Jackie Brown, courier and merchant, has been tasked with delivering several crates to a small town on the Red Sun moon, Borr. Without a ship of her own, Jackie’s had to book passage on one of the few transports heading to the world from Pipestem. All seems on-the-level — small town wanting supplies bought off world, paid in full, cash for services rendered available at the destination.
Annadale Crow ’s past few months have been pretty jao gao , and her most recent attempt to skirt the authorities got a little too close to a full Alliance check point. Finding out that the transport will be heading deeper into Alliance occupied sectors, Annadale takes her leave (recieving reembursment for unused passage) and disembarks when the ship reaches its next destination — Borr, the second moon of Aesir.
Kazuto has been on Borr for the past few months researching the world’s culture. Borr’s population lives a predominatly transient farming life, following weather systems across the desert landscape, setting up temptowns
for a few seasons and then packing up again once the weather system moves on. One of the few places where permanent life exists is in the town of Gibsonville, the world’s largest spaceport. Kazuto has been in town for a few days and seen the average day-to-day life of it’s inhabitants. He’s suddenly intrigued when he hears that a ship is breaking atmo, bringing with it all manner of supplies, cargo and people.
Jackie’s cargo was unloaded after begrudging help from a few local dock workers. Her courier instructions were to take the cargo to a town called Emmanuel, but there’s no one there to meet her and no Cortex booth set up to dole out information. She finally catches the attention of a man employeed by the port authority. The man tells her that Emmanuel is a ghost town four hours or so out from Gibsonville. He refuses to help much beyond that, citing a strangeness about Emmanuel. Another dock employee agrees, saying he’d been to the town in the past and found it deserted. He found his payment in the middle of the town square, which is where he unloaded the cargo, and drove back to Gibsonville. Both dock workers joke that they’re willing to pay money out of their own pockets if only to avoid having to lug the cargo out to Emmanuel.
Nearby, Annadale overhears Jackie’s conversation with the men and she approaches. Annadale offers to escort Jackie and the cargo to the town in exchange for help finding another transport off Borr when they return. Jackie agrees, adding a few Credits as payment for her time. The dock workers offer to let them use a gasoline-powered truck for the trip.(“a small price to pay for getting that lun dong shi cargo off the landing pad,” one worker says.)
Kazuto, casually making notes about the goings on at the landing site, overhears the two women and the dockworkers talking about Emmanuel. From what he’s heard, Emmanuel’s a thriving town with a few hundred residents — far from the desolate ghost town these dock workers make it sound like.
As Jackie and Annadale make their introductions to each other, they notice the bookish young man paying close attention to them. Jackie motions for him to come closer, which Kazuto does, apologizing for eavesdropping, but gladly offers his contradictory knowledge of Emmanuel.
The cargo doesn’t offer many clues, except for one small sealed box with a shipping label saying it contains Salaprine — a saline base for many common ingested medicines. Annadale comments on the randomness of the Salaprine, further intriguing her to the point where she buys a shotgun … just in case.
With two helpers, Jackie drives the truck out of Gibsonville, over rough dirt tracks passing as roads, and eventually loses sight of anything that could pass for civilization. Miles of open desert and native scrub are all they see. After four hours the trio arrives at their destination. A hand-painted sign greets them.
“Emmanuel — The Lord hath given. All are welcome.”
A dozen buildings sit in a circle around a massive water pump/well house, obviously not used in many years. The town is in ramshackle; collapsed roofs; dirt and sand piling on doorways; broken windows.
Annadale scouts the buildings as Kazuto furiously makes notes for his studies. Jackie sees a small metal case near the old water pump and finds her earnings inside. Despite the job well done, something isn’t right. She feels eyes upon her — someone’s watching. Although she doesn’t see anyone, she calls Annadale and Kazuto back to help unload the cargo. It’s a simple matter, and within ten minutes the crates are stacked by the water pump. As Annadale grabs the last item — the box of Salaprine — she closes the truck door and finds a woman standing only a short distance away.
The woman looks mad, crazed even. Pink hued skin, missing teeth and hair, and clothes all but falling off her thin frame illicit an immediate response. Annadale tries greeting her, but is met with a scream of pain, and the woman begins to charge. Annadale alerts her comrades, tossing the Salaprine to Jackie, and aims her shotgun at the woman. She fires a warning shot. The woman screams louder, unfazed, and throws a rock at her “attacker.” She continues running and Annadale is forced to respond.
The woman flies backwards, pushed to the ground by Annadale’s shot. A cloud of dust flies up into the air and blood pours out of the woman’s body.
Kazuto runs over, confused and curious. He stands only a few feet from the injured woman and sees her continue to move, picking herself up and making eye contact with him. After a moment or two she collapses, dead.
