Episode 420: GULag

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Air Date: 30 Nov 2010
Present: Maer, Terri, Andy, and Bobby

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On or around 25 Oct 2521
Somewhere in the taiga/tundra

It’s been two days since we’ve touched down on Novaya Rodina, making it on or about the 25th of October.

Nika revives on the morning of our second day and Joshua fills her in on our situation.

It’s a mixed bag. Starting with the positives, we’re all alive. We have clothing and blankets. We have shelter. We have the means to make fire, trap and cook food, and melt snow for water. We have knives for weapons or tools. No one seems to know or even care we’re here.

The negatives: No one is likely to come looking for us. It’s unsure if our fiery trip through atmo has managed to convince anyone to investigate. We do not know what has happened to the containers we jettisoned and if the authorities would be sufficiently motivated to track us down as their point of origin. There is no settlement visible to the naked eye and no sign of lighted habitation farther away. It is unlikely we can expect help from anyone other than Potemkin and that would be only if he were still following us.

We are wounded, some of us critically so. The cold and our injuries will slowly but surely wear us down past the point of endurance and the cold will get us. Or the rabies will. Or radiation sickness. We could attempt to leave our bivouac in the hope of finding help, but the chances are extremely thin and the disadvantages are considerable: we cannot carry live fire with us to stay warm and the effort to traverse the snow, even in snowshoes, would weaken us quicker than standing still.

The better bet would be to stay put, dig in, and wait for either help or oblivion to find us.

Despite the facts staring us in the face, Nika and Joshua go round and round on it. Nika tries making a plan of action and Joshua keeps feeding her more details that require a total restart of the planning process.

Nika: You keep telling me I have to make a decision and then when I make one, you kick me in the butt.
Joshua: No, no, no. That’s not it, Captain. I’m just saying—
Nika: Then give me all the information up front!
Joshua: I am. I—
Rina: You two hash it out. I’m going back to the ship to cobble together a radio.
Joshua: What are you doing—what?
Rina: I’m going back to the ship to see if I can make a radio.
Joshua: No. (turns to Nika) Tell her no.
Rina: Why not?
Nika: Now you’re telling me what to do?
Joshua: I’m asking you to assert your command authority to tell her no. (to Rina) And remember, Potemkin pretty much stripped everything of useful value off the Gift.
Rina: Anything is better than sitting here waiting for him to come and kill us.
Joshua: Actually, no. Dying of radiation poisoning in the ship is not better than sitting here—.
Rina: (yelling now) At least we’ll be dying doing something toward our salvation! I won’t just be bending over and grabbing my ankles. At least give me a shovel so I can build a man-trap, line it with stakes—something!
Joshua: You have a knife? Have at it.
Rina: Thank you!

Inactivity? Rina doesn’t deal with it well. Nope.

Arden: Good luck cutting through the permafrost.
Rina: No. If there’s trees, there can’t be permafrost.
Arden: Why can’t there?
Rina: Because the roots wouldn’t be able to anchor through the soil, b’duh!
Arden: We’re in the middle of October. It could be frozen or it could have been thawed before October.
Rina: There’s a reason it’s called taiga and not tundra.
Arden: Why?
Joshua: Emotions are running high, Captain. In case you hadn’t noticed.
Rina: All right. Let’s defer to Beglan.

They all look at him.

Arden: Is there permafrost?
Beglan: I-I imagine so, but I think digging a man-trap at this stage is not your best option. I hate to think of how probably rabid you’d have to be to step into a trap.
Rina: Okay, then if not with man-traps, then with graves. (glares at Arden) Starting with yours.
Beglan: Graves might be a good idea.
Nika: (raising her voice) Okay, I’m going to have to step in. (to Rina) Find something gorram useful to do. That does not include the insanity that you are spouting at the moment. Firewood. Snares. Trap line.
Beglan: Well, just that—
Nika: Fishing lines, if there’s a river sitting nearby.
Joshua: Yes, Beglan?
Beglan: Just that now that the immediate life sustaining emergency is over?
Joshua: Yeah.
Beglan: If the Captain will permit it, I think Rina has a good idea. I think we should go dig a grave for Yurgei. His body is just sittin’ out there. That’s wrong.
Nika: That would be fine.
Beglan: When we go back to the ship for him, we could look for a radio, perhaps. We can’t just let him sit there. He’s a man.
Nika: He is and he deserves a decent burial. Absolutely.
Arden: Actually, he’s just dead now.
Rina: Shut up.
Arden: But he is.
Rina: (to Beglan) Let’s go.
Arden: I don’t think we should bury him. We may need to eat him later.
Joshua: You can’t be serious, Arden.
Rina: Joshua. Siege of Leningrad, on Old Earth. That’s what they did. 900 days. No food. It’s what they did. People froze and died of starvation in the winter. Dragged the bodies out to the sidewalk. And, you know, the next day …Pieces were missing.
Joshua: We’re going to bury him because on the hopes that when we die in seven or eight days, someone will show up and bury us. So. We’re going to do that. Beglan?
Beglan: What?
Joshua: Let’s go. Rina. Let’s go. Arden—.
Arden: I know. Watch the fire. And her.

