Unification

Ankara

Shortly after leaving Red Sun, on their way to look for information about Sergei Chesnekov in Georgia, the crew hears about massive Alliance fleet movements throughout the the Prairie. News and personal messages warn that checkpoints have been established and the normal out-of-the-way shortcuts have been blockaded in order to combat Independent supply shipments. Blackbird’s crew, comprised of mostly “unlawful” citizens carrying unregistered cargo, realizes that they can’t simply go through the checkpoints without serious repercussions. Jackie and Kazuto — being the most legit of the crew — offer to take the ship’s shuttle through the checkpoint to see what they’re up against.

Annadale, Tarsh, Bobby, Daisy and Oliver stay on the ship, lingering on the outskirts of the Prairie. To avoid having to explain themselves (should they encounter a patrol ship), Bobby follows in the wake tail of the Oracle comet.

For two days without word from Jackie or Kazuto, boredom sets in. Finally, on the afternoon of the third day, Bobby notices a blip on the scanners. A cursury sweep of the area reveals the source to be a ship. It looks to be running on standby power and possibly adrift, which they can’t verify because of the distance. The crew takes a chance and leaves the Oracle’s wake and heads closer.

Once they reach a better scanning range Tarsh picks up on the ship’s navigational transponder. Based on the call signal, Tarsh figures out that the ship is the IAV Ankara — a Serephim Class Utility Cruiser registered with the Alliance Military. He also learns that the ship’s been missing since April 9th of this year. Immediately, the crew’s curiosity (read: casual greed) is piqued. They decide to investigate the ship, take a quick look around, and afterward place an anonymous tip with the Alliance.

Daisy and Annadale stand ready at the cargo bay doors, in case of a trap. Bobby flies the ship closer, as Tarsh continues to scan the black. Suddenly, the scanners pick up an object directly in their path. Bobby makes a quick course correction to avoid the object, which appears to be a floating mine. Sure enough, it is. Readjusting the scanners, Tarsh discovers more mines floating between them Ankara.

Oliver decides to take a closer look and crawls out onto the dorsal hull. Hoping to “fly” over to the Serephim, the plan is halted as Bobby slowly maneuvers Blackbird through the mine field. Oliver crawls back into the launch bay, but keeps his EV Suit on… ready to board.

Bobby and Tarsh discover that the mine field is actually a trail leading to the starboard side of Ankara. With this in mind, Bobby docks Blackbird on the port side. The Crew meets up in the cargo bay and readies to board the vessel. Tarsh uses Blackbird’s systems to communicate with _Ankara_’s airlock, allowing them to step aboard.

The airlock is relatively small, lined with several lockers, with an inner door leading to the rest of the ship. The air here smells of slight decay. The Crew takes several EV suits from the lockers before trying the inner door. It’s locked. No, they easily see that the door’s seam has been fused together. Oliver uses a cutting torch to break the bond.

Air pressure breezes through the doorway as it opens to a hallway on Ankara’s Science Deck. The smell of decay is stronger here. To the right is a small elevator and a staircase heading both up and down. To the left is a doorway. Through a port in the door the Crew sees it leads to what looks like a medical bay. Inside they find a woman’s body, attached to a diagnosis computer. The body looks like it was dissected by a pack of wild animals. Annadale looks over the former patient’s medical charts and sees that she was brought to the medical bay for what appeared to be a respiratory infection; it’s clear that the infection isn’t what killed her. Annadale and Tarsh discover the medicine vault’s been opened, but only common medicines have been taken — gauze, antibiotics, minor pain relievers, etc.

While others search the medbay, Oliver continues down the hallway and discovers the ship’s gymnasium. He takes seven pairs of athletic shoes, tying the laces together and tossing the shoes over Mersa’s back.

Eventually, the crew finds its way to the cockpit. All controls and ship systems are locked, likely by the missing crew.

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Breaking Bread

While Daisy was on Paquin she was introduced to a man named Ryan Huff, a journalist and war correspondent from the Core. While normally she wouldn’t put much thought into such a random meeting, Huff’s insistence on meeting the crew of Blackbird is only justified when he mentions to Daisy some of the Crew’s previous exploits. With that, Ryan Huff invites himself to dinner once the ship returns from the cargo run to Triumph.

