Episode 510: St. Albans Secrets

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Air Date: 22 Mar 2011
Present: Kim, Maer, Terri, Andy, and Bobby

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Wednesday, 15 Apr 2522
Five Suns Fruit Company Plantation
Waysmeet, Greenleaf
Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
1200hrs, local time

We’ve brought Lanie (formerly Roland) Charles home. The Charles family owns the Five Suns Fruit Company Plantation. So named because they have orchards in each of the five systems—White Sun, Red Sun, Kalidasa, Georgia, and Blue Sun—they are a fairly prosperous operation. The orchard on Greenleaf has been carved out of the tropical rainforest and it is acres upon acres of cultivated paradise. It’s mountainous and lush. For those with an interest for such things, it’s very much like the Hawaiian Islands of Old Earth and the climate is about the same—tropical but balmy, not oppressive. Perfect for growing things and relaxing in.

Not that we loll around for long. After a couple of days of goldbricking we roll up our sleeves and get our ship repaired. When we’re finished, Equinox should be spaceworthy and ready for work. And judging by the state of our coffers, we need the work. We gather over coffee in the crew lounge to discuss our options for travel and cargo.

Joshua: I would like to travel to St. Albans.
Nika: Okay.
Arden: Another quixotic quest?
Joshua: Actually I—well, I guess. But this one I feel like I owe.
Arden: Let’s go from the jungle to the bitter cold and see how many of us get sick.
Beglan: That’s a myth.
Rina: I’m strong like Russkie. Cold doesn’t bother me. It’s the heat that bothers me.
Arden: Yeah. Get used to hot weather and then go to cold weather, and then talk to me.
Rina: (sighs) Perhaps you don’t know, Arden, but I hate hot humid weather.

It’s an old argument and no one puts any heat into it.

Nika: So you want to go to St. Albans. There was a reason for St. Albans, right?
Joshua: I got coordinates. I would like to go to St. Albans and it’s only a day, day and half from here, right? It’s not far.
Nika: Can we pick up cargo in that direction? Just to help defray costs?

Actually, we’ve already looked—there is nothing going to St. Albans. Nothing in-system, for that matter. There’s cargo going to White Sun and to Kalidasa, but nothing in-system. If we go to St. Albans from Greenleaf, we’ll be going empty.

Joshua: Technically this is now a Captain’s decision.
Nika: I’m sorry I missed it.
Joshua: No, I know. I’m getting to it. We have 1267 credits, so we have enough to fully repair the ship.
Arden: Which would leave us less than 40.
Joshua: Yeah, it’ll leave us about 45. Plus her fund.

Meaning the 100 credits that Kiera offered to throw in as a reserve.

Nika: But we need enough to refuel.
Joshua: We have a decent chunk, about 419 hours in the tank.
Nika: Here’s my thought on it. Only because you would like to go to St. Albans.
Joshua: (deferential) You’re the Captain.
Nika: You want to go to St. Albans?
Joshua: I would like to, yes.
Nika: So we’re talking about possibly a bunch’a Readers who possibly need a lot of help which could possibly put the ship into some serious issues, so fix the ship.
Arden: A lot of Readers?
Joshua: I don’t know if it’s Readers.
Nika: We don’t know. We don’t know what we’re looking at.
Kiera: (snark!) There’s just people that need help, so we’re going.
Joshua: (not amused) Uh-huh.
Nika: The whole reason he wants to go to St. Albans is because the person who helped us out on the Alliance ship, we think may also have been a Reader and she gave him coordinates because she’s going to help us get out and in return he has to help her friends.
Arden: Oh, sorry, somehow I had fixated on finding another girl.

Off the Jing Jing Bei list, right?

Nika: Oh yeah, no.
Joshua: No, no girls to be had on St. Albans.
Nika: This was, she was going to help us get out and now we got to help her. So, being as she’s Alliance and she has been indicating that her people are in trouble from probably an Alliance front, I think we should fix the ship before we go.
Arden: I agree. Although I think we should do a cargo run before we go to St. Albans.

