Serenity: Those Who Stare into the Black....

Game 10: Pieces of a Puzzle
The crew finds clues as to *how* and starts searching for the *why*.

Sunday, 01 Oct 2519
Mid-bulk freighter, Space Otter
New Melbourne, Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
2330 hrs, local time



The Feds have left with the bodies and have delivered an injunction not to leave town in case they need to question us further.

Fine.

After they’re gone, we finalize the cleaning up and start looking for how we were so thoroughly compromised. We split up in teams. Xiu cleans the air vent of gore with Oksana’s help. Verity inspects the ship from top to bottom, bow to stern, with Allyne’s help.

After two and a half hours, the results (so far) are in:

Verity:

  • She finds a couple of backdoors into our system
  • Our nav system is also screwed, such that we’d end up stranded in deep space even though it appears we’re on course. Further attempts to correct course would make things worse.
  • The hacks had been installed sometime in the past 48 hours
  • If we attempt to reinstall our system using our last backup from the prior 72 hour mark, the hacks will fry us.

Xiu:

  • Our engine’s been sabotaged, such that we’d explode if we started up

We’ll need to make repairs. Xiu writes up a repairs list for Allyne.

We speculate why anyone would do all this work on our ship. Are we supposed to be unwitting mules for something illicit? There is nothing we can do about it right this minute. We table the discussion for the morrow. It’s 0300 hours and we need sleep. We’ll tackle the problem when we wake up.


Monday, 02 Oct 2519
1000 hrs, local time

It’s midmorning and once rested and fed, the crew gets back to work. Xiu gets busy with the repairs while Allyne goes over our surveillance systems, trying to spot the holes in our coverage that allowed Lissa to exfiltrate without being seen.

Oksana decides to inventory everything in the med bay in case something illicit has been added to our supplies, or to detect if anything’s been stolen for their street value. After all, she was attacked in med bay. Someone was in there doing something when she’d interrupted them.

Verity lends Oksana a hand.

Oksana finds nothing missing or anything added to our medical stores but Verity finds something added to our medical imaging equipment. It turns out that the foreign module was the insertion port for the viruses/malware that got installed on our ship. Verity works her tech mojo and determines that while the code was likely installed in the past 12 hours, the module itself may have been installed earlier than that.

When?

Well, Oksana points out that we’ve been boarded and inspected by strangers twice since leaving Kaleidoscope. For all we know, the damned thing could have been installed during the first inspection at Harvest.

Oksana takes samples of the dust she’s found on the device, comparing it to known samples from our hardware to rule out it being cobbled from our own stores, and then compares it to known environmental trace evidence found on other worlds. She’s hampered by the fact that we have no Cortex access and our own ship’s records give her nothing conclusive.

So in the immediate, that avenue of inquiry is a bust.

Verity suspects that the device might affect more than just our imaging system in med bay. Rather, it might have affected our entire ship. Like … the surveillance system, maybe?

At the point, Allyne returns with the parts he’s been able to find and also surprises the crew with a present: everyone is given a new set of ballistic mesh armor, tops and bottoms. And thanks to our personnel med records, Allyne had gotten everyone’s measurements exactly.

Such a thoughtful gift. Thanks, Captain.

No seriously. It’s a thoughtful gift. We seem to be getting shot at much more often and the ultra thin flexible armor is lightweight and can be worn under a wide range of clothing.

We tell our Captain what we’ve found in med bay and he gets right on the surveillance system. He finds evidence to support Verity’s suspicion: our surveillance system HAS been hacked by the foreign hardware/software, such that it actually doctored images in real time, using our own med imaging system’s buffer to hide the fact.

Thinking that the possibility that this has been in place since Harvest, we decide to write up our findings and send it on to Malcolm Reynolds in case he’s been hit by the same nasty combination. We ask him to let us know if he’s been affected, so we can tell others what’s happened.

Oksana decides she needs to hit up an internet café for the Cortex so she can research the local and current events. Perhaps she can find out of this is getting reported by others. The crew splits up to their various tasks, owners of pieces of a puzzle and with no idea what picture they are supposed to represent.




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Stimulus/Response
Every action has its consequences ...

From the private journal of Oksana Arkadyevna Vernadskaya, M.D.
Translated from Russian




Sunday, 01 Oct 2519
Mid-bulk freighter, Space Otter
New Melbourne, Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
1830 hrs, local time

The red emergency lights were dim but was it still bright enough to see. The color reminded me of the blood in our cargo hold. Two men had been killed by chameleon-suited assassins and I strained to detect that odd air-bending effect that betrayed their presence. I saw nothing. That didn’t mean no one was there. I didn’t linger in the corridor but entered med bay through my quarters for cover.

The usual scatter of lights from the equipment was absent in the ruddy glow. The shadows were deeper and able to hide any number of things. I steeled myself to step all the way inside. I swept the room and saw nothing out of place but in the murk it would be easy to miss something… a fact borne home a second later when someone grabbed me from behind. A steely arm wrapped around my neck and squeezed. The blood in my head instantly grew thin.

Sleeper hold.

I had only seconds before I blacked out. I pulled a sedative patch from my pocket and slapped it against my attacker’s thigh. Body armor made my palm sting on impact. The patch wouldn’t get past it. A rag swathed my face then and I caught the unmistakable stench of chloroform. No one would bother chloroforming a corpse. That told me they meant to keep me alive. And that frightened me more than the attack itself.

I held my breath and fought him, trying every trick I knew, but there was no escaping the inevitable. Starved of oxygen, my body shut down. The fact that I would be unconscious for whatever they would do to me was no comfort at all …



Sunday, 01 Sep 2509, 13:35

The dead were buried, the burned bunkhouses cleared. Most of the holes from the mortars had been filled, though a few remained. Our supplies shipments were still irregular. We’d yet to receive the modules to replace the shelters we’d lost. Everyone doubled up and made the best of it.

The detention block holding the riot instigators still stood. Questioning was still ongoing. The general mood over the issue was ugly. I empathized but I could see the Alliance’s position. Letting the riot slide without repercussions was bad for discipline. I kept my opinions to myself, however, and maintained my neutrality on the matter. I couldn’t afford to take sides any more than the Commandant could afford to be lax. The threat of violence underlay everything inside the wire. For the sake of the civilians, we had to keep it in check.

But today it lay far below the surface. The weather had taken an unexpected turn toward the dry and cool—or cooler for the season, at any rate—and the tempers that normally rose with the summer heat grew calmer. The patient traffic in my infirmary was all the proof I needed. Fewer fights, fewer injuries. Everyone benefitted.

I was in a good mood when I walked back from checking on a child with a broken leg. His growth plate was unaffected by the break and with luck he’d be out of his cast in a few weeks. As I neared the showers, I caught a snatch of song wafting out with the steam. The exuberance of it made me smile. A shipment had managed to make it through and there was finally enough soap to go around. I cut between the shower buildings for the block beyond, thinking on what I could do with the influx of supplies I’d been granted when movement ahead caught my eye.

Looking up, I saw the way out blocked by an enforcer of one of the prison bosses. An illicit deal was about to go down and they needed the alley. I turned to leave and give them their privacy. The way behind me was blocked by another enforcer. I was boxed in.

Shit.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been shaken down for medicine. I never resisted but gave it over. Drugs had currency in the prison underground. I wasn’t unaware of the credit I earned by being accommodating yet I wasn’t so naïve to believe it granted me any kind of immunity. Rival bosses were ruthless in using leverage wherever they found it. I compared the men’s faces against those I knew and recognized their boss before he actually came around the corner. He had a nasty rep and nastier methods. Two more enforcers, larger and meaner than the other two, followed him. All my internal alarms screaming now, I kept my eyes up and my expression respectful. If I were lucky, I could hand over what I had and get clear.

Luck wasn’t with me that day. The flanking goons slammed me face first into the bath house wall. Copper exploded on my tongue. My nose throbbed and ran. I spat blood and tried pushing off the wall but the goons pinned my wrists and shoulders to the wood. I couldn’t move. I heard the scrape of gravel behind me. It was the only warning I got before the boss grabbed my hair and yanked my head back. His breath tickled my ear and slithered down my neck.

“I got a message for your lover boy,” he whispered as he ripped my trousers down.

I thrashed then, knowing full well what was coming. I got a fist in my kidney and I buckled, seeing stars. The boss kicked my knees wide, grabbed my hips, and thrust inside. The pain was excruciating. I shrieked and arched and felt my flesh tear. The boss rammed me again and I broke, sobbing and choking on blood and tears. His whisper hissed past my agony.

“Tell him he’s next.”



“Sir, we have a problem.”

David Russell, Commandant of ADF-037, looked up from the latest iteration of requisition requests and seeing the feed on his desk screen, immediately thumbed the comm.

“On my way.”

The gate feed was grainy, the comms not yet at 100%. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he arrived. Half a dozen prisoners waited at the gate with a stretcher. The woman on it, someone he’d known as a childhood friend, as an unlikely ally in this ruinous war, lay barely alive under a bloodied sheet. Every muscle of his body clenching hard, he managed to keep his demeanor impassive, if only just. His finger was steady as he pointed first to the stretcher and then to the prisoners who bore it.

“Medical. Interrogation B.” Three words, but they were enough. Two guards took the stretcher to medical and two more escorted the prisoners to the brig for questioning. They didn’t resist but went willingly. Russell observed them for a beat and turned to the Watch Sergeant standing to the side. “Pick your men. Send them in. Keep it quiet.”

“Yes, sir.”

Orders issued, Russell calmly made it as far as the nearest head, shut the door, and lost everything in his stomach.



Most of the surveillance cameras needed tweaking but the feed from the gate was sharp enough to show the muscle jump in the Commandant’s jaw. The line of the man’s back was eloquent as he stalked off-screen.

Message received.

Good. Eyes narrowing, the watcher mentally crossed that particular task off his list and moved to the next. This one would take some finessing but time was on his side. It always had been.



“Come again?” Parker asked, dead quiet. The answer was no better on retelling. Ass-raped. Beat to shit. Shanked. “I want names. You get caught, I don’t know you. Understand?”

Parker waited until the informant left before turning to the man with him. “Sir, we need to rethink our timetable.”



The guards restrained themselves and in return the prisoners eagerly gave up what they knew. It wasn’t much. She’d been found between the bath houses and immediately taken to her own infirmary. When it was clear she’d been injured beyond their ability to repair, they’d brought her over to the Alliance side of the wire. They admitted other prisoners were already going through the camp looking for anyone who might have more information on what happened.

Russell questioned them long enough to be certain they were telling the truth, thanked them for their cooperation, and had them escorted back to camp. Russell remained in the quiet after they shuffled out, thinking it through. He checked his watch. Three hours. He buzzed medical.

“Status on the patient?” he asked. He knew that there would be only one.

“She’s out of surgery.” A pause. A murmur. Then: “She’s cleared for questions when the sedation wears off.”

“Understood.” He cut the channel and stared at the opposite wall. He’d missed something in his ongoing investigation, something important, and the consequences were lying in medical. The opposition had the advantage. How could he take it from them? Russell quit the brig for the Watch office.



The world returned slowly, the beep and hum of the monitors pulling me through the haze until I blinked awake. It took a moment to focus. Memory returned. My gut lurched. The beeping instantly sped up. Swallowing bile, I took a deep breath and forced myself to calm.

Breathe.

I internally gauged my condition. I was a mass of contradictions. It was hard to think yet my brain was going a mile a minute. I was strapped to my bed yet I felt as if I were floating. I felt too heavy to move but every bone in my body threatened to fall free. I felt no pain yet I could sense it lying just beneath the surface. I would hurt like hell once the meds wore off.

“Ma’am?”

I flinched and yelped as the medic touched me. It was the textbook psychological reaction to being raped and sodomized. I understood it but comprehension did nothing to prevent it. I could only ride out the shakes and suffer the shame of tears. The medic was a woman—a blessing—and she held my hand until I pulled myself together.

“Are you in any pain?” she asked. “Can I get you anything?”

“My chart,” I rasped, hoarse from the drugs and the crying. “Please.”

She hesitated. I was adamant. She got me the chart and water with a straw. I took in both, starved for information and moisture. Zygomatic orbital fracture … perianal and perineal lacerations … penetrating abdominal trauma … Huh. Stabbed. I wasn’t aware of that. Cold clinical facts enabled me to distance myself from the horror. A crutch, perhaps, but I needed it. I analyzed the data. My numbers were good. The surgery went well. My injuries were tricky but the damage wasn’t permanent. I would heal. I looked up from the chart.

“Mirror?” I asked. Again the medic paused. I repeated my request. She got the mirror. I looked hideous but my color was good. I nodded and the medic took the mirror back. “Thank you.”

“You should rest.”

I had no intention of being difficult. I obediently closed my eyes, listening as she checked my IV and monitors and walked away. I remained awake for some time, however, reviewing everything behind my eyelids: my attacker, the assault, everything.

Tell him he’s next.

The message was clear. The reason behind it was not. I tried to make sense of it but the bed swallowed me whole and sleep took me down.



“You can talk,” Russell said, pulling the scrambler from his pocket and putting it on the table. The device blinked a rapid green. “No one’s getting this.”

The man in front of him sported a bloody nose and a swollen lip. Parker, Russell remembered. Independent and none too cooperative when he first arrived, apparently his stint as a prisoner hadn’t changed that aspect of him one bit. Word about the camp said he had a soft spot for the doctor who’d treated him while in custody. Russell hoped that hadn’t changed either.

“You heard what happened.” Russell pulled the pics from the file on the table, turning them so Parker could see them. He saw something hard and ugly bloom behind Parker’s eyes. “You know who did this?”

“Maybe.” Parker looked up, his expression immediately guarded.

“What do you want?”

“Come again?” Parker blinked, looked askance.

“In exchange for the man who did this.”

“Well now …” Parker crossed his arms and stared at the Commandant. Russell stared back. “Do you want the guy who did the deed? Or the guy responsible for makin’ it happen?”

“Both.”

“It’ll cost ya.”

“Name it.”

Parker obliged. It took five minutes. Through it all, Russell studied Parker, weighing what he knew with what he suspected, and considered the consequences. When Parker stopped talking, Russell knew what needed to be done.

“No one can know,” Russell said as he rose, rolling up his sleeves and making a fist.

“Make it look good,” Parker sighed and scraped his chair back.



Several prisoners met with rough treatment that day. The incidents were duly recorded in the logs, despite periodic failures with the surveillance equipment. Russell signed off on the reports before sending them up the line. News of the beatings travelled fast behind the wire. Feelings were running high, both over the attack and the official response to it: Reprisals will not be tolerated. Justice will be carried out by the Alliance. Those who disobey the injunction will face punishment.

Extra guards were posted inside to enforce compliance and to maintain order. The effort required was sometimes vigorous, but order was maintained. Medics from the garrison also pulled duty on the inside, standing in for the doctor the prisoners had lost. Tempers cooled somewhat in recognition of the humanitarian gesture, but the prisoners remained suspicious and sullen. After a week, the situation had toned down from a boil to a simmer. David Russell didn’t believe for a second that it was as stable as it seemed.

“When’s she going back?” Russell’s second-in-command up-nodded toward medical as he stuck his head into his superior’s office.

“Tomorrow.”

