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Lighting strikes the lightning rod at the top of the tower, lighting up the entire dark castle and the ominous purple night sky. The trees struggle with the winds, and the wind seems to find cracks to enter the old castle, lowering the temperatures to an unpleasant chill. Worse yet, is the agony of the patients within the unofficial hospital. They scream painfully as the storm intensifies, but there is nothing but sedatives to help them. The servents have to keep them conscious, or they'll starve due to a shortage in medical supplies. Dazed but conscious, eight mages and Anna lie there - helplessly. Their hands and legs are tied to the bed, and their eyes are well covered. Nobody wants to be around an insane mage, and this mana void -- or foveae as senior initiate Arvin named it, seems to get increasingly worse as the days progress.

The fireplace seems to omit unnaturally low amounts of light and warmth - almost as if the rules of nature struggle within this unusual weather. The electric lights were half-broken, and the other half flickered as the unstable and unpredictable power supply struggled with the storm. In principle, the energy was unlimited as the wind turbines installed on the towers benefited from the massive wind, but somehow it was unstable. Matrix access became very spotty, and a connection to the outside world was only possible with sophisticated signal enhancing techniques.

bnc sat close to the fireplace, shivering despite numerous layers of fabric. She glanced at the fire and then at the once beautiful Anna, driven insane like the other mages in the magical group. She was unnaturally pale, sedated most of the time, and when she woke up, she did not speak coherently - and mainly screamed in terror. A month ago, this whole thing seemed like a good idea. Muhmee offered the monastery a hiding place until their new SINs were ready, and the team could leave behind the mess they made while earning a lot of money and making powerful enemies.

It felt safe, a group of arcane researchers sponsored by a great dragon, and neutral toward most conflicts in Europe. The Benandanti XXV group, the Prague branch sponsored by the great Dragon Schwartzkopf, spent his day as a university professor. That is, most of these people were his former students, and Anna was so happy to have access to such minds even if she never actually set foot in Charles University. Yet, there she was, barely hanging in there, during a full week of a terrible storm.

Nova felt strangely okay. Whatever it was that drove all the awakened insane was a mere uneasy feeling to them. She heard the steps of Greta, the elderly cook, as she climbed up the stairs, but there were other steps barely audible behind her. Perhaps Eda, the chief of security - as it was his turn in kitchen duty.

The Coven did not break when all the researchers went crazy. They never did anything useful in their day-to-day lives. The servants kept doing all their chores as usual, but they had to adjust when things got bad enough to tie them to their bad. The mess hall was off-limit, and they needed to be fed.

Greta enters and closes the curtains, and briefly going over all the sick. Only then does she pays attention to bnc and Nova and says, "Have some soup." Looking at bnc she comments, "You are too thin." disapproving without taunting. The old lady does not know any better than to speak her mind.

The kitchen is low on ingredients, so no more chicken, but the soup had potatoes, onions, carrots, and herbs that were better nutrition than most would normally get. Eda finishes placing the large pot and helps Greta prepare the dishes when Greta starts spoonfeeding the once arrogant blue-sky researchers. Eda sits next to Nova. Helping out is one thing, but he cannot bring himself to do that. The cybered brute does not have a caring bone in him - not for these people.

"Believe it or not, your package is here." he says and places a small package on the table. "Whatever it is, it was important enough to deliver during the storm."
A fucking fireplace. Are we in the medievals now? Goddamn Catholics or whatever they are.

bnc's mood is sullen. It's not really about the fireplace, though. Under different circumstances she might even have found it relaxing, romantic even. It was Anna that worried her.
Of course, she'd never admit. So instead, she cast a glance here and there, and tried to keep the shivering to a minimum.

When a package arrives for Nova, bnc perks up. She doesn't say anything, however.
"Well then, let's see what it is. I wasn't exactly expecting anything this fast..."

Nova reaches out for the packages and puts it in front of herself.

As usual, it is hard to determine her emotional state. She is as composed as ever, even though it is clear that she does care for Anna and seeing her in this state is not to her liking at all.
The old lady continues with the tedious work of making sure everyone is fed. Eda nods to Nova but tries to give her privacy. Understandable considering that his cyber eyes may record what he sees. He moves to the door, careful not to look at the package and he observes the victorian and well-shut windows as if he expects some monster to break in through one. His stoic expression says very little about his emotional state. Though he likely takes some enjoyment seeing the mages at their state, the as order pays little attention to non-awakened servents.

The box itself is an old electronic delivery box repackaged with duct tape, and it has the words "To Guests" handwritten on it with a black marker. It is perhaps big enough for a small electronic device, and its weight indicates that it contains an electronic device. Should Nova open the box she'll find inside a modified Transys Avalon comlink that has seen its use. Despite being well maintained, and fully functional is not new. A few cracks on the plastic indicate that it fell more than once, and its universal cord connector indicates that it was used by someone that sometimes struggled to get the chord inside. The comlink has an attached stealth dongle connected to it, and it currently runs silently.
[ Spoiler ]

bnc immediately gets up, leaving her soup behind. She has eaten only half of it yet, and pushed all the potatoes aside with her spoon. She was underfed, even more than usual. Here, bnc can't get the type of food she is used to - yoghurts, zwieback, oatmeal, mashed apples, or low-fat turkey. The food here was too heavy, to spicey, to greasy for her broken digestive systems. Half the time, bnc found herself retching and vomiting her innards out. The other half, she just ate too little. Her eyes are as sunken in as Anna's, and her cheek bones stand out.
Still, she didn't find the soup appealing at all.