Because after we do the repairs we will have far too little left for Arden’s comfort. Less than 100 credits. However, the only cargo moving right now is a 4-week cargo run out-system.

Nika: I’m not taking a vote. I’m telling you I’m not doing it. We’re going to St. Albans.

St. Alban’s is right here in-system, a 2-day flight—max—to get there. It doesn’t make sense to her to have us fly 4 weeks one way, only to spend another 4 weeks coming back, just to have money in our pockets we won’t need for a 2-day trip. She makes the command decision to repair our ship on Greenleaf and then take off without cargo for St. Albans.

It takes pooling all our cash, both personal and ship’s accounts, and having the crew help Rina. Joshua tries pulling a pick-up of Rina’s repairs skills and instead picks up her tendency to whiteboard conspiracy theories and find connections. He spends the time during repairs making a lovely little map of everything that might possibly have gone wrong on the machine room wall, with lines and notes connecting things. Rina sticks her head in to check on him from time to time.

Rina: (yanking his chain) You missed one. Over there.
Joshua: (sees it) You’re right. If the reverse vampire circuit was …

Off he goes and Rina leaves him to it. Of course, there is an added aspect to Joshua’s dip into conspiracy theory land—he’s still going through detox and what would be a normal case of detox for anyone else is complicated by Joshua’s Reader abilities. He not only reacts to things that aren’t there, but also to things that are … but aren’t anywhere outside another person’s head … making the things there-but-not-there ….

It’s a confusing and painful time for him and the project on the machine shop wall helps him get through it. How much of that is borrowed from Rina’s personality and how much of it is a natural outgrowth of the detox—it doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is at the end of the two weeks it takes for repairs, Joshua makes it through.

Kiera tries to help with the repairs as well but is more effective as a cheerleader and pep squad than as a mechanic. Even so, the help from the rest of the crew lowers our cost by about 20%. Out of our combined 1276 credits, the repairs eat up 1125 of them, allowing us to squeak by with exactly 42 credits to spare. If we factor in docking fees wherever we end up docking next and things like fuel when we get there, that 42 credits won’t last long.

Lanie’s brothers help us defray our costs by arranging for 40 person-days worth of fresh produce from their orchards when we depart. It will be a welcome addition to the canned food we’ve stocked aboard and will be a pleasant reminder of our stay here once we’re in the Black.

Wednesday, 29 Apr 2522

The repairs are finally finished. We sit back and bask in the glow of a job well done. And it occurs to us that we have a mystery spot on our hull that’s been plated over. In fact, upon closer inspection, we have a matching pair to either side of our hangar bay. They are actually room-sized protrusions over the ‘wing’ structures of our hull, and the plating we’ve discovered cover portions of it fore and aft. We originally thought they were part of the fuel tanks to port and starboard but now it’s looking unlikely. So what’s behind the plating?

We take another close look at the layout of the hull and the suspected rooms. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that there might be an interior entrance to them. Eyeballing it, we decide the best candidate for an interior door would be on the rear walls of the storage rooms flanking the hangar deck utility room. Sure enough, we find the rear walls are plated in a different metal than the other walls on this deck. It also comes off fairly easily once Rina sets her torch to it. We practically pop the panels off and reveal the doors to the cannon bays, starboard and port. After a short debate we decide against sealing up the false panels, but leave the doors exposed. We may be in need of them. We take a torch to it and carefully cut away the patch plating and when the metal falls away and the smoke clears, we see a pressure hatch staring us in the face. It’s a door to a heretofore undiscovered space on our ship. It’s a pressure hatch.

