Sunday, 25 March 2018

Poisoned and Abandoned: Andrei Zheleznyakov (NBA)

This week's post is inspired by the story of Russian bioweapons expert Andrei Zheleznyakov, poisoned on the job and left to die.

Novichok, aka 'newcomer,' is allegedly the most deadly nerve agent ever created. The novichok variants were created over a period from 1971 to 1993. Its design intent was to be capable of avoiding detection by the 1970s and 80s equipment available at the time, to circumvent NATO biohazard defensive equipment, to be safer to handle, and to avoid classification under the Chemical Weapons Convention. If it made the CWC list, novichok would be a controlled weapon, its stockpiles liable for destruction. It's said that the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skirpal in London is a novichok poisoning.

In 1987 Zheleznyakov was poisoned by novichok, while carrying out laboratory experiments. A vent malfunctioned, spewing a small amount of the bioagent. Zheleznyakov immediately knew he'd been poisoned. "It's got me," he told his workmates. A timely dose of atropine saved his life, but his body was ravaged. When he eventually died in 1993, he'd suffered cirrhosis, toxic hepatitis, nerve damage and epilepsy.

Before dying he broke silence and gave extensive interviews, describing what had happened to him and what was likely to happen next. The material was published in 1992, a year before his death.

It's likely he wasn't the only victim of novichok, but he's the only one known to have died of this bioagent. Other potential victims include a Soviet officer who was convinced that he'd been exposed to the agent deliberately, to see what would happen. There have been assassinations tentatively linked to novichok as well, but nothing conclusive.

Assuming the Soviet officer's account is correct, the Russians aren't the only ones to test dangerous substances on their own people. MKULTRA famously dosed US Army biochemist Frank Olson with LSD, and Olson either committed suicide as a result or was murdered so he wouldn't talk - take your pick. In the 1940s and 50s the UK carried out radiation tests that were extremely hazardous for the military personnel involved, from flying through the bomb cloud to being ordered to sit and wait for the bomb to go off. In both cases the intent seems to have been to find out what close proximity to the blast would do to a human subject. The French did much the same. Ironically, we probably know more about Russian bioweapons research than we do about similar research in other countries, because there have been so many leaks and books over the years

Taking a trip down memory lane, and assuming an Ultraviolet game world, what does this mean for vampires and the spies who hunt them?

To begin with, it suggests a very nasty bane. Supernatural and Damned vampires might be immune to science, but it's a good bet nobody else is. Something that rots your organs and shreds your brain is going to do a number on anything reliant on human biology. To take the Perfecti from the main book as an example, the statues could care less, but their human proxies might die like flies.

Of course, it's a bane with significant drawbacks. You can't really target a bioweapon; you just set it off and hope it does the job. If not handled carefully it could be as lethal to the assassin as the target, and any bystanders may get a fatal dose too. Collateral damage makes it a visible kill; Heat will go through the roof. It's not an instant kill, and the effects linger. In the aftermath of the Skirpal attack, for example, three policemen who responded to the report were sent to hospital. One, DS Nick Bailey, was seriously ill for several days, and may be permanently affected. Moreover it requires access to state of the art facilities and considerable technical expertise to manufacture, and in novichok's case has a short shelf life. Edom might be able to pull it off, and so might other government-sponsored agencies. Freelancers haven't a hope.

On top of all that, it might not kill. Going back to the Perfecti, according to the main book their blood has been transformed to alien matter and a Perfecti's being is tuned to extradimensional frequencies. That suggests something like novichok might not kill them. The Perfecti could be sufficiently inhuman to survive an attack, but given they're at least partially reliant on human biology they will suffer damage. Perhaps permanent damage. A vampire whose brain has been destroyed or severely injured is still alive, but it's not much of a life. Even if the damage is temporary, the vampire will take time to recover - perhaps long enough for a hunter to do more permanent damage.

Returning to Ultraviolet for a moment, one of the recurring themes of that series was blood contamination. The vampires were concerned about ways in which the blood supply could be poisoned, specifically through radiation. Given that, vampires might also be concerned about poisoning through other means - like a bioweapon.

