Episode 402: Shepherd's Hope

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Air Date: 22 June 2010
Present: Kim, Maer, Terri, and Andy

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Wednesday, 30 Apr 2521
Kuiper II class, Summer’s Gift
Varansi Spaceport, Urvasi
Kalidasa (Xuan Hu) system
0600 hrs, local time

We delivered Channa and the girls to the Holy City without further incident and turn right around for the Varansi. Working flat-out for the next two weeks, Rina repairs what she can of the Gift, but on the day of lift-off the sensors are still only fixed halfway. They fritz in and out, giving inconsistent readings. Nika has become quite good at astronavigation off-line, thanks to the Long Silence, and it looks like until we can get our sensors fixed completely, she’s going to get a lot of practice in picking things out visually in the Black.

We’ve got a job hauling cargo to Kerry in the Georgia system. Humanitarian goods and supplies: blankets, food, fuel, shelters, etc. There’s 100 tons of it and the pay for getting it there is 400 credits, half of it payable up front! With a little money in our coffers we’re able to fuel up to full and lay in food supplies for the trip. Kiera has decided to stay with us for the time being and has quit the first class cabins for her custom made container. Kerry is too far for us to make in one go, so we’ll stop at Grasshopper station midway to refuel.

It’s 420 hours to Grasshopper Station, netting us an ETA of Friday, l6 May 2521. After an overnight stay and a quick refuel we’ll pulse the rest of the way to Kerry, 170 hours away, arriving 7 days later on the 24th.

Kuiper II class, Summer’s Gift
En route to Grasshopper station

Joshua steps onto the bridge to find Nika in the chair.

Joshua: Got a minute?

He gets the silent signal to take the copilot’s seat, Joshua settles in it and opens up the topic by phrasing it as a question.

Joshua: The train incident?
Nika: Mm-hm.

That nets him The Look from Nika.

Joshua: So…you know how at one point every time you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail?
Nika: (dryly) Do tell me you’re giving me the come-to-Jesus now. (a beat) Really?
Joshua: Oh, no. No. Look—
Nika: Really.
Joshua: Look, listen to me.
Nika: Do I have to?
Joshua: Yeah, you do.
Nika: Okay. Fine.
Joshua: I’m not stupid. I know it’s a violent Verse out there and I know there’s going to be lots of situations where the guns are going to need to get pulled out and used. As much as I don’t want to be the one using them, there are situations out there where I can see—like we’re in the middle of a spaceport and we got people shooting at us across the way? (breathes a laugh) The guns are gonna to get pulled out. They’re gonna get used. I understand that’s the way it’s gonna work. But we don’t have any sort of, or at least that everybody else it seems, doesn’t have any sort of alternative to pulling out the gun in a situation where it might not be the best alternative.

Joshua raises his hands in the classic for-instance gesture.

Joshua: The train is a perfect example of this. A close crowded—
Nika: I’ve already had this conversation in my own head, so yes, you’re correct. They shouldn’t’ve come out because in close quarters… Every time you pull it you gotta be ready to use it and we were ready to use it and that’s the problem.
Joshua: Yes. And I’m just saying that part of the issue, in my mind, is that we have very few—minus Rina—reasonable alternatives. Because she would kneecap somebody and—
Nika: Rina’s got no alternatives.
Joshua: No, she could break a man’s arm just by looking at it, sometimes I think.

That gets a laugh out of Nika.

Nika: Okay, just because Rina’s capable of incapacitating someone, have you ever seen her do it?
Joshua: (thinking…no?) I think you’re right. (a beat) My point is, if we had some alternatives, like if we all had stun batons and knew how to use them. Or even if people who were capable carried knives--I wouldn’t want to—but I just think we should be thinking.

You know, instead of reacting. With guns in hand.

Nika: I’m thinking….knives versus swords? Not such a good plan.
Joshua: I understand that. But…then again, unarmed combat versus a sword?
Nika: The best reaction in a swordfight is to have a gun, so you don’t get within arm’s reach of the sword.
Joshua: I did all right.
Nika: You did fabulous, actually.
Joshua: I guess I’m just saying we don’t think about what the alternatives might be before the guns get pulled out. Because I’m pretty sure that when we saw the guys with the swords, everybody that was in this group—on the ship—pulled a gun. Immediately. Including our passenger. She might have had two, for all I know. Not that Rina didn’t have two. Or three…or four… (gathers himself) Um. That’s all I wanted to say.
Nika: Yeah. I’ve spent most of the time groundside going over that in my own head, actually, trying to decide…
Joshua: We got out of it okay.
Nika: Yeah, well…no. You’re right that we need better alternatives. A close situation like that, there could have been a lot of collateral damage. It could have been very very bad. With a bunch of people who had nothing to do with any of it.
Joshua: Yep.
Nika: In the past we’d gone out of our way to avoid that. In this particular instance, I’m not entirely sure why we didn’t.
Joshua:' I think that part of it might have been the close quarters. The fact that we were all crunched in.
Nika: Wound tight to start with.
Joshua: (agreeing) Wound tight. Like… Rina was wound really tight. Extremely tight.

