Episode 120. Part 1

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Present: Mary, Terri, Bobby and Jay
Air Date: 05 May 2009

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Tuesday, 14 Mar 2519
Jamestown Station, Bernadette
White Sun (Bai Hu) system
12:25 hrs, local time

Rick has decided to stay behind on Constance rather than travel back to Bernadette with us. It has plants and animals he wants to investigate further. We agree to come back for him and we part company. For our the return trip to Bernadette, we pick up two more passengers bound for Sihnon, food entrepreneurs who hope to sell the next best thing to Fruity Oaty Bars to Blue Sun: Kaviar Krunchies. It’s a snack made of candied dried fish eggs and the entrepreneurs give us a case of it as part of their payment for passage. No stranger to caviar, Rina takes to them like a fish to water. The others take a little longer to acquire a taste for them. Once acquired, however, the snack is oddly addictive. Or would be, considering we’ve been sucking down protein paste pretty steadily of late. We have an entire case of individually packaged 2 oz. lots of Kaviar Krunchies for our own use, though the entrepreneurs hope we will distribute them to future passengers as a means of advertising their product. Keep, give out—either way, there’s enough to last us a good long time and the 700 credits they paid us for passage is a welcome addition to our finances.


Trawling the Cortex while en route, we find out that Potemkin’s business, Potemkin Colonial Service, is on the auction block. Buyers will receive the company name as well as the business licenses; the facilities, including 9 hectares of land (300 by 300 meters), cargo containers and the business building. Considering how land is a premium at Jamestown Station, it’s quite a prize.

The asking price is 80,000 credits.

We have a decision to make. Do we want to put in a down payment on its purchase, assume ownership of the lien on the Gift, and pay the lien off via loan? Do we strip PCS of everything we can use and sell off the rest?

We discuss it.

Arden doesn’t want to give Potemkin one red cent of our money because it would indirectly help Potemkin. Rina also refuses the idea of buying, because we have no way of knowing if Potemkin’s business partners or customers aren’t as nasty as Potemkin is and do we really want to borrow that kind of trouble? Christian is in favor of buying, seeing it as a way to expand our business and client contacts, or at least picking the business over and selling whatever we have left. Nika’s amenable to making inquiries without committing to payment. Christian sends word to his parents, asking them to get their solicitor to investigate the details for us. If the word comes back favorable, we’ll make arrangements to buy.

We drop off the snack food entrepreneurs on Sihnon and wish them luck on their product pitch.

When we make landfall on Bernadette, we say goodbye to the wonderful Chao-Marshalls with regret and thank them profusely for their help, giving them our contact information with the hope we will see them again.

While on Bernadette, Arden gives Nika the package he’d shipped by post from Beylix. It’s an antique rifle, very old and though he was unable to find ammunition for it, it’s a beauty.

Nika: (crooning to Arden) I think I might love you.

Once on Bernadette, we arrange for the monthly maintenance, and make some inquiries through the Edge’s solicitor as to Potemkin’s business. There’s nothing on the cargo boards bound for Osiris that looks promising, so we opt to fly empty. We don’t linger on Bernadette, spending little more than a couple of days before burning atmo for Osiris. Christian has business with the Guild Temple at Memphis, and Sirtis Mir has her own matter to clear up with the Guild as well. There being no time like the present, the minute we’re clear we leave.

Thursday, 16 Mar 2519
Memphis, Osiris
White Sun (Bai Hu) system
09:30 hrs, local time

The Edges welcome us back into their company while Christian takes the car and drives to the Temple to reinstate his Companion license. He chauffeurs Sirtis Mir to the Temple as well, since she has to conclude her status vis-à-vis Landis. A trip to the Memphis outdoor market is planned. Rina, uncharacteristically for her, decides to go along instead of staying aboard the ship. Since we’ve has a couple of successful cargo runs under our belt, Rina’s got 50 credits and it’s burning a hole right through her pocket. She spends it on several items she’s had in mind for a while now, and being on a Core world allows her to indulge. She makes it back to the ship 50 credits poorer and none the worse for wear.

Furthermore, on the trip over to Osiris, we make Rick (in absentia) officially part of our crew. We rearrange the profit shares to 15%, so Rick gets an equal share and the remaining 25% goes into the ship’s fund. Rick will have a sweet 25 credits waiting for him when we pick him up. We use some of our current funds to pay off the balance of the hospital bill from Sho-Je Downs. Our lien is still 2000 credits, we still have debt, but it’s no longer crippling us.