Meaning the Captain.

Joshua: And her.

Joshua, Beglan and Rina trek over to the Gift to scavenge what they can. Rina tries to explain her macabre historical digression.

Rina: No, seriously. That’s what happened on Old Earth.
Joshua: We know. Whenever you said it happened, we know it happened. It doesn’t mean that we’re planning to—we are not cannibalizing anybody. It’s not happening.

The damage doesn’t look as bad as the Miranda crash. That said, we don’t have the resources to fix our girl as we had back then. And there’s no Quan Fu sitting off to the side waiting for us to jump in and fly off in her.

There is a kind of eeriness to our ship. The radiation, the rotting food, the toxic waste, the bodies of the rabid dogs and the dead rats from the Jacuzzi … it all combines to make for one eerie-assed atmosphere. The wind off the taiga moaning through the ship doesn’t help one bit. We can see here and there that the ice has melted away from the ground in places, as if secondary fires flared to life and died since our evac. And then there’s the melting from the crap we’re leaking onto the ground.

Not a good final resting place for Yurgei. Beglan had it right. We have to get him out and bury him properly. We don our gas masks and go inside and find Yurgei’s body. He is right where left him, on a rude pallet on the crew gym floor. His body is intact, unscavanged.

Rina: It would take one determined wolf to get in here, go up the airlock stairs and then …

Yeah. Determined. At least the cold kept the flies down to nearly nothing. The corpse isn’t a maggot-ridden mess when we find him. Parts of him have frozen to the deck, puddles of effluvia effectively gluing him to the plates.

Rina: Looks like he purged. Everything below the belt is going to be nasty.
Joshua: Could you please stop that and treat him like a human being, instead of—
Rina: THIS is how I deal with it without going crazy.

We get Yurgei off the ship to bury him.

Rina still wants to go back aboard and salvage what she can. Joshua disagrees, stating that all the really useful stuff would be on the upper decks where all the radioactivity is concentrated. Rina had gotten a double dose on the flight over. He’d rather not have her exposed to more of it. At the last minute before they left, Nika told Rina to check the lock box on the bridge and come hell or high water, Rina’s going to check it.

Joshua: Wait, what?
Rina: You don’t know about the lock-box?
Joshua: Which lock box? Just treat me like a stupid idiot and tell me which lock box.
Rina: (sighing) Where’s the fun in that? Okay. A little bit before you came aboard, Nika had me a rig up a stash box. Lockable. To keep a gun on the bridge. She wants me to check it.
Joshua: Okay.

Rina checks the bridge’s lock box—it’s been found despite our efforts to conceal it and it lays smashed open, emptied.

We find nothing of real value except the grenade launcher Potemkin had rigged up in the foredeck corridor.

Joshua: It’ll give you something to do. I not really expecting a lot out of it, but it will give you something to do.

There’s still a little propellant left in the launcher. Rina damaged it too badly for it to work as a launcher but maybe the propellant itself can be used as an incendiary. Even so, Rina takes the entire rig along, thinking to use it as a fake prop, to make it look as if we’re better armed than we are in the event of a ground assault by Potemkin.

Joshua would rather not be separated from the others for long. Neither does he want anyone soaking up the radiation still on board the ship. But there is still Yurgei to bury. The ground is hard but we resolutely start digging his grave.

Meanwhile back at the camp, Arden is keeping Nika company when he hears the sound of an engine.

Arden: Do you hear that?
Nika: What?
Arden: Sounds like some sort of engine. Maybe a mule or a truck.
Nika: Where?
Arden: To the north. From the opposite direction of the ship.

They mount the hill next to the camp to try to spot it and the sound is definitely an engine, a land vehicle and it’s coming closer. The dips and dells of the land, however, conceal it from view and distort its direction. It shifts from the north to the northwest. Maybe it’s coming around the hill? The logical direction for it to be coming is where the land is the flattest. That would put it to the north or the south-southwest of camp. Nika and Arden split up to search for it. Nika goes north and Arden takes the south-southwest direction, staying within hollering distance of each other. Arden lucks out: his path affords him a view of the Snow Cat that suddenly appears out of nowhere.

