Episode 517: When The Volcano Blows
Air date: 17 may 2011
Present: Andy, Kim, Maer, and Terri
Tuesday, 14 Jul 2522
Byshek’s Restaurant, Gibraltar
Newhall, Georgia (Huang Long) system
We finish the Tong cargo job and deliver it on the 14th of Jul. We get called back to Gibraltar. Byshek has another job for us, one no one else wants to touch. Like fools we accept.
We’re to deliver a small package of food to a science station on Ezra and 200 tons of medicine to the town of Armero for the Purple Heart (the 26th century version of the Red Cross). The stipulations for the meds are odd and time consuming. The meds must be distributed in person and the recipient must be thumbprinted to verify delivery. There can only be one packet per recipient. No exceptions. The exacting paperwork is the reason this job has been hard to hire out—no one wants the heartburn.
We take off from Newhall. On the flight over, we notice an uptick in Cortex activity coming from the passenger deck. It’s Racy, looking to start up a taxi company of her own, trawling the used vehicle sites for prospects. Of the possible locations to set up business, Boros looks good to her. Hera or Athens look promising too. Hera and Athens are places on the JJB list we haven’t visited yet, or Kerry, and we’re amenable to taking her to any of those places if she wants to do a little site scouting while we investigate the list.
Thursday, 16 Jul 2522
Georgia (Huang Long) system
It takes us 2 days to get to Ezra and we make landfall at the town of Armero on July 16.
Nika finds Racy in the Equinox passenger lounge to ask the girl if she’s willing to help with the meds. Talk briefly touches on the extended Cortex activity Racy’s been engaged in on the flight over and she admits she can’t read. Oh really? Nika’s not sure she’s willing to buy that one, but doesn’t press the issue. Racy agrees to lend a hand and she follows Nika to the hold where the rest of the crew is prepping up.
Joshua takes the food cargo aboard Lagniappe and he and Beglan fly it up to the science station while Equinox stays behind. Once the dirt’s settled, we lower the cargo ramp, set up a table and receiving line for the meds, and get to work. The people here are pretty much the hardscrabble company town poor and are grateful for the medicine. Aside from some transparent or half-hearted efforts to get more than the single dose signed for, the distribution of the meds as per our instructions goes uneventfully.
Of course, we should have known that it wouldn’t last.
An eight-wheeled mule arrives with six men armed with rifles. A man gets out and introduces himself as the Corone Mine Manager by name of Gordon. We’re on company property and his demands are pretty simple: he’s the law for these parts and he doesn’t like the idea of some third party distributing medicine without Corone’s permission to Corone employees or their dependents. It looks bad for the company and gives the employees and dependents bad ideas of their worth. Give over the drugs to Gordon, for distribution as Corone sees fit.
The vibe we get off this man is not a good one and Nika balks. Not only are we obligated to deliver the meds as stipulated in our contract on behalf of the Purple Heart, we also have our own commercial reputation to consider. If we relinquish cargo committed to our safekeeping upon the first sign of trouble or strongarm tactics, no one will hire us once the word gets out.
We try negotiating. We try to find out how far Gordon’s authority goes and where the boundaries of his jurisdiction are. We only have his word for it that he’s the runner of this show. The man might be lying. For darned sure we don’t trust him to distribute the meds as stipulated by the Purple Heart. In fact we’re pretty certain the man will just stockpile the meds as leverage to get what he wants out of the townspeople and the mine workers. And that doesn’t sit right with us. Right now, however, Gordon has the guns and some hefty intimidation to back his demands up.
We compromise—we’ll return to the Corone Mine and distribute the meds allocated the mine workers there first, then come back and distribute the rest to the townspeople. Gordon counters that only two of us can come and we’re to come unarmed. He picks Rina and Kiera. He frisks them and he’s not too respectful when he does it. Rina gives up her usual suspects and is pretty much down to her pocket tools and duct tape when she climbs aboard that mule. Nika goes aboard Equinox (while Kiera’s getting frisked) to get 200 in platinum for bribe money, already thinking that Gordon is going to crayfish once we arrive at the mine. Kiera takes the money and gets aboard Gordon’s mule. The meds are loaded up, and she and Rina are taken under the gun to the mining facility 60 km away.
