The 4th Corporate War – An Essay on the Alternate History of R. Talsorian Games’ “Cyberpunk” TTRPG

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In my last two essays, I covered the two main factions that are behind the 4th Corporate War, Arasaka and Militech, in the alternate history of R. Talsorian Games’ Cyberpunk universe. Now, it’s time to dig in to the single biggest turning point of the game: the Fourth Corporate War. I covered the three previous Corporate Wars in my Rise of the Megacorps essay, so check that out before diving in to this one.

Obviously, there’s going to be some spoilers in here for CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, so be warned.

The 4th Corporate War began “innocently” enough as a conflict between two smaller MegaCorps, CINO and OTEC. A MegaCorp named IHAG, which specialized in underwater shipping and technology, went under. Neither CINO or OTEC had enough capital to complete a takeover, so they began engaging in stock market manipulations and economic attacks on the other party. When this back-and-forth exchange failed to disable the other Corp, the two firms decided to move into more physical forms of warfare.

CINO and OTEC were by no means large MegaCorps (at least in comparison to others like BioTechnica, Arasaka, or Militech). Corporate espionage and small-scale surgical strikes (specifically assassinations of each other’s board members) were not getting the job done, so both Corps reached out and hired bigger corporations with more muscle to throw in to the fight. OTEC hired Militech International, a U.S.-based armaments and private military contracting company. In turn, CINO hired Arasaka, a Japanese-based security and manufacturing company that stood as Militech’s main rival on the world stage.

Militech and Arasaka had been dancing around each other since the late 2010s in this timeline but they had never gone directly head-to-head up to this point. Within a matter of months, the conflict between OTEC and CINO went on the back burner as the two largest private military forces in the world of Cyberpunk went to war with one another. In the beginning of the Fourth Corporate War, both MegaCorps were at least mindful of their public image, so they simply spent time trying to undermine the other through espionage, cyberwarfare, and small-scale combats. Eventually, both Militech and Arasaka decided that their fight needed to grow in scope, with the consequences becoming more and more public.

Think of the 4th Corporate War in terms of the Second World War, mainly in the idea of smaller countries like Italy and Germany being able to field armies in the tens of thousands. Couple those numbers with a well-connected global distribution chain and the large logistical foundation of a small nation/state and you have an idea what Militech and Arasaka were both bringing to the table. Adding to all this were the advancement of cybernetics, which allowed for soldiers on both sides to be optimized for anything from street combat to cyberwarfare to orbital fighting. In the middle of all this were the Cyberpunks or Edgerunners, mercenaries who held no allegiance to any one side but were happy to make a buck off the growing conflict.

When the war turned into a full, open conflict, no where on Earth was safe. Instead of fighting like traditional armies in the past, Militech and Arasaka engaged in sudden and swift attacks on the other MegaCorp’s holdings. The battles were not full-blown war zones, since neither Militech or Arasaka were sure how much interference they would receive from the governments of the countries they fought in. The governments of the world, particularly the United States, were still reeling from the Collapse and other economic crises, so they were incapable (or just too lazy) to interfere with the MegaCorps that helped finance their economies. This emboldened both Militech and Arasaka, who began deploying cyborg troops, mobile tanks and AVs (aerial vehicles that are similar to high-flying hovercrafts), and fully-armed battalions. By 2022 in the Cyberpunk timeline, pitched warfare was occurring in multiple hot spots around the globe, with both Militech and Arasaka bringing all of their military might to bear against one another. But the fighting took its toll quickly. Neither MegaCorp had anticipated open warfare taking as long as it did, so their supply lines and troop counts began to wither.

The war extended to the open seas, as both Arasaka and Militech targeted the other company’s shipping vessels and military seacraft. Autonomous weapons were deployed in every major ocean and sea, set to target any enemy craft that wandered through the area. Within months, global shipping and commerce were disrupted, stretching the economies of entire regions to their breaking point. In a cruel twist of fate, the constant warfare in the oceans all but destroyed the sea-based assets of both CINO and OTEC, who had initially begun the war but were quickly relegated to background players in the conflict.

Every aspect of life in the world of Cyberpunk was disrupted by the 4th Corporate War, including banking, the Net (the world-wide-web of the Dark Future), even the Orbital space platforms that were responsible for supplying raw materials from orbit to planet-bound facilities. The so-called “Highriders” took note of this, with many orbital platforms being used for “ortillery” strikes against specific targets on the ground. These attacks could be anything from small debris to multi-ton slabs of rock and metal that could obliterate entire sections of a city. Then the Seven-Hour War occurred, which resulted in the space-dwelling colonists in the orbital platforms taking over those facilities and declaring their independence from the ground-side conflict. Their method of declaring this independence involved dropping several tons of “ortillery” strikes at targets on Earth, pulverizing entire sections of cities.

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NET warfare was the other great front of the war. Both Militech and Arasaka had hired (by force in some cases) the best Netrunners in the world to fight for them. In Arasaka’s case, the Soulkiller program they had acquired in 2013 from their “recruit” Alt Cunningham allowed them to capture Militech Netrunners, disconnecting them and creating “engrams”, a computer construct of the human mind. The process of creating an “engram” killed the host body, leaving a burned-out husk of meat. Even though these battles were mostly isolated to local Net infrastructures in cities rather than across the global Net, they were disruptive enough to crash entire systems, making banking, shipping, even simple purchases of food and shelter nearly impossible.

