Episode 122. Part 1
Present: Terri, Mary, Bobby, and Jay
Air Date: 19 May 2009
Sunday, 23 Apr 2519
Earhart Ranch, Larson County
Boros, Georgia (Huang Long) system
10:30 hrs, local time
We’ve spent the two weeks following our encounter with Swordsman as guests on the Earhart Ranch. During that time, we brush up on some of our rusty skills. When not practicing horse riding or knife work, Rina keeps herself busy fixing everything she can find on the ranch. Christian gets a beginner’s course in riding, having never been on a horse before and Nika is quick to teach him the basics. Christian puts his new-found knowledge to good use. While on Boros, he picks up a client—an old widow by name of Victoria Tibby. She wants to take a moonlight ride on her anniversary in memory of her husband. Thanks to Nika’s lessons, Christian is able to meet his obligations to his client. Nika and Arden spend their spare time after hours in each other’s company and as romances go, it’s an amiable one, though Nika has worries that it’s weighted heavier on Arden’s side than her own.
Lawrence “Larry” Johannsen has managed to save the ranch from bankruptcy and in addition, has proposed to Nala. She accepts, though by the time we finally take our leave, she hasn’t announced the wedding date yet. Nika feels Larry is a decent man, and the Johannsens in general are likewise decent folk. After all, Nika’s father Jon thought the Johannsens were good people and it wouldn’t be fair to hold them in the same low regard as she held her brother-in-law. Nala would be treated well and since she seems to have genuine feelings for Larry…well, Nika isn’t going to stand in their way.
The repair contractors take a couple of days to get to the Gift in their repair schedule but once begun, the repairs go along fairly quickly. When we get the call that they’ve finished, we fly the shuttle back to the ship yard to pick up the Gift and we gratefully send the bill to Moskalenko. We’ve also paid for some modifications of our ship. We've swapped out 1 full cargo container for 1 half container and 1 dorm container. This costs us 20 credits.
We dock the shuttle to the Gift and fly the ship back to the ranch, there to spend the balance of our two week stay.
Mindful of our encounter with Swordsman and what he’d said, we look for cargo that will take us to Sophie. We eventually get pinged for a job. We're taking a shipment of 182 tons of machinery to Sophie. The cargo is official Alliance Government supplies and we’ll get paid on delivery. This pretty much fills up all our cargo holds. We technically have 5.5 tons of space left in the half container.
After Swordsman expressed his interest in getting Arden to Sophie to investigate the disappearance of his crèche mates, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how that cargo fell into our laps. We restock our ship, purchasing med supplies, provisions and enough vac suits for everybody, including Rick when he rejoins us. Restocking done, we pack up our belongings, say goodbye to Nala and Larry and the Johannsens, and once the cargo is secured, we take off for Arden’s native planet. ETA: Sunday, 21 May 2519, a four week flight.
Tuesday, 25 Apr 2519
Kuiper II Class, Summer's Gift
En route to Sophie
11:13 hrs, ship’s time
En route to Sophie, we get acquainted with our passengers.
We have 5 passengers paying 2nd class rates on arrival (they're terraforming experts working for the Alliance). Four of them are bunking down in the dorm container (it has four bunks) and the remaining terraformer is sleeping in the crew quarters that used to belong to Mike.
We have 2 passengers paying 2nd class rates on arrival. They're a pair of shipwrights who ended up on an overbooked vessel. The other vessel will pay us when we drop these guys off. They're each bunked one of the passenger dorms.
Finally, we have 3 passengers travelling in steerage. They've given us part of the payment in foodstuffs and are working off the other part. In other words, for the durations of the trip we get to use these guys to clean and cook. They're pro kitchen staff, so they've got some experience. They're going to share the remaining crew dorm.
Rina and the two shipwrights don’t hit it off too well—they are from the Core—Iskellian guys, actually—and are used to nicer, newer ships. Their comments about the Gift piss Rina off and Christian reminds her it’s bad form to beat up or kill paying passengers. She reins in her tongue as best as she’s able and tries to listen to their comments and recommendations with an open mind and a closed mouth. To the shipwrights’ credit, they do spot a thing or two that Rina could fix or improve on…and she does. But she waits til they’re out of sight when she does it. “I told you so” doesn’t go down well, regardless of the language it’s delivered in.
The five terraformers and the three steerage passengers are less irritating, although that is not to say they are no trouble. One of the steerage passengers, a cook by training by the name of Kai, has this habit of wandering around the ship and going into areas passengers aren’t authorized to go. We have to remind her repeatedly not to go here or there and after a couple days of this, Rina’s getting thoroughly hinked by this woman.
