If I purse my lips my left eye closes slightly

I can also feel a bit of plasticity in the cheek around my mouth on the left side, and I can see a little pocket of muscle above the tip of my mouth on the left side that is dead and just kind of sits there like a lump of uselessness whenever I smile. That’s not a killer – I’ve never thought much of my smile, and whatever charm I have for the ladies is built on something else I’m sure. Most people don’t notice my face is lopsided, I haven’t lost any speech or anything, so I’m mostly good.

In fact, during rehabilitation I learnt finally how to wink with my left eye, something I never used to be able to do. A career of comedy awaits …

Rehabilitation for this disease isn’t hard. I noticed that my face hurt to touch, all over the left side, which the doctors told me was because the nerves are waking up and getting aggravated, and some of the rehabilitation exercises would make my face hurt as I strained to move shit around. Just like exercising your body, the muscles were weak and underworked, and they got worn down by practice. I also noticed some parts recovered quicker than others, and sadly the fine motor control around my eyes is the slowest to recover.

The doctors also warned me against starting rehabilitation before my viral symptoms were fully gone. They told me that if you begin rehabilitation too soon you can develop bad habits, like for example closing your eye every time you bite, because the nerves learn new pathways (like how I got my new left-eye wink superpower). In fact I think I have this when I yawn – my left eye shuts involuntarily.

The doctors also told me – and I also saw through google sensei – that getting the anti viral medication in early is important. Basically, if you don’t start the miracle acyclovir within 72 hours you’re done for, and the earlier you start the better. I waited a day and then started the weaker old one, so I guess that made my experience worse than if I had scuttled straight down to the best hospital in town, begged my way in on the claim that I was having a stroke, and got myself on valacyclovir from the morning it started. I won’t make that mistake again! But it’s also possible the doctors wouldn’t have recognized the problem and would have sent me in for a series of pointless and expensive stroke checks, and started me late on the anti-virals. The anti-virals really are key.

Actually when I went to the doctor at my university hospital after the pain returned (and got the stronger acyclovir) he wanted to hospitalize me, and put me on a drip for the medicines. He confessed to me that he didn’t think I needed IV acyclovir especially, but he wanted to force me into a bed away from my work so that the stress would stop and my face would recover. He thought stress was the real problem here, driving the whole thing, and was worried the medicine wouldn’t work until I get my work under control. But the thing is I had just started a new job, and he wanted to hospitalize me on the day of my first lecture. It’s not a good look! And in truth I couldn’t stand to spend a week in bed with nothing to do, so I begged off of that. Maybe my recovery would have been better if I’d agreed to that.

So if you want a good recovery:

  • Get on the antivirals as soon as possible (and if your doctor offers bog-standard acyclovir tell him to go jump – go straight for the strong stuff)
  • Get the stress out of your life, including by hospitalization if necessary
  • Don’t start rehabilitation until the awfulness is settled down a bit
  • Do your gurning exercises ruthlessly, and keep an eye out for weird new facial behaviors

Then bingo, a year later you’ll be able to (mostly) get your face back.

And trust me: you don’t realize how important your face is until it falls off. Life without a face sucks!

The second bout and the prodrome

So this year I went on a series of business trips and had quite a bit of stress, and a week ago I could feel this bastard disease creeping in again. I could feel my face getting a bit tired, and when I took a selfie on Monday night last week I could see my smile had retrogressed. Bastards! I could also feel a twinge in the back of my jaw, and when I went to work on Wednesday I was getting confused about train doors and having strange emotions. So I went to the hospital again, explained the whole thing to an otolaryngologist and got the miracle valacyclovir into me before the disease was fully up and running. My face sagged a bit but I’m already doing rehabilitation a week later, because the virus never got started. This time I caught the stupid thing as it was sneaking in the door, and slammed it shut. This time also the doctors were worried it was something else and so put me through some tests: MRI and some blood tests. The MRI came up completely clean and pure, even confirmed I have a brain (who knew!), and after a long and exhausting conversation with the neurologist in which he refused to believe any of the symptoms I just exhaustively described here, I was free to get out and begin the rehabilitation. My next appointment to track facial progress is in two weeks.

This tells me two things about this disease. First of all, it tells me that stress is really bad once you’re at risk of this disease, and you need to keep it well under control. No one warned me that this little shit would come crawling around scratching at my door a second time, but it did. So if you have RHS, and there seems to be a good chance it was triggered by stress, then you need to get that stress out of your life. I would say this means doing whatever you have to do – change jobs, meditate, murder your boss (don’t get caught obviously), whatever it takes. My new job is relatively low stress and all the stress I experienced was from a cataclysmic series of tightly timed overseas trips, and I think I can control that easily by never again making such a series of business trips in such a short time. Compared to the stress that triggered the first bout of RHS what I’m going through now is trivial, and I didn’t even notice I was stressed until this disease hit. I guess I’m weaker than I used to be.

The second thing this tells me – and this is not medical science here – is that this disease has a prodrome. It has early symptoms that warn you it’s coming, and if you notice them you might be able to sense its presence. Looking back at my first experience of this neuropathic party, the neck pain and the slight tiredness in my face were there before the evil little bastard stuck the shank in behind my jaw, and had I known I might have been able to react more quickly[3]. Those same symptoms came this time around, so I went to the doctor early and started the valacyclovir before it could take hold. This theory makes sense to me because it is well known that other herpes viruses have a prodrome: Herpes 1 and 2 both have a kind of itchy weirdness in the area where the sores are going to arise, and if you hit the acyclovir then you may be able to prevent or lessen the resulting outbreak. So I guess chickenpox – which is a herpes virus – could have a similar course. I couldn’t find anything on this on the internet, but it’s my feeling that this is what happens.