When she sees the commlink, her alarmbells ring loudly. She drops the spoon and hurries over to Nova, hissing "The frag's that?"
She instantly sends a message to James, ordering him to bring her burner links to her.

If Nova lets her, and doesn't add any conclusive information, bnc sets on investigating the device. First thing, she turns off the matrix connection. Then she slaves one of her burners to her Fairlight which is modded to provide extra security, using a cable connection. She then breaks the matrix connection to both her Fairlight and the burner as well, bevor she plugs in another cable between her burner link and the Transys device she wants to investigate. She then takes the burner to start a first investigation.

[ Spoiler ]
"A commlink? Pretty old by the looks of it. The rest, you are better-suited to find out. I don't have the slightest clue what it might contain."

Nova hands the opened package over to bnc, so she can do her thing.
The comlink is extended with a virtual machine module running the signal scrub, and smoke and mirrors programs. It makes no attempt to attack bnc's equipment, and as far as bnc can tell it is a high-quality comlink with a data processing, firewall, and stealth of 6. It is incapable of performing attack actions and is running silent. The comlink phone book contains a single contact nicked "Call me when in private", there is also a file with a brief explanation.
Dear Guests, circumstances are dire, your friend and my friends are in danger. I really need some help and nobody else to turn to. It is about this storm. Be discreet and trust nobody, I made an effort to not make it clear that I contacted you. Dark Fox 32.

[ Spoiler ]
"Ugh, frag those Czech tinker shops. Can't believe they charge almost 400 euros for that crap! Thanks for receiving the package anyway, Nova.", bnc swears in a weak attempt to deliver a harmless explanation to potential spectators.

[ Spoiler ]

To Nova, she sends a private text message: <@Nova <in 15 min in my room>>, then sends James off with the Avalon and the burners, before returning to her half-cold and not-too-tempting soup. She leaves the potatoes and onions.

While eating, she sends to Nova what she found out about Dark Fox 32. The rest of the message, she shows her when they are in bnc's room.


"What do you make of that? What would a guy like Dark Fox have to do with this fovea? He must know about Anna's condition, however. I'm too intrigued by this guy to objectively decide whether or not it's a sensible idea to contact him."
"Well, you know I am not someone to shy away from risks. And if it is a chance to find out more about what is going on, we have to take it," Nova says, after looking at the information presented.
bnc maintains a serious look for another one or two seconds. Then she breaks out in a mischievous grin.

"That guy sure is sinister. 'Be discreet and trust nobody' ", she mimicks a dramatic voice.
"All right. Let's get to know that guy. Maybe we get a ticket to Virtual Realism!"

She winks, then sends James to guard the door to prevent people from eavesdropping. "Dzang, it's been ages since I had an audio call using real old fashioned sound waves. I suddenly feel 14 again!"
A short shadow on her face indicates that, at closer inspection, 14 wasn't a good age to feel like again. She shakes it off quickly, however, and calls 'Call me when in private' (screen switched off, of course).
As the call connects, a voice speaks, but unfortunately it is a pre-recorded message.

"Good, you have my comlink. Here is what I know about you - which is not much. I know that you fought the Horrors lackeys and prevailed, causing quite some havoc, and I know that you lay low at the nearby castle. I assume you are some professionals and that you may be motivated to save your friend.

I am sorry for not being able to talk to you directly. I am in hiding, so instead, I recorded an informative message to this comlink. There is an additional message with further explanations triggering if the GPS sensors indicate that you came to my facility and accepted the offer.
I said to trust nobody - because even the existence of my facility is not public knowledge -- we use the monastery to obscure us. Whoever did this act of terrorism knew exactly how to do so, and they come from within our world. Take that to mind before letting someone know where you are going. Now I will try to explain, I hope I make sense it has been a while since I composed a message to someone on the outside. I will explain more if you come to meet me, and answer questions and everything.

What I am going to offer is dangerous and requires real skill to accomplish quietly. I did not get any permission to hire you, I am almost sure that my employer would generously compensate you, and if not, then I still own physical possesions in your world, like a house, a trust fund, and a car, and these could be liquidated... to pay what someone like you would require. So please hear me out, and I'll try to be brief and explain a little about what is going on and who you are speaking with.

So, I will tell you a bit about myself. Known as DarkFox32 - I was trying to come up with a fully virtual world. Unlike hot-sim, which is used for entertainment and getting stuff done faster, my goal was to create a world that can replace our own world but would be very similar to our world. I was part of an activist group called virtual realism that suggested that such virtualism would allow us to save our planet ecologically as we'll need less space and fewer physical things. It would allow us to advance technology while living in a completely virtual replica of our world. The caveat of this plan was that we do not yet understand magic well enough to simulate it, and this is where the great dragon Schwartzkopf came to the business.

Two years ago, Schwartzkopf took over Virtual Realism, and it was not a voluntary process. He physically took over our facilities, data, and everything. A lot of us were outraged. Heck, all of us were. We were nothing more than puppets or useful tools for this dragon and his army of awakened scholars. I chose to yield to preserve what I could from our project, which keeps living as part of Schwartzkopf's plan to combat the Horrors. From my own experience, Dragons only care about the Horrors... it feels like they are traumatized by things we are too young even to remember.