That got a whistle.

“So soon?”

“She’s insisting on it.” Russell grimaced in annoyance. “Doctors make the worst patients. They think they know everything. You got something for me, Bill?”

“Yeah,” Bill Simmons stepped all the way in. “I need to go over next week’s rotation with you …”



The man really didn’t have a clue. It never ceased to amaze him how blind people could be. Routine was a security blanket they threw over their heads so they wouldn’t have to see the truth. The truth was betrayal could come from anywhere, from anyone, at any time. Russell was buried in routine, trusting in procedure, in rules and regulations to keep him safe. He would never see it coming.



Sunday, 01 Oct 2519
Mid-bulk freighter, Space Otter
New Melbourne, Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
Somewhat later…

I came to with Allyne Stone gently slapping me awake. I froze, frightened of the male threat of him, before recognition set in. Stone. Captain. Friendly. Firmly planted in the here and now, I reassured him I was fine and got back to work. Even as I did, I couldn’t help wondering if history was repeating itself and if it were, could we alter it?

There was no telling. I only knew we were carried along in the current of events as they unfolded. I could only hope that the past would prove useful to charting our course in the rough waters of our present and perhaps, just perhaps, we’d find a way clear.




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Game 09: Tea and Ninjas
A tea party is crashed and the lady vanishes

Sunday, 01 Oct 2519
Mid-bulk freighter, Space Otter
New Melbourne, Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
1600 hrs, local time

Our tea party is on and important people from the Guild, Alliance, and Civilian factions arrive. These are the movers and shakers of our immediate world and they arrive in style: limos and bodyguards in attendance.

The first party to arrive is a civilian one. Robert Gates and his wife, Lissa Gates-Mann, pull up in their hover limo. Gates is New Melbourne’s version of Allyne Stone. Gates is a fixer. He’s from an old established trading family, one that has been there since New Melbourne’s founding. As such, the man is seriously connected, including having ties to Sihnon in the Core. He exits his vehicle with a bodyguard in attendance. The driver stays with the limo and parks it off to the side of our ship.

Stone and Verity greet them at our forward ramp. Stone does the gentleman’s handshake and the lady’s hand-kiss, and escorts them personally to the ship’s lounge where Oksana is waiting with the tea and food. Verity stays behind to greet arrivals. Gate’s bodyguard accompanies his employer inside. He’s a non-descript looking man: brown on brown, average height and build, disappears right into the woodwork.

Two minutes later, a luxurious wheeled vehicle pulls up and three really big burly guys with earpieces haul out. One opens a passenger door while the other two flank it. A absolutely stunning woman slinks out in a body-hugging sparkly black dress. (Think Jessica Rabbit from that old pre-Exodus movie.) She’s a Hispanic bombshell and just oozing charisma. And she knows it. She saunters up to Verity and introduces herself as Dame Trudy Tudor. Up close and in person, she’s even more stunningly beautiful—dark haired and dark eyed, flawless complexion, graceful and curvy in all the right places.

Stone returns at this point and Verity hands her off to her Captain. Two of her human Rottweilers follow her inside and one of them stays behind on the ramp, guarding the cargo hold. Stone takes Tudor to the Lounge and announces her in Old World style. She knows Robert Graves and greets him on a first name basis. Her bodyguard takes up a position to guard the room. Unlike Graves’ bodyguard, this guy is built like an extreme professional wrestler: taller than average, built like a tank, blonde on blue with an intimidating manner.

The next to arrive is a very nice hover vehicle sporting the Merchant’s Guild arms. Two guards get out and help the passengers out. A redheaded gentleman, normal looking in every way, gets out first. He’s Bill Ramsey and Allyne Stone’s Guild contact for setting this party up. Next out is an attractive woman with long blonde hair. She’s introduced as Violet Heath, the personal assistant to the Guild Master Ryan Harthell, who exits the car last.

He’s a portly individual, with a jolly open mien and tastefully tailored attire. The medallion of office gleams on his chest and his smile bids fair to outshine it. He greets everyone heartily and goes right on up. One guard follows Harthell to the lounge and the other stays at the ramp, taking a flanking position with Tudor’s man.

The last to arrive are the Feds. An Alliance vehicle, sleek and vaguely menacing as only the Alliance can manage it, glides up to our ship. Five men in uniform get out. Two are clearly Privates and they are clearly on guard duty. One stays behind on the ramp and the other slots himself behind his superiors.

Those superiors are, in descending order: Cmdr. George Smith, Lt. Captain Vance, and Sgt. Thurman. Handshakes and names are exchanged and Stone makes a point of showing the Cmdr. our surveillance suite on the bridge. The Fed looks over our camera feeds and seems satisfied. They join the party in the lounge as we close up our ramp. The Private on the ramp remains outside, leaving the civilian bodyguards in the cargo hold.

When Stone joins the others, he finds Harthell firmly ensconced as the life of the party. Meeting and greeting. Pressing the flesh. Networking. Praising the food. It’s all very jovial, really. The women are a little more subdued and Dame Tudor is actually a little arch. But she’s the closest thing this planet has to royalty and she knows it. Harthell sees Smith arrive and booms out the man’s name across the room: GEORGE! How’re you doin’?

They have a history.

Luckily it seems a good one. Harthell knows Dame Tudor too and she gets her share of his bon homie.

It looks like the party is off to a great start. The crew circulates amongst the guests (or in the case of Xiu, stands near the buffet table and enjoys the food and stays out of trouble). Stone mingles with conversation. Oksana circulates with trays of food and tea and drink. As they do so, they learn a few things.

  • There are rumors that Lissa is Robert Graves’ enforcement arm.
  • There are also rumors that Graves had sown quite a few wild oats in his youth.
  • Dame Trudy Tudor is pretty much as she presents herself, the total femme fatale and celebrity. She’s not shy to capitalize on it, either.
  • Master Harthell is just enthused about everything, and like Tudor, is pretty much as he appears.

Most of the talk is normal. However:

  • The Alliance security measures mandating ship inspections and scans before landfall will be permanent.
  • The Guild is not happy with this development, as it delays trade and incurs expenses.
  • The Civilians are not happy about this either, for the same reasons
  • The Alliance is annoyed at the extra effort and bureaucratic paperwork. Surely they have better things to do than go poking through people’s closets.

Dame Trudy finally sees the cake on the buffet and is in absolute raptures over the real chocolate shavings on it. She takes a slice and delicately picks each shard and curl off the frosting and savors them. She’s quite a sight to see, purring like a cat over cream.

Lissa watches everything but doesn’t mingle much. She does talk to Violet and asks what the woman does. Violet tells her that she’s Harthell’s attaché and his admin assistant. As such, she knows everything Harthell’s doing.

The sole Private in attendance pulls out a data pad to type something on it.

Xiu listens and watches the party for news of her fathers. She’s nervous over being recognized as their daughter. She doesn’t want to bring any repercussions upon them as an Academy fugitive. Luckily, no one seems to have recognized her and she relaxes a little. She actually enjoys herself—the men in uniform are fit and clean and sharp. Oooh, she so loves the nice-looking men in uniform. Yum!

One and half to two hours into the party, Sgt. Thurman compliments our cucumber sandwiches. Stone tells him with justifiable pride that they were grown in our garden on board. The Sgt. is instantly intrigued and asks for a tour of our garden bunk. Lt. Captain Vance seconds the motion, saying the Feds have nothing this fine aboard their ships. Stone escorts them down to the cargo deck for a private tour of our garden space. Cmdr. Smith remains in the lounge.

Oksana circulates with another round of refreshments and overhears the Private mutter “please check it” on his comms. She comes up and discreetly offers her assistance. He turns her down, saying the military will handle it. Oksana doesn’t press the matter but takes note of it. She goes to Verity and tells her what she was told. Would Verity check our surveillance cameras, check out what’s going in?

Violet and Lissa are conversing again. They look unhappy and their tones are low. Violet sniffs and goes back to Harthell. Lissa is left standing alone and Oksana drifts over with a discreet inquiry: Is everything all right? Does she need assistance?

No, thank you.

Oksana smiles and assures her guest that she is here to serve. Please do not hesitate to ask for anything she needs.

As she did with the Private, Oksana doesn’t push the matter but makes a mental note of the incident.

Meanwhile, Verity is at our surveillance station on the bridge and notices that the guards at the cargo ramp inside aren’t at their posts. In one camera feed, one guard is leaning at an odd angle on the bulkhead. That leaves only Dame Tudor’s guard on duty. Verity comms the Captain on our internal personnel channel: Sir, we are down to one guard in the hold.

Okana hears this in her earpiece and excuses herself from the party. She hustles for her med bag and makes tracks to the hold via the lift nearest medbay. Stone makes his way to the bridge via the lift nearest the garden bunk while the Lt. Cpt. and the Sgt rejoin their commander in the lounge. Stone arrives on the bridge just in time to catch sight of Tudor’s guard going down on the cameras.

What the hell?

When Oksana gets to the cargo bay, the first guard is completely down on the deck and the second has just been shot by something. Both are shot cleanly through the heart. Death would have been near instantaneous. The entry wounds are small, with cauterization evident inside the wounds. The exit wounds are bigger than the entry wounds, suggesting not a laser but some other method. Plasma weapons would drill with some heat, yet expand going through the target before exiting. Working very quickly, Oksana is able to determine the angle of fire on the bodies. She can tell it came from the overhead catwalk behind her. She looks. There is no one visible. She adds two and two together.

Armed intruders + Chameleon suits = Trouble!

She comms Stone on her earpiece and gives him her findings as she makes a final check of the two shot men. Nope. They’re gone.

It’s clear now that we have a situation on our hands and we immediately change gears. In addition to her medical report on the guards, Oksana quickly tells Stone of the two incidents she’d noticed in the lounge. Stone acknowledges her and comms Xiu to calibrate our sensors to scan for plasma weapons and chameleon suits. Xiu gets right on it.

Stone returns to the lounge to find the military have already gotten wind of the situation and have drawn their weapons. Stone takes this in stride and tells them to get the guests to safety in our shuttle. Our elevator access is secure. It has only two means of ingress and both are bottlenecks that can be defended with small arms.

Oksana leaves the cargo hold and comms Xiu to scan for extra life signs: look for heat signatures and heart beats. We can track down the chameleon-suited ninjas that way. Xiu tells her that she spotted a flicker of a signature in med bay before it disappeared. Oksana acknowledges and tells her that she’ll investigate.

Meanwhile, Stone gets the military personnel and the guests safely into the shuttle … just as the power goes out. Red emergency lighting flickers to life and in their bloody glow, Stone advises them to hold their position and he will go down to investigate. The Cmdr. and the Lt. Cpt. go with him. The Private stays behind to guard the civilians.

It’s at that point that we realize that Lissa Gates-Mann is missing. Where did she go? Was she kidnapped by the intruders? Or is she hiding somewhere on her own?

Meanwhile Verity is checking our computer systems on a hunch—has anyone messed with them? Yes, yes they have. Our computers are not responding to our commands as they should. She can tell we’ve been hacked.

Crap!

Oksana checks out the medbay, sneaking into it from her quarters. She takes a few steps inside and is grabbed from behind in a sleeper hold. A chloroformed rag is clapped over her face. Knowing she’s got only seconds, she slips a trank patch from her pocket and slaps it hard against her assailant’s thigh—reckoning that he would not expect it to be her target. (Most people in that situation go for the eyes or the groin and the assailant would be alert for that move.)

She hits her attacker square and the patch’s nanobot-guided needles do their job … but the bastard’s wearing padded armor under his suit and the needles fall short. Oksana loses consciousness and she’s at her attacker’s mercy.

Verity starts searching the bridge to find out if the override is there.

Just as Stone is hustling guests to safety aboard the shuttle, Xiu runs to the engine room to find out if anyone’s screwed with her baby there. Nothing seems out of place. The lights over the entire ship go out and then flicker back on in emergency red. Xiu goes right into the air vents and starts crawling.

Xiu finds the override component between the engine control conduits and the bridge. She comms Verity for assistance.

Meanwhile, Verity spies a distortion like a heat shimmer in the corner of her eye. Knowing that chameleon suits might be in play, she shoots at the distortion (going for center of mass) and manages to hit the intruder’s suit controls. The suit fizzles out and she sees someone in something like ninja body armor.

Knowing the gig is up, the ninja dashes into the bridge elevator and crawls through the ceiling hatch, escaping into the elevator shaft. Verity shoots but misses and he gets clean away. Hearing Xiu yarking in her ear, she comms back and together she and Xiu managed to disable the override, allowing for complete shutdown. All the hatches and doors slam shut, including the elevator shaft hatches … cutting the ninja in two.

Stone makes sure the compartments across the ship are locked down and moves to flood them all (minus the shuttle and the compartments our crew are in) with Halex gas. Halex is a new generation of Halon, used for depriving fires of oxy during onboard fires. It can also knock people out in a pinch, assuming they don’t have their own air supply. Stone also orders the shuttle to take off. They say Lissa is still missing.

Oh shit.

If she’s found by the ninjas who knows what they’ll do to her. If she’s one of them as the inside man, we want her apprehended. Stone belays releasing the Halex. He doesn’t want to injure Lissa and orders another life scan of our ship, taking a head count and nailing everyone’s 20.

Thanks to the scan, Oksana is found in medbay. Stone goes to her, checks her out. Nope. Out cold. Strong pulse. Cloth near her head has a funny smell. Stone bags it, comms Xiu the locations of the crew and shuttle, orders her to scan for others. He carries Oksana to the nearest bed to sleep or revive on her own.

When the results come in from the scan, we find one heat signature in two pieces straddling a closed shaft hatch—the ninja who attacked Verity.

Lissa cannot be found. Either she’s escaped the ship or managed to hide her heat signature. We hail her comm and we get no reaction off her comm device or even get a signal off it. It’s like she’s never been on our ship.

Which is impossible, as we all saw her walk aboard.

The rest of our guests and the military personnel are locked down in the shuttle. Stone unlocks the override on it and offers the military the job of taking control of the situation. It’s gone wider than the bounds of our ship—most likely—and Stone has no authority beyond our bulkheads.

Robert Graves, Lissa’s husband, is oddly calm over his wife’s disappearance. We question him on it and he explains that Lissa’s disappeared before. It’s a thing between them. She always comes back though.

We question Violet over her argument with Lissa. She tells us it was about the fees and the tariffs incurred with the Fed mandated inspections. The Guild can leverage for more favorable terms but non-Guild civilians like the Graveses are stuck paying 100%. Lissa was trying to broker a deal.

The Feds say they’ll take over the inspection and investigation from here. After they’re done, we will be free to leave. Until then, stay in town. They’ll need to get our statements.

We try one more time to flush Lissa out. We announce over our all-ship PA that Otter is secure, that it’s safe to come out of hiding. Graves himself gets on the horn and calls for his wife. She doesn’t show.

Oksana’s revived by this point and as we’re all scratching our heads over how Lissa could have gotten off the ship, the doctor offers up her own take on it.

She thinks Lissa could have figured out where the blind spots in our surveillance was—the ninjas certainly knew it.

How did Lissa or whoever was involved get the schematics of our deck plans and systems?