A brief note on UHC

Japan has Universal Health Coverage. I don’t recall how much this disease set me back last year but this time the tests, drugs and bothering the hospital doctors without a referral cost me a total of about 30,000 yen, so it would have set me back 100,000 yen (about $US800) if I didn’t have insurance. I’m sure that it would cost a lot more in America’s weird-arsed system, since Japan has strict price controls, but I think it’s safe to say that 100,000 yen is tough for a lot of people to fork out, and the prospect of not being able to get treatment for this because you can’t afford it, and having to live your life with this intense, unbearable pain and the slow degradation of your face for what I can only assume would be weeks before the virus gave up and left – that’s awful. UHC is an absolutely fundamental part of a civilized society, and every political party should be 100% about getting it if you don’t have it, or protecting it if you do. Never let that wonderful part of modern social democracy slide away or be weakened by the vicious jackals who control our conservative parties. Or your face will fall off.

Preventing this disease

The best way to prevent this hairy bastard from coming and fucking your face through your ear is to get vaccinated against chickenpox. Sadly though the varicella vaccine is not in most countries’ mandatory schedules, so you won’t have received it even if you were born after 1984 unless you’re in one of the few that does cover it. Therefore, if you’re a parent in a country without this vaccine on the schedule, and you’re reading this, my advice is: pay the extra amount to get this vaccine for your kids. They will never thank you, partly because they’re ungrateful bastards but also because they’ll never know the fun they’re missing, but trust me it’s worth it. If you’re a policy-maker in a country that doesn’t have this vaccine on the schedule, hurry up and add it.

If you’re an adult who had chickenpox as a child then the first line of defense against this nasty thing is to avoid stress, make a life for yourself that has manageable stress and don’t let whatever stress you do experience last for too long. I went through years of intense stress before the first bout was triggered, but once it was there my next bout required a much lower threshold. So be careful with stress, and get control of your work as much as you can (I appreciate that this is useless advice for a lot of people, whose industry or career options are top-heavy with unpaid work, bullying superiors, and shitty conditions, but it’s the only advice that I have, sorry).

There is some evidence that the varicella vaccine, given to adults who had chickenpox, may reduce the risk of this disease. I’m thinking of getting it once this shit has died down, but it’s also possible that the same people whose low-paid high stress jobs put them at risk of RHS are also unable to afford the out-of-pocket costs for this vaccine. If you’re reading this I’m sorry, I’m out of options. Kill your boss, or find a way to move to a country with a better health system. Or vote Democrat and get that shit fixed[4].

Conclusion

The most important lesson for this is that you need to reduce the stress in your life to avoid this disease, and that as you get older the risk will increase so you need to purge that stress as you age. It might also help to get a vaccine against varicella even if you’re an adult who had chickenpox in childhood, just to get that extra bit of protection, but your doctor may not like that idea.

If you go to a doctor with the first symptoms of this and he/she offers you mere acyclovir, tell him/her you’ll pay the extra for valacyclovir. Wave this blog post at them, and explain the issue. What do they care?! Trust me you don’t want this thing hanging around, so push for it. Then take your rehabilitation seriously, and you may be able to get to a fully functional face once the shitshower passes on. Another thing I think I should have done but didn’t was demand a second course of valacyclovir, to really curbstomp this ugly fucker. Once those drugs are done though, you’re going to be looking at an unpleasant couple of months regardless, so good luck.

If you had other experiences of RHS, or want to rant about this nasty little hitchiker, or are having it now and need reassurance or have questions, put them in the comments. I’d love to hear how other people got through this virus, and I really hope that this blog post can help someone to deal with the horrors of this disease. You are going to get better and you will get your face back, I promise you!


fn1: I don’t know what kind of person designed human beings but requiring a muscle to activate to close your eye, rather than open it, is phenomenally stupid. You don’t realize how stupid that design flaw is until you can’t use that muscle, and suddenly you’re staring at everyone like a pscyhopathic cyclops.

fn2: I have this weird thing, that has existed since my teenage years, where I handle stress well but then when the stress disappears my body completely breaks. Used to happen with migraines, seems to happen with RHS. Others get sick during their stress but my response appears to be delayed.

fn3: I wouldn’t have, because I’d have thought it was Bell’s Palsy and just gone and bought an eyepatch.

fn4: I’m not American, but I’m aware that most people who read blogs like mine are, for some reason, and I have to remain aware of your society’s … shortcomings … when I write medical-related things.

On the weekend I watched the Director’s cut of the Exorcist for the second time in my life. I think I previously watched this version back in the 2000s when it was first released, and it remains impressive on a second viewing, though the special effects let it down a little. It is creepy, nasty, disturbing and ultimately also a beautiful story about one man losing his faith and purpose and finding it again at the last. Fundamentally I think it’s a very christian movie, which revels in the rituals and imagery of the Catholic church and ultimately redeems that church in the face of a deep evil that only the Catholic church is able to understand. Reading William Peter Blatty’s wikipedia, it appears he was a devout Catholic who remained committed to his religion until his death, so it seems likely that he wrote this book with the intention that it was a paean to Catholic tradition, and I think it does this job very well.

There is a lot of careful attention to detail in this movie, which I think is intended both to ground it in the ordinary life experience of people at the time, and also to enhance its creepiness, and a lot of that detail was added into the director’s cut. For example, the coffee conversation between the detective and Chris MacNeil (Regan’s mother) was added in the director’s cut, and in this conversation we see that Regan made the clay statuette that the detective found at the base of the steps. The sets are also very rich, so that for example Father Karras’s little room or his mother’s shabby apartment are full of tiny details about his life that serve to make him seem very normal and to place his class background, his history and educational achievements. This movie is very richly and carefully prepared.