I cannot pretend to fully grasp what a great dragon wants with virtual reality technology - but from the dealings with his arrogant drakes, I believe that I understand some of it. Schwartzkopf is impressed by the technology gathered by the fifth world, and he would not like to see this wealth goes to waste. He plans to build many safe havens from the Horrors for the best and brightest of humanity and keep these people fully submerged in VR while the rest of humanity is likely consumed by the Horrors as it has been in the past. Using virtual reality, a small percentage of the population would keep scientific research progressing. By the time it is safe to come out again, the humanity that emerges out would not be ignorant savages but an advanced civilization that has solved many of our current issues.

I am not a magic expert, but that Dragon pioneered universal magical theory to understand magic well enough to incorporate it into our simulations so that people would also be able to advance magic research inside the simulation - although personally, I feel that this is a bit too science fiction to happen. Now this plan might have been solid if the Horrors really had no influence over our plane of existence and would let us prepare for the fight peacefully. Here is where it gets hairy -- they are already here, and they sabotage our work. I heard rumors about sinister rituals and peaceful scientists killed. I am not blaming the Horrors on this mess - I really don't. They keep us isolated on a need-to-know basis, so we grow paranoid. It is difficult to keep deckers fully isolated from the world. So I know more than I should, more than is healthy for me perhaps - but I have to know.

Now, the thing that is killing your friend is a special kind of FAB 3 bacteria. It is what creates the storm, and when there is no mana, these critters can eat the traces of mana found on awakened auras which essentially kills the awakened. This is not the intended use of this bacteria, and it is a defense mechanism to facilitate the grand plan. There is always a grand plan, and somehow despite being so sophisticated and smarts, these Dragons are also so naive and oblivious to how things can go terribly wrong.

So the benevolent plan is to maintain entire cities safe from the Horrors. These people would probably live harsh and difficult lives because they'll be limited to cities without connection to the outside world, so they'll need to scavenge the resources of the land and survive on them for millennia. The basic idea is simple: continuously release these genetically engineered bacteria not to replicate, and these will eat the mana continuously. The more the mana levels increase, the more such bacterias would be created and released to the air - and the idea would be to allow for the current mana levels that do not allow the Horrors to manifest persist long into the sixth world where mana levels are expected to rise year after year. Thus, we'll have bubbles of several kilometers, which would be Horror free if it actually worked.

However, mana levels are way too low to use this kind of mechanism right now. Our think-tank concluded that there were likely a few experiments like that already. None of these anomalies happened in a populated area so we really do not know, we only know that they could describe what is happening here and now - as much as we understand what is happening. Perhaps the dragon decided to test a weapon - and the benevolent plan to save cities was just to keep the scientists satisfied? Would he really kill his own students?

It gets confusing, and I get carried away. It is sabotage, or treason, or a weapon test, or an assassination attempt at Schwartzkopf that lives in Prague and teaches at the University. I mean, the dragon is likely the most delicious meal in the city, and if it kills awakened even if he can stop being dual-natured -- these buggers would eat him just like the rest. We do not know the reason to do this monstrosity, we really don't we were working on perfecting virtual reality simulations and listened to the talks about Horrors and magic in management meetings. Never truly believed that they are relevant.

Look -- why it is happening is not very important - it needs to stop before people die. Many people, including some of my relatives, are going to die - and I don't know any professionals like yourself that can solve such an issue. If you come you come, and I will make sure you get paid if you do. In some of these scenarios, Schwartzkopf would generously pay you, and in others, I would give you the possessions I no longer need. You cannot trust anyone, but if you show up - you can trust that I will get you paid for your efforts. Even if it costs me an arm and a leg.

I'll try to focus on the facts -as I get carried away in speculation. Our systems were hacked, and we are locked out, able to see the Horror defense mechanism activated but we are unable to stop it. We are trying to gain control, but it is not as simple as it appears. Our site manager was kidnapped. He is right there next to us - so perhaps kidnapped is not the right word. I will try to explain...

We live in a simulation -- to see if it is possible, and we do not exit it under normal circumstances. We can, but we do not. There are many more people like us. The world gets crowded as time passes and the experiment matures. Our physical bodies work on some auto-pilot keeping us in good health. It is impossible to disconnect someone from this simulation without serious brain damage, the disconnect progress must be performed when the person is willing to disconnect and is located in an exit node. A gap in the simulation that allows accessing the matrix - and this world. As you may guess, I am currently waiting for you in an exit node - the one whose matching entry node is within my facility not far from you. I'd rather not go out, but to guide you on how you can get in. I will go out if this is what it takes for you to trust me but me going out may raise suspicion on me.

Now, we need to get the site manager to the site and he can operate it legally without hacking. So I need you to find him and escort him to the site. Alternatively, if you cannot find him - I need you to escort me to the site. The site is overrun by some militia, the same people that kidnapped him. I assume they want to interrogate him - but I am speculating again so I'll just stop. The site manager has legal access to the system and can stop the defense mechanism's deployment. Nobody else has such permissions, but we are hackers and in a pinch, we can at least make an effort to hack the system - if we could get safely into the control room.

Now comes the dangerous part- I need you to either rescue our site manager and take him safely to the control room so that he shuts down the defense mechanism killing the bacteria. Or -- if you cannot find him or he is dead or -- whatever. I need you to take me to give me a shoot in hacking the defense mechanism and saving my family. I do not have the skills to sneak past armed guards or do it alone... I would likely try if you do not show up --- but my chances are very low.