Suppose the Conspiracy wished to utilize a bioweapon in one of its schemes. The Persephone Extraction posits such a plot. For it to work as planned it would have to be an agent that did what it was supposed to do, but left the survivors with drinkable blood. If instead it killed off billions and left the survivors with undrinkable blood, that's a huge problem - the same problem that obsessed the undead in Ultraviolet. An issue like that can only be solved by rigorous testing. However tests sometimes go wrong, with catastrophic results. An event like that could easily trigger the agents' involvement, or be the inciting incident for a campaign.

This post started with Andrei Zheleznyakov, so to conclude I'm going to develop a story seed based on him.

Old Ghosts: According to your Network a supposedly dead Russian bioweapons expert has reappeared in Ukraine. Reports indicated he'd been exposed to a bioweapon in 1989, perhaps deliberately in a macabre test. He fell out with the authorities and published a tell-all interview before dying in 1993. Yet here he is in Mykolaiv, a seaport. Perfect for transporting a cargo - a bioweapon, say? Or perhaps his target is one of Mykolaiv's many food manufacture and processing plants. Whatever his goal, it would be very interesting to find out how he's survived all these years. Perhaps the Conspiracy is involved.

Variant: The expert was vampirized in 1993, but it didn't take. The devastating effect of the bioweapon made his unlife a hell, and the Conspiracy recently decided to stop footing the bill for the medicine and special facilities he needs. This might be due to Node infighting, or lack of interest in the dusty recollections of a man who hasn't done any real work since Mikhail Gorbachev was in power. Now the expert's ready to spill his guts to anyone who'll help him, including the agents, but you can't defect from the Conspiracy.

Potential adversaries/interested parties: former highly placed Russians now living in the West, who want to know if the bioweapons expert knows anything about a spate of assassinations that might have involved the weapon he worked on. Russia's Foreign Intelligence (SVR RF), which wants to know who this impostor is - after all, he's definitely dead. It has a certificate that says so. Ukraine's Foreign Intelligence Service, which wants to know what fresh hell this expert's been brewing on Ukrainian soil.  If serious evidence of WMD production is made public, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, United Nations, or Biological Weapons Convention signatories may get involved.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Not Quite Book Review Corner: Directorate S, Steve Coll (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

When I read Fyodr Dostoevski's The Idiot, I became convinced that a character I'd met in the early chapters must have died, and I hadn't noticed. There was so much going on. No doubt there'd been a paragraph that said she'd caught the sniffles, drowned, or been eaten by hamsters, and I'd missed it. Steve Coll's Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the second time I've had that idiotic feeling.

The damn thing feels ten times longer than it is. That's not a complaint - it kept me absorbed from start to finish. Directorate S is a successor to Coll's Pulitzer Prize winner, Ghost Wars, which tells the CIA/Afghanistan story from the Soviet invasion in 1979 to September 11, 2001. In Ghost Wars Coll shows how CIA intelligence failures helped create the extremists that brought the Twin Towers down. Directorate S shows how a continued pattern of misunderstanding, political folly and wastage led to the bloody mess that is Afghanistan today. Coll won a Pulitzer for Ghost Wars; he's probably going to be a contender for a second one with Directorate S. 

It's just so sad. If Coll chewed off his fingers and howled at the moon every other page it would have felt appropriate, but he tackles the subject with remarkable restraint. It feels even more awful as a result, and makes the reader wonder what future horrors lie in store. If CIA support for the mujahedeen in the 1970s and 80s fostered the world in which planes flew into the Twin Towers, what fresh atrocity will be spawned by this nightmare? 

Steve Coll, for those who don't know him, is a journalist of long standing who got his start at California Magazine. He went on to the Washington Post in 1985, and stayed there until 2004 before moving on to the New Yorker. Currently he writes on national security and foreign intelligence issues, and has eight non-fiction books to his credit as well as many articles. 

If you have any interest in modern history, intelligence issues, or the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, this is the book to read. So long as you can stomach a bellyful of tragedy, that is. 

If you're a Night's Black Agents Director or have any interest in the Dracula Dossier, this should be on your shelf. Edom raises up Dracula specifically to combat Al-Qaeda, after all; the Director should know what Dracula's up against. 