This isn’t helped any when Kai walks into the engine room while Rina’s there on duty and after giving it a good look up and down, accurately points out where the turbo charger should have gone, had Rina been fortunate enough to install it, just by seeing the empty space its absence caused. Paranoid and curious in equal measure, Rina asks Kai how she knew.
Rina: So what are you? The Feng Shui Master of engine rooms?
Kai: (laughs) Oh no, my dad was an engineer.
Rina: Oh, really? Where’d he work out of?
Kai: He worked mostly out of Persephone til he went out on the Rim. He died out there.
Rina: (sincerely) I’m sorry to hear that.
Kai: Well, it was during the war. Lots of people died.
Rina: So, you hang out much with your daddy, didja?
Kai: Enough to get my way around the engine room.
Kai: But, um, I don’t know if talking about it would be very popular with the people on this ship.
Rina: Nah, that depends.
Kai: Well, those Iskellian guys.
Rina: Those guys can go si—Never mind.
Kai: (eyeroll) Or the Alliance terraformers, who know everything in the Verse.
Rina gets the feeling she’s being pumped for information and decides turn-about is fair play.
Rina: So you’re a cook now?
Kai: I’m not a cook yet. But I did find one.
Rina: Hm. So, where’d you learn?
There’s only one place on Beaumonde that Rina knows that teaches cooking, and that’s Nguyen’s Cordon Vert Cooking School. Rina immediately changes the subject.
Rina: Hm. So. If you won the lottery, what would you put there? (pointing to the empty spot for the turbo charger)
Kai: If I won the lottery… I’m kinda partial to the Weyland-Yutani T17.
Rina: T17? If you put on some buffers, you could probably get a T16 in there.
Kai: You don’t think it would…? Well…It’d take a lot of space while you’re running it, you’d have to step out…
The two women stand and look at the empty space speculatively.
Rina: (shrugging) Look at it this way, you can use the extra heat and put in a still. Brew your own beer.
Kai: That might work.
Rina: Or vodka. Anyway….
Kai: Yeah. Of course, the T16 would not pass any kind of inspection.
Rina: (chuckling) Nah. Give me a couple of hours and some duct tape….No. Actually, if I won the lottery, I’d buy a whole different ship.
Kai: (Looking around) I don’t know. This thing has its charm.
Rina: It all depends on what you want the ship to do. Hauling passengers, it’s got charm enough. But if you want to go fast? (gusts a sigh) Please. Don’t get me started.
Kai: (nods) There’s no one in the cooking business who’s in it forever. It’s a part-time job.
They end the conversation on that note and go their separate ways, leaving Rina alone to think on all the possibilities and hidden agendas Kai represents. It doesn’t assuage Rina’s suspicions one bit when Kai shows up half an hour later offering to help Rina while on duty.
Kai: I’m pretty good with a wrench.
Rina: I’ll consider it.
Could Kai be a spy in Nguyen’s employ? What is she here to observe and report on? Or steal? Rina thanks Kai and shoos the woman gently out of the engine room. When the passengers have retired for the night, Rina gathers the crew to tell them what she’s learned from the conversation and what she suspects: that Kai is one of Nguyen’s spies.
Rina: The minute she said “Beaumonde”—hell, the minute she started sniffing around I thought: “She’s a chef, she’s snooping, and oh God, she’s one of Nguyen’s.”
Christian tells everyone that they are knowledgeable enough around the kitchen to be legitimate cooking students and that they are already good enough to get jobs at mid-range restaurants. That part is genuine enough.
Rina: Okay, then when I’m not in the engine room, I’m locking the frikkin’ door behind me.
Arden: You don’t do that already? I thought the doors didn’t lock from the outside.
Rina: (growls) I’ll make it lock from the outside. (mimes lighting a blow torch) Or an alarm. Oh, hell, I’ll think of something. It just…..
Frustrated, she breaks off.
Needless to say, the idea we may have spies aboard puts all of us on heightened alert. And we plow on. We fly the ship, we serve the passengers. The terraformers aren’t interested in anything fancy by way of food. Hearty and rib-sticking, never mind what it’s made of, suits them fine. The Iskellian shipwrights are pickier, but after a week they settle down, resigned to travelling in what they clearly consider a garbage scow. They pass the time on the Cortex, keeping abreast of their profession online. The three cooking students help Christian serve the enormous amount of people we’re hauling. Our galley isn’t exactly kitted out to feed so many people at once.