Then the DataKrash happened.

Rache Bartmoss, probably the preeminent Netrunner in the world of Cyberpunk, had set up a failsafe in the event of his untimely death (which was more than likely going to happen given the fact that Bartmoss had managed to piss off every major MegaCorp at one time or another). When Bartmoss was killed (in this case, he actually faked his own death to escape the Arasaka hit squads that were after him), his DataKrash virus unleashed itself onto the Net, infecting and destroying nearly every facet of the world-wide Net in a matter of days. Governments went from solvent to bankrupt in minutes, MegaCorps lost the ability to communicate or keep their records secured, and telecommunication networks were disrupted. On top of that, R.A.B.I.D.s (Roving Autonomous Bartmoss Interface Drones) began to surface. These Rogue AIs began roaming the crumbling infrastructure of the Net, attacking and killing any Netrunner connected to the Old Net. With a few keystrokes and metric ton of genius/insanity, Bartmoss managed to cripple a world that was already devastated by the war between Arasaka and Militech. The Old Net was dismantled, preventing Netrunners from entering through cyberdecks, cutting off the information superhighway completely. Only the creation of the Blackwall prevented things from crumbling even further but it was a band-aid over a gaping wound.

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Faced with increasing pressure from food shortages to the complete destruction of the Net-based infrastructure the world depended on, the governments of the world finally began to push back. In Europe and Asia, the governments deployed their own forces, putting a halt to open corporate warfare between Militech and Arasaka, who in turn took their fight to less well-developed areas to continue their fight. In America, the broken nation was hard-pressed to militarily intervene. The Free States of California, Texas, and the Pacific Conferdation were not going to allow U.S. forces into their borders, so they used their own National Guards to defend what they could and put down the fighting between the MegaCorps but it was not nearly enough. Entire regions in America were wiped clean of infrastructure. Imagine the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II and then extrapolate that to multiple cities in the Midwest, Northeast, and Western parts of America.

The Night City Holocaust was the last straw. At the Arasaka Headquarters in Night City, a suitcase nuclear device was detonated, leveling the City Center region of the city. Half a million people died in the initial blast, with millions more affected over the next several years from radioactive fallout and debris. Who used the nuke was an open question, with many believing Militech had arranged for the nuke to be used in a final middle finger to Arasaka’s largest facility in America; others believed it was Arasaka using an area-denial nuke to keep their corporate databases from falling into the hands of the strike teams that assaulted the tower.

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The truth lies somewhere in between. There were multiple teams that led the assault on August 20th, 2023. One group, comprised of Johnny Silverhand, Rogue Amendiares, Spider Monkey, Thompson, and Shaitan went after the digital avatar of Alt Cunningham, who had been trapped in the Arasaka mainframe since her physical death in 2013. The other team was led by Morgan Blackhand, a Solo who worked for Militech as a hired gun. Blackhand was there as support for the first group, as well as the one responsible for planting the nuclear devices that would later turn the center of Night City into an irradiated wasteland. Johnny Silverhand bought it in spectacular fashion, getting gunned down by Arasaka’s lead mercenary Adam Smasher. When a helicopter gunship arrived to exfiltrate Rogue, Spider, Shaitan, Thompson, and Blackhand, Smasher arrived at the roof to challenge his rival Blackhand. Morgan Blackhand and Adam Smasher duked it out on the roof of Arasaka Tower as the nuclear devices detonated.

But that wasn’t the end of the story for Johnny Silverhand. Mangled and near dead, Silverhand was transported off-site and subjected to the Soulkiller program, storing his consciousness as a digital “engram” in Mikoshi, Arasaka’s digital fortress (aka prison) for the engrams they’d created from so many victims during the 4th Corporate War.

After the Night City Holocaust, U.S. President Elizabeth Kress nationalized Militech International, using Chairman Donald Lundee’s status as a reserve soldier to reactivate him. Kress then issued a threat to Arasaka: remove all of their U.S.-based assets or their Tokyo headquarters (the heart of the MegaCorp) would be the next target. Other world governments soon took the same approach, nationalizing or confiscating Corp assets across the globe.

Arasaka returned to Japan, beaten but unbowed. In the course of the war, Saburo Arasaka (the founder of the MegaCorp and the de-facto leader who ruled through his eldest son) had to step back into the role of CEO following the death of his son Kei Arasaka (a suicide carried out by Kei at the “insistence” of Spider Monkey, Rogue Amendiares, and Shaitan for the death of Johnny Silverhand and so many others).

Militech was no longer an independent MegaCorp. Instead, it was now answering directly to President Kress, who planned to use Militech’s dwindled resources to repair some of the damage caused by the war. This wasn’t an altruistic decision, as Kress was essentially an “elected” dictator, controlling the White House with an iron fist.

The 4th Corporate War had ended with a devastated world. The Time of the Red had begun.

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