We get that pressure hatch open, once we double check to make sure that we’re not breaching a fuel tank, and look inside. The air is stale and rank with a boozy stench and looking at the pipes and lines and whatnot crammed inside our first thought is we’ve stumbled onto a still. It’s about fifteen by twenty feet by standard height off the deck. A second look around triggers Rina’s memories of the Naval patrol boat she’d served on—specifically its cannon bay. Here is the railroad track that the cannon rounds are conveyed to the cannons on, there is the chain tackle that raises and lowers the rounds onto the tracks. There is a compression system for firing the cannon rounds at the target, through a pair of tubular tunnels in the bulkhead, one forward and one aft, very like torpedo tubes on a submarine. There is a cargo deployment ramp—empty—facing a cargo door of the sort made to slide down into the deck.. On a hunch, we go back outside of the cannon bay and sure enough, there’s another plate welded over the torpedo tubes’ hatch, forward and aft, and the cargo door as well. We cut them free.

Going back inside we look at the rounds stacked on the ammo racks. They aren’t cannon rounds, exactly, but 5-gallon barrels pressed into service as rounds. The barrels come in two types—one half are beer kegs, labeled as Elsinor Pilsner, the other half are barrels labeled as Blue Sun Birdseed. Sniffing the birdseed barrels closely, they are revealed as the source of that boozy scent. But shifting the barrels and listening hard, we can tell that they aren’t filled with booze. So what are they filled with? Are they explosives, as the machinery and the racks, the pumps and tubes, suggest?

Nika’s concerned about the contents of the kegs. Sure, they smell boozy but what if they’re actually filled with acid or some other dangerous stuff? Mind, we’d been carrying the dang things all this time without mishap and probably can continue doing so, but with the way our luck tends to run, Nika’s not willing to bet on it. They weigh about fifty pounds each. We take one of each type of container out a couple hundred feet away from the ship to open up. Rina has demolitions skills and she opens up the pilsner keg first. She finds not beer but the basic materials for a small EMP device, about the equivalent of a 50 pound magnetic charge. It’s a dud, however, the charge having been degaussed over time. The picture’s getting clearer. The compression pumps on the bay’s torpedo tubes aren’t powerful enough to actually launch anything at killing speed but you were in the business of laying mines in your wake and maybe kick a few EMPs out the door, this set up would suit admirably.

Rina tackles a birdseed barrel next. As she works to get the cover off, she starts smelling an odd chemical odor—it’s a chemical fuse and it’s about to blow. She yells everyone to get the hell out of there (they already are, no dummies they) and she turns to run. She doesn’t get far before the bomb goes off.


Thousands of ball bearings explode in a 360-degree sphere of death and Rina gets caught in it. The crew is frozen in horror and a second later, Arden and Kiera are running toward Rina’s last known position before the smoke even clears. She’s been swiss-cheesed by the ball bearings and blood is seeping out of every hole. Arden checks for a pulse. There is none. He and Kiera work feverishly to bring her back, patch the holes, stabilize her enough to move her. They get her heart beating again and get her to medbay and go straight into surgery. Seven and a half hours later, during which her heart stops and is revived again, they step back, all the major damage sewn, stapled, removed or otherwise fixed. Now it’s just a waiting game to see if her situation worsens due to complications like hidden injuries or infection, or if she pulls through. In addition, she’s one massive traumatized bruise where she isn’t actually holed and stitched up.

She survives the night into the next day. And the next and the next. Four days later, the docs are hopeful enough of her continued survival to grab the first real sleep they’ve dared in nearly a week. Also four days after surgery, they bring her out of the medical coma they put her in and thank their foresight in strapping her down beforehand: Rina comes to consciousness fighting. She’s in a world of hurt and will be hurting for some time to come but her Russian stamina serves her well. She’s weak as a kitten and shaky, but she’s alive and wants to get the hell out of bed. Kiera threatens to kill her if she undoes all the hard work she and Arden put into her, however, and Rina promises to behave. We delay the rest of the week to let her recover.

While Arden and Kiera are busy with Rina, the rest of the crew gets back to work securing the contents of the starboard cannon bay. In addition to the birdseed and pilsner barrels, they find 5 other keg-style containers with gadgets and wires hanging off them. Unlike the other kegs in the compartment, these aren’t condensed to fit through the tubes but are meant to be kicked out an airlock at will. Beglan hasn’t a clue as to what they are—maybe radio controlled somethings-or-other—and everyone decides to leave them for Rina to look over once she’s better.