Jackie, still by the stacked cargo crates, hears a ruckus over her shoulder and sees a group of people running from the nearby hills, heading for the town… and them. She warns the others and they hop into the truck.
A few seconds later the nearly a dozen people arrive at full gallop, similar in appearance to the woman. But something catches the group’s attention. They stop running. They look winded and out of breath. One of them, a man with a salt and pepper goatee waves his hand in greeting and peace.
Jackie exits the truck, responding to the man and his ill-looking posse.
He identifies himself as Brother Gabriel, the town patron of Emmanuel. He is unarmed and calmly explains that they were running because of the gunfire. Once he’s shown the woman’s body he takes on a more pious air — visibly upset, but not at the three couriers. He asks a favor of them: take the body (identified as Sister Alba) and the cargo to their relocated settlement twenty minutes east, at the slope of Processor Ridge. He and his group will follow behind on foot. Jackie, Kazuto and Annadale hesitantly agree, loading the truck bed.
On their way up the foot trail, the trio questions the situation. Why did Emmanuel’s citizens move farther away from town? What is effecting the townspeople to make them so sick?
Soon they come to a large wooden structure surrounded by sand-sculpted buildings disguised to blend into the desert surroundings. A handmade fence sits just beyond the building and a painted warning reads: “Thou Shalt Not Trespass.” This is Emmanuel now, inhabited by twenty-five people who are all equally as sick. Sister Beatrice, a motherly acolyte, greets the group and invites them to join their supper. Weary, the trio politely declines. Soon after, Brother Gabriel and the rest of his men arrive, also inviting them to stay for supper. Eventually they agree, except for Annadale who chooses to fast in respect for taking Sister Alba’s life (though secretly she remains unsure of how the group’s social habits have an effect on their illness). Kazuto and Jackie eat just enough to appear thankful to the community.
At the end of dinner Brother Gabriel retreats to a locked door and returns with a jug. He begins a prayer for Sister Alba, for the dozens more who’re no longer alive. He pours a thick juice from the jug and passes small-portion shot glasses to everyone at the table. Of the three visitors who drink the juice they taste the bitter twang of Borrberry masked badly by the addition of grape juice.
Once the meal concludes, Annadale, Jackie and Kazuto have a chance to speak in private. Their concerns for these people are seeded in the fact that Brother Gabriel is the town patron, their religious leader and patriarchal figurehead. No one questions his wishes. Between the three of them they wonder if this illness is somehow related to the community’s desire to stay out off the radar and away from Alliance interference.
After a brief ‘goodbye’ from Brother Gabriel, the three return to Gibsonville to look into the matter. They find a man in a hotel lobby watching a Cortex recap of the latest Laserball games in the Core. The man is Cyrus Benning, a transport ship captain, and after a few unsettling rounds of unwarranted flirtation, Benning tells them that he’s seen small cargo deliveries being run to the town (and even took a few himself). Despite the man’s advances, the trio realizes that Benning’s ship will be leaving Borr within the next few days, and they consider arranging transport.
Continuing their investigation about the sickness in Emmanuel, they speak to several other townspeople and learn that a few years ago someone from Emmanuel came to Gibsonville to order several low-tech microscopes and other scientific equipment.
Annadale, Kazuto and Jackie suspect Brother Gabriel has created a poison in order to keep his “flock” dependent on him.
The next day, the three of them rent a hover mule from a local dealer and head back to Emmanuel.
Brother Gabriel is surprised to see the group, but doesn’t protest. It’s not ‘til he’s presented with their suspicions that Gabriel reluctantly escorts them into the wooden community building and through a trap door in a locked closet. Beneath the structure is a lab, set up by Gabriel who has had to go against his religious principles in order to save the townsfolk. He apologizes for the trouble he’s caused, but explains that when the community moved farther east, to the edge of Processor Ridge, they inadvertently found a water source that’s contaminated by the remains of a terraforming processor. Mercury poisoning has caused his followers to die, and he’s spent the last few years trying to treat them. Luckily he discovered that the chemicals that grow in Borrberrys are a natural source of Dimercaptosuccinic acids (DMSA) — a treatment for heavy metal poisoning. The Salaprine he buys heightens the DMSA’s ability, and he uses the juice concentrate to mask the bitter taste of Borrberrys.
Annadale remarks that a Level 3 Bio-softener includes potent amounts of DMSA, as they’re designed to eliminate heavy metals from water. It’s likely that a Bio-softener would counteract the mercury run off as long as it’s used.
Surprised to hear of a potential treatment, Gabriel makes arrangements to start buying the product.
Before leaving, Gabriel invites the three of them to join the community for it’s burial of Alba. They agree, taking part in the ceremony before heading back to Gibsonville.