Our world is very different from your matrix. The best way to describe it is that you are in a very realistic simulation of Fith-world Earth. No magic, but physics and chemistry, and technology work the same. Or almost the same, they work to the best of our understanding.
What I am trying to say, if you know how to shoot in your world - you can shoot in mine. Bullets kill people the same in both worlds, if you die in my world you will likely also die in your world. It is not certain, but you will be disconnected forcibly - which may cause serious brain damage. Most importantly, you cannot just get out at any time when things grow hot - you must physically be at a specific location to get out.

If you are still listening and I did not scare you out... and if you really have the skill to help in such a situation. Please come.

I am following my own advice, which is why I pre-recorded messages to you instead of talking to you like a person. The information is already in your comlink please don't hack it for more curiosity because you might ruin it. Following this message would be details that you can use to verify that I indeed own a large house in Germany and that I do have a sizeable trust fund that can pay you for your effort. Once you are inside my facility, I would be able to talk to you but here it is too dangerous. I really hope that you come.

DarkFox32, real name: Mathew Corb, <SIN number>, <Bank account Number>, <Permission to query about real estate, and trust fund included> <GPS coordinates of facility included>
bnc whistles. "Cheese...", she says in a less-than-mediocre attempt to be funny. She then plays the message a second time.

"Förböveln, that is fucked up, big girl..."
While listening to the long message, she sat on the bed. Now she leans back, thoughtful.

"I don't know about you, but all that stuff about horrors and dragons is too big for me. I mean, it feels nice to know when you're on the side fighting entities that are even more malicious than a Christian god, but I don't see myself volunteering to take a stand in a fight I don't even grasp.
However, I do want to have Anna back. No one is near as fun to insult.

I'm going. Let the dragons scheme and try to outsmart the horrors. I'm too short-lived to care much about this war. But I am not going to miss out on Virtual Realism when I get an invitation and I'm not going to let Anna crash before she tried to lay me one more time. Also, frag this monastery. If I stay another week in hiding, I'll drop dead of either starvation or boredem or suicide, whatever happens first. I'd rather take a bullet, virtual or no.

What about you, Nova? You with me?"
Nova nods. "Of course, I am coming with you. Not that I am very excited about the prospect of entering this virtual world, definitely much less than you seem to be, but hopefully we can help her this way."
"Surely better still than spoon-feeding some drooling croneys." she replies with a shrug.

Da frag he means with 'Don't hack it. You could ruin it? Either he placed a databomb - in which case I'm obviously interested, or he didn't. Then hacking it shouldn't cause any harm. So...

bnc copies all accessible data to an offline data chip. And then, curiosity kills the cat.

[ Spoiler ]

"So, where are we going? Like, what do we tell the guys in the monastery.
Also, what do you think? Is it really sensible to not tell anyone where we're going? I mean, we have no proof at all this isn't a trap.
Actually, the more I come to think of it, it contains about everything I would stuff into a trap where I to try and lure us out of hiding. Maybe we should give the thing a second thought, don't you think?
You're a tough shadowrunner with way, way more experience than I have. What's your gut say?"
Nova shrugs.

"Gee, I don't know. But as you said, anything is better than this. If it is a trap, then let them try. We can still gain information that way. But, I don't know. Isn't that a bit convoluted just to be a trap?"

"As for what to tell them here... do we owe them any explanation?"
bnc's hacking attempt succeeds, but as a response, the device begins the rebooting sequence. She is trying to figure out what is going on and her savvy mind connects the dots, she has done similar things but never to her own equipment. The garbage in garbage out (GIGO) action was extensively used to make hacking this little device challenging. The reboot operation replaces the new mark action triggered by the device upon her hacking attempt. It did not prevent bnc from gaining access, but as the reboot sequence triggers she only has a few seconds to perform a GIGO action preventing it from rebooting the next time she hacks it. If the device reboots she needs to try again - and if she fails a hacking attempt the device will gain a mark on her - and such an event may be coded to eliminate the data. At least it explains the warning of Darkfox not to hack the device.

Thinking about it for a few moments results in some insights. It is very much likely that this commlink is unusable without extensive reprogramming. Sure she can access the OS and make it normal again, or at least normal enough to copy the data if she is quick enough - but failing to do so may indeed cause the device to delete the data. The owner clearly did anything that his software skills allowed to make sure the device is not hacked, even at the price of making the comlink completely useless. -- a strange but effective means of protection.

[ Spoiler ]
bnc is fascinated by the setup. "Sheesh ... this dude really means to keep hackers from hacking the device."
She grins mischievously. "Meaning there must be something interesting. You don't mind, do you?
I need to go full hot-sim for this bugger, though."

bnc cranes her neck, then makes herself comfortable on the bed. Then her body goes limp for a minute.

[ Spoiler ]

When she reopens her eyes, a bead of sweat trickles down her forehead.
"This dude knows his crap. Sheesh. To be perfectly honest, I was an inch away of deleting all the data. I will be thrilled to meet this guy. I honestly wasn't aware that you can even to that to a commlink."

She grins and rubs her palms. "So? You ready?"
Winking, bnc plays the retrieved message.
bnc discovers three audio files on the comlink, as well as fake documents granting access to the site, and some information that can be used for being more convincing at entering the site. There is also a list of four Seader-corp owned beta cliniques in Europe, mostly in Germany but one in Hungary.