This time when I watched the movie I noticed this detail at its scary best in the language lab scene. This scene was apparently added in the 2000 DVD release along with the coffee scene and the upside-down crabwalk down the stairs. In the language lab scene Karras is listening to the recording he took of Regan when he threw “holy” water on her. He sits in a booth in the language lab, and behind him at the back of the room is a doorway to an office of some kind. The only sources of light in the room are Karras’s listening booth, and the light from that office. Above the door of that office the word “Tasukete!” is written in red on white butcher paper. There are other similar banners in other parts of the room but this is the most obvious and the only one easily read during the brief moment of the scene.

“Tasukete” means “Help me!” in Japanese. It’s an imperative, a demand for help. If you look around the room in the picture above you will see that the other banners in the room are written in whatever the native script of the language is, so presumably are not readable for the vast majority of the movie’s intended audience. Only this one piece of script is transliterated into roman characters that the audience can read, and this is in the place where the reader’s eye is drawn. It seems quite clear that this writing is intended to be read by the viewer.

In the very next scene, Karras is called by Sharon, Chris MacNeil’s live-in assistant, and rushed to the house to see a new phenomenon in Regan’s degeneration. Sharon pulls back Regan’s pyjamas and we see the words “Help me” emerge from the skin on Regan’s belly. The very next scene! These are obviously linked. The director put a Japanese cry for help in a form the viewer could read, before seguing immediately to an English plea for help from Regan herself. He did this in the era before google, when no one could look it up – likely 99.9% of people who saw the movie on its release would never have understood that moment, but he put it in anyway.

But there is another Japanese banner in that language lab. I haven’t been able to find anything about it online, but on the top left of the screen there is a banner written in Swedish, which seems completely normal (the last word is the Swedish for Swedish, so I guess it’s not a special phrase). Beneath it is a short imprecation in Japanese, with two kanji and some hiragana. It’s very hard to see, and the first kanji in particular is impossible to read, but the second one appears to be 惧, a kanji for terror. Writing the first unreadable kanji as a hyphen, it appears to say -u yori osoreyo!, which could be loosely translated as “rather than doing (something), be afraid!” or, more bluntly, “terror over (something)!” I think the first kanji is either osou (襲う, to attack) or 救う (sukuu, to save). So it is either “Terror over salvation!” or “Don’t fight, be afraid!” That’s a very apt warning for Damian Karras given how this movie ends, but it is too subtle for him to understand – no one in this story can read Japanese. So why is it there?

I cannot find anything in the history of any of the people who made this movie which suggests that they had any connection to Japan, and at the time that this movie was made I don’t think Japan was very much in the conscious of Americans – fear about Japanese influence in the west started in the early 1980s, and is best reflected in later movies like Die Hard or Big Trouble in Little Tokyo, and most obviously heralded by Bladerunner (1982). This Japanese is in this movie 10 years before Japan became a common aesthetic influence on Hollywood. So why is it there? And what is the writing on the right hand side wall? It might be radicals for kanji, or perhaps it’s some other writing system I know nothing about.

If only Father Karras had heeded that warning on that banner, this movie might have ended very differently …

This session was shortened because my travel schedule was exhausting and complex and I had no time to prepare anything fun or interesting. So here I list the few things that were done in this two hour session.

The PCs have finished solving the problem of the disease outbreak on Marfik 4, and have learnt that there is a Horizon-wide program by the Draconites to collect samples of xeno-organisms that cause disease in humans. The PCs’ guess is that this is part of a bio-weapons program, and they are very concerned about what this means. Recall that in session 2 the Draconites stole a powerful ancient artifact from the PCs. Could their efforts to obtain artifacts be related to this bio-weapons program?

As insurance the PCs decided to go to the site from which the infected ice had been dug up, and bury it. Some data djinn work enabled them to find the site, and they destroyed it effectively with only a little risk to themselves. They then returned to the settlement on Marfik 4 and produced a small stock of vaccines against the agent that had been in the ice, as well as a tool for identifying whether other diseases were derived from this agent, in case in future they ran into a bioweapon based on Draconite technology.

After this they left the planet of Marfik 4 and traveled to the Lithofor, where Adam purchased cybernetic implants and the whole team rested for a few weeks. Their next step will be to travel onward to Amedo, and at the Lithofor they started looking for work to pay their way.

New ship power: Binding Vacuum Beasts

I think it hasn’t been mentioned in my write-ups up until now, but in an earlier session one of the PCs died and his consciousness was uploaded into the ship. The PC was a mystic and so now the ship has mystic powers. When the PCs fought the vacuum beasts in the previous session they decided to use some XP to give the ship a new mystic power: the ability to bind vacuum beasts to the ship. Their idea was that this would give them a kind of companion animal to their space ship, which would be able to fight alongside it in battle. However, when they looked at the stats of the beasts, and recognized the difficulties they would have keeping them for long periods of time, docking at civilized space stations, etc. they decided not to invest in this power.

It is possible, however, that other groups they encounter in future will have this power, and will have bound vacuum beasts to their fleet. Perhaps then they should invest in a mystic power to repel these beasts, or to attack them mentally, so that they have a defense against them when they do finally meet them …

Fucking muppets!