Arden and Nika and Racy and Giselle stay behind. Gordon has left 4 of his men off the truck to ensure we don’t distribute anything while he’s gone.
Damn. That Gordon doesn’t miss a trick.
Meanwhile, Joshua ably flies Lagniappe to the mountain science station. One of the scientists (looking rather like Kurt Russell from The Thing) comes out. He’s young, college-aged, and really glad to see us here. He and the others at the station are geologists, studying deep volcano fissure mining and its effect on geological stability. Which is a fancy way of saying whether or not Corone’s mine will cause the local volcano to blow sky high. They’ve got their reports prepped and Joshua offers them the use of our Cortex uplink to send them. Reports sent and food delivered, hands are shook all around and Joshua and Beglan leave.
On route to Equinox, Beglan suggests they investigate a couple of names from the JJB list. One name is at White River, the other is at Custer. White River is on the way back to Equinox, if off a bit on a tangent, and Joshua steers Lagniappe there.
White River is aptly named, he and Beglan find out when they arrive. It’s a settlement made of three Minaret class ships, vertically parked with nose up and their wings touching, bellies inward, right in the middle of the White River. The ships make a pretty admirable fortress and the river makes a rather good moat. The people inside are peering suspiciously over the ramparts formed by the wings. Joshua and Beglan get the impression that they don’t get much in the way of visitors.
The leader, a grizzled man with a beard and odd-looking robes comes out to meet them. He is insular and wary and it’s pretty quickly apparent he’s either a touch insane or a religious visionary. Maybe both. Joshua quickly tells him why he’s here. We’re looking for a girl, by name of Georgia, who we believe was taken from here during or just after the war.
The leader considers it and launches into a florid description of her being taken away by Angels … or Devils … hard to tell. Beglan gets a clue and asks after a Beauregard Ruskin. And we get an earful about a Prophet and how the community is involved in it. Upshot—the girl might have been taken, or she might have been a willing escapee from the settlement. It’s hard to tell. What they do know is the leader does not know where the girl is now. Joshua and Beglan thank him and leave. They decide to try their luck searching for Dai Yu, at Carmichael, another town name on the list. On the flight out, Beglan explains what he knows of Ruskin.
Back at Equinox, things aren’t looking too rosy. Gordon’s men disperse the crowd, telling them to go back home, nothing to see or do here, despite the meds sitting in plain sight. Nika tells the crowd it’s okay, she’ll be back tomorrow and then offers the guards coffee. As a calming tactic, it works—the men don’t shoot us on the spot. They don’t trust us, though, and they don’t drink the coffee all at once in case we’ve drugged it. When the first taster is still up and aware some minutes later, the rest slowly sip it. Nika uses this as an opportunity to engage them in conversation and gently pump them for information. She’s a gorgeous leggy blonde and she gets good intel on how things work around here. Corone owns everything in the area and what it doesn’t own, it owns by default through the strong arm tactics we’ve just received. So long as no one complains, nothing changes, and no one dares complain.
A seismic tremor chooses that moment to rumble through the area. The guards pass it off as nothing. Been happening for a while now. No big deal.
Meanwhile, Rina and Kiera suffer the ride to the mine in relative silence. No one seems interested in talking. Once they arrive and the women get the meds set up, Gordon starts in on them, pressuring them to give him the meds. Let him give it out, he says, he knows who’s actual mine personnel and who isn’t. Cut down on fraud that way. He’ll give them a ride back to their ship, no problem.
Kiera has a problem with that set-up. But she’s got a 200-platinum ace up her sleeve. She shows a little bit of it to Gordon. What if she paid him to let her distribute the meds, right there while he watched? Everyone comes away happy. Purple Heart gets the meds delivered, we keep our rep in good standing, the workers get what they need to keep from getting sick, Corone’s productivity is maintained without losing man-hours due to illness. Whaddya say?
She offers him more money and verbal blandishments.
She offers yet more, with variations on the theme.
Hell with this. Kiera starts distributing the meds to the mine workers lined up in front of her and Gordon can just suck it.