Easy, Oksana says. We have been scanned and inspected before making landfall—twice in the past month. We already know that in at least one instance where we were inspected that the Feds were dirty. Who’s to say that our plans and schematics hadn’t been passed along by them to other parties? Or if the Feds haven’t been hacked on New Melbourne so as to allow access to their inspection scans?

Even if Lissa wasn’t the inside man, how did she get off our ship? How come we didn’t see her on our scans?

Oksana has the answer for that too: Lissa could have hidden her signature by letting the shuttle guests overlay hers. She could have used the reactor and engine signatures—those that would run some heat even at rest—to mask her own. Hell, for all we know, she listened in on our private comm channels and knew what we were doing every step of the way, further aiding her evasion. Oksana also suggests checking the access logs on our ship hatches and doors. If Lissa used any of them to get off, the door would be flagged in our system.

Just sayin’. Cuz she’s Russian and paranoid and that sort of tactical thinking comes naturally to her.

Sure enough, the hatch on the starboard gimbal access shows it had been opened. We’d neglected to check the gimbal space in our search of the ship’s compartments. The outer hatch to the hull (usually for maintenance purposes) has also been opened.

Now we know that someone—most likely Lissa—got off our ship that way. Perhaps the ninjas got aboard that way too.

None of that matters now: we have a missing woman to find. We have two dead guards and a military-led investigation on our hands. We aren’t arrested but we are not free to leave until the matter is cleared up.

We also have to worry about our reputation—what was supposed to be an elegant tea party has been ruined by death and mayhem. What will our important guests think of us now?

Guild Master Harthell thinks this was a brilliant success—a tea party and a murder mystery theatre thrown in? Brilliant! Wait, it wasn’t staged? It was real?! AWESOME‼!
Harthell tells Stone that we should do more of these in the future, only without the blood and gore and for-real deaths. Seriously, Harthell is sincere in his enthusiasm for the evening.

His assistant Violet sighs and rolls her eyes. The man’s unflappable.

Dame Tudor is less enthusiastic and gets out of there as fast as she can saunter out.
We are sorry to see her go. Well, it was a nice party … until the shooting started anyway.

The Commander and the Lieutenant Captain, of course, have their investigation to deal with.

Despite what we’ve learned and speculated, some things still aren’t clear:

  • What was the objective of the attack?
  • How did the ninjas get aboard?
  • Plasma weapons and chameleon suits are not cheap. Whoever is behind this has money. Who?
  • Was it an inside job? If so, who’s the inside man?
  • Where is Lissa Graves-Mann?
  • What is her involvement in all this, if any?
  • Is the Fed infrastructure hacked? Does someone have access to plans of our ship—or any other?
  • If so, how far does the infiltration go?

The crew stops and takes a deep breath. We could speculate til the cows came home and get no closer to the answers. It is still too early to know. The investigation’s barely started. There are things we can do, however. There’s still a body to get out of the elevator shaft and minor damage to the ship to repair.

We roll up our sleeves and get to work.




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Give Death Her Due
Sometimes She Wins

From the private journal of Oksana Arkadyevna Vernadskaya, M.D.
Translated from Russian

Friday, 29 Sep 2519
Mid Bulk Freighter Space Otter
En route to New Melbourne
Red Sun (Que Zhe) system
12:01 hrs, ship’s time

I resolutely injected the killing dose into the IV port and held his hand until he died. I felt his life leave him but he remained unaware of the event. His brainwaves remained flat throughout.

Death was a familiar adversary. I fought her for my patients. Most days I won. Today I lost. As hard as it was to administer that final dose, I’d acknowledged the line into futility had irrevocably been crossed. My patient would never recover from his vegetative state. Too much of his brain was already dead. If kept alive on the machines, his muscles would atrophy. His organs would fail. It would not be painless. It would be slow torture and it went against everything my Oath stood for. So I gave Death her due and called it. I did the right thing, yet knowing it was right did nothing to lessen the pain of having done it.

Time of death: 12:01, 29 Sep 2519

An autopsy was unavoidable. The Merchant’s Guild expected a live prisoner and would need a thorough explanation to accompany the body we would deliver. Feeling sick inside, I swallowed the self-recrimination that rose bitter and stinging at the back of my throat. I turned off the machines, covered my patient with his sheet, and went to find the Captain.




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Game 08: New Melbourne Interlude
Loose ends get tied and new ends are made.

Saturday, 30 Sep 2519
Mid Bulk Freighter Space Otter
En Route to New Melbourne
Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
07:30 hrs, ship’s time

We have a dead man to take care of. Oksana’s patient has died due to complications from a medically induced coma and emergency surgery. She asks Captain Allyne Stone if she may autopsy the body to pinpoint cause of death. Permission given, she gets to work. She spends pretty much the balance of the trip in on this task. Her findings are pretty much as she suspected.

  • Long term cumulative effects of the coma meds had caused micro-seizures in the patient’s brain. The seizures were undetectable in his unconscious state but over time the damage accumulated. An aneurysm caused the Grand Mal seizure that had him code blue in the recovery ward.
  • Had Oksana managed to prevent the aneurysm or the Grand Mal seizure, he would have been a vegetable anyway.
  • Bringing him out of the coma via pharmaceutical means for his interrogation and quickly putting him under for the emergency surgery created a lethal drug interaction, touching off a chemical cascade in his system that triggered the micro-seizures.

She tells the Captain her findings and ask him if the Merchant’s Guild on New Melbourne would take a dead body and the autopsy report instead of the live prisoner they’d been expecting. Allyne Stone waves ahead to the Guild and the answer comes back: yes. Oksana promises to have everything ready for the Guild once we make landfall. With the crew’s help she installs the body (now closed up, properly shrouded and bagged) in one of the guest cargo lockers in the cargo bay, with the locker environmental controls set to freezing to preserve the remains.

The remainder of the trip is not all blood and cuts, of course. Xiu wakes in her quarters, snugly cocooned in the zero-g webbing of her bunk. She calls out via comms that she needs to PEE-EEEEE!

Oksana releases her and offers to make the woman breakfast. The offer is taken up enthusiastically and as everyone aboard was awakened or otherwise disturbed by Xiu’s announcement, Oksana makes breakfast for everyone. Xiu wants miso soup and an omelet. Stone has bacon and an omelet. Verity declines the offer of food but Oksana makes toast and tea for her anyway.

As they eat, Oksana questions Xiu what she remembers of her episode. Xiu remembers nothing but lying down for a nap and then waking up in her quarters. Why? What happened?

Oksana explains that she thinks Xiu suffered from a waking nightmare or a night terror. She seemed to be reliving something and she said things that were odd.

Like what?

Oksana tells her: “Students are experiencing an emergency in the tutoring room.”

Xiu is puzzled. The students weren’t usually tutored together as a group at the Academy … but the statement seems to refer to her Academy days. Odd.

Plans are made to adjust Xiu’s medication and Oksana asks Xiu to let her examine her again—a full scan and another work-up of her numbers. Xiu agrees. Oksana schedules it for a time after the engineer has eaten.

When we get near enough, we are informed over proper channels that the Alliance is inspecting all ships prior to landfall on New Melbourne. We should prepare to be boarded and inspected. Verity is not pleased with the news.

Later that same day:

The Alliance waves us with a flight plan that we are to follow and informs us we will undergo a full scan. Stone gets on the horn and replies to the Feds:

Allyne: Is this as annoying for you guys as it is for us?
Fed: Please stay off this channel. It is for official business only.

We’re boarded and scanned. The Feds announce the results after they leave.

Fed: Space Otter. You are cleared to pass. Your docking space is Syndey-23

We find it on the schematic waved to us and we notice it’s right near an Alliance garrison.

Great.

Stone gets on the Cortex to check local tea prices and checks with the Merchant Guild for any leads on customers for the tea we’re carrying. They tell us that tea is a luxury item and as no one ordered our cargo, we’ll have to sell it to the Feds. Their price would net us a 3% profit margin, after expenses. Unsatisfied with the percentage, Stone asks around some more and finds someone who can net him 10%.

Deal!

The Merchant Guild also arranges a time to pick up the body and the paperwork. They warn us that a mandated Alliance representative will accompany Guild when they take possession of the body. They tell us to expect them to arrive 3 hours after we land.

Stone thanks them and looks on the Cortex for cargo and/or passengers leaving New Melbourne for our trip out. He also looks for scuba gear, still intending to test our ship’s amphibious abilities and offering passengers an underwater diving adventure. He finds the gear. It’s 75-100 credits per person as a custom rig. It’s 50-75 credits for a non-custom rig.

Meanwhile, Xiu updates the engine systems. She manages to find a bypass through the compression coils that will net us a 5% improvement in efficiency. It’s a 5 hour job to get that hack in, but she does it.

Verity scans the ship for bad stuff that might have been left behind by the inspectors when they boarded and scanned us: bugs, hacks, the works. Finding nothing amiss, she occupies herself with the astrogation charts. She thinks that the inspections and the boardings and the scannings were never this bad or frequent during her days on Redemption. There are more Feds and hoops to jump through now.

Times have certainly changed.

Saturday, 30 Sep 2519
New Sydney Spaceport 23
New Melbourne
18:00hrs, local time

Guild Sergeant John Sheppard arrives to take possession of the body. He looks just like the Ident photo he waved ahead to us. We let him in.

Right behind him is the Fed representative. He’s Eurasian, dark haired, and doesn’t give us a name. Oksana formally hands over the body and the reports she’s drawn up to the men. The Fed informs us that all investigations into the matter will have Alliance Security Council oversight applied. We will be required to stay a week on-planet for the duration of the investigation. We’re ordered to stay in the New Sydney area and if we need to leave, we need to clear it first.

Stone tells the Fed that we need to test our ship underwater for hull integrity. Might we fly out to a remote area of New Melbourne’s oceans to do it? The Fed tells us to wait until the end of our week’s stay before leaving.

Sheppard tells us that the Merchant’s Guild will cover our docking fees.

Stinging from the restrictions the Fed’s placed on us, we thank Sheppard for the kindess.

The officials leave with the body and the crew gets back to work.

Fixing the windshield on the shuttle will take 100 credits. Stone pays for it out of the ship’s fund.

We sell the cargo. Stone divvies the proceeds to the crew. Everyone receives 150 credits. Oksana gives 75 of it right back to cover the loan she’d taken off Stone for meds on Harvest. She also hands him the other 75 to buy a samovar. It would make the ship more like home, she explains, and it would be a good way to have hot tea always on hand. Stone asks if she would install it in her quarters or in the lounge. She tells him the lounge, as everyone would have use of it. Stone gives her back her 75, saying it can be paid for out of the ship’s fund, not her personal one. Oksana thanks him and gratefully pockets her pay.

Stone buys a nice looking one in short order and informs Oksana that it is being delivered. She suggests that perhaps once they have the samovar, they could offer tea tastings for their passengers, serving fancy teas and finger foods. It would be a welcome perk on the long stretches. They could combine it with themed entertainment events—we’ve got the game and A/V equipment to offer a lot of options.

Xiu’s on board with the idea of a tea party. In fact, she suggests we do one aboard our ship while we’re ordered to stay in port, just to annoy the Feds.

Stone seizes this as an opportunity to have the Guild members over. Why not wine and dine them with our fancy tea party?

Sunday, 01 Oct 2519
New Sydney Spaceport 23
12:00 hrs, local time

Two days later, the samovar arrives and plans are made to have Guild guests over. Oksana plans a menu of special teas and the traditional Russian sides to go with it: jams, zakuski, sour cream, blini, crackers. If she can get it, she wants to serve caviar, too, but understands that it might not be possible. Price might be the prohibitive factor, despite New Melbourne’s primary industry being fishing and fish products.




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Game 07: Unexpected Consequences
We encounter a few surprises on Harvest and on our trip to New Melbourne.

Tuesday, 26 Sept 2519
Harvest, Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
07:30, local time

Our prisoner is hidden in a smuggling hidey, drugged up and made comfortable so as to escape detection during our inspection.

Mal, after getting over his surprise at Allyne’s dyed state, is short and professional in his communications with us. Zoe is more taciturn than usual. Obviously Mal is mulling over the information we’d gleaned about the pirates and the one-million bounty on Serenity and her crew. Not that we can blame him.

Xiu is happily engaged in her new projects: a mechanical otter (ship’s mascot), an hourglass (aversion therapy vs. phobia of sand), and working on the Gatling gun and pop-hatch.

Our inspection was a breeze, thanks to our paperwork, and we were thanked by our inspector for it.

So now we’re on the dirt on Harvest and unloading our cargo and our passengers. Our passengers have paid us already and Oksana sees them off, then sees to our hidden patient again. She moves him back to the recovery ward in med bay, straps him securely to a bed, sees that his meds and nutrient drip are working as they should. Then she goes to the Captain and asks him for an advance on her share: she wants to buy meds and go to the clinics and orphanages in the area to offer her services as an itinerant doctor. He gives her the money. She orders meds for the ship and food supplies as necessary using the ship’s online credit account, then leaves Otter for the clinics and orphanages that might need her.

Before she goes, she hunts down Verity and asks if she’d like to come along. No thanks. Would she like Oksana to pick anything up for her while she’s out? No, thanks anyway.
There being nothing for it, Oksana leaves. Buys those meds for her trip out. Verity remains on the bridge.

As for our partner in this cargo venture, Serenity doesn’t stay a moment longer after offloading the cargo than she has to. Malcolm Reynolds makes his goodbyes to Allyne Stone short and to the point. Keep in touch, we’ve got his contact info. Malcolm is going to go to ground for the next while, see if he can’t flush out the foxes on his tail. Allyne promises to keep in touch and wishes Reynolds the best of luck.

Meanwhile, Verity is coaxed off the bridge by Xiu asking for help with the Gat. Verity gets permission from the Captain first. Does she have everything? he asks Xiu. He doesn’t want anything critical yanked out and offline when we need to take off. Yes, we’ve got everything and no, nothing critical will get yanked.

Fine, carry on.

Everything goes smoothly and thanks to her technical engineering skills, Verity recognizes a point where the electronic interface would glitch on the Gat and cause it to fire while empty.

Good catch.

Allyne lends a hand and they get that fixed.

More work ensues and they all realize that the gun is flawed: no matter what they do to fix it, there is a 20% chance that the gun will overheat and glitch, causing it to triple its rate of fire and then jamming. It’s a quirk and we can’t get around it without finding a way to cool the gun.

They debate what they can do about it. With a 3xROF, we get to do a little more damage than normal (+1 step bonus to damage rolls) before it jams (in the next round). Once jammed it would take an actual overhaul with manual access to unjam it. Every time we use it, we are rolling with a 20% chance of the glitch coming into play.

Xiu carefully fires it to see if she can get it to jam, videoing the test. Sure enough, the glitch kicks in and it jams after tripling its ROF. She sends the video to River and Kaylee on Serenity. Maybe they can figure out a fix and send it back to her. She begs the Captain for more repair tasks to do around the ship. Allyne tells her he hasn’t any.

Rats.

Meanwhile, Oksana is on her way back from a day of helping out the locals when she spies a shortcut through some buildings that would cut her travel time by an hour. It’s an alley that she sees people passing through. She walks in and isn’t but 30 feet into it when the way out ahead is blocked by two burly thugs and looking behind her, she sees she’s blocked off by two more from behind.