Which comment earns Joshua another look from Nika.

Nika: No, really?
Joshua: (off her look) More so than normal.
Nika: Anytime you walk her into a situation like that she wrecks up.
Joshua: I meant, more so than her normal baseline, is all I’m saying.
Nika: That is baseline in a crowd for her.
Joshua: No, I meant baseline being not in a crowd.
Nika: Oh, if that’s what you’re using for a baseline, then sure.
Joshua: That’s my baseline, yes. So we can give it some thought. Figure out what some alternatives might be.
Nika: The smartest alternative is always to talk your way out.
Joshua: Well, yeah, but it’s not always possible.
Nika: No, but you know, I have seen Kramer talk her way out of some serious shit. Serious stuff.
Joshua: The other alternative would be to find some none lethal range weaponry. Like tranq guns or tasers. If you, for some reason, have collateral…you’re not killing somebody. That’s the thing. You know that’s my thing. You can’t take back killing.

Joshua rises from the copilot’s chair.

Joshua: Right now, we’ll get our finances in order and then we can give it some thought. So… thanks.

Anytime, Joshua.

Joshua isn’t the only person getting things squared away. Kiera’s been putting in the hours en route setting her custom container to rights. Unpacking her lotions and potions and shampoos, making up new pharmaceutical and cosmetological recipes. Rina’s been effecting what repairs she can while the ship is still in pulse—which precludes putting on a suit and going outside. The sensory array is working—but it’s not the same thing as fixed. They’re…fine, but let’s say they’re still causing us problems. Rina thought she’d fixed them but maybe what she fixed wasn’t really broken and the actual problem is still a problem. Try as she might, she can’t find out where she went wrong. Like a parasite burrowing under the skin, the problem aggravates her to no end. And like the twitchy person she is, she starts wondering if it could be a symptom of something subtler….like sabotage. Well, no. Not sabotage. It was clearly missile fire that took out our sensor array.

Rina: Ah…but who fired the missile?

We all know who fired the missile.

Rina: (dry) Do we really?
Joshua: Yes. The Sheik.
Kiera: We’re fairly sure. I was.
Joshua: He clearly identified himself.
Rina: Yeah. But we only have his word for it that he was the Sheik.
Kiera: (okay, enough already!) Nobody likes you. Just deal with it. Nobody likes you at all.
Rina: Of course nobody likes me. I’m Russian. We’re born with everybody hating us.
Kiera: That’s right, nobody likes you, so it’s your fault that we got shot at a lot. I don’t mind.
Joshua: I like her.

And so it goes.

Saturday, 24 May 2521
Village of Shepherd’s Hope, Kerry
Georgia (Huang Long) system
0600hrs, local time

It’s a good thing we’re going to a nice friendly-sounding place to drop off our cargo. It’s a small town that’s fallen on hard times and as a result they’re receiving a large contribution of charitable aid. Everything from blankets to simple tools to emergency supplies to food. The name of the place: Shepherd’s Hope.

The name sends a grue up Joshua’s spine. His experience with Shepherds to date hasn’t been entirely sanguine. And it’s a wonder that Joshua’s whole sense of the world hasn’t been completely warped because the only two Shepherds he’s met have been Faria and the Operative. And the two doctors that he’s familiar with are both whipping out guns and killing people to the point Joshua’s starting to think about calling their oath the Hypocritic Oath.

Joshua: I mean….Shepherds….doctors…. (weighs them in his hands like good and evil)
Kiera: Look at it this way. Shepherds can shoot you and shepherd your soul to Heaven after they shoot you. And as a doctor, we might be able to fix you after we shoot you.
Joshua: Eh-huh. So…. ‘Shepherd’s Hope’?
Rina: Better hope those blankets don’t have smallpox.

Shepherd’s Hope is a small farming town in the upper plateaus of Kerry, as we find out when we shake’n’bake through Kerry’s atmo and get a good look at the land. Kerry took to terraforming in an odd way. The land formed with small coastlines before jutting up into tall cliffs, and then leveling off at the top into volcanic land that’s not good for growing anything. Not impassible, just unfriendly. Kinda like parts of Iceland on Earth That Was, with the Irish Cliffs of Moher thrown in. Beyond the boundary of the lava flows and thermal flats, the land changes yet again into a high plateau of rolling green and lush land, the soil fertile from the volcanic ash. The farming communities are based here, but despite suitability for farming, the land is sparsely populated on the plateaus.