Joshua and Beglan arrive at Carmichael and discover it’s a mining camp. Camp Carmichael, to be exact, and it’s not owned by Corone but by another company. Joshua and Belgan are allowed to land and are taken under guard to see the camp manager. She’s a middle-aged, plainly dressed, and no-nonsense.
Joshua keeps his explanation short.
“Who are you with? What do you want to know?” the manager asks when he’s done. Joshua reassures her he’s not with JJB. He only wants to set things right. The manager tells him the JJB once managed this mine. Impression is, they weren’t nice about it. Obviously.
Joshua tells her he’s looking for a girl by name of Dai Yu.
Dai Yu? Dai Yu Han?
She pulls up the records. Dai Yu’s records show a 13-14 girl. She had pneumonia and was transported to a hospital. It now looks like a ruse by the JJB to steal the girl for slavery. The manager says she thought the JJB were shady. But there is a silver lining—the girl’s parents are still here at the mine. She calls them in from their shifts.
The Hans arrive, a man and woman of Oriental descent. They seem a bit uneasy at being summoned from their work to the director’s office, but she assures them that everything’s okay, they’re not in trouble. Joshua here has questions about their daughter and wants to help find her.
What follows is ten minutes of heartbreak. The Hans tell us of their daughter and we tell them of our mission to find the missing JJB girls. It’s hard to see the look of hope in their faces. They’re not young and mining has worn them down. Their disappointment would be a cruel blow in a life already made bitter by hardship. To her credit, the manager seems reasonable and is willing to help. After the Hans have told us all they can, Joshua takes his leave.
Back at the Corone Mine, Gordon makes Kiera a counterproposal.
How much is Purple Heart paying you? he asks.
It’s not much. Paltry, actually.
What if I paid you 300?
I need to talk to the Captain.
Wave her from here.
Gordon hands her the comms. Kiera calls. Nika picks up.
They go back and forth on it a bit. Hard up against the people’s need for the meds is Gordon’s douche-baggery and our need to keep our rep clean.
Back in Lagniappe, Joshua and Beglan check the clock and decide they’ve just enough time to hit one more name on the list: Sunny at Yalta.
Like its Old Earth namesake, Yalta is a sea town. It’s hard up, though, and Joshua has to spread some credits around to get a line on Sunny. Eventually, he’s directed to The Lady Luck on the docks. It’s a small ship—more a boat, really—moored on the water. A young woman is scrubbing the deck when Joshua and Beglan walk up.
“Excuse me, Miss? I’m looking for Sunny?”
“You found her.” Sunny drops her brush into the bucket and slowly rises.
Joshua explains why he’s here. Frightened, she runs inside. Joshua follows.
He runs into the girl’s owner, a rather unsavory individual lacking some of the more basic points of personal hygiene. He says he’s paid for her, fair and square. Indentured servitude. Joshua gets a vibe off the man and offers to buy Sunny outright from him—and Reads him when he mentions the money.
The owner paid 1000 credits for Sunny, convinced that she was a Companion. Huh. Not good for Companioning, hell no. The girl’s treatment flashes past Joshua’s inner eye and it’s pretty ugly. The owner had been swindled out of a hard-earned thousand in cash, why shouldn’t he recoup the losses out of her hide? He’s pretty bitter about it, hoist by his own gullibility and parsimony. Swallowing hard, Joshua also Reads that the man would be willing to settle for less than a thousand to make up for his loss.
Coming out of the Reading, Joshua makes a counteroffer—75 credits. Cash. Right here. Right now. And the girl comes with us.
Not nowhere near the price the man paid for her but …
“Sunny! Git yer butt up here!”
Sunny peeks around the frame of the hatch below. It’s plain as day what she’s scared of and that she expects it from us.
“We’re not buyin’ your contract,” Beglan reassures her earnestly. “We’re buyin’ your freedom.”
Magic words. She walks right off that boat and onto Lagniappe. Beglan and Joshua see she’s strapped in and they take off for Equinox.
Meanwhile, the bargaining gets hard at the mining camp. After repeated rounds of getting nowhere, Nika and Kiera agree to give in to Gordon’s demands and cut our losses—we agree to give over the meds. The bulk of it is still at Equinox. He’ll have to return Kiera and Rina to their ship to get it. We’ll leave the meds destined for the mining camp here now so he can parcel it out later. Of course, Gordon will have to do the paperwork for it, as well.