Just one story seed, taken from ch 35 Coups d'Etat:

Edom discovers, thanks to a leak, that discontented Pakistani naval officers are planning to seize a frigate. Armed with Land Attack Cruise Missiles with a potential nuclear payload, this rogue frigate could do tremendous damage if the attempt is successful. Edom doesn't know how many people are involved, but it does know that one of the naval cadets is due to attend a training course at HMNB Portsmouth in a week's time. Edom will use its vampire to control this cadet and persuade him to tell all he knows.

If the characters are Edom, then the Agents are given operational authority: find out who's involved, and when the attack is to take place. They can't let Pakistan know what's going on, because they can't be sure whether elements within Pakistani intelligence are involved in the operation. If they succeed, a potential nuclear disaster is averted. Of course, the vampire under their control is a disaster waiting to happen ...

If the characters are freelancers, then they're alerted or brought in when Edom's initial attempts raise red flags at Portsmouth. Its vampire managed to get away for a short time, and created some spawn before its recapture. Its Pakistani target is also Renfielded, and now the naval officer serves three masters - Pakistan, Al-Qaeda, and Dracula. Would Dracula like a frigate armed with nuclear weapons?   

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Killer That Stalked New York - Diseases (GUMSHOE)

We tend to think of biological weapons as a modern phenomenon, but in fact the tactic has a very long pedigree. During the American Civil War, for instance, Bermuda's horrified authorities quickly stepped in when it was discovered that a doctor, allegedly acting out of charity, was in fact collecting infected blankets and clothing from Yellow Fever victims, to be sent to the North in hopes of spreading the disease to Union soldiers. The threat of disease is often enough to provoke panic, and no disease was more threatening than smallpox, which is the major plot point of The Killer That Stalked New York.

In this Noir thriller, Sheila Bennet is the unwitting Patient Zero who came back from Cuba with a fortune in diamonds, and death in her veins. It turns out that her boyfriend, who persuaded her to smuggle the stones, has been two-timing Sheila with her own sister. He's able to fool Sheila for a while, and steal the diamonds, but when she finds out, nothing will stop her tracking him down. Meanwhile the authorities discover that Sheila's infecting everyone she meets with smallpox, and desperately want to bring her in, but Sheila refuses to submit.

It's not entirely clear why the authorities want Sheila. OK, she's infectious, but the end voiceover suggests they needed her for some other reason - as if she's the key to a vaccine, or has some vital evidence about where she contracted the disease. All that's a McGuffin, really; the point is, she's important, so they have to chase her.

Smallpox hasn't been a threat since its eradication in 1980, and it's becoming more and more difficult to understand, on an emotional level, the fear it once inspired. Intellectually we can look at its history, see its death count, and know how devastating it can be - but it's like trying to put yourself in the shoes of a soldier in the trenches of the Great War. Empathy only carries you so far; ultimately, you have to have been shot at to know what it truly is like to be shot at.

First comes the fever, and vomiting. Then sores in the mouth, and painful skin rash. Over a period of days this rash becomes fluid-filled bumps, which will eventually scab over and leave scars - assuming you survive. Fatality can be as high as 75%, depending on severity of the rash distribution. The overall rate is closer to 30% fatality. Death tends to occur in ten to sixteen days, accompanied by acute organ failure. If you survive, you're scarred for life, and might also go blind.

Image taken from Wikipedia: Content Providers(s): CDC/James Hicks 

Let's talk gamification.

Given that Trail, Bookhounds and Dreamhounds are all set in the 1930s, it's reasonable to think that a character might have encountered, or contracted, the disease at some point in their careers. It could be an interesting twist, say, to an In The Blood drive - yes, it is in the blood, but because of a smallpox outbreak, not heredity.

However let's take this one step further, and say that a smallpox scare threatens the characters' lives or livelihoods in some way. Let's further say that the Patient Zero is someone the characters know, or work with, or are responsible for. George MacDonald Fraser makes good use of this last tactic in his short McAuslan story, Fly Man, where his narrator Dando has to go chasing over Cairo for his soldiers, while at the same time keeping the smallpox story very, very quiet for fear of starting a panic. Of course, two of the most dangerous have decided to go AWOL, and are armed, just to add to the fun.