Message 1:

"So you have reached the data center good. I've taken liberties to grant you access, but only to the surface site. Your cover is data-security inspectors for Lavamind, which is a small-time gaming company. You come to inspect that their service is hosted according to protocol.
And they would inspect your SINs. If you come when the power surges, the check is more likely to be superficial. There is plenty of power, but the surface site has only access to the local grid, which is a mess. Enter the site, follow the tour, make some serious faces, and connect this comlink to terminal 430. It would run diagnostics and activate a backdoor. It would allow you to access the simulation site.

Head to this location when done <coordinates attached>

The location in question is about 1km from the site. It is a natural cave.

Message 2:

"Good, now that you have access to the underground site, the natural cave. There is no security, and your electronic credentials are good. Inside the cave, there is a wall of vegetation. Walk past it. Then continue walking and allow yourself to go over the cliff. It is not real. Walk until you feel a metal wall and vocally order it "Ground Floor", these assholes are giving us all a scare when we enter this shit with their magic tricks.

Once you give the word, the elevator would come to take you, it may be disguised as some natural object, but it is an elevator. Mages just got creative. The Ground floor requested from the ground floor leads you to my floor - ground zero floor. It is a modern-day Noach's arc aimed at preserving the world's computing, manufacturing, and agricultural's skills in the face of a possible catastrophe.

I'll wait for you there, it is a large building, and anyone seeing you there would know you do not belong there. Lucky for you, security is a bit lax not to draw attention. The guard in question would be distracted, so just quickly get past him to the conference room where I'll meet you. I'll have all the equipment necessary to disguise you and move you to the simulation rooms.

Good luck."

Message 3
The third message "If you hear this message, then I could not meet you, likely something bad has happened to me. Logging into Realism would be extremely dangerous, and you will have nobody to guide you. I was hoping you could get out safely and get your friend as far away as you can from this place. Find her a good doctor and a beta-level hospital. They'll have the equipment to fix her. I know a few hospitals, but I am not sure how you will convince them to serve you.

Being likely dead or worse, this is up to you. So sorry for dying at my prime and leaving you in all this mess. Hope you survive it.

DarkFox 32"

From analyzing the message you understand that DarkFox should transmit some code to the link to activate it. You cannot tell what the code is, but if you'll see it you can recognize it. (or more realistically bnc would write a small program to recognize it. ).
bnc stands and stretches, still thoughtfull.

"Huh. I'm actually glad I hacked the device, 'cause I derive two things from these messages, spontaneously.
First, the guy is sincere. If this is a trap, then heck, this asshole really thought it through and gambled quite a bit. I don't think he actually expected me to crack the device. I can't see how he would know me so well as to judge both my hacking abilities and my, uhm, curiosity. So, apparently, these really are instructions to get inside, or so I hope.

Secondly, he dropped the info that we can just fix Anna by bringing her to a beta-level hospital. And I do know how to convince them to serve us. Creds. There's still Muhme's pay. That should most definitely do to get Anna a place in the hospital.

So, here is what I think. I may be a runner, but I would never have developed my skills if my own ass would be all I care for. I'm not sure I believe everything this wanker says, but I'm intrigued enough to do further research and I'm still inclined to go. However, I'm not willing to bet Anna's live, sanity or the wrinkle-free state of her Barbie face at stake, hoping we will be both successful and fast enough. So, before we chase after Fox's bait, I say, we drop Anna at a beta clinic and make sure she gets good treatment. That done, we can still climb up the beanstalk.

So, what're your thoughts, chrome lady?"
Nova gives bnc an approving nod.

"We also know a delta-clinic, that could be another option. Overall, I would say... sounds good! Giving Anna into the care of people that might actually have the appropriate skills and eqiupment to help her, seems like a no-brainer to me. And if this guy wants to pay us for helping him, that also sounds good to me."
bnc nods, even presents Nova with a rare smile, short and shy though. "Good. Uhm ... do you think you could organize that. I hate talking to strangers and I suck at it. I'll give my best to get us into Otherland."

Whether or not Nova (hopefully) agrees, bnc tries to do some more research.

Question she'd like to have answered (if possibly) are:
  • Is Virtual Realism and Ultra-V host?
  • How do real physics influence the physics of the avatar in VR? Do they translate 1 on 1? Or can you somehow create your own avatar? She'd assume that those are mostly hackers who wouldn't want to translate all of their weaknesses and ailments into their new body, but then the aim is not paradise but a somewhat realistic copy of the world.
  • Same question regarding equipment. Would clothing, weapons, drones, cyberware, nanites and so on translate into VR?
  • Are there major changes to the real world, except for the lack of mana? Do people suffer regularly from muscle atrophy, trisomy and neurodermatitis? Are there as many ticks and mosquitoes? Hurricanes and earthquakes?
  • Is the system hackable? Can you change the laws of physics, alter your own avatar or whatever? If so, do I have to do it from outside or from inside?
  • How many people dwell in Virtual Realism, roughly?
  • Are there other inhabitants, like AIs? Are all persons you interact with actually people, or are there NPCs?
  • What about animals?
  • How do they take care of their physical body? What prevents it from dehydration and starvation, from thrombosis or sicknesses?
  • And, if she stumbles over it, why the fuck can't Dark Fox get us in officially? Isn't he supposed to be their leader or something? Even after Schwartzkopf's takeover, shouldn't he maintain a position in which he can invite new guests and/or inhabitants?
The only data bnc can find is dated for more than two years ago, since that point there is no public data at all. Some conspiracy theories (including the takedown) but no online consensus as to what happened. Even previous members of the group just say that the host went dark and their access was revoked. Nobody gave explanations, some people were as clueless as them while others apparently stopped existing in any digital or physical medium.