 

I have spent the last 4 weeks on a series of fairly demanding business trips to two continents, and since I am bound by the tyranny of miles to a single airline I have been forced to watch movies on only one channel during the flights. This has been really challenging because aside from the enjoyable John Wick 3 the only action movies on offer have been super hero movies, and derivative schlock from other series (like Godzilla). Here I give my brief thoughts on the movies I watched, and ask some questions about the terrible decline of the modern action movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse

I can’t believe how ordinary this movie is. Does it even have a plot or a purpose? The acting is terrible and the entire cast of mutants is boring and shallow, with no possible reason for me to care about them. As a movie it only holds you because there are some other movies in the same series and you need to see what they do – but since I haven’t seen any other movies in the series I really can’t feel anything for these characters and can’t be led to even understand why they bother turning up. There are some good actors in this movie but you wouldn’t know it. This movie also has one of the most execrable scenes in modern cinematic history which is also one of the most execrable plot hooks in human history, and which is performed so poorly by Michael Fassbender that the depth of its depravity almost slips by you through the power of its banality. I am, of course, talking about the scene where a dude called Apocalypse tries to convince a Jewish concentration camp survivor to join in with his plan for genocide by having him destroy Auschwitz. There’s something really wrong about watching a fictitious character destroy the Auschwitz memorial – it’s just so horribly wrong – but to do so as part of a scheme to enlist a genocide survivor as a genocide perpetrator is really … well, it’s a chef’s kiss moment in modern cinema, isn’t it? But it’s all done so badly that you almost don’t realize how terrible it is until you wake up from the stupor this movie has sunk you into and realize what you’re being tricked into nodding along to. I gave the movie perhaps 20 minutes after that pearler but it didn’t offer anything remotely interesting, so I gave up and decided that staring at the ceiling of the plane was a better use of my time.

Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 isn’t bad – at least I managed to finish it – but it’s a really lame and weak follow up to the freshness of the original. Standing on its own as a piss-take of super hero movies, Deadpool is entertaining and creative, but as a series in its own right it has nothing to hold it together. Deadpool’s smut and the particular conceit of his humour gets old fast, and watching Deadpool 2 I realized that the original movie was good primarily for its freshness in what is otherwise a stale, juvenile and worn out genre. Since Deadpool was made this genre has gone from needing a healthy dose of satire to needing a bullet, and is such a weak and overworked formula that satire no longer works. Indeed, when you look at the poor mixture of humour and pathos in Avengers: Infinity War you realize that the genre has been satirizing itself accidentally for quite some time now, and satire doesn’t work any more.

Avengers: Endgame

I hate-watched this after reviewing the awful sack of shit that was Infinity War, and had such low expectations after that wretched abomination that I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s failure to be abysmally awful. It was, however, too long and way too boring, and it ended exactly as I expected: with the universe being saved by a rich white guy (what are the chances!) Plot spoiler folks: our world is not going to be saved by a rich white guy, and the fantasy of the rich white dude who does good has got old fast. The movie still had so many bad points that it was almost unwatchable, but I struggled through so I could see how this horrible shitshow ends (or, rather, restarts). I still didn’t know (or care) who most of these boring, caricatured white people were. Hulk was, if anything, worse than he was in Infinity War, transformed from a metaphor for erectile dysfunction into a sad mocking image of middle-aged ennui. Iron Man had lost his last redeeming feature (his sense of humour, which had already grown old and tired) and was now just annoying. Black Widow at least had a speaking part, though the rush between her and the other dude to kill themselves was just pathetic – neither of them are of any use to anyone, so why didn’t they just toss a coin? And why did they undo the extinction of half the universe anyway? Wiping out half of all life in the universe seems like a bargain if it will get rid of spiderman and space douche in the process. Why bring them back? I mean I know you love your mother and you’re sad she’s dead but five minutes in a room with either spiderman or space douche and you’d kill your own mother to escape. So why on earth would anyone bring them back, and are we meant to really believe that this cast of nobodies is sad about the deaths of their colleagues, who were the most forgettable characters in cinematic history? I’m surprised they could even remember who they used to work with, let alone want them back (I still don’t know the names of most of these incompetents, let alone work myself up into any kind of sweat as to whether they might die or not). This movie also went on a walk through about 8 other Marvel movies, as a reminder that by now these movies are so self-referential and self-involved that you have to do 20 hours of homework through the back catalogue just to understand what’s going on in multiple scenes. What was that shit between Thor and the blonde chicks? I get the impression one was his mother, who he used to live with and see daily, who didn’t notice that apparently overnight he had turned into a fat stoner. How’s that for a maternal bond! (Also Thor was one of the few redeeming features of Infinity War so of course they ruined him in this movie). I guess I should be happy that this entire tired story got a resolution but given that the final scene is just all these people getting back to more adventures it seems like more of a sigh of exhaustion than of relief.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Apparently this is a thing now, with multiple Godzilla movies, which are also somehow linked to King Kong because why not? Also it has this novel plot idea that the beasts are dangerous but some people think they’re part of the natural order and we should try to co-exist with them which is definitely not at all an idea that was old when Jaws was made, and we definitely need to sit through those debates again, especially when they’re done by people who could only be loosely described as “actors”. In this one there are bad guys who are actually environmentalists who want to wake up all these giant monsters to restore the balance of the earth (read: wipe out humans). Because absolutely, definitely, as the world slides into climate crisis and multiple environmental disasters that the environmental movement has been trying to warn us about for 60 years what we absolutely, definitely need are more movies where the end of the world is the environmentalists’ fault and the good people in the government have to fight them to stop them wiping out humanity. Definitely that’s a message we need right now! I would tell you what the moral of the story was but I stopped halfway through because the movie was so pathetic, the action scenes so contrived, and the plot so silly that I just gave up. This movie included Charles Dance and the chick who was Eleven in Stranger Things but even they couldn’t rescue this junk.

Men In Black: International

Boring daddy issues that can’t figure out if they’re serious or a joke, no appreciable plot and the worst acting since Liam Neeson apologized for his racism.

What’s going on with American action movies?