Rina still doesn’t trust Kai and so does a thorough examination of the ship. Nothing’s out of place but her gut’s nudging her to keep looking. Despite her active searching, it’s Arden who finds something first: while going through his immunization supplies, he finds a plain unprinted business card in is medicine cabinet. It’s a handwritten alphanumeric string.
We’re not sure what it is, but Arden and Christian bend their minds to it. Christian recognizes the 7-digit string of numbers as a security code of some kind and on a hunch, gets on the Cortex and starts looking up businesses on Sophie that may require a security code for access. Sure enough, there is a storage unit facility at Purgatory Spaceport that has secured lockers requiring a passcode. Mystery reasonably solved, we stow the card somewhere safe til we arrive.
Sunday, 21 May 2519
Purgatory Space Port
Sophie, Kalidasa (Xuan Wu) system
08:45 hrs, local time
Once on Sophie, the passengers get off our boat and pay us for their trip. The amount of money is more than we’ve ever made and it dazes us a bit. Then practicality asserts itself and we put the money toward our needs and maintenance. Some of that money is allocated toward crew pay, 150 credits per person. We hold on to Rick’s share, since he’s still some worlds away on Constance. The bulk of the money, however, goes right into paying off our lien. Christian crunches the numbers, makes the electronic transfer and when the word comes through, he announces we are out of debt. Summer’s Gift is ours again.
Purgatory is the primary spaceport of Sophie and there’s nothing much beyond it beut the mines that harvest hydrogen-bearing rock to be processed for fuel, Sophie’s main export. There are no vacation spots or anywhere interesting to go. There is Erewhon colony, a shining exception to the overall drab of the place…but that’s about it.
Furthermore, thanks to the mines and the refineries on-planet, along with the fact that Sophie is one of the rare planets that could skip terraforming before settlement, the atmo on Sophie is thick and dirty. It’s not instantly deadly, per se, but it certainly isn’t wholesome. People wear breather masks when they go out of doors. The noxious air coats everything it touches with grey grime, turning buildings and vehicles grungy within weeks. Despite her beautiful name, Sophie is anything but.
Purgatory itself is strictly a blue collar town, servicing the spacers and the miners. Bars, pawn shops, greasy spoons, tattoo parlors, and other such unsavory places. The spaceport has the usual spaceport facilities like public showers and laundromats, more greasy spoons and game arcades, sundries stores…and likely other, less legal things can be had if the price is right.
We review the card that had been slipped into the med lab, and suss out that the alphanumeric string is the name of a storage unit facility. Since the atmo is so rotten, very few people walk willingly in it and as a result there is a very good public transportation system to ensure one needn’t walk far. Busses and light rail have Purgatory well covered. We hop a rail line and ride it to the storage facility indicated on the card.
As one can expect, the storage facility is completely indoors. At the specified locker—the size of a walk-in closet— we open it and see there are a manila envelope and four coveralls for Tunnel Controls, a HVAC and Plumbing company. The logo on the coveralls is made of smart cloth, the textile version of smart paper: the logo is an animated duck in a hard hat and boots, and a classic toilet plunger tucked under a wing. On the back of the coveralls is another segment of smart cloth with the contact information for the company. Along with the coveralls are—surprise!—hard hats and work boots befitting the coveralls. The manila envelope has instructions on how to get into the facility, a set of faked work orders for the colony HVAC systems, and a blank key card.
Christian: Gee, I have the feeling that someone wants us to go somewhere and do something.
Arden: Yeah, but what?
Rina: Well…I’m the smallest, so I’ll probably be able to crawl through the vents if you need me to.
We go over the work orders again. It turns out that every 25 years the colony’s HVAC system has to get a thorough inspection for poisonous particulate matter that might have been introduced via the colony’s geothermal power source. So we know what our cover story is.
However, since Arden is from Erewhon and everyone is a clone of one of the founding ancestors, what are the odds of Arden’s cover being blow because someone at the colony recognizes him? We have no way of knowing.
However, one of the unanticipated side effects of the smart cloth logo is the fact the moving image on it is very distracting. The duck will move or quack and thus catch the eye of anyone interacting with the wearer. Even we have a hard time ignoring the little feathered guy. It’s not an actual disguise for Arden, but it’s the next best thing to one—most will be too busy watching the logo to examine his face.