That night, the crew prepares a feast. They bring the following:

Annadale — artichoke hearts stuffed with mozzarella cheese and sun dried tomatoes, and two bottles of Blue Sun Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (2507).
Bobby and Daisy — Bean stew and homemade biscuits.
Tarsh — An assortment of beverages (colored fruit-flavored drink, regular and diet SereniTea, and whiskey from the Earth That Was Distillery.
Oliver — A whole chicken. Cooked, thankfully.
Kazuto — An assortment of finger sandwiches.
Jackie — A berry cobbler.
And their guest, Ryan Huff, brings Pâté de protéine, and Dùn dé Shíwū.

Dinner is simple, everyone enjoying the foods and drinks, and conversation light. Finally, Ryan Huff admits that he’s been following the crew’s actions since their work with Alexander Henry on St. Albans. Huff knows that the crew’s work helped destroy the IAV Cumberland, and he uses that information to get the crew to open up about their own backgrounds.

Through the course of dinner this is what’s revealed:

As it turns out, most of the Crew has ties to the Core. Annadale is from Osiris, as is Bobby and Daisy. Tarsh knows he is as well, but his fractured memory doesn’t let him know any more than that.

Bobby and Daisy Burke admit to being all but “on the run” from Core-based bounty hunting guild that has blacklisted them. They’re hoping to regain their stature with that group by capturing a fugitive named Sergei Chesnekov — the mark whose escape forced them to lose standing in the first place. The revelation about Chesnekov appeals to the rest of the Crew when the Burke’s say that there’s a ₡1,400,000 reward for the man’s capture (dead or alive). They also admit that Daisy’s time away from the crew on Paquin was in order for her to follow up on some leads. From what she found out, Chesnekov has last seen heading to the Georgia System and has several contacts within the Independent forces. There’s no leads as to what he’s doing there, but the money’s too good for the Burke’s (and the rest of the Crew) to pass up.

Tarsh admits that he was part of the Alliance Army, but has since deserted because of a series of tests performed on him without his full consent. The tests enhanced several aspects of his mental ability — namely, hand-eye coordination and computer tech ability. Also, his ability with a variety of weapons was toyed with, resulting in him becoming a well-built super soldier of sorts. Unfortunately though, the enhancements damaged part of his brain and has erased most of his long term memory. Tarsh is now an amnesiac capable of extreme violence and sabotage.

Oliver offers his own backstory, though thus far it’s nothing compared to the rest of his deadly crew-mates. Oliver was a prince of his tribe on Lazarus (his words), and “touched” by the Red Phoenix goddess. Through some unknown steps, he was sent to Stony Wall Sanitarium — a minimum security hospital designed for people “touched” in some way or another. He isn’t sure how long he was there, but once the Alliance began their military presence on the world, the bughouse was closed and the Alliance confiscated it for their own purposes. The good and bad of the situation was that all the inmates/patients were given a clean bill of mental health and sent on their way. Soon thereafter, Oliver met a goat — Mersa — and has started his journey to find his dead sister, Isabelle.
If Oliver’s story wasn’t strange enough, during dinner he begins to refer to Annadale as his sister, even calling her “Isabelle.”

Annadale’s story hits a little closer to home for several crew members.
She tells them that she was once a member of the Alliance Navy, stationed on the IAV Constantine under the command of Evan Ambrose, a former General-in-Chief of the Alliance Forces. To make matters worse, Annadale was a member of Ambrose’s crew during the bombing of Athens (Christmas Day, 2507), which lead to thousands of deaths and the displacement of thousands more. Her desicion to leave the Alliance came with Ambrose’s treasonous departure from the Alliance; Annadale followed him as Ambrose defected to the Independents. Her reasoning was more than loyalty. She admits to everyone at the table that she and Ambrose were lovers. However, Annadale realized there was more she could do to stop a war that she now feels strongly opposed to. She admits that she left Ambrose, hoping to find a better use for her ability.