He drives Rina and Kiera back to Equinox to pick up the rest of the meds. When they arrive and start loading the goods, the comm breeps with an incoming call. Nika tells Kiera to carry on and takes the call on the bridge.
Equinox. Captain Earhart speaking.
Hi, it’s Rick. From the science station? Tell the people in town to evacuate. Yeah … uh … We’ve got pyroclastic flow coming your way. You got three hours before 3 meters of mud and water bury you good.
How fast is it coming? Nika asks, insides growing cold. The man sounds scared. Real scared.
Do you need a ride?
Would be nice, thanks. We’re okay for now, though.
Hang in there. If we can we’ll come get you.
Nika cuts the channel and has to decide who to take care of first. In ever widening distances, she got the townspeople. She’s got the mine. She’s got the science station. And dammit, Joshua’s not back yet with Lagniappe. Where the hell is he? She gets on the horn to Joshua.
Joshua! Volcano’s blown. Get your butt to the town and get people ready to evac to an LZ for me pick them up at. I’m going to the mine to evac the people there.
Everyone takes their places:
Nika and Arden have the bridge. Rina has Engineering, spinning our engines up.
Kiera hustles Gordon and his men aboard. Racy and Giselle run aboard and secure themselves. Giselle chooses to do it on the bridge, where Arden is.
Equinox takes off in record time and lands at the mine. Nika’s got an eye on the clock and our ramp lowers before we even kiss the dirt. She comms the hold where Kiera’s waiting with Gordon and his men.
Kiera, you guys better start loading.
Nika orders Rina down to help Kiera. And we run into more of Gordon’s douche-baggery: he orders crates of heavy equipment from the mine be loaded into our hold alongside the personnel. None of our arguments about needing the room in the hold for humans convinces him otherwise—he’s loading that equipment on, come hell or high water.
With that pyroclastic flow, he just might get both.
He has four men with guns trained on Kiera. Kiera’s looking at the four men with guns with murder in her eye. Will she jump them, take down maybe one of them before getting gunned down? Does she give in and let the damned crates aboard?
The flow is coming. Arden is yarking that it’s coming on the sensors. The moment stretches tighter … and tighter …
Kiera stands down. We wave the damned crates aboard and squeeze in the miners alongside.
Aboard Lagniappe, Joshua and Beglan briefly debate what to do. Fly to Armero or fly to the science station? The men who gave us the warning so lives could be saved should be saved as well. To consign them to death is just plain wrong. And what about the settlement at White River? We can’t leave them to die, either. They split the difference—Joshua drops Beglan and Sunny off at Armero to manage the evac to the LZ while Joshua flies back to the station to pick up the men and from there to the White River settlement. Joshua dusts off and Beglan starts calling out instructions to the gathered townfolk. They’ve heard the rumbles and the seismic jolts are getting alarming.
Joshua flies back to the mountain and he can see the volcano spewing a great cloud ash and rock and God knows what else. The science station is on a ridge off to the side—still there but not for long. As he watches, the front wave of the ash cloud rolls over the ridge and hits Lagniappe with a hammering slam! The viewport cracks and everywhere Joshua can hear the hiss and pop of particles hitting the hull. It’s dark past the cracked viewport and Lagniappe whines as her intakes start inhaling crap. Joshua fights the controls and using instruments and plain dead reckoning, plows for the mountainside he can no longer see.
At Equinox and the mine, the readings from the sensors get worse—there’s a fast moving blob with undefined edges creeping ever closer to Equinox’s position. How solid is it? Nika needs to know. Arden can’t tell her—the sensors can’t penetrate the muck to say how much is solid and how much is smoke. Nika knows that if the flow hits our ship, we’ll be entombed in the fastest setting instant concrete known to man—a death sentence for anyone unfortunate enough to get caught in it. The heat and toxic gas from the flow would very quickly kill off anyone who managed to survive the initial hit. Temperatures from the flow would be in the thousands of degrees, instantaneously combusting flammable material.
There is no way she can put her ship and people through that.