Our investigation done here, we return to the ship with our new acquisitions and suit up for the op. Rina wears her standard suite of vest and weapons under her Tunnel Controls coveralls and boots, and takes her new and old tool bags with her. In the guise of a repairman, it would be odd if she didn’t carry at least a wrench or two. She stows two extra clips for her gun in her bags and she’s set. Arden takes his doctor’s bag, with duct tape concealing the caduceus emblazoned on its side. We leave the Gift, rent a non-descript hover van, pile in and take off for Erewhon Colony.
Arden is our driver, being from the Colony itself, and flies by memory to Erewhon. The landscape we fly through is craggy, meteoric, and sulfurous. It’s Edvard Munch on steroids. Still, it has an odd sort of beauty and on approach to Colony, we descend through a layer of cloud, as thick as pea soup. Rina keeps a close ear on the engines, alert to any changes that herald disaster. Nothing groans or squawks. All systems are go and we drop out the bottom of the cloud layer into a completely different world.
It’s like Dorothy opening the door of her farmhouse onto the magical land of Oz. There’s color, light and clean air. Erewhon Colony is situated in the middle a vast crater filled with crystal clear water, with emerald green foliage clinging to the high curving sides of the crater walls. The Colony is all soaring architecture, pearly white and gleaming—Core-tech all the way. After the Hellish environment of Sophie we’ve encountered so far, the sight of Erewhon soothes like Paradise. We hail the Colony and they clear us to land.
Everything is handled quite efficiently and landing on the pad goes off without hitch or delay. We thank the traffic control and sign off, spin down the van and park her. Everything looks clean and well organized and aesthetically pleasing, and it has the hush of a research institute or university campus. There are no guards on the pad to greet us and the pristine beauty of the place takes on an eerie quality—not quite sinister, not quite guileless, but the lack of guards overall seems odd, given the hostile environment a mere klik away beyond the caldera’s walls.
At the entrance to the pad is a flat screen display greeting all visitors. It says quietly as we draw near:
Display: Welcome to Erewhon. Please stand by for a short tutorial.
So we stand by and as we’re waiting Rina looks over the work order again, examining it for details on the job, so as to have an answer ready when asked as to our business here. She susses out that it’s pretty much a cakewalk: go down into the bowels of the geothermal plant and swap out the filters. Pretty generic sounding stuff, and full of loopholes should we need them. She relays this to the rest of the crew.
The tutorial spins up and starts playing.
The gist: Erewhon is an isolated colony and though they don’t have much contact with people from the outside world, they are aware of them. And in the interests of making everything go smoothly on both sides, please note and comply with the following customs of the colony.
We do not smoke. We do not engage in public displays of affection. We do not utter profanities. We do not…. (And a whole host of other things that the crew try not to snerk at, out of deference to Arden) The presentation closes with:
Please do not engage in prolonged conversation or fraternization with the colonists. We do not find it necessary to engage in small talk or exchange pleasantries. We do not normally greet people. Do not be alarmed if colonists do not respond in kind. Social Interaction Personnel have been alerted to your presence. They can be recognized by the gold rings on the cuffs of their clothing. If you have any questions, they are trained to help you.
Social Interaction Personnel?
We don’t see anyone approaching, gold-banded or otherwise. So we stand and look around at Erewhon some more. We reckon a force shield must be arching overhead to keep the tainted atmo of Sohpie out, and the water’s clear and clean enough for great stands of kelp to thrive. We can see the water plants from where we stand on the landing pad. Arden’s all for finding a place to eat. We agree and walk off the landing pad, looking for the likeliest location of the geothermal plant. We hit the sidewalk with the others of the colony and are, for the most part, ignored. As we walk, we take in the details. The buildings and public spaces are all smooth and streamlined, polished, with some woodwork cropping up here and there. The people are not flamboyant dressers, preferring to blend in with their surroundings instead of standing out from it.
We find a cafeteria. We get in line with the others and get served up a snack, the main ingredient of which is apparently the sea kelp we spotted floating in the lake. We aren’t charged anything for it. As far as we can tell, there’s no base economy here, no money exchange takes place. Odd. Nika leans over to Arden as we walk away with our trays.
Nika: (undertone) Don’t you pay for anything?
Arden: Why should we? It’s ours.
Christian: Just out of curiosity, how does the colony pay for this?
Research, actually. Erewhon’s main export is information and information-based products. Christian nods at this and then asks a zinger: how do the colonists deal with the urge? Given the questioner, it doesn’t take a genius to suss which urge he’s referring to.
Arden: (shrugs and eats) It’s something we put in the food.
We stop chewing and stare at him. Rina recovers first.