This new information carries weight for Kazuto because of his own background. Kazuto was/is a student from the University of Allied Studies (Athens). The Alliance’s Christmas Day bombing of Athens lead to the school’s destruction. Kazuto’s real concern though is for his sister, Kana Correra, who was involved with an independence-minded social activism group. For all Kazuto knows, Kana’s involvement could have lead her to be killed or taken captive by the Alliance. Despite Annadale’s part in the bombings, Kazuto promises that he harbors no ill will towards her. He’s just grateful that Annadale has seen the error of her ways and is trying to right her wrongs.

By the end of dinner everyone has a new understanding of each other. The crew decides it’s in their best interest to leave Red Sun and head towards Georgia. With any luck they can find folks who might need their supplies or need their help.

As Ryan Huff is being escorted off the ship, Oliver pilfers a small bag from the man’s pocket. He presents it to the crew. Inside is a diamond the size of a plum.

Roll Credits

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Til' Death do Us Part

After delivering their cargo on Paquin, Daisy runs into several friends and takes shore leave from the rest of Blackbird ’s crew.

In the interim, the Crew makes contact with an off-world settlement interested in their recent supply surplus of antibiotics and crop supplements. The settlement is Bethany on Triumph. In addition to their cargo, the Crew is asked to deliver the body of their town patron’s daughter. In all, the Crew is offered a substantial amount of money — ₡1415. The deal’s too good, too easy, to pass up. After a quick discussion, it’s agreed that they’ll come back for Daisy in a few days.

Act I

En route, it becomes clear why the people in Bethany asked Blackbird to carry the Patron’s daughter’s body — Annadale’s medical background is necessary for keeping the body “wet” during transport. Every few hours she must inject the corpse with a dose of Norpoxil in order to keep the body from decomposing. For Annadale it’s nothing to worry about; she’s seen and had to do worse as a medic. But for the rest of the crew, keeping a respectful distance is a top priority.

Breaking atmo on Triumph is easy enough. Finding the Bethany settlement is a little trickier. The town is nestled in what is little more than a forest glen. A single road arcs through the trees in a near semi-circle. To the south end of town is a flattened patch of ground just big enough for Blackbird to land. The entire town has assembled at the landing area, dressed in all black, to receive the body of their leader’s daughter.

One such man steps forward as the cargo bay doors open. He is dressed in a fitted but worn black suit, wide-brimmed hat. The man’s beard follows his jawline, trimmed clean of a mustache. He identifies himself as Patron Westin Cole, father of the deceased. He wraps his arms around the casket and cries deeply. His wife, Celia Cole, comforts him until he is able to stand again. With a shaky voice he invites the crew to his office to receive their payment. Jackie, Annadale and Oliver agree, leaving Bobby and Tarsh to supervise the unloading of the town’s cargo.

Patron Westin’s office is sparse. Several tables line the walls, a large cabinet with a fold-down shelf, and a circle of simple wooden chairs. The Patron offers refreshments, and takes a jug of water from the cabinet. He also pulls a wooden cash box from inside and presents them their ₡1415 payment. Jackie asks about his daughter and wonders about how her life came to an end. Patron Westin says, “My sweet Lisanne. She went off to fight with the Coalition. Served well, too. Her body came to us from Kalidasa, so I’m just guessin’ she was at the newer battle at Verbena.” Oliver words of consolation, claiming to have been in battle with Lisanne when she died. He continues, saying that he and the crew picked her up, carried her, kept her safe as she was returned to her family. Afraid that Oliver’s ramblings will be like pouring salt on already opened wounds, Annadale and Jackie brace for the worse. Instead of taking offense, Patron Westin rises and embraces Oliver, holding him close, thanking him for everything he did for his daughter, Lisanne…

…Jackie and Annadale watch in confusion.

Meanwhile, walking the dusty streets of Bethany, Kazuto makes furious notes in his databook, observing the architecture and outward signs of the town’s culture. He notices a church on the north side of town and goes to look around. It’s a simple wooden structure, steepled at the top, with a cross pointing to the heavens. A man exits the church. He is Preacher Ki Owens, aged and upright, with a swoop of salt-and-pepper hair combed over his balding head. He and Kazuto make their introductions and the Preacher invites Kazuto to join the townsfolk for the burial ceremony of the Patron’s daughter. He him’s-and-ha’s, but agrees when Preacher Ki promises a meal to follow. They go to the Patron’s office to extend the invitation to the rest of the crew, too.