The goal of the original Virtual realism was to simulate a single building, or a spaceship to chemistry level realism, including diseases, mosquitos, and all the known physical elements. There were three separate simulations, a generational ship, a small colony in the jungle, and a science lab. As much as bnc says the system simply lacks mediums to hack, it is probably hackable but it uses different protocols with less reliance on matrix devices. Connection is done through their own device a bodysuit that allows for the user to feel very realistically what happens in the simulation, and for the simulation to maintain users' body healthy for extended periods of time.

Her conclusion is that everything is hackable, but there is no obvious way to cheat. Their promotional videos show people working on research while their bodies are at the gym, and everyone super healthy and happy, and living in huge barracks with a massive reduction in required space. Another video shows fancy apartments in simulation while in the real world they live cramped with few resources. The simulation is meant to be realistic enough to replace the real world for most of the everyday tasks of a cooperate drone - but it was never powerful enough to create an entire world or anything near it.

The Realism folks were fanatics to simulate the world to the best of our understanding, at a great cost simply to make the applications of the simulations endless. They argued that in time scale would growth and people would be able to go on hikes, visit places and live entirely in VR without consuming many resources in this world. Saving a fortune, being productive, and saving the ecology and the world. The system was planned with a capacity of 2,000 people in mind. Hoping to increase the number over time.

There is no information connecting Schwartzkopf to Virtual Realism in any means. Not of a takeover, the only references are speculations by people. Sure if she looks close enough someone would also implicate Schwartzkopf (or any other dragon, immortal elf, or government) in their demise, but nobody seems to favor this version over others. The most prominent theory treats this entire venture as a scam. Claiming that the leaders got a big investment and bailed out like the worst kind of criminals. Disappearing with their families completely, and starting a new life in a different part of the world with new identities. There is not much information to back that off, but the vast majority of ex-project members seem to believe in it.

When bnc returns to the physical world, it's already late. Her eyes are red, and she looks, above all, frustrated.
"There's literally nothing of use to find out. I have only an inkling as to what happens to our bodies, I have no clue whatsoever how we are going to be represented in the virtual world, or even if the people we are going to meet in there are all real. This really is going to be an expedition into unknown terrain.
Have you been more successful organizing a hospital place for Anna? Please tell me good news, I'm already frustrated before any of this begins"

bnc feels the urge to open a can of Pepper Plus. But there is none.
"I havn't organized anything, yet. We could bring her to Berlin, where she would get the best possible care, I believe. Pricey, of course. Otherwise, I could ask a doctor in Munich, who I know very well, if she has any connections to beta clinics in the area."
"I don't know ... transporting her so far could be difficult. We're not keeping our heads low for nothing. There must be a possibility inside the borders, don't you think?"

Sighing, bnc searches the matrix for beta-clinics in the vicinity.
Finding Beta-level clinics is easy, their locations are easily accessible in the matrix. The difficulty lies in their clientele, which includes mostly corporate or government contacts rather than private people. Yes, some do operate private people, mostly rich and famous but in these cases, one would require real bank accounts and real identities. High-level augmentations require registration, and in some cases a psychological evaluation the entire process is a few months long.

The difficulties in these plans are two-fold, legality for admitting a SINless to such a clinic to be hospitalized along with very rich, or important people, and of actually paying for the service. Certified cred sticks work well in the shadows, but in the world of tax-payers every income needs to be registered, and cred-sticks are not a form of their approved means of payment. Sure, perhaps the money would open the door but either such a hospitalization would generate a very noticeable paper trail which the team would like to avoid, or in the best case, they can bribe their way inside and avoid some of the paper trails but this involves risks of alerting the police if the bribe is not accepted.

In any case, the closest Beta+ clinic is in Dresden. Located in a state-funded hospital, its main clients include militaries of various AGS kingdoms, but it also serves some celebrities. It is about two hours driving legally, and the roads should be relatively free because of the storm.
bnc seems worried.
"Ugh fragging chinks drek, carajo
I'm ... I'm not sure, really. I can't find any clinics that would admit us - at least not online. Without knowing the Czech shadows, I guess, SINles runners won't get access to local hospitals - let alone beta-level. There is Dresden. However ... Crossing the AGS borders with a shitload of illegal equip, no proper SINs and a screaming, blinded mage - without a real good coyote, it's not gonna happen.
Frag! And what if we make it? We don't even know whether we would get admitted in Dresden. And if not ... we're stranded. I mean, I don't know whether she'll recover on her own when we get her out of the area. But at this point, it's just playing poker with her life."

She runs her hand through her hair. [color="red"]"Not that I care, really. It's just, you know, being a chummer to a fellow runner"
, she adds suddenly, acting a bit too non-chalant.
"So, uh, what do you think? We still could try and bring her somewhere else, maybe relieving her from the influence of the FAB3 bacteria. But then, again, if she's infected already and the bacteria just munch away on her, she won't make it without proper care. On the other hand, we can just pay someone to feed her and stuff. But do we really trust strangers?