The coastline is well-developed in contrast, sporting densely populated and high-tech areas and jungles beyond before they end at the base of the cliffs. We jump on the local cortex and contact the nearest spaceport for information and a map, the better to find the village. They’re too remote and poor to have a landing beacon to guide us in. In exchange, we download the Pony Express packet we’re carrying, delivering news from our last port of call to our future one. Nike wants to deliver our cargo first before docking at the port. Meanwhile Nika lets Joshua fly us part of the way to the village as part of his ongoing training as our backup pilot. If only to illustrate the difference between flying by the instruction manual and flying for real.

Flying through the brightening morning, Joshua can see the lights from the coastal cities twinkling against the ocean and jungle backdrop. It’s a sharp contrast to the top of the cliffs, where the volcanic flows have rendered the land unforested and uninhabitable— rocky and barren save for moss, lichen and the occasional shrub. Fifty miles later it’s all green. Green as God’s own promise. Forests mostly, with open areas. Joshua’s enthralled by it.

Joshua: It’s gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

There are no trains, no air traffic. Practically trackless in terms of transportation infrastructure.

Nika: No wonder they have trouble getting cargo out here.

As he flies, Joshua keeps one eye on the sensors, hoping to find hotspots made by civilization. Most towns in Kerry’s interior are wood fired, so their heat signatures are practically non-existent to our sensors. Either that or our infrared scanners aren’t able to work on a planetary scale like they should be. Joshua’s the first to spot something on the horizon. It might be chimney smoke from our village. He points it out to Nika and as we fly closer, the amount of smoke gets heavier…heavier than would be normal for a village’s worth of chimney smoke. In a minute we see why.

It’s a small town but several of the buildings are smoldering ruins, burned right down to the ground. It’s the smoke from these that Joshua saw. Previous experience tells Nika that carnage and violence has ensued here, not some natural disaster like fires started by lightning or by accident like a blocked chimney. There are no people on the ground, either as bodies or as pedestrians walking the streets.

Nika: Well that ain’t good.

Nika takes over the conn and circles the town. Working as her copilot and navigator, Joshua spots the landing pad on the outskirts of town by dint of the scorch patterns from previous landings. He points it out to her.

Joshua: Are we landing?
Nika: Oh, yeah.
Joshua: (over the PA) Ladies and gentlemen, please return your trays and your seatbacks to their full upright position. And be prepared for emergency procedures. It looks like our landing spot has been burned to the ground.

Copilot humor. God help us. Nika sighs mightily and rolls her eyes.

Nika: (taking the PA) Arden. Pack a medical gear bag. Rina … (grudgingly) … pull the rifles.

Joshua’s getting an uneasy feeling about the town, less on the it’s-a-tragedy end of the spectrum and more toward the we’re-screwed! end.

Joshua: This is bad. And I don’t mean it’s-burned-down bad. I mean bad as in there’s-danger.
Nika: (thumbs the PA) Rina, pack the extra ammo.
Rina: (from the speakers) You got it.

Um. What happened to that talk about alternatives to pulling out the guns? Didn’t we have that conversation? Nika slides Joshua a knowing look.

Joshua: This may be one of those situations, yes.
Nika: (last chance, Joshua) Should we go ahead and leave now? Cuz it don’t sit well with me to leave that town to burn out.
Joshua: No. I don’t want to leave. I just warning you there’s potentially bad things ahead. You would rather be forewarned, right?
Nika: Yeah.

Kiera chooses this moment to stick her head onto the bridge.

Kiera: Where are we going?
Joshua: It looks like a landing pad. If you will take your seat, we’ll be landing shortly.
Nika: We got cargo for people in town but we’re not sure if—
Kiera: Where?
Nika: In town.
Kiera: Well, hopefully we got fire extinguishers.
Joshua: Oh, it’s not that bad. I mean look, it’s already almost all smoldered out.
Kiera: Oh. Well that makes it so much better.
Joshua: No, not really. But we’re going to check for survivors.
Kiera: All right. (slowly) Do you need me to bring my guns or do you need me to bring my medical—
Nika: Bring your guns.
Joshua: The answer is both. The guns and the doctor kit. Hopefully you’ll use the doctor’s kit and you won’t need the gun, but...
Kiera: I know what I am gonna bring. Lots and lots of salve. And gauze. All the stuff I would need in plastic surgery. Hey, I might have some customers here.