Kazuto and Preacher Ki enter the Patron’s office with enough time to see Westin Cole hugging Oliver. The Preacher interrupts to let everyone know it’s time for the burial of Lisanne Cole.

On the way to the church, Oliver offers to get his violin and play during the services. Patron Westin agrees, saying it would be a nice touch. So Oliver races to Blackbird , bringing his violin, as well as Bobby and Tarsh (who only agree to go once the promise of food is made), back with him. They arrive just as the church door is opened …

…and the sounds a man screaming, cursing, fill the air.

The church sanctuary is nothing fancy — two columns of wooden pews filled with townspeople, a center isle leading to a platformed dais, over which is a massive wooden cross staring back. The source of the screams comes from a metal cage, similar to a jail cell, in the corner of the sanctuary. A man in his early twenties, black hair dangling in his face, thrashes about inside. Patron Westin introduces the man as Travis Hu — his daughter’s husband-to-be. The Patron escorts Annadale to the cage and presents her with a small wooden box. Inside is a number of syringes and a bottle of medicine.

“Please,” the Patron says, “it’s time.”

“Time for…?” Annadale asks, confused.

“This is my daughter’s fiance. It’s time for them to be married.”

“But how can they be married if she’s already…”

Then it hits her. And the rest of the crew. The look on the Patron and Preacher’s faces explains everything. They intend for Annadale to kill Travis so that he and Lisanne can be married/buried together.

Preacher Ki offers an explanation for the practice: The town follows the teachings of Saint Marcus of Sihnon, a Christian martyr who suggested that it was a sin for the living to bury a person without marriage, or someone to accompany the dead to Heaven. He proposed and advocated that if a person dies then their spouse be euthanize and buried as well. If a person dies while unmarried then they are to have an “attendant” join them — chosen by the church and town elders. Ki says that Travis Hu was chose as Lisanne’s Attendant.

Blackbird ’s crew protests draw the attention of the gathered townsfolk. Heads turn and all eyes are on the group.

Kazuto is fascinated by the development; this is the kind of in-field social study he loves. He goes to Travis and speaks to the intended attendant while the others argue. Travis is scared. He doesn’t want to die. He claims he never even knew Lisanne Cole, but now he’s going to be murdered and buried with her. Kazuto tries a few more questions, but Travis is too emotional to respond. He asks Kazuto to hand him a nearby Bible.

Travis reads aloud:

“He who findeth a wife findeth a favored thing,
and obtains favor of the Lord.
Therefore shall a man leave his father
and his mother, and the earth he
hath called home.
And shall he cleave unto his wife,
scourging men who doth do he and his wrong.
But if he doth dote on home,
on father and mother,
then shall his favor be unsheathed
—others shall be allowed to his find.
Wife and others shall be one flesh.”

Travis looks Kazuto in the eyes and says, “I sure do miss my momma. I’m not ready to leave home yet.”

Patron Westin overhears this and realizes that the situation has changed. He goes to the cage and grabs Kazuto, embracing him. “Thank you, sir. You’re going to fight for my daughter’s hand.”

Act II

The entire crew realizes that Travis has somehow forced Kazuto into a love triangle. Patron Westin says there will be a fight to the death in a few hours to determine who will officially be married to Lisanne.

He explains further that the rules for the Attendancy Duel:

If Travis wins, Kazuto will die alone and Travis will be buried/married to Lisanne.
If Kazuto wins, Travis will die alone and Kazuto will be buried/married to Lisanne.

That’s when the following occurs simultaneously:
Bobby pulls a gun on the congregation, who are now getting curious.
Jackie pulls a gun on Westin Cole, pulling Kazuto toward the door.
Oliver and Annadale frantically argue with the Preacher.
Tarsh keeps a hand on his holstered gun, and keeps his eyes on everyone.