Memories of her war days crowd to the fore but she shoves them down. She has her gun on her hip, hidden by her messenger bag. She leaves it for now. She asks them what they want.

They know she’s a doc, she’s new to the area and they want the drugs in her bag.

Realizing she’s being shaken down for the street value of the meds, she holds her bag open and tells them there isn’t much in there. Off their expressions, she pulls out a vial of isoprobalyn and propoxin. They’re 50 credits wholesale but she knows the street value is much higher. She holds them up, says their names, and offers them flat out to the thugs.

Hmm. They like that idea. Their leader peers into her bag, sees there’s really nothing else worth taking. All right. She can go.

Oksana passes him and slaps two syringes on a barrel, saying he might need those, and walks on. Relieved she got out of there without resorting to violence, she makes it the rest of the way to the ship without further incident.

Verity goes back to the bridge and plots our course for New Melbourne. It’s a sweet efficient one, too. If we leave at soonest, it’ll be optimal.

Our tea cargo starts arriving and everyone present rolls up their sleeves and get to work.

Verity is especially interested in it, giving each tea crate a kick to see if she can startle any Trojans hiding inside.

Xiu has to be persuaded (successfully) from jerry rigging an x-ray scanner out of Oksana’s med bay equipment.

Oksana walks in as loading is in progress, sees Verity kicking the crates, groks the reason, and pulls her stethoscope from her bag and slaps it in Verity’s hands. You might need this, she says to the pilot, barely breaking her stride. Verity gives them back to her.

Apparently she prefers kicking the damned crates.

Oksana breathes a laugh and walks on as Xiu leans close to a crate and says loudly: “When was your last cargo discharge?”

In the end, we load up 5 tons of tea. It’s stasis packed but it’s extremely important we deliver it as soon as possible. It’s not fermented but still in its green leaf state. The Asians prefer their green tea to be as fresh-picked as possible and the less fresh it is, the less money we’ll net.

We have no passengers looking to go to New Melbourne. Cargo loaded, there’s no reason to linger. Verity dusts off not 24 hours after we’ve landed.

Goodbye, Harvest. ETA New Melbourne, 30 Sep 2519.

Wednesday, 27 Sep 2519
Mid Bulk Freigher Space Otter
En route to New Melbourne
Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
07:30, ship’s time

The first day out, our prisoner slips into a coma from the meds. Oksana notices his numbers dropping and manages to save him. It takes significant toll on our med supply, however. The drugs have taken a significant toll on our patient as well, rendering feeding him via GI tube too dangerous. His swallow reflex is compromised as well, so feeding him while he’s unconscious is also not an option. Oksana has no choice but to keep him on a nutrient IV drip. She catalogues the damage done so far: swallowing is difficult, there’s kidney and liver damage. Neural damage (suggested by that swallowing trouble) will be difficult to track or test for while he’s unconscious. Oksana keeps a close eye on his numbers and tries what she can to strengthen and heal his internal organs.

Allyne spends his day trying to line up a purchase of wet suits on New Melbourne. Why? In case we have to get wet. It’s hard going. Wet suits these days are sophisticated items and trying to find some at the price he wants will take time.

Oksana gets protein dye from Xiu via an odd convoluted conversation, where Xiu says she doesn’t want to be pink or blue. As Oksana knows about the prank, she just smiles and locks the dye away in med bay.

Verity is quiet and withdrawn and Oksana decides to keep an eye on her, making sure to run meals up to the bridge and keep the pilot supplied with coffee.

Thursday, 28 Sep 2519

Xiu gets rather mesmerized by the hourglass she’s rigged up. Oksana sees this and realizes that Xiu’s meds are having a psychotropic effect on her. She reduces the dosage a fraction and logs it in her reports.

Friday, 29 Sep 2519
10:00, ship’s time

Xiu suffers a flashback to her Academy days. She wakes up in a night terror, reliving her escape from her tormentors. Gripped by her hallucination, she searches the ship for the crew.

Verity is on the bridge, enjoying the peace that comes of flying.

Allyne is walking the ship, checking all the points where the ship systems seem to be having problems. Currently he’s in the shuttle bay, running down the glitch that reports the shuttle as docking and undocking continuously.

Oksana is in the recovery ward checking her patient’s stats. She’s been doing this every even numbered hour on the clock, twice the normal amount. She’s got the machines rigged to sound an alarm through all-ship if anything goes amiss. So far, the machines have been quiet and the patient is holding steady.

Xiu starts looking for droids. She decides to look for tranks in med bay to make a dart gun. She looks for tape for hand cuffs. She sees Oksana in the recovery ward through the view port in the recovery ward door.

Oksana has locked it from the inside for security reasons, knowing that the rest of the crew have no liking for her patient.

Xiu tries opening it and it doesn’t move. Addled by her hallucinations, she bangs on the door with her fist.

Oksana turns at the sound but sees nothing. She calls out but there’s no response. Hmm. She turns back to her work.

Xiu bangs on the door again.

Oksana goes to the door and looks out the door port. She just manages to catch sight of Xiu standing obliquely to it. She opens the door.

Oksana: Xiu? What is it?
Xiu: (shouting like a droid) Students are experiencing an emergency in the tutoring room!

Oksana immediately realizes that Xiu is suffering an episode, likely from the lowered dosage, and steps out to tend Xiu. Just as she crosses the threshold, the crash alert on her patient starts breeping. Oksana turns back for her patient, Xiu bull rushes her with a syringe raised to stab her. Oksana sees her in time, strong arms her back with a push, and shuts the door, locking herself inside with her patient.

Oksana rushes over with the crash cart and starts working on her patient. Xiu would have to wait. Xiu realizes the door is locked against her and she starts taking apart the door control panel.

Allyne is up to his elbows in wires and parts, hears the alarm, and extricates himself and rushes to medbay. He goes in and sees Xiu sitting on the floor, the syringe half concealed beneath her.

Allyne: (nice and easy) Hey, Xiu. What’s goin’ on?
Xiu: Not much. Help me with this project. Hold this down and hold that down and—
Allyne: What’s that you’re sitting on?
Xiu: (lying) Nothing. Grab this, willya?
Allyne: That’s not nothing.

They argue over what’s she’s doing. Technobabble ensues. Allyne gives up and looks through the door port and Xiu rushes to stab him in the leg with the syringe.

Allyne knows she’s there and he evades.

On the bridge, Verity hears the alarm and calls med bay asking if Oksana needs help.

Verity: You okay? You need me down there?
Oksana: Yes, pazhalusta. Please.
Verity: On my way.

Oksana doesn’t acknowledge but works on. She doesn’t even know there’s an altercation right outside her door. Her concentration is fully on her patient and the crash alarm masks out most of the sounds.

Verity slides down the ladder to her quarters and runs aft for med bay. It takes her 3 minutes at normal speed. Going flat out, it takes her considerably less.

Xiu and Allyne scuffle and he dodges another stab. He tries pinning her in an unarmed combat move. He’s successful, pinning her right arm with his right hand and left foot. He braces his weight with his right foot and he keep his left hand free to block any further moves she makes.

And she makes her move.

She lands Allyne a solid punch in the nuts. He’s wearing a suit of ballistic mesh armor and it does go all the way down. The blow is dissipated somewhat but damn, it still hurts like a gorram cao ni ma. Allyne roars and snaps an elbow thrust into Xiu’s head.

It makes her head whip right around and she brings it back around just as fast, crazed by her psychotic break and lent extra vigor by it.

Xiu: Oh no you di’ent!
Allyne: I am your CAPTAIN. Pay ATTENTION!

Nope. It doesn’t sink in.

Verity walks in at this moment and whoa! She sees Xiu pinned by the Captain, who’s crouching over her fending off blows. What the hell? Verity doesn’t waste any time. She runs up behind Xiu and grabs her free arm, then slides her grip into a headlock.

Xiu: Dirty-fightin’ Alliance bastards!
Verity: (growls) Alliance my ASS. (to Allyne) Can I kick her?

The weight of two grown adults on her finally sinks in and brings Xiu out of her psychotic break. She doesn’t remember how she got there. She went to sleep and BAM! here she is under a dogpile. She tries to make sense of it and comes up with a reason.

Xiu: It was only a damned dye pack, asshole!

Oksana took the precaution of telling Allyne and Verity where the trank patches were, just in case they needed to knock out Xiu in a hurry. Verity debates slapping her with one but in the end she and Allyne decide not to risk it. They zip tie her before strapping her into a bed in the med bay.

Meanwhile, Oksana is pitched in a battle against death for her patient. She manages—but only just. She’s stabilized him and she brings him out from under his medically induced unconscious state. It is no longer safe to keep him under anymore. His body can’t take the drugs. Once she’s satisfied he isn’t going to die on her, she steps out of the recovery ward to find the door controls on the med bay side in pieces and a tied-up Xiu in one of the two med bay beds.

Verity gets to work repairing the door controls while Oksana does a scan and work up on Xiu. The numbers come back.

Xiu’s serotonin levels are completely off. She’s suffering from high levels of adrenaline and has gone through an episode of the night terrors. All the symptoms are a result of Xiu metabolizing the reduced dosage of her meds too quickly. The resulting chemical imbalance kicked off the episode.

And right now, Xiu is babbling.

Xiu: I can taste the color nine. It smells like … (sings) … soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur …"

She increases Xiu’s maintenance dosage by half again and leaves the young woman comfortable, yet strapped, to the bed in med bay. There has to be a level that won’t affect her as a psychotropic yet will keep her from going psychotic.

Once Oksana’s done with Xiu she goes back to check her first patient and sees that although he’s conscious, he’s got all the cognizance of a head of lettuce.

Somehow the drug regimen had damaged not only his liver and kidneys but his brain to the point of complete catatonia. Every so often he twitches. Oksana had seen mercury poisoning victims in her travels and he looks very much like one of them. She hooks him up to a scan and his brain activity is mostly flatline, with an occasional tick in the line. He’s effectively brain dead. There is no hope of recovery.

In the next room, Xiu starts singing about pink elephants on parade. Verity turns from finishing up on the door controls and slaps Xiu with a trank to shut her up. She stomps off to the bridge, thoroughly irritated. Allyne leaves med bay to look for a sharpie marker. Every good prank deserves a prank in return.

Back in the recovery ward, Oksana can see her patient failing before her eyes. He’s having trouble breathing. Heart sinking, Oksana notes the time in his record and injects him with a lethal dose of barbiturates to save him further suffering. She holds his hand until he dies, then turns off the machines. She leaves the med bay to report his death to Allyne.

We’ve one more day of travel before we reach New Melbourne. The Captain hasn’t decided yet whether to space the patient’s body now that he’s dead or turn him over to the Merchant’s Guild when we arrive at New Melbourne. If we turn him over, Oksana will want to do a full autopsy on the remains to pinpoint the cause of death, write up the proper reports, and turn them in with the body. If the Captain decides on spacing, she’ll simply prep the body for jettisoning. There should be a sheet that would serve as a shroud. But neither option can be pursued until Allyne gives her the word.




View
Not Yet Done
Prisoners Past and Present

With excerpts from the private journal of Oksana Arkadyevna Vernadskaya, M.D.
Translated from Russian

Sunday, 24 Sep 2519
Mid Bulk Freighter Space Otter
En route to Harvest
15:37 hrs, ship’s time

I have to hurry. They’ll kill him if I don’t give them a viable alternative. God, I thought I was done with this …




Thursday, 11 Jul 2509; 12:00

“Vernadsky.”

It wasn’t my proper name. That told me who it was before I’d turned around to see the Commandant standing in my infirmary. It was the height of summer and I was a wet mess from the heat and humidity. Everyone on my side of the wire was struck by it and the infirmary was full of prisoners overcome by the weather. The last of our reusable ice packs failed yesterday afternoon. There would be no more until the next shipment arrived. The patient before me was prostrate but not, thank God, from heat stroke. He would recover with minimal drain on our meager resources. I gauged the Commandant’s mood as I recorded my patient’s vitals. Could I worm extra supplies out of him? Perhaps. When he used that tone of voice, it meant he needed something off-record that he could only get from me. There was leverage in that. So I bit back my usual retort over his alteration of my name and merely followed him out.

“Get your kit.”

Whatever he wanted me for, I prayed it would be quick. I was loath to leave my patients for long. I gave instructions for their care to my lone assistant (a fellow prisoner who’d been a farrier before the war) got my bag, and resolutely stepped outside. The sun was a sledgehammer and the air was stifling. So were the looks some of the prisoners shot my way as we crossed the yard, their thoughts writ large: Traitor. Whore.

I bore it. Chin up. Eyes forward.

The walk to the Alliance side of the camp was short. Thanks to the disapprobation, it felt longer. On the way I noted the details: inmates’ clothing going ragged and unwashed, broken tools courting injury. Morale was worsening as the months continued without reliable supplies. Fights had become common as people fought over food. Cigarettes and alcohol were running low. The black market economy that ran on them felt the squeeze. Shankings were on the rise. I cut a glance at the Commandant. His uniform was sharply pressed but I could see signs of wear. Though he was clean, he no longer smelled of lavender. His head was bare and I could see the sweat glistening through his regulation-short blonde hair. No lice. We’d been spared that, thanks to supplements built into the food. I resisted checking his hands for his manicure. The guards at the gate looked less well-groomed, their boots duller, their faces shadowed with stubble. No doubt more was hidden under their helmets and armor. I forced myself to stop cataloguing. There was no point in it. We were at the far end of a long supply line and the fortunes of war were not kind to it at the moment. Everyone suffered the lack.

We passed inside the main building without trouble.

The AC still worked. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I tipped my head back and my eyelids fluttered in bliss. The artificial chill made the gooseflesh rise on my bare arms and my nipples grew hard under my wet shirt. The guards were in for a treat. I let them look. They’d get nothing more out of me. The Commandant had made the boundaries clear. I squared my shoulders and opened my eyes and gave him a pointed look. He answered it.

“This way.”

He chose a door to the left of the guard station and I recognized it as the one for the brig. Dread made my stomach heavy and fear began to trill in my chest. I preceded him into the corridor beyond and kept my face blank. He took my elbow in a firm grip and led me to the last cell on the right. A guard came to attention and at a silent signal from his superior, opened the door. The Commandant’s grip tightened.

“Inside,” he said.



He pulled her bag from her shoulder as he pushed her in and slammed the door. The Commandant looked through a small viewport and said in a hard, low voice, “You have not been forthcoming with the requested information. Be prepared to be here for some time until you give us what you know. That being said, everyone will be of use.”

Turning sharply, the Commandant walked briskly away, leaving the large guard standing near the cell. Looking in, the guard smiled viciously and slammed the view port closed, the lights going dark at the same time.




The slam of the door took me by surprise and for one insane instant I thought I’d been shot. Common sense asserted itself a second later when I heard the Commandant speak behind me. This wasn’t a joke. This was real. I was in trouble. The clack of the lock and the darkness confirmed it. Moving carefully, I put my back to the nearest wall and sat. I stared into the black, got a grip, and started to think.

Information. Wars ran on it. When I was captured, I’d already earned the reputation for treating patients without regard to sides. It made me useful wherever I went. It also made me a target. The Commandant was not an idiot. He knew I would have information from my Independent patients. I wasn’t an idiot either. Aiding and abetting the enemy is treason, punishable by death. Once the Commandant had decided he’d gotten everything out of me, I’d be executed. To survive, I had to say nothing.