She comms the hold and tells Gordon that he has thirty minutes to get who he can on board and she is taking off. She orders Rina to spin up the engines and Kiera to the bridge Time flies. Nika give Gordon a thirty second warning and the thirty minute mark arrives. Gordon stalls for time—all the equipment isn’t aboard yet. Nika wastes precious seconds yelling at him to get his people aboard. In fact, she stays another 60 seconds past her deadline.
Movement catches her eye through the bridge windows. Six people are running from the far side of the property, yelling for us to wait. Why the hell weren’t they with the others? Arden, how’s that cloud coming? Can’t tell, sensors are mucked up.
Stay and wait? Or go?
That cloud is moving faster than the speed of sound and she has no way of knowing if it will get her in two minutes or two seconds. She has over a hundred souls aboard and more waiting for her at the LZ.
The math is simple and it has no room for mercy.
Heart sinking, Nika pulls the ramp and lifts off leaving the six men still on the ground. She comms Joshua that she’s inbound for town, get ready with the people. He doesn’t pick up. Joshua? Come in. Joshua, do you copy?
She gets nothing but static.
She changes the channel. “Bridge to Chief Gordon.”
Gordon hits the nearest wall comm: Yes?
Nika: You’re needed on the bridge.
Gordon: Where’s the bridge?
Nika: Come up the stairs at the back of the cargo bay. Your escort will be there.
Gordon: All right.
Nika turns to Kiera and Rina on the bridge with her.
Nika: (to Kiera) Take a gun.
Kiera: Rina, can you crack the door open enough to let a body through?
Rina: Alive or dead?
Nika and Kiera together: Alive.
The two go to the pressure door sealing off the stairs to the hold, crack it open and see that Gordon isn’t standing there. It’s one of his security guards.
Guard: You gonna open the door? The Captain called us to the bridge.
Rina: Uh, no.
Kiera: She ordered Gordon to the bridge.
Guard: Right. We’re going with him.
Kiera: No. You’re not.
Guard: All right. I guess that’s not going to happen then.
Kiera: All right.
And she shuts the door in his face. They comm the bridge and let Nika know what’s just happened. Only an idiot would let armed guards onto the bridge—especially with Gordon’s track record. How stupid does Gordon think we are?
Nika opens a channel to the cargo bay wall comm.
Gordon: (via comm) We tried to go up but your people wouldn’t let us up.
Nika: You’re right, because you took a security team with you to my bridge. Now, you can come up here and talk to me or I can just put my ship vertical and dump you and your miners and everybody else out the back end so I can put the townspeople aboard. (a beat) Or you could just come up here and talk to me.
Gordon: Why don’t we talk here?
Nika: That’s fine. I want you to put your weapons down and I want you to stay in place while I get the townspeople aboard because I don’t trust you to do that.
Gordon: The way I see it, the weapons are the only thing keeping us alive right now.
Nika: Actually I’m the only thing keeping you alive right now. I gave you exactly 30 minutes to get all your people aboard and some of them got left on the ground because you’re an idiot.
Gordon: I saw that, cuz you’re a murderer. That’s what you are.
Nika: (icy calm) You’re an idiot.
Gordon: They were—
Nika: I gave you exactly 30 minutes to quarter on my ship with a pyroclastic flow coming at us.
Gordon: And as you see, the pyroclastic flow hasn’t even hit yet. We had time.
Nika: (steely) Your men have exactly ten seconds to turn their weapons over to my crew or I am going to put this ship vertical and I am going to dump every single last one of you out the back end from six kilometers in the air.
Gordon: I don’t think you would do that.
Nika: Then I’m pulling us straight up.
Listening on the other side of the pressure door, Rina and Kiera trade a look and grab the bars on the frame. Kiera and Rina hang on as Nika pulls Equinox up. Our cargo doors face the bow and she’ll have to put us in a parabolic climb before tipping down to dump Gordon and his men out. That gives Gordon a few precious moments to reconsider.
Nika: Arden, put me on the PA. (a beat) Gentlemen, we are about to land ina town and I have no idea how many people are coming aboard. There are potentially as many as a hundred people needing to cram into the cargo bay. I need you guys to help them on board as quick as you can. All hands to get as many people as possible would be appreciated.