They investigate the portside compartment next and sure enough, another cannon bay is revealed. This one does not seem to have been heavily converted into the workshop the one to starboard was. This one has a parachute-rigged pallet full of military food rations, ready to be kicked out the rear hatch as a food drop. Going through the rations, we find that they are mostly MREs, protein paste and even a case of nutrient bars. The street value of the rations, given the time elapsed, is only about 20% of their original value. But still, the seals on the packages are intact and they should still be edible.

They also find more canisters like in the starboard compartment, only these are labeled differently: Planck’s Coffee (whole bean) and Photo Brand Favorite Spiced Lentils. Like the containers in the starboard bay, these weigh in about 40-50 pounds. In between the two racks of canisters are five large lawn darts. No joke—they look like lawn darts. They’re not actually lawn darts but they look like them. Fins and pointy ends and everything. About three feet high. Measuring them, we find out that like the five mystery containers from the starboard bay, these aren’t made to go through the tubes either.

Arden speculates the cannon bays were slave smuggling compartments. On the surface that makes sense … but why lock up people in a bay full of explosive rounds? The portside pallet offers a clue—in making food drops, the users of the bay were carrying out activities the original Exeter was famous for: blockade runner. Could the starboard cannon bay hark back to that career as well?

At this point, there is no telling. In any event, we’re the proud owners of pounds and pounds of unexploded ordnance. What do we do with it? Kiera suggests hauling the suckers out a safe distance and shooting them from the same.

Arden: Since the really curious one is two decks away and immobile, what do you think about calling a bomb disposal unit to get rid of the hazardous materials?
Nika: (dryly) Yes, because calling the cops has worked SO well for us in the past.
Arden: They’re not cops, they’re—
Nika: The Alliance has gone SO well for us in the past.
Arden: Then somebody who knows explosives should get rid of them. Rather than us. You’ve seen what happened to our explosives expert.
Nika: I’m actually climbin’ into her boat—(nods to Kiera)—and I’m thinking if we can very carefully move them over there and we’ll shoot at ’em from here …
Kiera: Yeah, and they’ll go ka-FOOM!
Nika: They’ll go ka-FOOM and it’ll be all over.
Kiera: Yeah, and nobody will find them.

Blowing them up might even be constructive—do the Charleses need a new irrigation pond? We’ve got enough unexploded ordnance that we might make a decent sized crater for it. Safety issue solved, right? Looking over the containers, a certain percentage look like they’re damaged, making moving them a mite problematic.

Nika: Here’s the thing, okay? We’ve been flying around with these things for … how long? Months, now.
Joshua: I’m not worried about that.
Nika: You just want to just seal’em up in the thing and just leave them for now?
Joshua: Yeah.
Nika: Even knowing that some of them are leaking?
Joshua: I do.

He’s been awfully quiet over this entire business til now. Considering it’s his fiancée that ran afoul of the damned things, it’s understandable he doesn’t want anyone touching them. We eyeball them again and reckon that they’re made to handle sudden maneuvers by the ship. After all, they’ve weathered all the maneuvering we’ve put them through since we took possession of Equinox. Plus they’ve lasted the ten years since the war in reasonably good shape. They should last the next little while just fine.

Kiera: At least we don’t have to worry about them going ka-thudda-ka-thudda-ka-boom!
Arden: Not unless you botch the piloting.
Nika: If I botch the piloting, you won’t know. You’ll just be a smear somewhere.
Arden: I know. But I’m just sayin’.
Kiera: Things happen.
Joshua: Yeah. We’ve done more damage opening them up than we have leaving them in there sealed, at the moment.
Arden: That doesn’t change the fact that we needed to know what was in them.
Joshua: I’m not denying that. I’m just saying that I don’t see any reason to get rid of them. Just seal them up and leave them be. (to Nika) You’re the Captain. If you want to get rid of them, get rid of them.
Nika: Well, there is something to be said for the idea of leaving the cannon access open, such that should we ever need it …

Then again, whoever concealed the cannon ports and accesses to the cannon bays must have had a good reason to do so. For all we know, they’ve been sealed up since the war and the owner at the time felt it would be asking for trouble to have the Exeter visibly armed with them. They’d done a good job concealing them from observation, both outside and in.