Looking at the menu of the plane’s entertainment system was depressing: just a long chain of superhero movies, with a couple of remakes and a few sequels. There was almost nothing original on the screen at all, and if you wanted to watch something original you would have to look outside the action movie genre. I’m now writing this in the same week that Martin Scorsese derided superhero movies as “theme park junk” and I have to agree with him[1]: action movies were once a great part of Hollywood, but in recent years they have degenerated to the point where they are reliably the worst. They’re just an endless series of rehashed super hero movies, which can be best characterized as second rate pro wrestling, with a scattering of other “franchises”[2] like Men In Black, Star Wars, Batman, or – god forbid – Rambo. There’s nothing original in this at all, it’s just microwaved kara age for the soul. There are even remakes of great movies (like Death Wish, the remake of which was abominable). I think the last original action movie I saw was Atomic Blonde, which was genuinely brilliant but what three years ago now? Since then it’s been spandex as far as the eye can see.

I don’t know why this is happening – why people pay to watch this junk, or what kind of business model the production companies are running that requires them to return to this artistically and culturally desolate fare rather than doing anything original. The best I can think is that it’s the cinematic equivalent of outsourcing risk. They’re guaranteed to be able to make these movies easily and on time, since the plots don’t matter and there are so many characters in your average super hero movie that plot is almost superfluous, and you pay for the movie before you see it so by the time you realize it’s shit it’s too late. I can’t think of any other reason for why people would make super hero movies at all: the original material by Stan Lee is just obviously low-rent, juvenile crap for teenage boys in the 1960s and it is laughably bad, so why would anyone think to draw on it for a movie? Recall that Stan Lee’s material – all the American comic legends – for years followed the Comic Code Alliance, which is a recipe for transparently nationalist and vapid material, and although Stan Lee is said to have broken with this[3] in 1971, this is just post hoc valorization. American comic books were drek for decades, and building a successful movie series on them is going to necessarily require dipping into some of the most juvenile trash that has ever been written down on paper.

Which is fine if these are occasional movies, but the cinematic landscape has been dominated by what is essentially adolescent drivel for the past 10 years. There are now something like 20 Marvel movies, almost all of them shit, and a similar number of DC Comics movies in probably just the past 10 years (apparently there are 71 in total). This is not including the awful TV shows that have now almost all been cancelled because they are so bad. Why has American cinema been overwhelmed by this flood of movies from the same universe about the same characters? And why this universe and these characters, which are specifically and particularly so stunningly low quality?

I don’t have an answer for this, although I suspect it lies somewhere in the toxic witch’s brew of American pop culture’s growing venality, the terrible education system in the US, concentration of American media in the hands of a very small number of companies, and the complete intellectual and artistic emptiness of the money men in those companies. But it’s a depressing turn for American culture to take, because for a long time America was a reliable producer of good quality, exciting and enjoyable action movies. But that industry – the industry that brought us movies like The Last of the Mohicans, Jaws, the original three Star Wars movies, Aliens, Blackhawk Down and Bladerunner – appears to have shriveled and died, and come back as a zombie monstrosity that just lurches from movie to movie, slowly eating our brains.

Someone needs to chop its head off, before the entirety of western cinema culture becomes an empty wasteland.


fn1: Overall Scorsese seems like a man of vulgar tastes, since he seems to think that the only real movies are movies where a young woman falls in love with an older man (or as he puts it, “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”), and he seems to think anything where things blow up or people die isn’t real film, so he’s obviously basically wrong. (I mean, if you want to experience “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” you could hang out with your family, or read a book – cinema is definitely not the best place to experience that!) But in this case he is just by pure good fortune correct: this is theme park junk.

fn2: I fucking hate this word when it’s applied to movies or games but when you’re talking about super hero movies or these other long-running bullshit series like Star Wars you’re basically using the right word. They’re the McDonalds of cinema.

fn3: Incidentally, check out the quote of Stan Lee in the linked article. My god, what a prat he must have been.

 

No one sees him

There’s something otherworldly about the John Wick movies. Primarily a series of set pieces, with the story loosely connecting the parts together, they feel more like fairy tales than standard action stories, and that’s because they are: John Wick is a fey champion, and the world he moves in is not the human world, but a kind of wicked techno-faerie. Here I will explain the evidence that John Wick is a Changeling or a Fey Champion, and the world he moves in is not part of the human realm. There are minor spoilers in this post, so stop here if you haven’t seen the latest movie.

[Spoilers follow]

There is a scene in the third movie, Parabellum, where Wick and his most implacable foe come face to face in a huge railway station (probably I’m supposed to know which station this is but whatever). They come to a halt as they are about to fight because a conga line of small children is moving between them and for some reason they feel they mustn’t disrupt this line; but then after this line passes two of the enemy agents attack Wick from behind and he is forced to murder them in the middle of the station, in plain view of perhaps several thousand people, using knives, and it isn’t pretty and it definitely isn’t very well concealed, but no one notices. Of course when this happens in a John Wick movie you just shrug and go with the flow – you don’t care if ordinary people do or don’t see what is happening because you’re there to see John Wick kill his enemies with righteous fury and you’re not concerned about the collateral damage.

But if you think about it a little more, no one ever sees him killing people. In the second movie he walks along a big white underpass, firing off shots from a concealed weapon at the androgynous bodyguard of his enemy, and thousands of ordinary people shuffle past but no one notices a gun battle happening right in front of them. The same thing applies in both the second and third movies when he is attacked repeatedly by assassins in plain view after his excommunication and no one notices the brutal battles. At the end of the second movie there is a moment where he should be seen by ordinary people but they all just turn and walk away at a single command from Winston.