Patron Westin quickly tries to calm the situation. He asks the Crew to reconsider, even offering them his office for their private use. Inside the office, everyone agrees that they don’t want Kazuto to go through with the Attendency Duel, least of all Kazuto (now beside himself with panic). Most see the only course of acting to be getting back to the ship and taking off.

Oliver takes the lead, opening a window and tossing himself and Kazuto outside… right at Patron Westin’s feet.

“Is there a problem?” he asks.

Oliver lays into him, citing his own (distorted) faith for comparison. The rest of the Crew exit the building and tell Westin that there will be no Duel; they’re going back to their ship and leaving. Neither Westin nor anyone in town protest.

Annadale asks for a few minutes before leaving, so the rest of the Crew boards Blackbird and begins take off procedures.

Annadale goes back to the church and speaks with Travis Hu. She asks him more about the Attendency Duel and the background for such a fight. Travis admits that last duel was more than a decade ago. He also explains to her that when Patron Westin’s words “Kazuto will die alone if he doesn’t win, that only means he won’t be married. He’ll have to find Heaven on his own without a guide.” Annadale figures that the townspeople won’t kill the loser outright, but merely leave him to live a full life without the hope of marriage. For these people it’s a fate worse than marriage/death. Annadale has a plan. She leaves Travis and heads to the ship.

On board Blackbird , Bobby and Tarsh make quick pre-flight checks, ready to leave as soon as Annadale returns. They see her leaving the church, running to the ship. That’s all they need. But then, through the cockpit window, both of them see Patron Westin and his wife, Celia, walking arm-in-arm towards the ship, watching. They look amazingly disappointed.

Tarsh sighs and takes a final moment to go to the cargo bay and open the doors. Leaning out of the ship as its engines rev, he asks, “What do you want now?”

“We’re hoping you’ll reconsider… for our daughter’s sake.”

Meanwhile, in the engine room, Oliver’s been thinking over the situation and decides his and the crew’s decision was rather uncaring. With a quick arm he pulls several levers and flips a few switches. The engine suddenly shutters and screeches.

In the Cockpit, Bobby feels the flight controls give way and the computers flash multiple error screens. Then the ship stops. Literally, falling 10 feet back to the ground.

Still leaning out the bay door, Tarsh is thrown to the dirt. He sprains his ankle, but picks himself up. “Excuse me,” he tells Westin, “I think I need to talk to my crew.” He goes back inside.

Oliver’s already figured out that he’d done something wrong, so he casually slips inside an air vent to hide.

Bobby doesn’t have to think twice. He immediately goes to the engine room, but finds it empty. From somewhere else on the ship he hears “Baa-aa-aa! coming from Mersa, Oliver’s goat. Bobby quickly turns and stomps towards the sound. Quietly, Oliver slips out of the air vent and follows Bobby.

Tarsh limps up the stairs and enters the galley just in time to see Bobby pull his gun on Mersa (who chomps on greens from the garden bunk), and Oliver raise his fist to pound on Bobby’s head. Tarsh yells Oliver’s name, distracting the two men.

Just then, Jackie, Annadale and Kazuto enter the galley with some news — a plan for getting them out of danger during the Attendancy Duel. Unfortunately, the Crew begins to argue, their voices overlapping.

“What’s happened to the ship?”
“We need to leave. Now!”
“Everyone, stop shouting.”
“Fix my ship or the goat gets it!”
“Baa-aa-aa…”

Oliver, terrified for Mersa, looks Bobby in the eye and promises that “by the eternal flames of the goddess red pheonix, you will be reborn. I will see to it. Now I will fix the ship.” Everyone hears Oliver’s voice, and there’s something cogent, lucid in his voice. It’s the first truthful thing they remember him saying. Only Annadale hears it as a threat. Oliver makes a quick assessment on the damage he’s caused and estimates that repairs will take 10 hours.

In the meantime, Annadale tells everyone that she’s figured out how Kazuto can both fight and die, and still be alive. She explains that she has several doses of Byphodine which she’ll inject him with prior to the duel. The drug, when given slightly more than a recommended dosage, can cause a death-like coma. For all intense and purposes, Kazuto will appear to have been killed — the loser of the duel. The entire crew agrees.