Arden: I can see some sort of vehicle! It’s heading toward the ship!

Arden realizes that he could very likely flag it down if he runs madly through the snow for it. He calls out to Nika to follow him and he starts plowing for the ’cat. The snow is deeper than it looks and his run is more a series of frantic plunges. He’s too focused on getting to the bottom of the hill ahead of the ’cat to notice Nika isn’t keeping up with him. He makes it to the bottom of the hill just in time to see the vehicle round the base of the next hill over. He waves frantically and the Snow Cat crawls closer and then chugs to a stop. The engine snorts and hisses and falls silent.

The driver cracks open the window of the cab and pokes his head out. He’s dressed appropriately for the weather.

Arden: I am so glad to see you!

The driver gets out and looks at him curiously. What’s a man in prison togs doing out in the middle of nowhere? He starts speaking in a language that Arden thinks is Russian but the accent is a little strange. The passenger section of the cab opens up and a HUGE mountain of a man gets out. He jumps into the snow and it only comes up to his waist. He’s easily 6 foot 10, broad of shoulder and bearded down to here. He’s that indeterminate age between 50 and 60, maybe. He is dressed properly for the weather and it only makes him look bigger. He may be 60 but nevertheless, the man is powerful, just plowing through the snow as if through nothing.

Arden: Do you all speak English? Chinese?

The mountain man shoves his goggles onto his forehead and Arden immediately notices the man’s eyes—they are strikingly unnerving, sharp and pale and calculating like a wolf’s and … decidedly odd. There’s something not quite right behind those eyes, something Arden’s neurology knowledge nudges him on but can’t actually pin down. The mountain man speaks and his voice is deep and penetrating without being loud or overbearing. It is heavily accented. Russian, of course.

Mountain Man: You survive crash?
Arden: Yes. And everything that led up to it. Are you out here to salvage?

A considering pause.

Mountain Man: I was brought here.
Arden: You were brought here?
Mountain Man: God sent me.
Arden: Yes? Really?
Mountain Man: Come.

Mountain Man motions Arden into the Cat and Arden stops to look for Nika. She’s not there. Odd. She was supposed to be right behind him. He stalls.

Arden: My companions and I have a camp this way— .
Mountain Man: You go in Snow Cat. Point us to your camp.
Arden: I can do that.

Arden obeys and OMG, he’s blessedly warm for the first time in freakin’ days. He points out the way back to our camp. There are three other men in the cab. They all have a look of, well, not clean exactly. They’re all somewhat messed up with scars. They don’t look like your classic rescue squad.

Still, any port in a storm. Arden points the way and the others debate the way in Russian. The driver seems particularly argumentative and the Mountain Man puts his hand on the driver’s shoulder and speaks to him in soothing tones. The driver quiets and drives. The Cat pulls up at the camp and no one is there. Arden doesn’t need to know Russian to guess what the men must be thinking. He starts talking.

Arden: Three of my companions went back to the ship to get stuff if they could and … I have no idea where Nika is.

Nika meanwhile, is still a little shaky on her feet and she runs afoul of another tree-pit. She steps too close to a conifer and fwoomp! falls through to the space beneath the branches under the snow. Luckily for her she’s close to camp and when she hears the Snow Cat pull up and stop, she yells loud enough for the others to hear her and pull her out. Damaging to her pride, sure, but she doesn’t suffer anything more than that. The Mountain Man reaches down and lifts her out one-handed. He shrugs out of his parka and wraps Nika in it. It’s toasty warm from being worn and dear Lord it feels like Heaven. Arden introduces Nika as his Captain to Mountain Man and his men.

Mountain Man: You’re Captain of ship?
Nika: Yeah. I was.
Arden: (murmuring) Yes. Use good English. Want to make a nice first impression.
Nika: All right, Dame Alicia.
Mountain Man: Roskov. Pyotr Andreyevich Roskov.
Nika: (with feeling) I am very grateful to meet you. Thank you so much.
Roskov: It is Providence you’ve survived.
Nika: You can’t pretty much argue that one.
Roskov: And these … only survivors?
Arden: There are three others.
Roskov: Three others. Where are they?
Arden: They went to the ship, to bury one of the people who didn’t survive.
Roskov: Mm. Let us go. Do you wish any of your belongings?