There is a never a time in the movies where ordinary human beings notice the huge battles happening in front of them. This is because they cannot see the agents of the underworld and don’t know anything about the High Court or its agents. Essentially the underworld (the crime network at the heart of the movies) is invisible to humans: it shares the same space but somehow the world of ordinary people and of the underworld does not overlap. The agents of the underworld can see humans but cannot be seen. They are, essentially, Fey.

There are many hints in the movies as to the faerie nature of the underworld’s members. Although the lower echelons work for money the higher echelons work for favours, bartering with each other in services. Individuals make blood bonds to each other which have a special currency (even depicted as a kind of coin) that trumps all other concerns. Each of the High Table’s members has a Champion, who is universally feared and serves his or her patron absolutely. The High Table’s members also have clearly delineated realms and a kind of aesthetic or sense connected to them, which makes clear that they are creatures tied to a place or a concept. The otherworldly nature of these high beings is even made explicit in the third movie, when the Director says to John Wick:

The High Table wants your life. How can you fight the wind? How can you smash the mountains? How can you bury the ocean? How can you escape from the light? Of course, you can go to the dark. But they’re in the dark, too.

This is as clear a description of Fey royalty as you could hope to hear.

John Wick himself is a mysterious figure, referred to by the Russians as the Baba Yaga, but in the third movie we learn he was adopted by a Russian crime gang connected to the underworld but managed to escape the underworld before the events of the first movie. From his interactions with the Director in the third movie it is clear that he was in some sense stolen from the human world; and from the first movie we know that he somehow escaped the underworld. This marks him out as a Changeling, another classic idea associated with faerie. His abilities are also obviously supernatural, but his sensibilities are human. It is through this character who stands astride both worlds that we learn about the faerie realm he has escaped, and of course we would not care for the troubles of this world if we were not introduced to it by a Changeling, someone part human in their origins.

The movies also reinforce this sense that we are watching a battle between the fey through their choices of setting. When battles occur in the presence of humans they happen in in-between spaces: underpasses, railway stations, night clubs, and other places where humans are themselves passing through and not in a position to stop and help, or to notice what is happening. The denizens of the underworld are never seen in places of permanent human occupation: they don’t fight or meet in human homes, or hospitals, or even hotels (outside the Continental): everywhere they interact with humans is transient, a place where neither people nor fey leave a mark or stay to pay attention to the surroundings. And when battles happen on fey land they occur in strange, tortured spaces that remind us of how otherworldly these people are: halls of mirrors, or John Wick’s journey into the literal underworld in the second movie, or strange businesses (stolen car dealerships, weird ballet theatres without customers), or art galleries devoid of human customers. The classic combination of these two phenomena is the Bowery King, whose palace is a strange place that exists in plain sight but is never noticed by humans, and whose subjects work in all the liminal spaces of human life, begging and passing unnoticed. He is like the classic model of the Goblin King, in a modern setting.

John Wick is a modern fairy story, with John a Changeling trying to leave the kingdom of his abductors but constantly drawn back into it because his power and his passion is irresistible to its denizens. He fights and kills for the chance to be free, but the strange politics of the fey world stops him from achieving the liberation he so wants (and so richly deserves). The real appeal of John Wick is not the violence or the set pieces, but the way it calls upon the faerie stories of our heritage as part of the story and the aesthetic. It is a peculiarly modern fairy story, and a remarkably original and creative work when you see it in this light: not as an action movie, but as a retelling of ancient myths.

Our heroes are on the planet of Marfik 4, fighting an epidemic in an ice-mining community that has been abandoned by its medical and security staff. They have been told that some of the ice that was the likely source of the disease is en route to the Lithofor on the ice hauler Callow Boy, and need to stop it before it infects that community of 700,000 souls. They were planning to first attack the security and medical staff who abandoned the community, however, and were preparing to attack this group – who they call the Isolation Faction – when they learnt of a new complication in their mission. The Callow Boy has turned off its transponder and has disappeared in the Dark Between the Stars. They need to rush to find it before all trace is lost.

The cast for this mission:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr Banu Delecta, medic

First defeat

The PCs decided that they still had time to liquidate the Isolation Faction before they headed after the Callow Boy, and wanted to prioritize this because they thought they needed more information about the ice and whatever the Isolation Faction knew about it. So, they decided to approach the factory where the Faction hid, carrying breaching charges, break down the door, and kill them. Unfortunately they did not see the automated machine gun turret set up on the roof of the factory, and were gunned down by a hail of bullets as they approached. The attack was ferocious, knocking down both Adam and Reiko with potentially fatal and heavy-bleeding injuries. Banu and Siladan had to drag their colleagues back to the main settlement under a rain of gunfire, and administer emergency first aid in the shadows of the settlement.

Defeated, and needing days for Adam and Reiko to recover, the PCs returned to the Beast of Burden, and took her away from the planet of Marfik 4 to search for the Callow Boy.

Lost in the Dark

They headed first to where the ship had last been recorded, assuming that there was some chance it would be waiting near that location for a rendezvous, or had continued on a straight path to some secret purpose. They were afraid that it might have changed course and was now heading to the portals, perhaps to offload its ice at a more populous planet in Caph or even Coriolis, but since they had not thought to download the schematics for the Callow Boy they were not aware that it was incapable of portal travel, and their fears in this regard were unfounded.

After a few days’ travel they reached the point where the Callow Boy had gone silent and discovered a very simple reason for its sudden disappearance: it had been destroyed. The ship lay silent in space, broken into four parts, its ice cargo floating harmless around the wreckage of the ship. There was no emergency message, no SOS beacon, just the silent ruins of the 1km long ship hanging in four huge pieces in the darkness. They approached the ship and soon learnt the cause of its destruction, as two huge squid-like monsters detached themselves from its ravaged hull and began moving rapidly toward the Beast of Burden. The infamous vacuum beasts of Marfik 4 had taken the Callow Boy, and now sought to destroy the PCs’ ship.