'You must go through every club, canteen, dance-hall and gin mill in the in-bounds area,' says his superior, 'I want them all, you understand. No stragglers, nobody overlooked.'

Hilarity ensues.

Bookhounds is particularly useful for this, since the players are likely to have employees or co-workers, but in theory this could happen to any group. Someone you know & rely on has contracted smallpox, but either they don't know it yet, or they have other reasons for staying out of the authorities' reach. Your characters have to track down that person and somehow persuade them to come in from the cold - or the consequences could be dire.

All this, of course, without considering the Mythos. It's likely that anything with a biological makeup can contract diseases, so something like a Fire Vampire is probably immune to smallpox, but a ghoul, or Deep One Hybrid, isn't. Tracking outbreaks of smallpox could be an unusual way of tracking the movements of a ghoul colony, but a potentially more interesting question is, what happens at the fever stage? Suppose, in the case of an as-yet undiscovered Hybrid or ghoul changeling, the smallpox causes uncontrollable mutations, or spontaneous outbreaks of Idiosyncratic Mythos magic, as per Bookhounds. Or the afflicted taps into the Mythos and starts babbling secrets which, under normal circumstances, the poor soul doesn't know. Nurses, relatives, carers, would all be bombarded with secrets tapped straight from Cthulhu's psychic backlash, with consequences too terrible to think about.

This doesn't have to stay trapped in the 1930s. Even in the modern day there's the occasional scare, as with the retained stocks of the virus rediscovered in 2014, at an FDA storage facility in Bethesda. Imagine what the Esoterrorists might do with just the mystic threat of a smallpox bioweapon, or what the Conspiracy might want with strange vials filled with what might be smallpox - or might be something else again. Particularly in a campaign where the vampires have a Mutant background, there may be any number of reasons why the Conspiracy is keenly interested in dusty records of bioweapons research long past. Is this smallpox, or is this the Vampire Genome deliberately mislabeled as smallpox?

Finally, a Bookhounds scenario seed to speed you on your way:

A book scout of your acquaintance has fallen ill, shortly after telling you about a tremendously valuable find. What at first is thought to be ordinary fever is soon discovered to be smallpox, and the authorities are knocking on the characters' door with instructions to inoculate everyone the book scout has come into contact with. It transpires that several other people have fallen ill with the same symptoms, but these people had no contact with the book scout. However they might have had contact with the book. Just what tome is this, and what dreadful secret does it carry within those pox-ridden pages?

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Playing with Real Toys: Abandoned Orient Express Trains, Belgium (GUMSHOE Modern)

There was a time when Orient Express meant luxury, mystery, and romance. Those days aren't quite gone, but the train in these pictures has seen better days. Abandoned somewhere in a Belgian train yard, these old carriages and locomotive have been quietly rusting away for many years. Lost and forgotten things have many stories to tell - so what can we do with this one?

A quick note on ownership: the photos shown here were obtained via Urban Ghosts and the blog Rebecca Bathory. I understand Urban Ghosts obtained at least some of its images from another user, blogging at PreciousDecay. To my knowledge, those are the original sources of the images.

For those who aren't familiar with Georges Nagelmackers' pride and joy, a brief history.

The state of train travel in Europe during the Victorian era was lamentable. Functional, yes, but where was the style? The panache? Meanwhile, across the water, American George Mortimer Pullman was showing how it could be done: luxury travel, in a carriage fit for a king, not the knock-crack-smash in a wooden box that everyone had become used to. 

This inspired many innovators, including Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, who founded the Wagons-Lits Company in 1867. His dream was to create a train empire, luxury that traveled across the continent, and he was successful. You could start in London, end in Constantinople, and never lack for anything, whether it be fine dining, comfortable sleeping compartments, or congenial companionship. Each carriage had its own name, its own personality, decorated and fitted to the highest standards of the day. Every need was anticipated, and catered for, down to the least detail.