After all, burns can be horribly disfiguring.

Nika: We’re looking at maybe three to four buildings burned down, but that accounts for quarter of the town.
Kiera: Um-hmm.
Joshua: (surveying the damage) I would never….name anything after a Shepherd or anything related to a Shepherd.
Nika: Good plan.

Because the last really great Shepherd got nailed to a tree for his trouble.

Joshua: And I’m not going to become a Shepherd or…
Nika: I did tell you if you did that I would just shoot you and put you out of your misery, anyway.
Joshua: I remember that.

Nika lands us on the pad as nice as you please. Aft, Kiera and Arden are both packing medical supplies and Kiera inquires after one of the rifles.

Arden: A ‘raiffle’?
Kiera: (drawling) A rai-iiffle. ‘Rifle’. I have cultivated this accent so I can sell to the podunkvilles for a long time, but I can speak very clearly without an accent when faced with other types of people.

Okay. 'Raiffle' it is. Arden’s sticking with his handgun, thanks.

Looking at Shepherd’s Hope from the bridge, it looks like any number of rural Rim and Border towns Kiera’s been to before: wooden houses, dirt roads, that sort of thing. Shepherd’s Hope isn’t the worst off she’s seen either. Here it’s still lush and green and there are trees dotted amongst the houses. There’s a school house with a bell on the roof, what looks to be a smithy off to one side and a general mercantile a little ways further in.

Nika: It don’t look rich, that’s for sure.
Kiera: That’s okay, I take barter.
Joshua: Please say you’re not saying you take barter for healing people’s lives. Please?
Kiera: You and this morality. I don’t understand this.

The morality issue doesn’t bother Rina so much as the grenades issue. To wit: we have rifles with grenade launchers but Nika’s nixed loading the launchers with the grenades. Why? It’s not like they’d be deployed on a ship or a space station and risk a hull breach. We’re on the ground, in atmo, and in the open.

Nika: (drawlin’) Bring your rifle but there ain’t no bringing the grenades. No.
Joshua: Don’t look at me, I don’t want grenades. I don’t want the rifle, either.
Kiera: (gestures at the ruins) Hell, the town already burned once. A few flash grenades’ll set the rest of it on fire and that way they can start all over again.
Nika: Don’t encourage her, please. (points to Rina) She don’t need no additional encouragement.
Kiera: I can tell.
Joshua: (Sighing) Wealthy…? Pyromaniac…? Passenger…?
Rina: All right. Who wants a rifle? Or am I gonna take them all?
Joshua: You can only take one. You don’t need more than one rifle.
Nika: One. Cuz it’s all you can shoot. Take extra ammo.
Rina: Anybody else want a rifle?
Joshua: No.
Nika: I’m taking one.
Kiera: Got one.
Rina: And I’m gonna bring…. (figures it) … four reloads, per?
Nika: Fair enough.

Nika takes two of them, Rina carries the other two. And since each reload for the rifle holds 50 rounds, there’s little sense in lugging two rifles per person.

Rina: (annoyed) All right. I’ll just take one rifle, then.
Joshua: Please don’t sound so upset about that, Rina. You can only kill so many people at one time.

And since Rina’s still hasn’t been able to replace her ballistic vest, she’s walking off the ship without one of her usual suspects and that makes her nervous. She brings up the rear of the party with her rifle and her gun and her three extra clips and her knife…but she really wishes she had her vest too.

Her misgivings aren’t helped by the fact that it’s eerily quiet throughout the village as we slowly make their way through it. No people in the streets or in the remaining houses. No livestock calls. No birdsong. Just the breeze rustling through the trees, wafting the smoke from the still-smoldering hulks to our noses. And through the smoke there’s the fleeting hint of another aroma….rich, roasting….rotting.

Anyone with military experience will know what that smell means and Nika casts an eye upward. Yep. Buzzards. Circling in the sky ahead and to the right. We make tracks for that quarter, hoping to find survivors. Following the buzzard-sign, we discover them circling a grain silo and we can see it through the trees dotting the northern outskirts of town. The town bears signs of having been marauded. There are no bodies but plenty of other signs of violence. Bullet holes attest to gunfire. Windows are shattered. Doors have been kicked in. Houses and outbuildings have bits of metal sticking in them. On closer inspection we find that they aren’t shrapnel so much as crudely fashioned throwing- or hand weapons. Bits of hair and leather and…other things cling to the exposed jagged edges.

Nika: (Fuckity!) Ohhhh……shite.

Rina’s standing right next to Nika as they’re looking at the evidence and Rina leans in toward Nika’s ear.

Rina: (low) Reavers.

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Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

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