Thank goodness.

At the Temple, Sirtis is debriefed on her experience with Landis and at the close of the proceedings, she refrains from blacklisting the man on the Registry. Apparently, Sirtis Mir has chosen to be magnanimous and not ruin the man’s prospects.

However, word has gotten around and it appears the Chao-Marshalls are making good on their promise to let the Verse know what Landis is up to behind closed doors. The man is taking some heat in the business community for what he’s done. What goes around, apparently, comes around. With a little help from our friends, of course.

We love the Chao-Marshalls. SO MUCH!

Companion certification is hard and exacting work and we don’t hear from Christian for a week. Therefore we’ve got a week of downtime coming to us while we wait. We spend it getting our ship in order, tackling the things we’d left undone.

Rina tackles the monthly maintenance of the Gift and repairing the damage done to our car. She manages to cut 28 credits off the repair bill and the car looks much better for it.

We keep an eye on the Cortex feeds for cargo opportunities, with particular interest paid to jobs going toward the Rim. We also send a message to Rick on Constance that we’re delayed and he is either to wait for us there or catch a ride to where we end up going. We’ll keep him informed of our movements. Nika also leaves a message on a prearranged drop box for Harbinger. Rina does the same with regards to Mike.

Arden and Nika arrange for a night out together—a bona fide date. Arden also goes shopping for a ballistic mesh vest for himself, and Rina goes along to help him make his purchase.

A few days into it, our cargo finder pings us with two runs going out to the Georgia system: 160 tons of specially made terraforming seed stock to Perdido, and then 60 tons of crop seed to Boros. Both paid on delivery. That’s 220 tons of cargo and we’ve only 200 tons of dedicated cargo space. We can stow some of that tonnage in the living spaces and Rina’s a good enough engineer to keep on top of the strain the over-tonnage will inflict on the ship. We sign for the cargo and get the job.

Friday, 24 Mar 2519
12:00 hrs, local time

Christian comes back from the Temple fully reinstated. We send Rick our itinerary, fuel up and lift off Osiris. Destination: Perdido, 12 days away.

Thanks to his Recertification, Christian has debts he’s going to have to pay and his profit margin will be slim to none from his first few clients. He decides to send his future profits to his parents on Osiris, to invest in the estate which will one day be his. A Companion must think ahead to his retirement—beauty cannot last forever, but a well-invested nest egg can last a good long time if started early and wisely. Christian spends the first two days of his journey rigging up his Companion Suite in one of the half-containers. He tells the rest of the crew the rule of courtesy regarding the Suite—no entrance without permission. Perhaps by the time we make actual landfall, he’ll be back in business.

Wednesday, 05 Apr 2519
Perdido Station, Perdido
Georgia (Huang Long) system
16:35 hrs, ship’s time

Perdido is a moon of the planet Prophet, and is still in the process of terraforming. The moon’s gravity fields are unstable and they wonk out at irregular intervals, playing merry hob with weather, man and beast. The only stable place nearby is Perdido Station, sitting in high above the moon. On approach to the station we are treated to a rare sight: a Borson Class terraformer in full operation, its grav fields physically reshaping Perdido from orbit. Sunlight and starlight shimmer wetly through the distortion field, giving the terraformer the illusion of floating on water. Which is a physical impossibility in the cold of space. Rina spends as much time as possible glued to the bridge viewports as we pass. As is her habit, she notes the name and number emblazoned on the ship’s superstructure: IAV Marduk 318F

We get clearance to dock at Perdido Station. It hovers over the moon like a giant metal jelly fish, rounded on top and metal appendages below, and is as appealing as a prison. Which we find isn’t that far off the mark when we dock and begin off loading. It takes a couple of days, punctuated by paperwork and worker delays. The station is basically a huge space platform, high on stark industrial machinery and low on creature comforts. The stationmaster is one Maria Mikhailevna Moskalenko, aka “Babushka”, who runs the station with brutal efficiency, cruel but fair. When Christian tries to post his Companion’s invitation on the dockside Cortex feeds, Moskalenko immediately warns him off such activity for his own protection, stating it isn’t safe for him to advertise his services in this setting. Christian removes his ad and, interest in Moskalenko piqued, he looks up her profile in the Companion Registry. She has none, since she has not ever engaged the services of a Companion before.

Rina stays on the Gift as much as possible. Any crowd too rough for even a Companion to walk safely amongst is not a crowd she wants to mix with.