He worked me over for three days, moving steadily from soft interrogation to torture. I refused to talk. The Commandant wasn’t a wasteful man. Despite everything he’d done to me, he’d left my hands and my eyes alone. I had value as a doctor. He threw me behind the wire with the prisoners with the injunction to treat them.

Treat them I did. Meds in the rations took care of most diseases and body vermin but there were ills the pharmaceuticals couldn’t prevent. Fractures. Lacerations. Contusions. Fevers. Coughs and colds. There were injuries of a nastier origin as well. Men and women had to share the same prison, with predictable results. I tended the victims as best I could but the fallout wasn’t isolated to the patient. It rippled through the population in the form of reprisals. Fights. Stabbings. Worse. Rape wasn’t the only trigger. Theft, hoarding, trespass—they all carried repercussions. It wasn’t long before I had to petition the Commandant for more supplies. It was the moment he’d been waiting for. From that point on, he and I started our dance, leveraging what we could out of each other. So far, I’d managed to stay on the black side of the ledger but I suspected that was about to change.

The darkness was complete. The AC grew colder, making me shiver. I rose to my feet, put my hand on the wall, and paced the perimeter. I had to finesse it. Too little movement would fail to warm me. Too much would raise a sweat to chill me. Through it all, I had to stay calm, to stay alert despite the darkness, and be ready to exploit any advantage that came my way. Following the walls I found no bunk or sink. I smelled the sharp sting of the chemical latrine before I stepped in it. A blessing. Once I came around to the door again, I retraced my steps to the far corner to fix the details in my head. Ten paces to a side, making a ten by ten foot cell. I had it to myself, with only my thoughts for company.

My world now, for as long as the Commandant saw fit.

I had no way to mark the time. My watch had been taken long ago. Though I was in the middle of a prison camp and surrounded by a garrison, no sound save that of dripping water reached me. As time went on, thirst set in and the liquid whisper was torture. I had to give the Commandant his due: he appreciated the subtleties.

After thirst, boredom was the worst. I kept it at bay as best I could. I didn’t dare worry about my patients. It would only cause mental stress I could ill afford. Instead, I visualized medical illustrations in excruciating detail, starting with the muscular-skeletal system and meticulously labeling the parts, before moving deeper into the body once I was done. When I ran out of anatomical subjects, I switched to trauma, triage, and surgery. Pharmaceuticals came next, then toxicology. Forensics was an engrossing topic, leading to multiple diversions into related fields.

Somewhere during my mental exercise, a slot at the bottom of the door opened and light flooded in. The sound made me jump and after all the time in the dark, the bright light made my eyes water in pain. Shadows dimmed the light and something came through with a scrape. Blinking tears, I hauled myself up to investigate.

Bread. Hollowed out to hold what looked like soup. Sitting on a bare metal tray. No water. No utensils, of course. I took it up, the tray slid back, and the hatch slid shut, plunging me into darkness again.

Eat quick. That bread won’t hold the soup for long.

Trying not to dwell on how filthy my hands were, I drank the soup before devouring the bread. It was poor stuff, standard rations stretched out to the breaking point and no better than what my fellow prisoners were getting. Nevertheless, the soup was liquid I needed and the bread filled my stomach. I could only hope the Commandant hadn’t drugged it. It made for an interesting hour as I remained alert for any ill effects to kick in and I finished up my mental review of poisons while I waited.

I don’t know how much time had passed when I exhausted my medical knowledge and had moved on to building my dream clinic. I’d slept at some point but it was hard to tell. Eyes open or closed, the darkness remained the same. I was steadily becoming unhinged from time and even my body’s cues of thirst and eliminations were unreliable yardsticks. I had to believe that the Commandant had no intention of killing me. It made no sense. I was still useful as a doctor. Even the slim cost of the cell space and the bread was a waste when set against a single bullet to the head, and as I said, the Commandant was not a wasteful man.

The door opened and as before, the sound hit me like a gunshot. The light was blinding. I couldn’t see the hands that dragged me up and hauled me out. My immersion in the AC magnified the warmth outside and to my shame I shivered as the heat sank in. I was given a moment to adjust and I managed to straighten. A chronometer on the wall told me I’d been in the dark three days. I shut my eyes and set my jaw as the knowledge sank in. I opened them again as another hand took my arm and I recognized who it was by touch alone.

“Come with me,” the Commandant said.



The cameras were good and the images were sharp despite the lack of light. The guards monitored the prisoner in rotation and the Commandant himself checked the feeds several times a day. She was holding up well, he thought. She didn’t waste her energy by screaming to be let out or banging on the door. Instead, she’d played it smart, conserving her strength, moving only to warm herself when the AC proved too cold. Occasionally he heard her whispering lists of words in what sounded like Russian, but that stopped when thirst made it too hard to talk. They fed her halfway through the second day and by the third, he judged her ready.

When the guard drew her out, the Commandant was chagrined to see her shaking but girded himself to do what had to be done. He took her arm, thrust her bag in her hands, and walked her three cells over. He kept his grip and his voice gentle, but there was no mistaking the steel beneath.

“Do your job.”

As he’d done before, he pushed her inside and observed through the door. No doubt the cameras would pick up everything but he was grateful he couldn’t see her expression when she saw what waited for her. Time enough for that later, when he reviewed the feed.



The man slumped in the chair was young, beaten and bloody. No more than twenty or twenty five, and a stranger. I knew everyone in the camp but his face was new. Someone from the outside, then. Water and a basin stood on a cart nearby. I made good use of it and the soap provided, grateful someone had thought of that detail. I spied a cup on a shelf below and in a flash some of the water went down my throat. Talking to my patient would have been impossible without it. The water was cold and after three days of going without, it was a shock to the system. I managed to keep it down. I knelt and checked the man’s pulse. He was conscious but dazed. I suspected a concussion.

“Can you hear me?” I asked him hoarsely. “What is your name?”

“Mmuh?” He blinked at me. His eyes were brown and bloodshot.

“What is your name?” I grabbed the penlight from my bag and checked his pupils: responsive and evenly matched. A blessing, but concussions could be tricky. It took several repetitions before he could answer.

“Parker,” he finally said. He straightened and grimaced. Blinked some more.

“Parker. This might hurt but I need you to sit still. Can you do that?” He focused on me and gave me a nod. I donned my stethoscope and continued the examination. Heartbeat strong. Lungs clear. No bleeding in the middle ear. No depressions met my fingers when I gently felt his skull. A good sign. Blood pressure good, likely no internal bleeding. A visual check of his bare skin beneath his shirt and trousers backed it up. Reflexes good. I made as thorough an examination as I could with my limited resources, then stowed my equipment and pondered my findings. I’d found nothing overtly life-threatening: a shiner, a broken nose, a cut lip, several cracked ribs. I grabbed the bandages and started taping him up. I had to lean into him to get the bandage around him. I smelled blood and sweat but no vomit. Another good sign. “Do you know where you are?”

“At the ass end of the universe. Locals’re a mite unfriendly.” His attention and focus had improved steadily as I’d examined him and he attempted a grin past his swollen lip. “Present company’s nice, though.”

I knew I was a filthy mess but I took the compliment in the spirit intended. Flirting and cracking jokes, his cognitive faculties seemed unimpaired. The checks were piling up in the plus column. I tied off the ends and stepped back. Extending both of my index fingers in front of me, I said, “I want you to squeeze as hard as you can.”

“You bein’ forward with me, Miss?”

“No. I am a doctor. Squeeze.”

He did as I asked. I watched closely, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It hurt him to reach out due to his ribs, but his grip was strong and even. No weakening of the extremities on either side. Check.

“Can you stand up?”

He gingerly stood. His ribs were not happy about it but he managed without assistance. His balance seemed good. Check and check.

“Are you dizzy or nauseous?” I persisted. “Have you blacked out at all?”

“I’ve been beat to shit, ma’am.” Parker threw me a quizzical look. “What d’you think?”

“That you are being a smart ass.” I disliked being rude but I didn’t have time to argue. The Commandant might yank me out of there any minute. “Answer the question.”

“In order: no, yes, and maybe. How would I know if I did?” he asked. “Ain’t no clocks in here.”

Answering multiple questions was another check in the plus column but the nausea and the maybe worried me.

“Don’t move.”

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” He eased down into his chair.

I marched over to the door. It opened, I stepped out, and nailed the Commandant with glare.

“He has three cracked ribs and a concussion. Has he been unconscious at any time while detained?”

“Yes.” Was that regret I heard in his voice? “The Front’s moving closer. Our section’s gone hot again. If we’re to take care of everyone as needed, he will have to be forthcoming.” He shoved me back inside and delivered his parting shot through the viewport. “We are all suffering. Make sure he understands that.”

The hatch slammed shut.

“Funny guy, him,” Parker said behind me. “I can tell he’s sufferin’ mightily.”

Parker was an interrogation subject. Of course his view would be jaundiced. I turned around and let some of my desperation show. I’d been with the Commandant long enough to know what would happen if he didn’t cooperate and damned if I would lose another patient. Too many had died already.

“We are.” I took a step forward. “We haven’t had a supply delivery in months. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel here.”

“Not my problem.” He stretched his legs before him, crossed his arms despite his ribs, and closed his eyes. End of argument.

“As long as you are here, it is your problem.” I leaned over him and gripped his knee. “Look at me. Do you think I’m on their side? Would I be in this shape if I were? We are all suffering. I have no medicine. My patients are dying.” I knelt and begged, “Please. Help us. Help me.”

“Why should I?”

His answer was a slap in the face and it made my tone sharp.

“You realize this is a prison, yes? Filled with your own people. Every supply run you destroy is food and medicine that they need. How can you do this to them?”

“You think they’d want to live like this?” He nodded toward the door, placing the blame squarely on those just outside.

Yes!” I snarled. “My infirmary is filled with people stabbed or beaten for what little they have. We are killing each other so we can live like this, because no one wants to die like this. If you truly believe for one minute your people would rather die, go out and offer to shoot them. You won’t have any takers. I guarantee it.”

“They knew that goin’ in. Wouldn’t’a signed up if they didn’t.”

“God, you think I only meant the soldiers?” I pushed away from him, furious that he wouldn’t see it. His obstinacy made me want to weep. “I have civilians in here with me. Everyone who wasn’t killed when this area was overrun was thrown in here. I have mothers. I have children.” It was true. A good number of my patients were under the age of majority, had never held a gun. “Help us keep the supplies coming. Help them.”

The door opened and the Commandant waved me over.

“A word, please.”

I met him on the threshold, wondering if I’d said too much or too little. The Commandant was playing it close to the chest. I hated working in the dark. If’ he would just come clean, I could get the information out of Parker with the minimum of harm. Wasn’t that the most practical solution to the impasse? Why waste time pursuing any other gambit? The one of guards carried in electrical leads and a power unit. Another followed him with a foot basin of water. The interrogation had clearly jacked to the next level.

Don’t do this,” I said, getting right up in the Commandant’s face in my fervor. “He’s fine for now but if you shock him, he’ll seize up and slam his brain inside his skull. The secondary concussion could kill him. He can’t tell you what you want to know if he’s dead.” I saw it in his eyes the second before he motioned another guard over. A hand clamped on my shoulder hard enough to bruise. I tried to shake it off. “Don’t do it. It will kill him.”

Two hands had me now and dragged me out. I dug in my heels and tried to keep the Commandant’s eyes on me. He flicked an impassive glance past my shoulder and I knew I’d lost him. I grabbed the door jamb.

“Parker. Tell them—.” A fist plowed into my gut and I retched and spat. Before I could draw another breath, I suffered another blow that tried to exit through my back. I went down, too weak to fight them. The trip to my cell was a blur. They shut me in and turned off the lights and I went gratefully down into the dark.

I woke when the hatch scraped open and a tray slid in. The light was bright enough to make my eyes water but after so long in captivity, I could navigate the cell without needing to see. I was stiff and sore from sleeping on the bare floor and horribly thirsty. The tray held the same bread and soup but there was a bottle of water as well. I pulled the food into my lap and cracked the seal on the bottle. The water was blessedly cool and sweet, and I stifled a sob as I sipped it. I blinked back tears and resolutely capped the bottle. The best place for moisture was inside my body but there was no telling when I’d get more. If I were careful, I could make it last a day, maybe longer. There was no saving the soup, however, and I devoured it with the bread. The hatch slid shut and plunged me into darkness again. I barely noticed.

My next meal came a short while later. I had no way to mark the time but I still felt full from my last meal and my water was only half gone. Another bottle waited on the tray for me with the bread and soup. I took them up quickly and made myself eat it all. I needed the nourishment and the extra water was welcome. I finished my first bottle and saved back the second. I didn’t know when I’d get more. When my third meal arrived well before I started to feel hunger, I decided that the Commandant was playing with the timing. It was a classic interrogation technique. I couldn’t maintain my equilibrium forever on such an irregular schedule but knowing in advance helped stave off the worst effects.

I’d consumed five meals before I saw daylight again. A glance at the chronometer told me I’d lost forty-eight hours. I adjusted the clock in my head and put the dark behind me. As before, the Commandant shoved my bag into my hands and led me to Parker’s cell. The lock clacked home as I examined him, but I paid little attention to it. Parker was on the floor instead of in a chair. The floor wasn’t as clean I would like but I counted my blessings: it would make it easier to examine him if he were prone. I cut away his shirt and got to work.

“Hey now…,” he said, conscious but barely. “That … that was m’ best shirt.”

“You can bill me. Lie still.”

“Not like I … wanna move,” he mumbled, blearily watching me.

Burns from the leads marked his skin along with fresh lacerations. The bruises he’d sported two days ago had deepened and the fresh ones were worse, including one on his left side, extending beyond the taping over his ribs. I immediately thought one of his ribs had broken and started searching for the damage that it could do. Further examination showed it had not, thank God, punctured anything. Relieved, I pulled my stethoscope from my ears, satisfied his insides were more or less in one piece though his ribs creaked with every breath. His heartbeat was still strong. His pulse under my fingers was better than I’d hoped for, considering his appearance. As I worked I monitored him for signs of shock. His vitals and his color remained good. He was tough, I’d give him that, though I wished he weren’t half as stubborn. Had he been more tractable, he would have suffered far less damage.

“Look straight ahead.” I shone a light in his eyes, watched his pupils change. Responsive. Good. “Can you see me?”

“Yeah. Both of you.” He breathed a laugh and winced as his rib made him pay for it. “Nah, just kiddin’. I can … see fine. Just wanna … sleep a bit.”

The Commandant has restocked my bag with antibiotics, bandages, even morphine. I got Parker’s wounds dressed and his ribs taped with the new supplies. I debated using the morphine. I knew of several patients in the camp who needed it, but I had no way of knowing when I’d return to them and Parker was in front of me now. I measured a dose and injected it.

“Here’s something for the pain,” I said, watching him go limp as the drug hit his system. I kept a finger on his pulse. It remained steady. Good. No bad reaction.

“M’yeah.” Parker sighed and his eyelids fluttered. “Tha’s th’ticket … Hey, Doc … y’gotta name?”

“Yes.”

“… Share?”