Nika levels out Equinox on approach to Armero. She orders Rina and Kiera down to the hold to oversee the loading. Down they go, despite Gordon’s guns, and as Nika drops in altitude, they stand by at the ready on the ramp controls.
Nika: Please God, see a group of people somewhere to actually put down and get aboard ….
Meanwhile, Lagniappe is getting buffeted hard by turbulence and Joshua’s sweating the controls. He manages to make it to the science station and lands with a hard thump on the pad. He’s out of his seat like a shot for the lockers below. He suits up in a vac suit and pulls another out to take with him. Face helmet sealed, he steps outside in to the wind and the muck and gropes his way to the station door. He makes it. He pounds on the door with a wrench and the men let him inside.
They are pathetically glad Joshua came for them. Joshua thrusts a suit at one of them and explains the deal: there are four men and only three suits. Put this on and go back to Lagniappe, and make trips back and forth until everyone is aboard. Joshua manages to speed things up a little by having the first man skin out of his suit and hauling two suits with him on the return trip.
At Armero, we see Beglan has gathered everyone to the LZ and they are waiting for us. We lower the ramp. Rina and Kiera and Beglan start getting people aboard. There is no riot. Gordon’s men with the rifles are a help instead of a hindrance, keeping everyone moving in an orderly fashion. Kiera’s at the stairs leading to the passenger deck and directing people up. Arden, Racy and Giselle are at the top getting people into the lounge and the staterooms, directing the overflow to the crew deck. Rina’s locked access to the bridge and engineering and mans the top of the stairs, directing the evacuees to the lounge and the starboard cargo bay.
Nika notices something important and opens a channel to Kiera’s ear comm.
Nika: Kiera. Find Joshua. Because he is not with Beggar.
Nika: And don’t tell Rina until it’s all over.
She leaves her post and wades through the people to Beglan on the ramp. Tags him on the shoulder and shouts over the noise.
Kiera: Beggar! Where’s Joshua?
Beglan: Well … there’s two other things—
Kiera: You’re talking. To the point, please.
Beglan: There’s these college students that we wanted to rescue.
Kiera: Okay ….
Beglan: He thought he might be able to make it. He’s made it through all sorts of crazy chaos—
Kiera: He’s gone to rescue the coll—all right.
Kiera turns around to deliver the bad news. Beglan grabs her before she can go.
Beglan: There’s this … crazy cult settlement down the river a bit that he wants to try to rescue too.
Kiera: I don’t think he can get a crazy cult on the shuttle! (keys her ear comm) Captain! Joshua’s taken the shuttle to save the crazy college kids.
Nika: Awww, shiiiii ….!
Nika swears. She had been planning to take the shuttle up to the station because she’s the best pilot we have and that volcanic crap is damned dangerous to fly in. Kiera gets the location of the religious cult from Beglan. it’s another 50 kliks or so thataway. How many people are in that cult, she asks. He starts figuring out the male/female ratio based on the number of males he’d seen at the intial visit …. Kiera starts pushing him for the engine room. He’s taking up valuable space in the hold and she tells him to keep talking, shuffling him up the stairs as he does his calculations. She comms Rina to let him in the engine room and Rina unlocks the door for him. As they shove him inside he brings up a really good point.
Beglan: Have you done any mass calculations?
From all the people and cargo we’ve loaded on. Will we be able to take off? We inform Nika of this newest wrinkle and Rina and Beglan crunch the numbers. Nika gets on the PA to the hold and tells everyone down there to start shoving the equipment out of the cargo bay.
Nika: Ladies and Gentlemen of the cargo area. As we’re loading, we need to start shoving the cargo out. We do not have the accommodations to get off the ground if it stays aboard.
The miners put their backs into it with a will. Rina goes to Engineering to see if she can adjust the engines to get more power out of them. It won’t be good for the ship, but then again, it only has to be not-good-for-the-ship as long as necessary to get the job done. Once it’s done, she can dial it back again …
Kiera runs through the crowded decks, shifting people into as many spaces as possible to make more room—toilet stalls in the head, the showers, closets, anything. As she packs and pushes, she keys her ear comm to Nika on the bridge.
Kiera: So we’re going to fly and try and pick Joshua up?
Nika: (grim) We’ll get back to that.