Nika: I’m tryin’ to decide if we need to, you know, for example weld over the port holes and box it back up.
Arden: No.
Kiera: Why?
Nika: Because again, we are not running an Alliance flag which is gonna cause us problems with some quarters. Enough trouble that what if we were to go back to the Core…
Arden: If they do cause us trouble we can always seal them up again.

Cuz … dude, if they cause trouble for us with the Feds, they aren’t going to stand by and let us weld those covers on BEFORE they throw our butts in jail.

Nika: And we’ll be in jail.
Arden: Well, the worst they could do to us in my opinion is fine us.
Nika: Uh, no.
Kiera: No.
Joshua: Plus, if the Alliance really wants us, they don’t need this to add as a charge.
Nika: There is that, yeah.

So how do we hide the fact they exist? We had, unfortunately, ruined a damned good job of hiding them when we cut the plating away. With Rina pretty much out of commission, there’s no replicating the job to hide them again—not to a matching degree, at any rate. Nika decides to leave them as they are for now. We’ll make the run to St. Albans, given we’re unlikely to run into the Alliance in-system, and try to line up cargo outgoing from St. Albans when we leave it. Time enough to decide then what to do about it and it will give Rina more time to heal.

Speaking of whom, near the end of the week, Rina’s out of bed and walking around, albeit slowly. She’s lightly sedated with painkillers and Kiera dogs her footsteps at first to make sure she doesn’t injure herself or rip out her stitches. Nika puts Rina on light duty—max—and Rina continues to improve. As the week wears on and Rina recovers enough strength to take the stairs up to the hanger deck, she examines the cannon bays again, trying to suss their original function. She can’t be sure, other than the fact that they weren’t designed to be cannon bays off the factory assembly line—they’d been modified to that purpose. Perhaps they were originally intended as cargo space. Shuttle bays maybe—though that seems a stretch. She could find no evidence of doors large enough to admit a shuttle for docking. Looking over the rest of the contents of the cannon bays, the rations make her smile in remembrance and the five odd containers that Beglan couldn’t make head or tails of, she recognizes right off as crybabies—fake distress signal broadcasters, made to lead the adversary astray.

The rest of the crew makes ready to leave for St. Albans and Arden remembers a bit of news concerning the planet from around October, two years ago. St. Albans was massively bombed. It was the sole place in the Verse from which the Quantum Dipoles for the Quipe Dolls could be extracted naturally and the Quipe Dolls were the linch pin of the Verse spanning Cortex. St. Albans was also the last known residence of Dr. Kell Lawrence, whose research into left-handed Prions led to Arden’s discoveries in how Prion Disease worked, and who had also helped effect Lem’s cure from the disease. It is not known for certain if Lawrence survived the bombing but rumors have it the man is dead.

There’s no telling if there is any cargo leaving St. Albans, since it was never a heavily populated planet before it was bombarded and there are likely less people living there now. Besides …

Arden: The Siberian tigers have taken over. (off Joshua’s look) She hunted a Siberian tiger. (points to Nika)
Nika: I did.
Rina: She did. With Rick.
Joshua: Really?
Nika: Really.
Rina: With spears.
Joshua: Can we do it again? Can we … (looks at Nika) … do it again?
Arden: The answer to that one is no.
Joshua: Why not?
Arden: Because I’m running low on medical supplies.
Joshua: Actually we have 60 days of emergency supplies left and 8 standard. We’re good.
Arden: You know I was thinking too bad Rick wasn’t here.
Nika: I miss Rick. I do.
Arden: You remember? When we discovered the compressed air things? He would have conniptions.
Nika: Oh, Christ. Can you see Rick? (squeaks) He would have been like, ‘Air cannons!’ (mimes loading a cannon round and firing it) I miss Rick.