Rina: Oh, so that’s what that funny taste is. I thought it was the seaweed.
Arden shrugs: As near as makes no difference. Great. We finish our snacks and keep an eye peeled for a Gold Band person. Christian spots one eating alone and goes over to him. The man looks up and lowers his fork.
Christian: Excuse me.
Gold Band: Yes, sir.
Christian: We have a work order. (Shows the papers)
Gold Band: All right, yes. (takes papers, looks them over) Do you know what it’s for?
Christian: I’ll have my specialist explain it to you.
Christian waves Rina over and she gives them our cover story—every 25 years, gotta have an inspection, filters, contaminants….yadda-yadda.
Gold Band: You’ll want Building Maintenance, I think—.
Rina: Basically, yeah. (Off his look) Sorry. Haven’t been caffeinated yet….
Christian: They don’t have caffeine here.
Rina: (feelingly) I know. I know. It’s practically against Union rules to make me work without caffeine. (To Gold Band, nicely) Where can I find Building Maintenance?
Gold Band rises and walks over to a kiosk and punches a few buttons. Out spits a little map, printed on paper the size of a boarding pass. It’s a smart paper display, with the glowing red arrow prominently marking our current position: You Are Here! The man hands it to Rina and as he does, we see the image on the paper shift relative to our position. Rina holds it and turns slowly in place, and the display changes again—it’s got built-in GPS imaging.
Rina: Thank you.
Gold Band: Is there anything else I can help you with? Welcome to Erewhon.
The man is as placid as milk, expressionless. It’s a little disconcerting.
Rina: (quietly) Thank you, sir.
Christian: Thank you. You have a lovely…town.
And the Gold Band turns around and goes back to his interrupted meal. Hmm, yeah, we can see that the Erewhon colonists have dispensed with the usual chit chat and social pleasantries. If this is what their public relations people are like, what are the regular colonists like? We appreciate better how different Arden is from the rest of the colonists and Rina wonders privately if his genetics was specifically manipulated for that result. If so, was this the ‘potential’ Swordsman meant?
We follow the map. Rina quips it’s like dousing for water, holding the map out at arm’s length and turning as the image spins to point the way. As we go along and pass other colonists, Christian notes their general appearance and bearing. Unlike all the sci-fi vids and pulp stories about genetically engineered clones, he finds no Adonises or Aphrodites on every street corner. The folk here as average-looking as anywhere else. In fact, some of the colonists are fairly unattractive. Everyone is well groomed and clean, and apparently have perfect teeth and eyesight. Now that he’s looking for it, however, Christian sees there are fewer people of mixed race than the norm. He remembers back to the tutorial: People on Erewhon, just like people everywhere else in the Core, and our stock is made up entirely of original settlers to the Verse.
By that definition, everybody in the whole damn Verse is descended from original colonists. However, it seems Sophie’s population has cleaved closer to their originals than those on other worlds have done—those folk being more willing to mix it up with their neighboring planets and moons than the people here. Genetic purity is point of pride for those native to Sophie and it seems odd to the crew that the point even exists.
It doesn’t take us long to find what we’re looking for. The colony is laid out in a commonsensical manner. In the maintenance sector of Erewhon, people are dressed in coveralls and work clothes and it takes us a little while to find another one of the Gold Band people. We eventually find one.
Gold Band: Twenty-five year maintenance? Oh, well, I suppose. You’ve got the paperwork. It must be necessary.
Whoa. If paperwork is all that’s needed to get anything around here, we could rob Erewhon blind and in triplicate. Assuming, of course, we were so minded. The Gold Band takes our map and inserts it into a mini keyboard-like gadget, types something, and hands it back to us. The map has changed. It now shows the Maintenance facility floor plans. Entrances, elevators, stairs…it’s all in there.
Arden finds that details of the colony are slowly coming back. And Christian makes the observation that this is the first place he’s been where people don’t stop dead and stare at him due to his stunning good looks. It’s …interesting.
We enter the building and passing two people deep in a conversation about obscure and complex mathematical equations, we board an elevator at our map’s urging and press the button the map indicates: SB4. And down we go.
The doors open up on a utilitarian steel corridor, narrow and curving, winding out of sight to the left. Going by the radius of the curve, we’re likely in a tower, the shaft of which extends well below the colony’s surface. Sure enough, we put a hand to the metal wall and feel the coolness of the water surrounding the colony.
Huh, make that a bulkhead instead of a wall, then.
Rina: Great. We’ll all drown like rats.
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