Kiera: I could just tell her he’s trapped in a bathroom, squashed in with the rest.
Nika: Do not tell her anything. In all of this, she will not notice.
Kiera: I’ll just tell her—
Nika: No. No, don’t tell her anything. Do not bring up his name. She is busy in engineering. She will not ask at this moment. If we can get to him, we will. But I am not going to mention it.
Kiera: Maybe he can meet us.
Nika: I sure hope so because based on what’s coming at us, I cannot take this ship into a cloud of volcanic ash.
Kiera: Not with this many people on board. (growls to an evacuee) Get in the hole and crawl.
Evacuee: (intimidated) Yes, ma’am.
Kiera continues shoving people in every nook and cranny she can find and there are still more people coming aboard.
Joshua’s got the students aboard Lagniappe and now has to figure out how to take off in the volcanic storm. Ash and heat make for tortuous winds and freakish lightning, playing havoc with visibility and controls. Joshua’s on a little bitty landing pad on the side of a mountain and he has to lift off into chaos.
Somehow he manages. He rides the thermals straight up the mountain. It’s one hell of an elevator ride. Alarms yark and yell. The console lights up like Christmas. A pleasant woman’s voice tells him calmly which system is about to fail. He turns her off, the shuttle shaking like a fever victim.
He rides clear and breaks out into sunshine and clean air.
Joshua sets course for White River.
Meanwhile Kiera’s briefing the Captain.
Kiera: (via ear comm) Oh yeah, and there’s a cult, too.
Nika: A cult?
Kiera: White River. (to evacuee) Get inside that hidey hole. I don’t care what it smells like.
Evacuee: But it smells horrible.
Kiera: Keep going.
Racy: (Over the PA) I think that’s everybody!
Nika: Close it up!
She pulls on the yoke and asks the ship for more power. Rina and the ship give it. We’re riding heavy, maxed out on our load capacity plus a little more. The engines strain and the entire ship shudders on take off, rising slowly off the dirt.
Come on, girl … Fly, Equinox. Fly.
We’re too close to the ground. Too nap of the earth without the power we’ll need to compensate for the dips and dells. If we hit a depression in the landscape, Nika’s not sure we’ll be able to pull out of it in time.
Oh, and there’s that small matter of that Cloud of Death coming up fast on our tail.
Nika: Rina, I need more power.
Rina: (scrambling) Yes, ma’am …
Nika: Give me everything. Because we are not going to escape this cloud if you don’t give me something.
Rina coaxes more power out of our girl and Nika puts us on a right angle path to the cloud, hoping to get out of range of its coverage area instead of outrunning its speed. Based on Kiera’s description, White River is down stream of all this chaos. If she doesn’t get there in time, everyone will be swallowed up by the cloud. She opens a comm channel and starts broadcasting her arrival. If Joshua gets enough warning he might have everything ready for her to grab him and go.
Back at Lagniappe …. Joshua’s already reached the settlement. He knows that convincing the people inside is going to be a hard job. It would be easier if he can win over the leader. Looking over his shoulder, he can’t see the cloud but he knows it is coming. He won’t have much time. He decides to Read the leader as he approaches the man, the better to find a way to convince him to evacuate.
A series of images runs through Joshua’s head and settles on a moment:
During the war as a Browncoat, his unit was in the middle of battle when they were hit by a stunner. A bright flash, tunnel vision, and he sees a weird angelic form saying, “This isn’t your time. I have chosen you. Live.”
Joshua goes right up to the leader and says:
Joshua: This is your moment. You were told back in the war that you had to live for a reason. This is it. To get your people away from that wall of mud and water, to let them live. Help me get them out of here.
The leader looks surprised. Then:
Leader: (very quietly) I don’t think we’re all gonna fit in your shuttle.
And before Joshua can despair, Equinox buzzes in low, sending dust flying as Nika comes in close enough to count the rivets on her hull. Joshua’s jaw drops … and he recovers.
Joshua: That’s my Captain! She’s here for us!
Joshua heads over to the shuttle to spin it up. Nika lands Equinox in the shallows, water flying, and she tells the people in the cargo hold:
Nika: We gotta lose some more cargo guys. Otherwise we’re not getting off the ground. If we do not get enough weight off this boat, we are not taking off. Just shove it all out.