She ain’t the only one. We spend a moment or two recounting the man’s wilder stunts and get back to work prepping for departure for St. Albans. And no, we’re not hunting Siberian tigers when we get there.

Joshua deals with the disappointment. Actually, right now, life being sucky is kinda the norm for him. He’s spent the last three weeks effectively suffering a hideous hangover as he goes through detox. He’s had the horror of watching the love of his life get blasted right before his eyes and die on him before being brought back. And now he’s trawling the Cortex, hoping to find us a paying job so the rest of us don’t die of starvation, and as he’s trawling, he gets a little pop-up telling him he’s got mail. Really? He didn’t even know he had a Cortex addy. Expecting to find an inbox full of spam, he clicks on the pop-up to access the message.

He doesn’t recognize the address on it. It’s a video message and it’s super low-res, as one would use to conserve band width and the routing string on it suggests it’s from off the main Cortex lines. It’s also highly encrypted. He hits play and the image of Cmdr. Wise of IAV Aceso flickers onto the screen.

From Cmdr. Wise to Joshua Drake. April 22

Son, I got your message. I understand you. I don't know what I did to spook you, or your crewmates, when we went to pulse. But you're gone, again. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. But, this time you found it in yourself to wave me. That means something. I don't know what you are thinking about now, you're obviously confused and uncertain. I think calling me was a way of keeping this door open, and know... it will always be open for you.

I don't doubt for a minute what you say you believe. And, for now I pray the Buddha is guiding your crew, and that they have no part in this.

I'm glad you are trying to get off the drugs. Whether you are my son, or just someone playing him. Whoever you are, you'll never really know until you are free of that and able to think clearly. I think you can do it. Maybe that means nothing to you, coming from some Alliance Doc telling you this because you look like his son, but if nothing else you can try... as Rex would have tried.

Once you are clean watch this again. Think about these things. You’ve had brain surgery, the likes of which no neurosurgeon I've spoken to has heard of. You’ve had memory loss. You hear voices. You've been taking Flomoxipan, a sedative, amnesic, hypnotic and hallucinogen. For how long, you can't remember. You've been exposed to things that could send anyone over the edge. I don't know who would set you on this course, but I do know that once afloat on this river, it could take you anywhere. You might be a Blue Sun agent, able to impersonate people due to some uncanny powers, or maybe you just remember things that way, maybe it’s all in your mind.

I've enclosed some links to a couple stories. I’ve been doing some research, thinking about this, since I got your wave. One I thought was interesting, about a mathematician back on Earth-that-was, brilliant like you, and afflicted as well, a man by the name of John Nash. I am not saying you’re exactly like him, but there are similarities. If you do see a little of yourself, know this, since the 20th century neuroscience has made great leaps. There is no need for you to suffer like him, untreated. There are other stories there as well. Of successes. There is one last link, that I’ll probably get in trouble if it’s discovered I sent to you. It’s a not-yet declassified program to create moles during the U-War. Both sides did it, to varying degrees of success. These moles were made resistant to torture and discovery by having their memories suppressed and replaced with new ones. Stories so real to them, that some of these moles were lost to the other side. It didn't take years, it took weeks. That technology didn't just disappear when the war ended, and for some, the war never ended. Think about that and what an asset a person like Lt. Cmdr Rex Wise would be to such a group.

You have plenty of reasons to reject these hypotheses. You have a life and a love. Things worth fighting for. And with Miranda and all the rest that has happened, it is hard to tell science fact from fiction. I just hope you can see that maybe it is worth keeping the door open to other explanations.

So… that’s almost it. Other than this: If you really are not my son, if you are some kind of Doppelganger, then I need your help. I need you to find my son, the one who was taken from me. If you were with those that took him, will you help me?

Joshua watches the vid all the way through. He does not show it to the crew. Not yet. He has to absorb it first, to go over it with a fine-toothed comb, to try to examine it from all angles. To try to decide if any of what Cmdr. Wise believes to be true is true. To try to decide what, if any, obligations he owes. Until he’s more certain, he’ll hang on to it and keep the wave to himself.

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