The fight with the beasts was difficult. Their shadowy, biological structure was hard to lock onto with the ship’s sensors, and they moved quickly and easily through the Dark Between the Stars. Before Adam and Reiko were able to destroy one of the beasts they other had latched onto the hull, and was preparing to begin eating its way through to the crew. Adam had to disengage from the gunner’s post and run to an airlock, carrying the ship’s only machine gun, with the perilous task of going outside the ship to attack the beast himself, since the ship’s guns could no longer lock onto it. As he ran through the ship Saqr threw the ship into complex manoeuvres to try and shake off the beast, as Reiko destroyed the second beast. Fortunately Saqr was somehow able to shake off the beast, and Siladan somehow managed to get a lock onto it as it flew off the hull of the ship. Moments later their torpedo struck the newly-locked beast, and it blew apart in a cloud of ichor. They had survived.

The Draconite Message

They approached the ship and were able to identify three crew hiding in a safe room in the centre of the engineering section. After some complex manoeuvres they were able to dock and rescue the crew, who came on board relieved but shaken. They knew nothing about the disease in the ice, and had simply been conducting standard cargo operations on Marfik 4. They had not kept track of the ice as it was loaded, preferring to enjoy the settlement’s spartan accommodations while the ice miners loaded the ice, and so could not tell the PCs which of the ice in their cargo had come from a potentially contaminated source. They were innocent of any plot to poison the Lithofor, and were able to confirm to the PCs that they had planned no secret course changes on their mission – they had simply been attacked by vacuum beasts and their comms systems destroyed before they could send off a distress signal.

Near the wreckage of the Callow Boy the PCs found a small message drone, of the kind used to deliver physical messages between ships. This message drone had detached from the Callow Boy when it was attacked, following some algorithm intended to preserve the drone, but had been caught by one of the vacuum beasts and partially consumed. They recovered it and confirmed that this drone had been programmed to move secretly between ships, intended to latch onto a ship heading to the portals. It was an advanced Draconite design, small and highly stealthy, and obviously intended to take messages in a physically secure manner. The message it carried was intended to be delivered to a contact on Coriolis, some kind of procurer who must be working for the Draconites. The message was a short video message from Amira, the medic on Marfik 4:

We have found a possible specimen of interest to your employer. Direct experiments are not being conducted, but we are recording evidence of its progress in a human population. It is highly effective. Please inform your employer to send agents to investigate.

It was short, and clearly indicated evidence that the Isolation Faction were working for someone. The PCs returned to Marfik 4 with a clear plan.

Liquidating the Isolation Faction

The second attack on the Isolation Faction went more smoothly. They used the ion cannon on the No Satisfaction to destroy the automated gun turret and managed to approach the entryway without being attacked. A breach charge soon tore down the outer door and they burst in, all guns blazing. Through judicious use of a motion sensor they knew where all their enemies were, and could anticipate their ambushes and flanking attacks. There were 8 remaining security guards in the Isolation Faction plus their leader and the medicurg Amira, spread through three rooms in a flanking formation. While Adam and Delecta took on the main front of the guards in their position on a gantry over the factory floor, Reiko Ando and Siladan charged into the side rooms to take on flanking troops. The battle was soon over, and ended with the death of the security guards and their medicurg Amira.

The Draconite Contract

On Amira’s tabula the PCs found a short message from the same contact on Coriolis. The short video message was a year old, and it told Amira that her planet had been identified as one of a set of planets with a high probability of hosting native pathogens capable of infecting and harming humans. Were any unusual diseases to present themselves in the settlement she would receive a large payment for identifying the source. Extra money would be provided if she were able to track the natural history of the disease, study it directly in humans, or obtain samples. The sums on offer were huge, and clearly an incentive for her to react as she had done when the disease struck the settlement. When she had indicated her willingness to perform the task, the Coriolis contact had shipped her the Draconite messenger drone, to use if she identified any such samples. It was clear that when she had seen the opportunity to profit from the colony’s disease outbreak she had decided to abandon her role as doctor and become instead a mercenary, waiting for the colony to die and filming their final death throes. She had planned to burn the whole settlement down once the epidemic was complete, blame the whole thing on a huge accident, and then profit from the ice samples. Unfortunately she had not expected Md. Jenin Abad to be contacted secretly, and had not planned on the PCs interfering with her plans.

So what, the PCs wondered, were the Draconites doing? They must have sent these messages to other settlements, and had a broker in Coriolis collecting information on potential bioweapons that they would then presumably collect for research. Why were the Draconites building a bioweapons division? Why had they been hunting that statue on Kua? What was the Draconites’ secret plan?

A few days later Md Jenin Abad isolated a cure for the disease and distributed it among the colony, saving 60% of the colonists. The PCs made sure they obtained a copy of the cure, and left Marfik 4 for the Amedo system considerably richer, and considerably warier, than when they arrived.

Marfik 4 on a clear afternoon

Our party have arrived at Marfik 4 and found it in the midst of an epidemic. The population of the one settlement on the planet has split into two parts, with one small group of security and medical personnel in a separate section where they have established a quarantine and appear to be unaffected by the disease. The PCs think that the disease may have been uncovered from ice mined on the planet, or perhaps is a bioweapon being tested by the medical personnel on the planet, but they have not yet established which. Their task now – for which they are being paid handsomely – is to guard the medicurg Md Jenin Abad as he tries to save the colony, and to figure out what has gone wrong. The cast for this session:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Dr Banu Delecta, medic

Day 3 of the epidemic has now begun, and the PCs have made a little more effort to prepare for what they expect to be inevitable conflict with the security team. They have managed to access some basic schematics for the factory area where the quarantined security squad are, and have started referring to these people as the Isolation Faction. Most of the patients taken to the Grace of the Icons 7132 in the first two days have died, and in the morning of the third day Md Jenin Abad took another 10 up to the ship for further investigation and treatment. On the surface, in the small and cold rooms of the settlement, the epidemic raged on.