I don't know. I feel like every exposure might lead to a desaster, and we really don't have good options. As bad as it feels, but I can't come up with anything better than leaving he in the care of these preachers and go follow the Fox."
"You might be right there. It is all too uncertain, and we might just make things worse. Right now, while it is far from perfect, she seems to be in decent enough care, at least for a while. And if this could lead to something, that can truly help her, it is worse the risk, I would say."
"All right. Nothing to be done, then. Let's get a nap and start tomorrow. Is there anything you need to get or do before we leave? We might be away for a long while, or never return. But then, we already took care of things before we left Austria. At least I did. So, I'm good to go."

Save for one thing. bnc composes a message to Kerstin, in which she explains everything in detail. She makes sure that the message is wiped from the matrix after it is read, but she needs Kerstin to know everything. After that, she stays awake till late, worrying, checking James and tuning her deck. Around 2 pm, she shoots one of her rare plasters of Whoom she has left, then glides into sleep regulator-supported sleep.
Nova shrugged. "Not much to do. Get some rest. Tomorrow we will find out, what this is all about."

She went to her room and sorted her stuff in "take with me" and "leave here". There wasn't much else to do in preparation.
The weather continues to be foreboding, with strange sounds made by the wind and perhaps an overactive imagination in the old stone walls. The temperatures continue to drop, and it begins to snow. Other than that not much happens, Greta and Eda continue to sustain the place to the best of their ability, showing up only for meals.
Next day in the morning, bnc gets up early. Sleep-regulator or no, she looks worn. Her cheekbones stand out, clearly visible, her eyes have a hollow look. Everything else is hidden under several layers of cloth, upmost of all a thick hoody to protect her from the grim weather.

Her explication for their departure, she keeps short. "We have some chores.", she says, hoping that the monks and nuns will know better than to press for further answers. She leaves them 1,000 nuyen "in case you need medicine for my, uh, chummer over there."

Then she orders a taxi, bringing them to the next town. There, she takes another taxi, and somewhere in between, she swaps taxi a second time. Better be safe than sorry.

[ Spoiler ]
Nova explained at least a little more to their hosts. "We will be gone for a bit. Can't say how long. Could be hours or even days. I will leave my bike and some of my stuff here."

She also asked: "Is there anything you need, that we could bring back here?"

When everything was said and done, Nova joined bnc in the taxi. The cold did not seem to bother her much.

She was wearing her business outfit and carrying a black metal briefcase.
The automated taxi service is not working due to power surges, and weather. Its AI is not sufficient to handle this strange weather and there were a few accidents reaching the news before the service was taken offline. The alternative is a human-piloted taxi if they want, but it costs circa 500 nuyen for the ride. Prices are a bit insane as the streets are not very safe during blackouts and shaky power.

When the team says they are leaving, Eda suggests that they can use one of the vehicles in the monastery. Where they have a Toyota Gopher of an outdated generation, manual drive only. No sensors or technology drives on gasoline and not electricity. Or a modern and electric Ford Americar. I can let you just use them for a few days no problem, headmaster Ulrich instructed me to give you what you need. I'll need a security deposit of 5k which would be returned if you return the cars undamaged. he explains.

Greta receives the 1k deposit with a smile that does not reach her face. "No worries, we'll keep the lights out until the storm passes, and she'll receive whatever treatment the others receive, within your budget," she says and sighs "The people calling the shots are all unavailable so it is the most I can promise, but perhaps it would be more. I can update you if you like.

The facility is a public data center serving many start-ups and small-sized companies. It has aggressive advertising online, a free tour for visitors and investors, and basic security measures to deter gangs. These seem to include a premium account on the local police, giving them a priority for responding, as well as a small on-site security team that makes heavy use of dual-purpose human-like drones. She deduces that seeing that the kid-sized drone in the advertisement is also armed with a heavy pistol and a baton. There seems to be at least a single human security on site for verifying accesses privileges.

When the taxi services are unavailable, she decides to accept the monastery's offer. Desipte her affinity towards matrix and technology, she decides for the Toyota. During the fovea, it seems the more reliable choice, and certainly the one less easy to track. Since she's never before driven a car manually, she first practices on the monastery's ground until she got the knack. Only then did she let Nova enter the car. The deposit, she pays willingly.

When they're in the car and alone (save for James, of course), she says:
"Nova, talking is your part. You know how I suck at it. You be our face, right? What would we need? I assume we won't arrive there in these clothes. Shall we go get some businnes fashion?"
Nova was watching bnc's driving practice, completely expecting to see the car bing crashed into one of the walls, but it never happend. Probably for the better.

Guess, I can let her drive... she thought.

When she entered the car, she replied: "Yes, I can do that. As for the clothes, speak for yourself. I'm all business here. But we can probably get something on the way, if any shops are even open in this godforsaken storm."
"Uh, yeah, lemme rephrase that: I assume I won't arrive there in these clothes. Shall we go get some business fashion?
Unless you go in there alone."

bnc has little clue that to wear for the occasion, but since Nova has already made her choice, she would just pick anything that closely resembles what she's wearing - though, non-armored, most likely, as they buy on short notice.
"Sure, let's go shopping. If you can find a shop, that is."