When Patron Westin is told that Kazuto finally agreed to the duel, he smiles, thanks them all and sets the duel for two hours time.

Act III

Two hours later, the crew arrives at a corral next to the church (sans Oliver, who continues to work on the engines). Most of the town has shown up to watch the duel as well. Annadale pulls Kazuto in for a good-luck hug. The rest of the crew pushes in, too, hiding Annadale’s injection of the Byphodine. Then it’s up to Kazuto to survive long enough for the drug to take effect.

Travis Hu is ready for the fight. He and Kazuto face off in the middle of the corral, throwing punches and avoiding major blows.

…meanwhile, Oliver has had a second change of heart. He finds a canister of fuel on the ship and takes it to the church.

In the corral, Tarsh watches the fight between Travis and Kazuto, but sees Oliver approaching. Once Oliver heads to the church, Tarsh follows. The rest of the crew continues watching the fight.

In the church, Oliver tosses fuel on the pews, the dais, and the massive cross facing the front door. Tarsh enters just as Oliver lights the church on fire. The flames spread across the aisles and wooden pews.

In the corral, Travis and Kazuto duke it out, throwing punches that do little damage. It’s gonna be a long fight. The rest of Blackbird ‘s Crew watches, hoping the Byphodine takes effect soon. Finally, after another fifteen seconds of fists and kicks, Kazuto’s head wobbles and he collapses in a heap. Patron Westin and several townsfolk race over to check on him. As far as they can tell he’s dead.

Then the air starts to carry a scent. Something’s on fire.

Patron Westin and Preacher Ki race into the church, just as Tarsh is trying to drag Oliver out. Oliver slides out of Tarsh’s grasp and begins preaching to the two town leaders. His diatribe is insane, riddled with confusing allegory and imagery. The leaders are not amused. Thankfully, they’re pacifist, otherwise they would’ve pulled a gun already. Thankfully, too, Annadale enters the church with Bobby at just the right time.

Annadale pulls Bobby’s gun from his side holster and aims it at the Preacher. He yells wildly at her. Annadale fires. The Preacher falls backwards, injured but otherwise alive. With effort, Tarsh pulls Oliver out of the church. The entire Crew meets in the street — Jackie dragging Kazuto’s body toward the ship. Annadale pulls a wad of cash from her pocket (their payment for the cargo delivery) and throws it into the street.

In the middle of the outraged townsfolk, Travis watches in confusion. Bobby pulls another of his guns and fires at Travis, knowing that his “win” in the corral will ultimately lead to his death. Travis slumps backwards, dead.

Eventually the Crew makes it back on board Blackbird .

The next eight hours of engine repair is accompanied by the angered pacifism of the townsfolk beating on the cargo bay door.

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Soiled Doves

Oliver’s work on the ship’s engines has slowed the transport of cargo to Paquin. Luckily, it’s not due for another week, and there’s only two days left for the journey.

At 3 in the morning there’s a proximity alarm that awakens the sleeping crew. Bobby runs to the cockpit and finds the cause for the signal: a ship adrift several hours from Blackbird ‘s position. The crew, now awake and assembled, alter their heading and find a Hornet Class transport unable to maneuver in the black. The ship’s comm system is down, but Tarsh manages to bypass the comm and interfaces through text. The crew on the Hornet say their grav boot has ccraked and they need help repairing it. The Crew talks it over and agrees — cheking the Cortex for info on the ship. The ship is called Soiled Dove , registered to a Captain Marina Briggs. In all, signs point to a safe encounter. Tarsh relays their willingness to help and the ships dock.

The Crew, still weary of the situation, position themselves in the cargo bay (just in case), and leave Jackie and Annadale to open the bay door.

…..

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Chimera

The crew meets up for the first time on New Melbourne.
They are hired to be a transfer crew for a Durance Class Freighter named Blackbird .
…rest to be written later.

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Emmanuel

Teaser

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.

Act I

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.

Act II

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.

Act III

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.

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