Image taken from Wikipedia, Plan de vaisselle CIWL

If you had any pretense to importance, you wanted to be seen on that train, and that went for fictional characters as well as the more mundane sort. Dracula's hunters went by Orient Express from Paris to Varna, beating their quarry to the punch. English hero Harry Flashman went with his journalist friend Blowitz on the train's maiden voyage. James Bond nearly lost his life on that train, and Agatha Christie uses it twice, once in a short story, and again in her novel Murder on the Orient Express - probably the most famous novel about the Orient Express.

Image taken from Wikipedia.

The Great War knocked back the Express, and for the first time in its history it was unable to traverse its entire route. At war's end, armistice papers were signed aboard one of the train's luxury carriages; when Hitler kicked off World War Two, he made sure that the French surrender documents were signed aboard that same carriage, and later, when defeat seemed imminent, he blew it up. After World War Two the train revived again, but with a dramatically altered route; some of its traditional stops were now behind the Iron Curtain. However in the end it wasn't history but technology that killed it off; in the jet set age, there was no demand for train travel, however luxurious. For a brief time there was no train at all. Then in 1982 enthusiasts revived the brand, restoring some of the old carriages and building others. Now the London to Venice luxury run is purely for well-heeled sightseers, not for travelers on their own mysterious passage from wherever to whenever.

The train and carriages seen in the photographs are 1930s vintage, probably left there in the 1970s. If the 1980s enthusiasts looked at them at all, presumably they believed what was left wasn't economically viable - they may have been too far gone to be restored.

With all that in mind, some scenario seeds for Night's Black Agents, Fear Itself, and Esoterrorists.

Night's Black Agents: the opposition proposes a midnight meeting at the train yards; whether to exchange hostages or for some other reason is immaterial to the seed. The exchange is to take place aboard one of the abandoned Orient Express cars. As might be expected, it's a trap: two snipers have the train carriage covered, and there's a bomb inside.

Thrilling Elements: 
  • A chilled bottle of champagne and an appropriate number of glasses rest on one of the abandoned carriage's seats. [the bomb, on remote detonation, is under the seat.]
  • A goods train comes to an unexpected stop some distance away, and the screech can be heard throughout the yards.
  • The faint glow of cigarettes can be seen, perhaps some fifty yards away - train staff on a crafty break, or something else?
  • Train cars loom ominously in the darkness; every shadow could hide a potential threat.
  • A tapped-out, blood-starved Renfield [the Conspiracy think she's a traitor, and this is as good a way as any of dealing with her], captured ally or other defenseless, twitching body is tied up on the carriage floor.
  • A train unexpectedly switches to the track the agents are on.
Fear Itself: Urban Explorers say the Orient Express cars have a completely different personality at night, and the latest dare is to go there after midnight and leave some sign that you've been there - a card, a mark, anything. However some of those who do never return, and some who do return say they hear odd noises, a voice speaking in German. In fact, one is the train car Hitler ordered destroyed, but not because he thought it would be used as a war trophy. The demon inside Hitler transferred its consciousness to a special phylactery shortly before war's end, and arranged for it to be hidden inside the train car, for later retrieval by dedicated followers. The dazed and reeling Fuhrer, free of its influence, tried to have the car destroyed, but the demon's followers prevented this. However the last few months of the war saw all the Nazi occultists killed or captured, which meant nobody was able to retrieve the phylactery. There it sits to this day, waiting to be rediscovered - and in the meantime causing all kinds of mayhem to those unwise enough to disturb it without using the proper ritual.

Esoterrorists:  Several Esoterror cells across Europe have united with a singular purpose: to place copies of the abandoned Orient Express cars in every train stop that the original Express visited, before the Great War. Urban explorers from Paris to Istanbul report seeing these train cars, apparently copied to the last detail from the Belgian originals, left in depots and apparently forgotten. Are the Esoterrorists trying to create some kind of spirit copy of the original Orient Express, and if so, is this to weaken the Membrane, or have the Esoterrorists some other purpose in mind? Could this be an attempt to resurrect someone, or something, that rode aboard the Orient Express? Does this have anything to do with a string of murders, also from Paris to Istanbul, with one thing in common: an antique train ticket from 1892 found in the pockets of the dead?

That's it for this week. Enjoy!