The people who work on the planet are affectionately known as ‘mole men’, or liuzhi moleh in Russian. Theirs is the unenviable task of running and maintaining the grav generators and other such infrastructures of terraforming. Because the grav fields are unstable, the electromagnetic interference causes freakish meterological phenomena…and brain damage, as Arden finds out when he encounters the Station’s medical officer. It seems the fluctuating gravity and the machines made to regulate it affect the nervous system, causing Williamson’s Disease, with milder symptoms mimicking nitrogen narcosis (commonly known as the ‘bends’ amongst ocean divers) and more severe cases ending in permanent neurological damage or death. The victim starts out experiencing euphoria, a sense of invulnerability, intoxication, then blackouts, eventual madness, seizures and cardiac arrest. Everyone working here knows what to watch for and the victims are usually treated in the early stages of the Disease. Sometimes, however, contact with the mole men is lost due to grav field interference and the weather. Rendezvous are missed, men go missing as they go mad, and die.

And if that isn’t enough, the forces the Marduk focuses on the planet roils the weather to hell and back: solar wind shear, earthquakes caused by Marduk eclipsing the fields, etc. The ‘space quakes’ are severe and threaten the lives of the workers, necessitating evacuations and work stoppages. The atmo and the surface of Perdido live up to its name: lost.

It’s no wonder the attrition rate of terraforming workers is so high.

In fact, we’re there less than two days before we see an alert signal on the flight command kiosk across the way from our ship. It appears one of the station’s crew shuttles has been caught in an electromagnetic storm on their way down to the moon. There are a few tense moments of back and forth chatter with traffic control: “See if you can abort the mission, return to the station”, “We’re caught in some sort of gravity well. We’re—”… There is an earsplitting squeal of static and the comm goes silent.

There are thirty people down below who need a ride off the surface and their lander just disappeared. There is another shuttle, but it’s in the shop for repairs. Traffic control opens a channel with Marduk, asking for assistance. Marduk cannot free one of its own craft for another hour. When we contact the men on the surface and tell them of the delay, they tell us not to hurry, they’re okay, they’ll keep working, everything’s shiny. In fact, they’re going to put some shielding up to protect them from the excess radiation. They’ll stay and work the area around the pick-up site. They’ll be fine, thanks.

They cut the channel and everyone topside knows the score: the crew is already borderline for Williamson’s and cannot stay dirtside without facing brain damage and death. Someone gets on the horn to Babushka to tell her the news—thirty people with Williamson’s trapped without a ride home. Word comes back immediately that Babushka is coming down.

Coming down? Here? The Iron Lady herself?

There is a flurry of tidying up and compilation of data amongst the staff for their Stationmaster’s arrival. When she does arrive, we see a short matronly figure in a plain cardigan sweater and sensible wool skirt and serviceable shoes. She is dark in eyes and expression and her voice when she speaks is grim.

Moskalenko: What is status?

The traffic control tech explains and she nods.

Moskalenko: And Marduk refused to come?
Traffic Control: It’s coming but it’s going to take them about an hour to get here. They anticipate it’s going to take them thirty minutes to launch the shuttle and—
Moskalenko: Very well. Can we get one of our smaller shuttles down there? Bring some of them back?
Traffic Control: I don’t think they can survive the trip. If one of the landers can’t make it…it’s not gonna work.

We’d all come out to watch the drama on the kiosk readout unfold and at the mention of the landers and the shuttles, Nika speaks up.

Nika: Why can’t your shuttles land?
Moskalenko: (irritated) Who are you?
Nika: I’m sorry. I’m the pilot on board the ship that you allowed to dock here with your cargo.
Moskalenko: The pilot of this ship? (She points past our heads)
Nika: Yes.
Moskalenko: Is good ship?
Nika: Cargo ship.
Moskalenko: I have 30 men on moon surface. Need passage back to station.
Nika: You talk to me about why your shuttles can’t make it.
Moskalenko: Too flimsy. Many winds. Electronic storms. It’s a….difficult flight.
Nika: Show me your weather patterns.

The Traffic Control tech pulls up the info on the kiosk screen. We see nothing but a swirling vortex of death. Only a suicidal pilot would fly down there. Nika asks about wind shear factors and data on electromagnetic and gravity fluxes…the works. Unfortunately, because of the dynamic effects of terraforming there are no regular patterns. There are no predictive algorithms, no charts. It’s a whole new ballgame every trip up or down. It’s pure chaos and a pilot has to basically count on momentum to carry the landing craft through, and then somehow manage to stop before drilling into the landscape. It’s not completely impossible to navigate, however.