Arden goes into the camp for his medical bag. They all clamber into the Cat. The fit is a little tight and will only get tighter when we pick up the rest of our crew but at least it’s warm, we’re with other human beings again, and their presence gives us hope that we will be taken back to civilization soon.

Roskov: We saw fireball in the sky travelling too low to be horizontal. It had to be ship.
Arden: Yeah, we were crashing.
Roskov: We did not receive distress call.
Arden: Our radio is broken. Actually our radio was demolished.
Roskov: A more suspicious man than me would say a band of prisoners refusing to use radio crashing ship and only survivors might have another story to tell. But I am not judgmental man. You’ll find yourselves welcome when we get back to GULag.
Arden: Excuse me?
Roskov: When we get back to GULag.
Arden: What’s a … a goo log?
Roskov: Sadly my friend, your escape was short-lived. We go to Seriy Ogohn GULag.
Arden: Is that a city?
Roskov: Of sorts. It is prison. It is factory. It is mine. It is home.
Arden: Okay. There’s ways out, right? I mean, I can get to the Net and …

Roscov breathes a laugh.

Nika: Arden.
Arden: What?
Nika: He thinks we are prisoners escaping from captors on board the ship.
Arden: But we’re not.
Roskov: I said if I were suspicious man and wondering why you were prison guard and on ship without radio.
Arden: Because the crazy guy hijacked our ship—
Nika: And tried to blow your planet up.
Arden: —and tried to blow us all up in a death trap.
Roskov: Tried to blow up planet.
Arden: No, no. The ship.
Nika: Tried to blow up the city.
Roskov: He tried to blow up prison?
Nika: No, Norelsk.
Roskov: You not land near Norelsk.
Nika: Well, that’s because we pulled ourselves off course.
Roskov: Yes. Your story makes perfect sense. Let us go find the ship. What other more simple explanation could there be for your being here?
Arden: Of course. If we could get to a phone or a—
Nika: Arden.
Arden: What?
Nika: You’re yammering.
Arden: No—.
Nika: Yes.
Arden: I’m trying to—
Nika: No. You’re not. You’re yammering.
Roskov: I must say the amenities—
Nika: (to Arden) It’s a prison. He’s going to put us in his prison.
Arden: Why? We haven’t done anything.
Nika: Now he gets it.

Nika gusts a sigh.

Roskov: None of us have. We’re all innocent.
Arden: Well, I’m not innocent but I haven’t done anything.
Roskov: Innocent enough. We are all sinners, too. So we are both.
Arden: To say—I don’t—I’m not going to arg—
Nika: Shut up.
Roskov: Tovarich, you are free to go. Or you may come with us. Is up to you.
Arden: No, no. I think I’ll come.

Meanwhile, back at the Gift, we’re still chipping away at the frozen ground when we hear the Cat approaching. We stand still and listen. Then:

Rina: I don’t think it’s Potemkin.
Joshua: I’m reasonably sure it’s not Potemkin. Potemkin would reasonably land at the ship. Burn the whole thing from the air before landing.
Rina: Nuke us from orbit, yeah.
Beglan: I think if he had nukes, he’d have put them on the ship.
Joshua: I think you’re right, it’s not Potemkin. I think it could be salvage. If it’s salvage, then it’s technically what we’ve been waiting for. Some chance to get off the godforbidden cold. Just be ready.
Beglan: There’s so many great ways to die here. I’m sorta lookin’ forward to see what this one will be.
Joshua: I like your enthusiasm. (chuckling) I do, really I do. I mean when you think about it, somehow you’re managing to keep your humor, black as it is…

Rina hides her knife. There one minute. Gone the next. Don’t ask how she did it. We stand next to Yurgei’s freshly dug grave, his remains yet to be interred, and wait for the Cat to arrive. We see the smoke rising over the crest of the nearby hill before we see the vehicle itself. It chugs to a halt, the doors open, and our crewmates and three other people climb out of it. One of them is a veritable giant of a man.

Nika: Rina! Irina!
Rina: Da!
Nika: Front and center.
Joshua: Sir.
Rina: Ma’am.

Our Captain’s voice is unstrained, sounds easy in her hail. Looks like these guys are friendlies. The mountain of a man looks at Joshua, pulls off his goggles and we all see this extraordinary pair of pale eyes. There’s something about him that makes Joshua almost … swoon. Joshua’s not sure what it is. And the expression on the mountain man is one of … suspicion, as if he doesn’t quite know what to make of Joshua. We fall in, front and center as ordered, and introductions are made all around.

Arden: This is Joshua. This is—
Roskov: (to Joshua) Have we met?

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Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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