If I gave him my name, I’d be playing right into the Commandant’s plans: establish a rapport with the subject and once I’d wormed inside, make him spill. Did I want to do that? Would it cause more harm than good? The deprivations of the past five days made it hard to think straight, to weigh my options objectively. Go with your gut. Do what feels right.

“I’m Oksana.” I smoothed his hair from his forehead, clearing his eyes. “Pleased to meet you.”

The Commandant kept me locked in with Parker for the next two days. I did what I could to improve his condition but we really were scraping the bottom of the barrel in everything. I slept on the floor but a blanket was scrounged for Parker to keep as much of the dirt off him as possible. I had water again, enough to grant a reasonable level of hygiene. As with everything of late, it wasn’t at a level I wanted but it was good enough to avoid infection.

As the time went on, Parker’s condition improved and we talked. He was cagey about his recent activity but of his life farther back, he was more forthcoming. He was a volunteer for the Independent forces, had signed up immediately after the first shots were fired. He grew up in a rural setting. He had a sweetheart back home who he hoped would still be waiting for him when he mustered out. His parents were still alive. He had siblings, of which he was the middle child. All the usual getting-to-know-you details.

I shared stories the places I’d been and the people I’d seen. My patients remained confidential. I was well aware that we were under surveillance. I knew the Commandant was still keen on finding out which Independents in the area I’d treated before. I wasn’t about to give him—or anyone—the inside track. However much I’d compromised my principles to survive this war, it was one of the few I’d managed to preserve intact.

At no time did we discuss the possibility that Parker would be exchanged for an Alliance prisoner or perhaps even manage to escape. Neither of us wanted to entertain hope for an uncertain outcome. Neither did Parker make any untoward move on me. His injuries didn’t make it impossible but nevertheless he restricted himself to mere flirting. It was a measure of how inured I’d become to abuse that I expected worse and was only dully relieved when it didn’t materialize.

We were fed at irregular hours. The food was the same as I’d received and I gave Parker most of my share. He needed the extra rations to heal. The lights blazed overhead 24/7. Parker slept better than I did. Despite my best efforts to focus, worry for my other patients made it hard to stay in the moment or rest. As I had before, I endured and waited to see what happened next.



“Sir,” came the voice at his back. The Commandant turned from the feeds and took the report the aide handed him. Marked Eyes Only. He dismissed the aide, took the report to his quarters, broke the seal, and read it.

It took ten seconds.

No matter how advanced, for some tasks technology would never trump fire. The Commandant burned the report, crushed the ashes to powder, and flushed the remains. He washed the soot off his hands and wished his misgivings were as easily shed.



I hadn’t fallen entirely asleep when our door opened and we were both ordered to our feet. Parker had spent the past two days recuperating and he actually felt well enough to fight back. He put himself between me and the guards and threw the first punch.

“Parker, don’t!” I was already pulled halfway out the door. I tried to get free but the guard had too strong a grip. I called out to the three men on Parker. “Don’t hurt him. He—.”

The door swung shut as one of Parker’s guards drew back his fist and the last I saw of Parker was his expression: Do or die.

“You can’t save him.”

The Commandant was waiting for me in the corridor. He stood erect as always but something behind his expression sagged. Regret? From him? For what? For whom? Before I could say anything, he gave the guard a silent signal and I was released. The Commandant gave me a bottle of water and gently took my arm.

“Thank you for your assistance,” he said quietly as he escorted me toward my cell. “You did better than anticipated.”

“Call them off. Don’t kill him.”

“That decision is no longer in my hands. I’m sorry.”

Damn you!” I pulled away from him and stumbled back. “If you intended to kill him all along why the hell did you take me away from my patients? How many will I find dead when I get back? I have a six-year old with a—.”

The guard behind us grabbed me by the neck and the Commandant stopped him with a word.

“Disengage.”

The guard released me and I straightened as the Commandant approached. I put my back to the wall and put my chin up. Damned if I’d face him cowering. The Commandant stopped in front of me and gently brushed my cheek with his thumb. Abuse, I expected. Tenderness? Never. His touch was feather light, stirring delicious thrills down my neck. Thoroughly undone, I struggled to breathe.

“Oksana,” he said, leaning closer. “I wish—.”

BOOM!

A hard blast rocked the building, sending us to the floor. He threw his arms around me and cradled my fall. I didn’t have time to register more than that before he was on his feet again.

Code Black!” he shouted. “Lock it down! Lock it down now!

Another resounding boom made the ground shake and I could hear the report screeching tinnily from the Commandant’s comm: They’re bombarding us! They’re—. Another boom. The Commandant shoved me at the nearest guard and turned for the command center.

“Get her to medical.”

Medical was the safest place to be, designed to withstand attack. I was having none of it. I ripped free of the guard, grabbed my bag, and ran for the nearest exit. If the Fed side of the camp was getting hit, I knew the prisoner side would be too. And they had no protection at all. I passed the Commandant and hit the door running.

Outside was utter chaos.

The ground was cratered in several places, cutting us off from the road. Our uplink dish was nothing but tatters. The vehicle shed was ablaze and as I stared, one of its reserve fuel tanks went sky high. The blast slammed me down and I curled up as the debris went everywhere. Overhead, the perimeter towers were nothing but muzzle flash as the gunners fired beyond the wire. Everywhere I looked was black and orange and red. Peering through the smoke, I saw movement and heard the stutter of returning rifle fire. I also heard the screams from the prisoner side of the wire.

God, the children…

I clawed to my feet and ran for the wire and was tackled from behind. I struggled to get free but my assailant was on top and had my arm twisted up my back. I barely felt it.

“Get inside!” The Commandant yelled, his mouth a scant inch from my ear.

No!” I shut my eyes and threw a fistful of dirt in his face, kicked free and sprinted for the gate.

Vernadsky!

I ran. Dear God I ran. Already I could see several of the prisoner buildings were burning. Bullets strafed the ground in front of me and I dove aside, hit the ground rolling, and got back on my feet. The gate between the camps was hanging by a hinge and I got past it easily. Another mortar exploded on the Fed side of the wire and the shock wave slammed me to the dirt. I gave it a count of three and scrambled up again.

I’d made it. I was through.

Not that the wire fence would stop anything the attackers sent our way. Or whatever the prisoners threw at it either. As I entered the camp proper I saw them fighting the prison guards, clearly staging an improvised jailbreak. Shots were fired, I saw people going down, and I could not stop to help them. I had to get to my patients. Those who weren’t fighting the guards were running for the refuse pits at the far edge of the camp. They were crude and open to the sky but they were below grade and safer than the buildings during a bombardment. Prisoners were a moving river of flesh rushing for the pits and I had to push through them to get to the infirmary.

The infirmary had missed getting hit. Fire was still a real danger, as were stray bullets. I crossed the threshold to find several of the patients marshalling the evac of those still bedridden. I caught my assistant by the arm and pushed him for the end of the ward, where parents were fighting to get to their children and run, while I made my way to the most critical patients.

Somewhere in the chaos the bombardment stopped and the ground fighting began. I barely paid attention to it. I got as many to safety as I could but there were still several that could not be moved. I refused to leave them and my assistant stayed with me. We would brave the bullets and the fire with our patients. I silently gave my assistant a scalpel from my bag. If it came down to a fight, he would know how to use it. We barricaded the windows and doors with what furniture we had, hunkered down, and waited … for the fighting to stop, for the world to end, for whatever happened next.



There were three waves in all, each shorter than the last. Only the first wave had mortar fire. The other two were ground assaults aimed at disabling the Alliance side and getting the prisoners free. The Feds repelled the Independents after each rush. Two hours and ten minutes after the first mortar round, it was all over save the mopping up. The Alliance suffered most of the shelling but the prisoners took most of the casualties.

Communications was the first thing repaired and word of the attack was sent up the line. While that was underway, The Commandant got the recovery teams organized and went over to inspect the damage.

A good quarter of the buildings were on fire. Another quarter was damaged. A quarter to a third of the prisoners was wounded, dying, or dead, and a percentage of those were the civilians. The cries of the bereaved rose with the smoke and the buzz of flies grew louder as they settled in.

All able bodied prisoners were divided into crews. Some were assigned to put out fires, others to stretcher duty. Those who were involved in the aborted jailbreak were detained for questioning. A bunk building served as a detention block as the names and stories were sorted out. Everyone doubled up to accommodate those left without shelter. The children and their mothers were housed in the most intact buildings and guards were set to watch over them. The wounded and dying were carried to the infirmary. The dead were laid out in a temporary morgue. Water and power had to be restored, tying up more men from the Commandant’s ever-shrinking pool of personnel. For the nonce, he had water carried over in carboys and portable generators tasked to the infirmary and the detention block.

He saved the infirmary for last, knowing he’d find her there. Sure enough, he spotted her hard at work in the triage ward she’d set up outside. His gut clenched when he saw the blood on her. He relaxed when he realized it wasn’t hers. He signaled the two guards with him to stand watch and went on alone.



“Take a break. You have help. Use it.”

I’d wondered when he’d show up. I didn’t turn around but completed my exam, waving over the stretcher bearers.

“Get him inside. Left hand room.” I stepped back and turned to the Commandant. “If you want to talk, you’ll have to do it while I work.”

I followed the patient inside without waiting for a response. I had no time to puzzle out why he was here. My assistant saw us coming and cleared a path. I put my scissors to the patient’s shirt and called for a trocar and a chest tube. What I got was something a bit rougher, improvised from what we had on hand. I made it work and was rewarded with the sound of my patient’s lung inflating again. I let my assistant finish up and I moved on to the next patient.

And the next … and the next. There was no end to them and I simply kept going. I didn’t dare stop. Death would take them if I did. I refused to let that happen. I kept going through the ranks of the wounded and the dying. I saved those I could and fought for those I couldn’t. I fought as the life left them, then shoved my despair down, and moved on. By the time I got to the teen-aged boy with second and third degree burns covering most of his body, I’d run out of damned near everything. I took a deep breath and inventoried what I had left.

“You might need this.”

I’d forgotten the Commandant. I turned and saw him standing there with his sleeves rolled up. He’d clearly been working hard alongside me yet somehow he managed to look crisply turned-out. Then I saw the package he held. I opened it to find fresh meds. Much like the tender moment in the brig, this latest gesture floored me. I managed not to drop them but administered the doses to the patients who needed them most. For several, they arrived too late. I stood stricken as they wrapped the child up in a sheet and took her body to the morgue. The look her mother gave me was terrible. Anger I could have understood. Grief, even. But sympathy? For me? How was that remotely possible?

The moans from the wounded rose above the murmurs of those I’d drafted to help them. The infirmary reeked of blood and worse. I looked down and saw I was covered in it. I would probably kill more patients with infection than I managed to save. What the hell was I doing here? Why did I even try? Anger blazed through me then and found a target in the uniformed man standing next to me.

Get out,” I snarled. I shoved him hard, leaving blood and gore on his tunic. “Take your damned war with you.” I drew my hand back and he caught my wrist before I could slap him.

“Don’t,” he said, something flickering in his eyes, there and gone in an instant.

Goddamn you, get out!” Screaming now, I turned my anger loose. I rained blows and invective on him until I could no longer stand from sobbing. I cried then, cried for the child I couldn’t save, for the mother who would bury her, for every broken thing I couldn’t fix. If I raged hard enough, if I fought hard enough, I could make it stop. I could make it stop.

Please God make it stop.

And for once, He did.



She crashed hard. He caught her as she fell. There was no question of leaving her in the blood and dirt. The Commandant carried her out and had her installed in the infirmary on his side of the wire. He left her in capable hands and retreated to his quarters, there to draft his reports on the recovery efforts and perhaps, just perhaps, find the least damning way to justify what he’d just done.



I woke to clean sheets and a soft bed, luxuries I hadn’t enjoyed in years. Coming fully awake I saw I’d been hooked up to a nutrient drip. I lay in the recovery ward on the Alliance side of the wire. I wasn’t the only inhabitant. Six others filled the beds around me. Most were unconscious and I ran a practiced eye over them, diagnosing them out of sheer habit. A medic sat at a desk at the far end. He met my look with a nod, whispered into a comm, and walked over to check my drip. He didn’t speak and I didn’t engage him in conversation. I could see the chronometer on the wall well enough. I’d lost another day.

It was a day I could ill afford to lose and I insisted on being discharged. After several arguments with the staff, they finally released me. My clothing was returned to me—laundered, a plus—and the Commandant escorted me back to the prisoner side of the wire. He stopped me at the gate.

“Starfish, Oksana.”

You’ll never save them all, memory whispered. Just the save ones you can.

I’d been six, vacationing at the beach with family and friends. During our stay, we found the shore covered by thousands of starfish stranded after a storm. No matter how many we threw back, there were always more we couldn’t save. I was devastated to see them die. One of my brother’s older friends took me aside and said those words to console me. He later moved away and our families lost touch, but his words remained.

“How did …,” I said before I realized who stood before me. I aged the boy in my memory and matched his face to the man in front of me. I checked and double checked the physical markers and there was no denying it. “David?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you known?”

“Since the day you arrived.”

That was nearly two years ago. Knowing who he was cast everything in a different light, one I didn’t know how to handle. Insides shaking, I tried to draw a steady breath and failed. I looked aside and spoke to the landscape.

“You could have said something,” I said. My throat had gone tight. So tight.

“What could I say?”

I could only stare at the wire and shake my head. What could anyone say?

“What now?” I asked.

“The same as always. Nothing’s changed.”

That got me to turn around, head up, chin high, angry again.

“The hell it hasn’t.”

“No, it hasn’t,” he said, matching my steel with his own.

His thumb stroking my cheek was a vivid memory, painting a trail of heat everywhere he’d touched me. That’s when I understood. What choice did either of us have?

“No.” I swallowed thickly and walked through the gate, separated by barbed wire and necessity. “It hasn’t.”



Sunday, 24 Sep 2519
Mid Bulk Freighter Space Otter
En route to Harvest
17:00 hrs, ship’s time

I managed to convince the Captains to let me sedate him, citing the fact that he might have enough information to allow us to take down the pirates. For the sake of those who might otherwise fall into their hands, we had to do the right thing instead of the expedient thing and turn him over to the authorities when we made port. Malcolm Reynolds didn’t seem entirely pleased by my argument, but I pressed it anyway.

I understood how he felt. I could see that he would stop at nothing to save his crew and would do anything to keep them safe. I would have done the same for my patients. I still did, for the patient under my care. Pirate he may have been and certainly he was a proven letch, yet I could not turn him over to be cold-bloodedly murdered. It went against everything I believed in, up to and including the possibility (however slim) that he might chose to change his ways and redeem himself. I could not stand by and let someone, anyone, take that choice away from him. Everyone deserved that chance, the freedom to choose. I knew it was not a view likely to be popular with the crew I flew with, but I didn’t spend a moment worrying over it.

Apparently, Stone was willing to listen. Moreover, he was willing to enforce his decision once made. All I had to do was keep our prisoner—my patient—out of trouble. The surest way to do that was to keep him in a medically induced coma. Unable to do or say anything to make it worse for him and others, it seemed the most humane solution. Also, as a drugged patient, I could lock myself up in medbay with him to keep him safe from reprisals. I wasn’t stupid. Stone was Captain but he was only one man. The others would be free to act as they wished. If they wished to disobey a direct order, I had to be able to thwart them.