Nova leaned back in her chair. There wasn't a whole lot to do at the moment.
With (hopefully) a little help from Nova who seemed to know a lot more about fashion than bnc (a thing that's true for most neolithic cave-dwellers), bnc tries to buy something that basically says "I'm a tech geek but I try to look like something", which is, conveniently, basically what's actually the case. Spending little time and less patience on pants, a shirt and a coat - none of them pronouncing her already almost androgynic body - she procures what she must, then drives them to the actual station.

She inhales deeply. In earlier times, she would have had to fight down the urge to calm herself with Whoom!, but she wasn't the broken teenager she used to be any more. She still was somewhat broken but every month had made her a little more grown-up, a little more in control. bnc had been through way worse shit, most of it with Nova at her side. Still, her intestines felt like crawling maggots.

"All right. We don't have a lot of SINs to burn, or at least, I don't. My good ole Ruth Axis from a different millenium should still be good, though. It's been ages since I've used it, and it never got compromised, as far as I know. So I'll be Ruth. Don't lose me in there, or you'll be ruthless."
Buying clothes is not a big issue usually, it is a bit of an issue in the storm but there are open places, and places with less disturbance. The facility is in a remote suburb of Prague, a relatively secure midclass neighborhood but the walls are still covered with graffiti, and the knowledgable would identify territorial disputes between multiple gangs. The weather remains terrible, and the streets are almost empty. There are multiple car/house alarms, and many of the windows are either shut down with wood or seem to be broken. It appears that squatters have taken refuge sometimes by force in most of the tall buildings. Their desperate eyes and simple hand weapons eye the car as it crosses the street.

The facility is identifiable easily, it has electric fences and small doglike drones that patrol the fences. Plenty of cameras. The main entrance also has a well-armored humanlike drone which is armed with a sword out of all weapons. Interestingly, the fence is also damaged and an orc-sized opening is cut not very far from the main entrance. None of the drones seem to relate to that glaring weakness in the defense mechanisms. In fact, they patrol all the fences except the place where it was cut open.

"At least traffic is light," Nova mentioned.

She helped pick out something suitable for bnc and actually appeared to know a little bit about fashion and what pieces to combine and so on. Not that bnc really cared much, but at least she did look somewhat presentable afterwards.

When they got to the facility, Nova said: "Maybe someone hacked the drones to avoid this particular area of entry? Could that be meant for us?"
"I don't know but I don't like this a bit. My gut screams 'no'. Had they prepared an entry for us, they would have told us so. We even heard the messages that were planned to be played after we arrive here: No mention of anything like this. Instead, he suggested we infiltrate the facility in disguise.
Something is wrong here, Nova.
Get out your big guns. We are going to need a plan B. But let's do some intel first."

With a worried expression, bnc pumps back the lean of the car (swearing at the fact that she has to do it manually). Then she goes limp, dangerously sliding to a side as the seat's incline is not made for comatose drivers. From the cyberspace, she lets her Nissan Doberman take to the air - just for security - then jumps into one of her FlySpys to make a tour through the facility.
"I don't know but I don't like this a bit. My gut screams 'no'. Had they prepared an entry for us, they would have told us so. We even heard the messages that were planned to be played after we arrive here: No mention of anything like this. Instead, he suggested we infiltrate the facility in disguise.
Something is wrong here, Nova.
Get out your big guns. We are going to need a plan B. But let's do some intel first."

With a worried expression, bnc pumps back the lean of the car (swearing at the fact that she has to do it manually). Then she goes limp, dangerously sliding to a side as the seat's incline is not made for comatose drivers. From the cyberspace, she lets her Nissan Doberman take to the air - just for security - then jumps into one of her FlySpys to make a tour through the facility.
The facility is peaceful from the outside, there are ten drones patrolling the fences, and the top of the facility is covered with solar panels, flying drone ports containing four flying drones which are currently grounded due to the storm.
There are large generators at the back side and very large tanks next to them possibly containing either fuel or water for cooling. The building itself, (three stories) is completely intact, which not as much as a broken window.

[ Spoiler ]
"Ok, give me a second," Nova confirmed.

Then she opened her briefcase and quickly assembled the assault rifle contained within. She took a moment to pick out one of the magazines and inserted the clip, while putting the other two into her pockets. The empty briefcase was left in the car for now.

Once activated, the gun was barely visible, thanks to the chameleon coating. Nova also put on her ballistic mask and started to scan the area through the scope.
Nova notices a very small glitch, the water flow from the heavy rain flows a bit strange like there is an obstacle not far from the opening. Trying to deduce what she does not see, is likely an RP coated van parked near the opening - not very far from their car. If she exits the car and looks at the opening, she can clearly tell that there are tracks going toward the facility, she does not spot footprints in the opposite direction she is unsure if it is because there are none or that she is just not skilled enough to spot them.
"Well, that's interesting..."

Nova turned on her ultrasound vision and transfered an image to bnc, so she could take a look as well.
[ Spoiler ]

"I don't like this one bit. Something's very off here."

[ Spoiler ]
Ultrasound sensors struggle, they do not pick up a van but they do not pick up a clear space either the ultrasound feels like jitter. Perhaps the surfaces of the invisible objects are aligned in a way to resist the sound waves? The only part of the vehicle which is not protected is part of the wheels which Nova can count four part-wheels. Which Nova easily identifies knowing what she is looking for.

A quick look over the matrix shows bnc only the host. She will have to hack an R5 host to peek inside and inspect any of the drones.
[ Spoiler ]
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