She switches to the shuttle comms and prays Joshua can hear her.
Nika: Joshua, do not dock. You are gonna to have to fly the shuttle out.
Joshua: No problem!
The men in the hold manage to shove off a few more items. Up on the bridge, Nika sees a brown smudge on the horizon, coming right for us and growing fast. Down below Kiera’s shoving people in as fast as she can into the hold. Nika hails her on her ear comm.
Nika: We’re running low on time. How much more do we need?
Kiera: Everybody’s aboard!
Nika: Dear God …. Close her up. (switches to engine room) Rina?
Nika: I don’t know if I believe in God but please God, get us off the ground.
Rina: Yes, Ma’am.
Rina spins up the engines. Nika pulls up on the yoke. Kiera and Beglan start praying. Kiera throws in an extra prayer for Lagniappe … cuz she’s not telling Rina who’s in it. We start to lift off. The cloud approaches pretty damned fast. Nika puts us in a 90-degree course to the cloud but she knows that will not be enough to get us to safety.
Doing hard burn while still in atmo will give us a big damn boost … if the back burn doesn’t engulf us and fry us to a crisp first. We could either die trying or die doing nothing … but trying gives us an edge on surviving. She comms the engine room with the order to do a hard burn. Working together, pilot and engineer set things up and …
Nika: (on all ship) Hold on. This is going to get ugly … We’re doing something very bad.
Rina and Nika punch it and FWOOOM! Equinox gives us her all and we shudder and shake under the force of the hard burn in a rough parabolic curve for the upper atmo, trailing fire like a Roman candle bound for Heaven.
Down below us, the White River settlement is swallowed up by the cloud. Lagniappe lifts free and follows Equinox. Joshua eyes Equinox and her apparent heaviness and comms Nika.
Joshua: When’s the ship giving birth, Captain? When’s the due date?
Nika: Leave my pregnant guppy alone. She just saved 300 people from this pyroclastic flow. (grimly) I trust you know, Joshua, that we’re having a conversation.
Joshua: (yes) I like conversations.
Half an hour later ….
Equinox and Lagniappe land at Custer, well clear of the flow’s path. The ramp lowers and people start pouring out … and pouring out … upon the surprised inhabitants of Custer. News of the disaster gets everyone mobilized in the relief of the evacuees. Arms are opened in welcome and succor. Cargo is unloaded. Plans are made to distribute the medicine to the proper recipients.
Rina inspects the damage. Both Equinox and Lagniappe are going to need repairs. The volcanic muck has infiltrated systems ill-equipped to deal with the particulates and Ezra does not have the proper facilities to effect the necessary repairs. Rina rolls up her sleeves and cleans and repairs what she can. If we can get to a better facility, such as can be found on Boros, we can avoid lasting damage.
Kiera briefly considers charging Gordon 375 credits to get his stuff back but it’s really not possible. His men still have guns and people are already getting off the ship and the time to charge anything was before we actually landed. It rankles, but Gordon effectively gets off scott-free for his obstructionist behavior.
Even more later that day…
Joshua walks into a bar in Custer. He approaches the barkeep after one of the names on the JJB list. He points to a woman cleaning off the tables.
Joshua: I’ve got some information for you. About—we’re not with them, but about—
Woman: (interrupting) Did you come from Boros?
Joshua: We’ve been to Boros, yes. We’re trying to help the—
She rips off her apron and yells at the man behind the bar.
Woman: Wǒ bù gān le, húndàn!
Barkeep: Hey, you still owe me seven credits on your—
Woman: BILL ME!
And she marches right the hell out of there. Joshua stares and then follows. He catches up with her outside, then they walk through town to the outskirts, where Equinox and the ride home waits for them. On the way, Joshua finds out that yes, indeed, she is Beatrice from Cody, Boros.
Joshua: Beatrice, it’s a pleasure.
Beatrice: I’d almost worked off my debt. It took me a few years. Are you going to take me back to Boros?
Joshua: Yes, if that’s where you want to go.
Beatrice: I do.
Joshua: Then yes, absolutely. Absolutely we will.
That was easy.