That meant I could not leave him for any length of time. Juggling what amounted to guard duty and my duties to our passengers made it hard. I rigged up an alarm to sound if his vitals slid into dangerous territory. I slept in the recovery ward with my bed shoved across the door. Anyone coming or going while I slept would have to crawl over me. I watched his monitors constantly. I took copious notes. I drank coffee to stay awake as much as possible.

It meant burning my candle at both ends. I was no stranger to it. I’d done it before, on half a dozen worlds and more, and in less salutary circumstances. With proper diligence, I would see my patient through and deliver him to the tender mercies of the Alliance.

God knew, there was little mercy left for him here.




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Game 06: Interrogations and Discoveries
We question our prisoner and discover a few things.

Sunday, 24 Sep 2519
Mid bulk Frieghter Space Otter
En Route to Harvest
Red Sun (Zhue Que) system

Immediately following events in last game …

Oksana manages to convince Allyne Stone not to kill our prisoner. She inspects the dead pirates for transmitters or explosive devices—now that the crew is a mite paranoid—and she actually finds a few things.

  • Hollow tooth
  • Health monitor chip under ribs on left

Paranoia justified, we scan all the bodies and anything the pirates touched. Verity finds a transmitter on our bridge and we figure it was put there by the inspectors at Greenleaf. Hinked now, Mal calls for Serenity’s shuttle to pick him up so he can get to searching his ship for the damned pingers. We wish him well and as Xiu is still on Serenity with Kaylee, Allyne gives Xiu a picture of the device found on our bridge. After Mal leaves, we continue searching. Another transmitter is found in Engineering and a third is tied to our sensor suite. On Serenity one is found on the bridge and one in engineering.

We decide to remove Serenity’s pingers and put them in a stationary buoy to squeal away while we tow her on silent running. That should get Serenity out from under. We take the Otter’s pingers and shoot them on a different trajectory from the one we will take.

It’s a finicking process to find and remove and decoy them all. We get all that done and also get Serenity’s engines back online.

Meanwhile, Verity questions our prisoner one more time. Oksana dopes him to make him talkative so as to spare him a beating. We find out a little more and it doesn’t look good.

Seems like there are a few enterprising individuals in the Alliance that reached out to the tong gang out of Kaleidoscope in the interest of doing a little piracy. Our prisoner is a member of that tong and they were hired to go out to Greenleaf and pose as inspectors to search ships. You know, just to see what they could find. Maybe take advantage of.

Verity asks him how many people are involved. The prisoner isn’t able to give a good answer. He really doesn’t know. Ditto as to who the actual Alliance personnel are, either. It’s all done with go-betweens and anonymous messages. All he knows is he and his crew were hired out of Kaleidoscope to do this job for the next little while. Oh, and they found out about this bounty on Serenity’s captain, Malcolm Reynolds … and …

Our prisoner spaces out, losing his train of thought. We bring his focus back to the here and now.

Verity asks our prisoner about the ship, Redemption, on which she’d served in her past. What can he tell her about that? The prisoner remembers that yeah, that job was done by Dead Eye Jack, so called on account of his being a dead shot. Nothing he aims for gets away. Nope. He goes on about the job for a moment or two more. Enraged, Verity kicks him in the nuts and ruptures one. Oksana has to do emergency surgery and is unable to salvage the damaged organ.

Verity waves Mal and asks him to come over to talk with her in private, Browncoat to Browncoat.

Mal flies right over and pulls Allyne aside: Watch River while he’s with Verity, would he? She’s a mite hinked about this whole business. Once closeted with Verity, she tells Mal everything the prisoner revealed: Dead Eye Jack, his ship El Dorado, how they were hired by the Alliance to kill her old ship Redemption and its crew. When Mal exits their private conversation, he’s got a scary look in his eyes.

Xiu flew over with Mal, her visit and work over on Serenity done. She goes straight to the engine room and talks to our ship:

“Poor baby. Tell me where they touched you. Show me on the schematic where they touched you.”

Mal finds Allyne and again, there’s some serious talk about spacing our prisoner. Oksana stands against it and she holes up in the recovery ward with the prisoner—who’s out cold, kept sedated to keep him from trouble. Oksana doesn’t trust the Captain not to space him once she sleeps, so she shuts herself up behind the recovery room door and shoves a bed across it. If anyone comes in, they’ll have to climb over her to get to the prisoner.

Allyne asks his circle of contacts as to what they know about Malcolm Reynolds and what trouble might be following him. Their answers come back thus:

A Russian mobster by name of Niska went in on a contract the Alliance put out on Malcolm Reynolds and his shipmates and anyone who might be his accomplices. To the tune of a million credits, Allyne’s contacts tell him. Mind, Niska’s got a nasty rep all his own and word is he’s got a private axe to grind with Mal. Getting the million in bounty would have been icing on the cake for Niska. His main concern was getting Mal. He’d heard of the prisoner’s buddies and their little pirate operation and contacted them to keep an eye out for Serenity and her captain. As for how Niska found out about the pirate operation …

We don’t know how many Alliance are in the pirate/inspector loop and it might be turning the prisoner over to the authorities when we land will tip our hand. After some heated moments of discussion, it’s decided to hang on to the prisoner a little bit longer. We have a contract to honor on Harvest. We will deliver on it and get paid. Afterward, we can decide what to do.

For the balance of the flight to Harvest, we settle into our tween-ports routines. Oksana cares for the passengers and our patient is kept on the hush-hush from them.

Xiu drafts up ideas for a mechanical otter (mascot for our ship), an hourglass with sand in it (aversion therapy vs. her phobia of sand), and works also on the gatling gun and hatch. She also pranks Allyne by putting pink protein pack dye in his jaccuzi tub jets and his showerhead. The next time he bathes, he gets dyed pink from head to toe. He is not pleased at all, no sir.

Verity keeps to herself, staying on the bridge when she can. The interrogation of the prisoner has given her much to think about. And even brood upon.

On approach to Harvest, we again get word via CSA that there will be an inspection of all ships landing on Harvest. Unsure about the integrity of the Alliance authorities, we decide to hide our prisoner in one of our smuggling hidey holes, fully drugged up to be knocked out. Oksana sees to it that he’s made comfortable and has enough meds/nutrients to get him through the inspection.

The inspection is short, thanks to the paperwork we’ve already got on hand, and everything seems on the up and up.

Whew!

Tuesday, 26 Sep 2519
Harvest, Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
06:30, local time

Verity lands us sweet as you please, with awesome flair, and we kiss dirt on Harvest. We unload that cargo and our passengers—who, thankfully, don’t seem to have really caught on to what’s happened. Once our holds are empty, we look for more cargo to fill them. Prospects for cargo and passengers look good bound for New Melbourne. We find tea is in demand there and that suits us fine.

At the end of the day, we decide on getting a load of tea and passengers bound for New Melbourne. Once there, we will sell the tea at profit, off load our passengers, and turn our unwelcome prisoner over to the Merchant’s Guild there. With luck, the pirate ring will not have spread that far and as the Merchant’s Guild has a vested interest in protecting trade, they will pursue justice instead of sweeping the crime under the rug.




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Game 05: Diversions
Diversions, pleasant and unpleasant, occupy our crew

Friday, 22 Sep 2519
Mid bulk Freighter Space Otter
Spaceport, Greenleaf
Red Sun (Que Zhe) System
Evening

In the couple of hours before dinner, Oksana is cooking in the galley in anticipation of our guests. She’s got some cooking experience and the ship’s computer library for recipe ideas. She decides that going simple is best: steaks, corn on the cob, potatoes, fresh veggies from our garden bunks. The Captain breaks out a luxury food ration to cover the more expensive items, including the chocolate cake for dessert.

Note: Real cocoa powder is 50 credits per ounce. A chocolate truffle half the size of a ping pong ball is 100 credits. So that chocolate cake is a pretty big deal.

Meanwhile, Allyne Stone tries to find extra cargo to fill up the little empty spaces in our cargo hold, but no luck.

Mal’s crew arrives shortly thereafter and Allyn greets them, taking them up the stairs to save them a claustrophobic trip up the lifts. Even though the lifts are ten feet square, with all of Mal’s crew it would have been a tight squeeze.

Oksana has set out the sideboard in the crew lounge with bottled alcohol and all the fixings for drinks, along with the usual bar nibbles. Allyne plays bartender and after everyone’s got their libation of choice in hand, Mal questions him about Oksana.

What side of the war was she on? Allyne admits he didn’t specifically ask but given what he’s been able to figure out for himself, she was on the Independent side. Well, she’s made my doctor uncomfortable, Mal admits. Allyne assures him that while Oksana’s people skills might be lacking, her heart is in the right place and she’s a damned good doctor. She’s good people.

Mal sees Verity walk in and hails her gladly: “Verry! Mei-mei! How’s Patches?”

Verity tells him that Patches passed away two years ago. Mal sobers. How did he go? he asks. Fighting or grappling? Verity tells him that Patches went the way he wanted. Mal nods at the news and tells her that if her crew doesn’t treat her right, she’s got a guaranteed place on Serenity. Verity assures him that she’s treated very well aboard Space Otter. Mal lets the matter drop with the request that she’ll keep in touch with him.

River greets Verity and after a couple of words, skips off to see Xiu. Engineering techobabble ensues.

Seating arrangements get figured out over the course of the drinks and greetings. Both captains sit at either end of the table and the rest of the crews take the spaces between as they wish. Dinner hits the table in due time and Mal’s eyes widen.

However did they get this bounty? he asks.

Allyne tells him. He’s got garden bunks and such. Among other things, he used to be a fixer. As a result he’s got contacts.

How’d he get this ship? Mal’s never seen anything like it.

Allyne launches into the tale of how he acquired it. The Otter’s an experimental prototype that didn’t quite make the grade with its intended owner. It was supposed to be decommissioned and scrapped but instead it was put on the auction block. Remember his contacts as a fixer? Well sir, that got him the word in time to make it to the three a.m. auction and put in his bid. His bid won.

Oh, good catch. Very nice. Mal goes on to coordinate with Allyne our trip to Harvest. They decide on which channel to use if we need to talk over the airwaves and Mal stresses that he’s parked only three berths down from us if we need him for anything.

Allyne asks him if he knows anything on the downlow about the shipment we’re all carrying. Mal has nothing on it or the company that it’s from. We haven’t anything either. So far, it looks pretty above board.

Throughout the dinner, River babbles on this and that. Simon is watching what she says like a hawk and whenever his sister strays into topics that might be too sensitive, he squelches it. River gets annoyed by his overprotective behavior. Simon is too painfully aware of Oksana sitting at the table with them and obviously doesn’t want the other doctor learning anything more about his sister. Jayne is deeply appreciative of the food, eating heartily without apologies. Zoe is her usual quiet self, with a touch of the stoic about her. It’s been only about a year since the death of her beloved Wash and Mal runs interference for her if the topics get too close to piloting and flying.

Dinner ends with full bellies and cargo holds waiting to be loaded—the shipment’s finally arrived. Time to get back to work.

On their way out, Simon and River are taken aside by Xiu. She thanks them both for engineering River’s escape. It gave the rest of the students at the Academy hope that they could someday escape themselves. It certainly gave Xiu hope and she didn’t want them to leave before she could thank them.

Mal overhears this and murmurs to Allyne his sympathies: if Xiu is anything like River, Mal knows Allyne has his hands full.

Conversations get wrapped up as our passengers who’ve booked passage for Harvest arrive. Oksana excuses herself to get them settled in her capacity as Ship’s Steward. And as the rest of the crew are escorting our guests through the cargo hold, they hear a ruckus outside. It’s a man yelling and screaming at one of the company reps delivering our cargo. He claims to have business with our crew.

We recognize him as the inspector who tried picking up Verity for drinks. He’s found our ship and he’s here to claim his date. Of course, Verity has gone back to the bridge and she’s listening to this over our PA and this just makes her laugh her butt off.

And somehow in the middle of her hilarity, she hits the button for the all-ship PA and her laughter rings out across all decks … including the cargo bay where the guy is standing.

Well, sir, that just deflates his male ego right flat.

Oksana excuses herself from our passengers and checks on Verity on the bridge. Is she okay? What is going on? Verity slaps the PA off and explains. Amused, Oksana watches the man from the bridge windows and remarks that there is only a one-letter difference between “laughter” and “slaughter” and apparently Verity’s managed to do both. Then Oksana goes back to her passengers.

We send the inspector on his way and Mal’s crew goes back to Serenity to oversee the loading of cargo. We get word that their ship is inspected during loading. We aren’t.

Hmm…

Oksana’s settled the passengers successfully and finds out that the family is the only party that has cargo that needs stowing. She goes to Allyne and gets permission to have them stow it in one of the cargo lockers in the cargo deck. She advises that they should escort the passengers if they need to get anything from their locker once the ship is in transit. Cargo has this habit of shifting and the dangers of getting hit by falling cargo is real enough to warrant extra care.

Allyne agrees and leaves to file his flight plan to Harvest with the proper authorities. We’re scheduled to take off first, with Serenity following us once we’re in atmo.

The moment arrives and we take off. It’s smooth as silk, thanks to Verity’s skill and Oksana remarks she can’t even feel us moving. It’s that smooth.

We pretty much settle into our in-transit routines. Oksana takes care of the passengers, seeing to their needs, explaining the schedule for meals and the escort rules for the cargo bay. Xiu busies herself working on the gatling gun and devising plans for a clockwork/friction mechanical otter. She plans to put it in the Captain’s Jacuzzi when it’s done.

Saturday, 23 Sept 2519
En route to Harvest

It’s an uneventful day. Everything goes peacefully.

Sunday, 24 Sept 2519
En route to Harvest

The family of four has two rambunctious kids and Oksana finds ways to entertain them. She anticipates their energy will have them waking first and so she’s ready with their breakfast in the lounge and activities to keep them occupied while she serves their parents breakfast in bed in their cabin. A chance for a meal and peace and quiet is appreciated by the grown-ups.

Our other passenger is taciturn and keeps to himself. He’s a bit like Jayne that way. Oksana’s duty as Steward is not to intrude but to make his journey to Harvest a pleasant one. She makes sure he has what he needs in terms of meals and such and leaves him his privacy.

Toward the middle of the day, Verity and Allyne notice that Serenity starts slowing down and falling behind on our sensors. They hail her and she doesn’t answer. We slow down to allow Serenity to catch up. Serenity comes to a full stop.

Not good.

We sweep her with our sensors and the results come back: her life support, her engines … everything’s shut down. She’s running dark. Xiu tells her captain that the Alliance and Reavers are the only thing Serenity would run dark for.

Definitely not good.

Allyne has Verity turn the Otter around and do a fly by. There are no signs of life and no signs of damage either. What happened to the ship? What stopped her dead in space?

There being nothing for it, we park alongside Serenity and suit up to knock on her door. Verity will stay on the bridge. Oksana goes to the passengers to explain that we’ve stopped to render assistance to Serenity and for their safety they should stay locked in their quarters.