The emergency message

The PCs were in the briefing room discussing the best approach to take to the Isolation Faction when they were alerted to an emergency message being broadcast from the planet. Adam answered it while Siladan traced it to a small relay station perhaps two hours’ drive on a crawler from the settlement. The message was weak but urgent, and when the broadcast opened they could hear gunfire in the background. The messenger was a person called Hamza, who told them that he and two others were trapped in the relay station and under attack by security guards from the Isolation Faction.

Hamza was not asking for help, however. He and his two colleagues had fled from the Isolation Faction and run to the relay station when the Beast of Burden arrived in orbit. Because they had fled the Isolation Faction they knew that the ice from which the disease had come was now being transported on an ice hauler to the Lithofor, but no one in the settlement knew this because the shift supervisor was dead and his records had been altered. The leader of the Isolation Faction, Mehrak, had told everyone that they could not alert anyone to the ice hauler’s journey because this would invite orbital bombardment, and the rest of the Isolation Faction were doing as they were told, but Hamza and his friends refused to obey this terrible command, and fled to the relay station. They then spent days rerouting command systems to avoid the control the security guards in the Isolation Faction were exerting over the planet’s comms and to try and make contact with the Beast of Burden. They had finally managed to set up a temporary bypass and need to send a message to anyone who would listen: they had to stop the ice hauler. This ice hauler was on a course for the Lithofor. It was carrying the ice that the PCs suspected might have held the disease – and being transported now to a planet with 700,000 people living in it.

Once Hamza and his colleagues set up the relay bypass the security guards had come to physically stop them. They had barricaded the door and now they only had hours to live, but they needed the PCs to act: stop the Callow Boy in its journey to the Lithofor, and prevent a disaster.

The PCs checked their star maps and determined that the Callow Boy was traveling slowly on a long journey – it would take about 20 days to reach the Lithofor and was moving about half the speed they could do in the Beast of Burden, so they could catch it even if they left the next day. Someone pointed out that if the Callow Boy changed course and headed for a portal they would not be able to catch it in time, but they decided to risk it: if the ship changed direction for the portal they would have to send an emergency message to the whole system, which would likely mobilize one of the Queen’s old Firstcome ships to despatch it – and would end with an orbital bombardment of Marfik 4 and the death of everyone on the planet.

But first they would rescue the people at the relay station.

Travel on Marfik 4

Battle at the relay station

The PCs did not waste their time with ice crawlers. They took the No Satisfaction and screamed in to the relay station in a crash dive from orbit, arriving 10 minutes after they left the Beast of Burden. At the relay station they found two ice crawlers, with soldiers hiding in them and firing on the sealed door. Rather than end the fight quickly and gracefully using the No Satisfaction‘s ion cannon they piled out of the ship onto the ice, and Saqr took the ship up to provide air support.

As they approached the crawlers the soldiers inside them switched their focus and began firing on them. Reiko Ando ran forward to engage one squad in melee, and Siladan ran forward to attack the leader, who was crouched in cover behind a crawler. Meanwhile Banu Delecta and Adam provided covering fire from prone positions on the ice slopes. Saqr fired the ion cannon at one crawler but missed, leaving a long dagger of super heated fog expanding in waves in the frozen air above the battle zone. After that one shot Siladan and Reiko entered melee, and the No Satisfaction‘s weapons could not be used, so Saqr completed a circuit of the relay station to search for other attackers, finding none.

Although the battle did not go too well for Siladan, Reiko was a vicious whirling dervish of violence, managing to knock two attackers unconscious and drive the others away into the snow without taking any injuries. She chased after them but they ran straight into the No Satisfaction‘s firing zone and, caught in her spotlights and receiving threatening warnings from Saqr, dropped to their knees and surrendered. Meanwhile Siladan and Adam finished off the other four attackers, Adam firing into the ice crawler until Siladan could charge in with his halberd and begin cutting them. Finally all but two were dead, and the relay station was liberated. Hamza and his colleagues emerged, saved just in time by the PCs’ bravery and overpowering firepower.

Their gaze turned back to the settlement, and the two Isolation Faction soldiers they had taken captive.

The Isolation Faction’s story

They learnt little truth from their two prisoners, or from Hamza. The Isolation Faction doctor, Amira, told them that the disease likely came from the ice, and ordered the security guards and their families into the factory for safety in the first day of the epidemic, before it could spread. They shut down communications with people off planet, and waited. Amira and the leader of the security guards, Mehrak, told them there was nothing they could do about it – it was likely a fatal xenoorganism and no treatment would stop it in time; all they could do was wait and pray to the Icons. Similarly, they could only hope and pray that the ice in the Ice Hauler was safe. Hamza stumbled on the shift supervisor’s body, however, and his abandoned tabula, and learnt that the records had been altered; realizing he had been betrayed, he convinced two of his friends to flee with him to the relay station and risk their lives to send the message to the Beast of Burden. In his cowardice, he had not simply gone to the settlement because he did not want to catch the disease; and he did not expect the relay station would have been shutdown by central authority. So he had done what he could, and thankfully with the Icons’ grace it would be enough.

Hearing this story the PCs again began to suspect that this was not simply a story of an accidental epidemic released from ancient ice. There was too much going on, and too many strange plots. That medicurg was up to something, and they intended to find out what. They returned to the No Satisfaction, and headed back to orbit to plan their next move.