Moskalenko: We have double-redundant signaling device at landing site, so you don’t need to worry about fluctuations and get lost. But…is not easy.
Nika: What kind of ships do you usually take down there?

They call up a schematic on the kiosk screen and it looks like a military-grade shuttle: heavily armored, outfitted with redundant systems. Even the thrust pods have been modified, being virtually nonexistent with as much installed internally as possible for protection from hostile environments.

Nika: And you have just the one?
Moskalenko: We had two, but one was on Marduk for repair. (sighs) My children… they will not be sad when they die. We’re dreaming that some bastard can come up with someth—
Nika: Arden. How bad off are they?

She points a finger at the deck: on the moon.

Arden: The longer they stay down there, the harder it is for them to recover. We need to get down there as fast as we can.
Moskalenko: Minutes matter.
Nika: Let’s go.
Arden: (to Christian) You’re probably going to want to stay here.
Christian: Nope. I’m going.
Nika: We’re going to take the entire crew with us?

Christian points at Arden and Rina in turn.

Christian: You’re going need him. You’re going to be in the engine room constantly adjusting for gravitational systems to compensate for the outside gravitations systems. You’re going to need me to get the ground crew. You’re going to have 30 people suffering varying degrees of illness and you’re going to need every hand possible to round them up.
Rina: We can take some of the station medical staff with us, too.
Arden: We’re not even sure if they have medical staff.
Nika: All we need is hands to round up the people. (to Moskalenko) Get us five more people in here.

Moskalenko sends orders. Five workers show up. We board and fire up.

At least we’re spared having to don biohazard suits. Thanks to the surface conditions, no disease as a chance in hell of surviving long enough to make anyone ill. Of course, the Universe, in grand paradox fashion, abhors a vacuum and Williamson’s has filled that little niche quite nicely, thank you.

The ride down is going to be a bitch and a half. We all buckle down into our seats, with Arden manning the tech station on the bridge beside Nika and the station crew strapping down in the lounge. Rina’s just going to have to risk it—she must remain mobile in the engine room to cover all the various systems that need tweaking for the trip. Christian joins her there, to lend a hand with the tools or to peel her off the deck if she falls.

Nika undocks from the station and points the Gift toward the lunar suface. The ship begins to shake as she breaches Perdido’s atmosphere and it starts battering the hull. In the engine room, Rina feels the shudder and shoots a look at Christian.

Rina: I guess it’s too late to ask to be shriven?

On the bridge, it’s everything Nika can do to override her instincts screaming to haul up and she flies the ship down, down into the malevolent soup of Perdido’s atmo. Because of the conditions dirtside, Perdido is surrounded by navigational buoys on constant alarm: don’t go here, it’s dangerous! Annoyed at the constant blare, Nika flips a switch and the alarms go silent. A relief. She’s going to need all her concentration for the job ahead and the damned alarms are a distraction she cannot afford. Nika’s flown ships designed for high speed maneuvers and the Gift is most assuredly not one of them. More than outrunning Reavers, more than outrunning Alliance pursuit, this run is going to take everything she’s got in skill and cunning…all to save 30 men who may already be dead.

It’s a horrific ride down, punctuated by insane jinks and hard shakes, fervent curses and prayers, and close calls with flying debris and overtaxed engines. Like Nika on the bridge, Rina disengages the safeties and the alarms to better listen to the ship. Arden and Christian sweat the details as intensely as Nika and Rina, and it’s a long twenty minutes before we finally kiss dirt.

Nika hits the ship-wide on the comm.

Nika: All right, people. We’re down.

A gust lifts the Gift right off the ground and instantly releases her. We slam back down with a bounce and a scream from the struts. We freeze. When nothing more happens, we breathe.

Arden: What the hell just happened?

In the engine room, Rina groans in sympathy with the struts—she can tell from the pitch alone they’ve taken some hard damage.

Nika: (over the comm) Get ’em on board. Now!

We break the airlock seals, open up our ship and start hauling the men inside. They clamber up the ladder and stumble in and Christian pushes them up the stairs. Meanwhile, Arden readies the med bay for triage with the help of the station’s doctor who’d come down with us.

As the men board the ship, Christian lays down the drill, shouting to be heard over the weather screaming outside: the wounded will be taken to the forward lounge where med bay is, the non-wounded will strap down in the mid-ships lounge. We do a head count. There are only 24 rescued men aboard, not 30.

We’ve come up half a dozen missing.

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