Allyne chooses Oksana and Xiu to go with him. Oksana is a doctor who can patch up the people and Xiu is an engineer who can patch up the ship. Oksana takes her pistol with her. Allyne takes his sniper rifle. Xiu takes her usual suspects—tools and such. Oksana also takes her medical bag, just in case.

Everyone makes it to the top hull hatch on Serenity without mishap. Allyne cycles through first and goes through the outer and inner hatches in turn. He comes down the ladder into Serenity, right at the top of the foredeck stairs, just aft of the foredeck corridor where the crew quarters lay. To his immediate left are the stairs going down to the cargo hold one deck below. Ahead lies the foredeck corridor running left to right, with the crew lounge and galley to the left and the quarters to the right.

That’s all the time he has to observe before he hears shots ringing out on the deck below.

Shit!

He comms Oksana and warns her that she’s coming into a potentially hot situation. She comes through anyway and Xiu follows her. Once they’re all gathered together, Allyne cautiously checks the crew quarters—they’re all locked tight—and the bridge. The bridge door has been welded shut. There’s no getting past it without cutting it free.

Shots ring out again and there’s no ignoring it. There’s something going on down below and we take to the stairs down to see what’s going on. Mal and his crew may need our help. We go cautiously—we don’t want to get shot—and we get halfway down when we see the two bodies on the stairs.

They are civilian, not military, but their EVA suits are high quality—expensive bounty hunter grade. Whatever’s happening, it’s not likely on the up-and-up. Allyne orders Xiu to take the portside catwalk while he and Oksana take the starboard one. They’ll check the shuttles first before going down into the cargo hold proper.

Xiu’s inspection of the portside shuttle yields nothing but a scrap of fancy cloth. Otherwise it’s intact and empty save for a few boxes. Allyne gains the starboard shuttle but can’t open the door. A cautious look through the door’s window shows us why—it’s been decompressed. The door’s automatic systems will not allow it to open under those conditions. Allyne uses the scope on his sniper rifle to scan the hold below, going through all the different scope settings to find out if anything untoward is happening. Nothing shows up.

Meanwhile on Space Otter, Verity gets a warning from our shuttle’s security panel that we’re losing internal pressure in it. She hails Allyne through our comms and he tells her to activate the internal cameras aboard our shuttle remotely and take a look.

She does and sees 4 people in black EVA suits slipping around inside. Allyne tells her to remote launch the shuttle. Verity jettisons our shuttle and it starts floating away from our hull with the 4 invaders trapped inside.

FWOOOOOSHHHHHH!

Allyne sends Oksana down below to investigate while he stays above to provide her cover. Xiu climbs into one of the ventilation ducts on her own initiative.

Oksana gets halfway down the stairs when a shot pings off the railing at her side. She freezes.

“Hold it right there,” a gruff voice yells out.

It’s Jayne, with his most favorite gun Vera. Allyne calls out and identifies us as the friendlies. Jayne seems skeptical. Xiu yells at him that he’s a dumb ox. As she’s saying right at his feet from the vent and it’s something crazy like what River would do, that convinces him we are who we say we are.

He lets us approach and we get a sit rep from him:

1. Mal and Zoe are wounded.
2. They and everyone else is holed up in med bay.
3. There were 5 guys originally and he’s killed four.

We tell him we’ve got four more trapped in our shuttle. Oksana offers to go to med bay to help Simon.

Verity remotely shuts off the shuttle engines to keep the hostiles inside from taking off in it but they manage a hack around and start firing the engines up. A game of console button Whack-A-Mole ensues, with Verity punching buttons to shut things down as they start up. So far she’s managing to stay a step ahead of the bogies on the shuttle but she notices that the response time on her commands is getting longer. The bogies are fighting her remote commands and will soon hack their way past them. She tells Allyne that she’s running out of time.

Xiu (via comms): Send it a virus.

Allyne: Send a command to the shuttle to initiate the auto maintenance sequence. It can’t be hacked around. Lock all the airlocks except the forward airlock.

Verity manages to do it. Barely.

Sure enough, the shuttle gets locked into maintenance mode and the bogies are well and truly trapped inside. At least until they realize that there’s one airlock they can open and get out.

Jayne and Allyne inspect the cargo bay and the shuttles. Jayne’s worried about the 5th guy that he didn’t kill. That guy could be anywhere. River voice comes out of an air vent. The 5th guy tried to open a hatch that he shouldn’t, she explains.

Oksana arrives in the med bay in time to see the two girls, River and Xiu, drop or crawl out of the air vents.

Simon’s busy with Mal. He’s been shot badly in the thigh. Zoe is in better shape, suffering a clean through-and-through in the meaty portion of her upper left arm. The bullet missed bone and important nerves and blood vessels. Oksana gets to work on patching Zoe up.

Verity warns Allyne that the shuttle is coming back. Allyne tells her to lock it all down.

Xiu goes up to Mal, who’s amazingly still conscious while Simon works on him.

Xiu: Where’s Kaylee?
Mal: Engine room.

Xiu goes to the engine room to find her friend. The door has been welded shut and looking through the window on the door, Xiu sees that the engine room is empty. Where’s Kaylee?

Allyne quickly gets Jayne in a suit and they get back out topside to defend Space Otter. Just as they gain the hull, they see the shuttle’s redocked and the forward airlock is starting to open. Allyne and Jayne brace themselves and aim carefully.

The first man to exit the shuttle gets taken out by Allyne. The second man falls to Allyne as well. Jayne fires at and misses the third man, as does Allyne. The fourth man goes down on Jayne’s shot. Allyne only wings the first man, knowing that any hole he can put into the bogie’s EVA suit will kill him, but his second shot makes the second bogie’s helmet explode.

This tips off the third man in the airlock behind him and he immediately throws up his hands in surrender. Jayne keeps the man in his sights while Allyne does a quick hull check. Nothing else shows. The hull is clear. Verity sweeps the area and reports there are no other bogies.

Allyne and Jayne take the surviving third man into custody and drag him aboard the Otter. The man turns out to be the amorous asshole inspector who was mackin’ on Verity. They lock him up in one of the guest cargo lockers while they decide what to do next.

They decide to interrogate him.

Meanwhile, Xiu can’t find Kaylee. She’s not answering the engine room door. She calls Allyne with the news and Allyne comms Oksana, telling her to put Mal on the line. She passes her wrist comm to Mal and Allyne ask him where else Kaylee could be.

Mal: Her quarters. Check her quarters.

Xiu finds the door to Kaylee’s easy enough. It’s got a big hand painted wooden sign with flowers, butterflies, rainbows and her name right on it. The door is locked. Xiu bangs on it and calls out. Kaylee, you in there? Kaylee bangs on the door from the inside.

Yup. She’s in there.

Xiu confirms it and tries to figure out how the door’s locked. There’s a mechanism on the frame that doesn’t look like it belongs there, a mag-lock, and Xiu divines that’s what’s gumming the works. She can’t remove the mag-lock directly but she torches the door, hoping to catch the power supply line to the mag-lock and disabling it.

Xiu is lucky. She cuts the line. The mag-lock goes dead. Kaylee climbs out.

Xiu: Kaylee in a can!
Oksana: (via comms) Certified Fresh.

Oksana moves over to help with Mal. His injury is more severe than Zoe’s. In his case, the bullet is lodged in his thighbone. Luckily for him it missed the major artery, otherwise we’d be burying the captain, not operating on him.

Mal comes through the surgery. Oksana offers to have him spend time with a bone-knitter aboard Space Otter’s med bay. Simon is understandably envious of the better equipped bay but gets his patient aboard.

The dust settles as our respective crews assess the damage done. Space Otter is fine save for minor damage to our shuttle. Serenity is less lucky. There are tricky mag-locks on the crew quarters that need finessing to remove. There are tape-welds sealing the doors to bridge and engine room. There is no power on Serenity save for med bay, which was on a separate battery.

Fixing all this will put us half a day behind schedule. Luckily we built in an extra day as a transit cushion, so we won’t be hit with late fees.

Oksana gives the passengers the all-clear but informs them that they must stay on the crew deck of the Otter for the time being. The family tells her that they were actually a little scared by being shut in. She does her best to assure them that our partners are all right and that everything’s being taken care of.

We interrogate the inspector we’ve got locked up in our hold. Gauging the ugly mood of the crew, Oksana steps in and says she can rig up a cocktail of drugs that will make him sing like a canary. No torture necessary.

Allyne approves the idea and she injects the prisoner for questioning.

He tells us a few things:

He and his team were hired to scope out both our ships. They were to derelict Serenity and leave no witnesses.

Why derelict Serenity? Who hired him?

He doesn’t know. He was just hired by two guys.

What guys? Give us a description.

Doesn’t have to. They’re part of the raiding party we killed.

We show him the bodies. He identifies the two right off. We inspect their bodies and find the now-familiar skull and bat wing tattoo on their left forearms. There is no ID on them. No other clues to who they are.

How did they get aboard Serenity?

They were brought aboard in a special crate, geared to carry them and trick the scanners. It’s a classic Trojan Horse play. We find the crate. It’s got patterns on it making it look like the other cargo but it’s got thicker walls to dampen the scanners. We check the manifest. It’s listed as a half full crate. It’s now empty.

What were they after? we ask the prisoner.

He doesn’t know. They didn’t tell him.

He doesn’t know anything else of value, despite our questioning him.

Allyne and Mal are all for spacing the bastards as pirates. The Laws of Space allow Captains to be judge, jury, and executioners of pirates who attack their ships. Oksana disagrees and urges turning over the prisoner to the proper authorities instead.

A brief discussion ensues. Nobody knows who’s hired the thugs to kill Serenity’s crew and oh, don’t forget they were going to kill us too because we would have been potential witnesses. At this point we cannot be sure if the people who attacked Serenity were after River and Simon or if there was another target they were after, but we can’t leave anyone alive to come after whatever they were after for. The conversation quickly goes paranoid and vengeful after that and when the Captains call it, it’s in favor of spacing. Oksana defers to the majority vote, clearly outnumbered.

The game ends with the decision reached but with the sentence yet to be carried out.




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Game 04: Gathering Elements
Red tape, cargo, and new acquaintances

Thursday, 21 Sep 2519
In orbit over Greenleaf
Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
0000hrs, local time

We are held in Greenleaf airspace awaiting boarding for inspection and background checks.

The Alliance announces Greenleaf and its environs to be under a Level Orange Alert.

Whatever the hell that means.

We contact our client on the ground and attempt to get some more information on what’s going on and all he can tell us is that the Dock Inspector must clear our cargo before we can off-lade.

Soon after we end that conversation, Verity gets a wave: Expect the Inspector to arrive in the next 30 minutes for inspection and scanning. Have the Captain waiting at the airlock with the cargo manifest ready.

Inspector Radcliff comes aboard with 7 men equipped with scanning equipment. And guns. Radcliff splits his men off into two-man teams to tackle various areas of the ship. Two are sent to the bridge where Verity waits. Two others are dispatched with Oksana to investigate the crew deck (including their quarters). And the other two go with the Inspector to investigate the Engine Room with Xiu.

Some things are discovered: the first class accommodations have little hidey holes for the guests. Nothing is in them and the accommodations pass. The Jacuzzi in the Captain’s quarters raises eyebrows and exclamations of envy. The safe in the Captain’s quarters is also discovered and opened, revealing a lot of Alliance credits and a fair amount of platinum. Stone says it’s for transactions where the credit isn’t legal tender and he expects to be doing a lot of business soon. He’s allowed to keep the money. Verity has had the time to hide her pro-Independent banners and mementoes, so her quarters turn up nothing. The Captain is grilled on the existence of “unofficial” holding spaces on the deck plans, but Stone is able to come up with a plausible explanation for them. They are inspected and they are completely empty. No evidence of wrongdoing here. The secret door and passage to the Engine Room from the hold is found. Stone manages to convince the Inspector that this development is new to him. The cargo and the hold passes inspection. Two are doing an outside scan of the ship’s hull and though there are a few anomalies, they check out clean.

Verity flirts with one of the inspectors while on the bridge. He flirts back: meet him for drinks at a nearby bar, The Rusty Gimbal, later? His partner orders him to check something aft of the bridge. Once the flirt leaves, the other guy gives Verity some advice: don’t go near that bar and don’t go drinking with the man—he’s rough on womenfolk. Verity assures him she has no intention of going out with the guy, as she doesn’t lean that way.

Okay, then.

In the engine room, Xiu has to explain the modifications she’s made to Space Otter. The Inspector knows his stuff, even more than our own engineer. Xiu manages the technobabble glibly, despite the Inspector’s pointed questions. We pass inspection.

The faked records we made up for Xiu seem to be holding up, too. The Inspector calls his crew to him and they exit, clearing us to land on Greenleaf.

Whew.

It’s chaos in the air as an untold number of ships hover aloft, waiting their turn to be inspected and cleared. It’s pretty crowded in Greenleaf’s sky but Verity weaves through the metal logjam with no trouble. More than ever, she proves her crackerjack abilities as a pilot.

Once settled we call our client to tell him we’re open for business, his cargo is waiting for him, and our client assures us that there is nothing in the cargo that will get us in trouble.
He waves back a little while later telling us when they’re going to pick that shipment up.

Meanwhile, we’re already looking to land our next job.

We find several. Two are on-planet runs, there is one going to Harvest and one going to Triumph. They all have bids on them and it looks like we might have come too late to the party. We look into the Harvest job, anyway.

It’s a large cargo of farming equipment—combines, tractors and the like. The tonnage is too large for our ship to hold on its own … but we could manage to split the tonnage with another ship and crew, splitting the take for the job. Both crews find work and both crews get paid.

We send out feelers and we get a response: Cpt. Malcolm Reynolds of Serenity indicates he’s interested. We look into his reputation. It’s solid and of course, his street cred in certain circles is running high these days, thanks to the Miranda Wave. He tells us he can take on two of the combines and we can take the other three. The rest of the cargo can be shoehorned into both ships around the bigger cargo. He asks for a 50/50 split.

We agree to the terms and shake hands on the deal. It’s pretty sweet, no matter how you split it: 1,500 credits, split 50/50, for only two days hard burn.

We put in our combined bid and we win it.

Score!

Xiu gets fired up to mod our engines to deliver a 48 hour hard burn without meltdown and yet achieving fuel efficiency.

Oksana has been appointed the ship’s steward on top of her doctor’s duties and she goes out to rustle up passengers. She updates the message board at our berth, advertising first class accommodations at general passage prices, due for departure in two days (23rd Sep). That should net us a few passengers.

She’s successful. She makes two bookings. She gets a wave from a man looking to take his wife and two kids to Harvest where they will meet family. The other passenger booking is done face to face: A ranch hand has work waiting for him on Harvest if he can just get to it.

Meanwhile, the two crews mingle, scoping each others’ ships and crews out, as they trade stories and news.

River and Kaylee come aboard to visit our engineer.

The second Xiu sees River, Xiu has a traumatic flashback from her Academy days:

River is strapped to a chair and getting an advanced head package as Xiu watches. In a flash, River breaks free of her restraints, eviscerates the attending physician with a scalpel, and then sits calmly back down in her chair and ties the restraints back on herself.

Xiu manages to avoid a PTSD episode and offers to show River the amphibian engine. River looks at Xiu closely and asks:

“Where you present when I had a disagreement with Dr. Hatfield?”

“Ye-esssss,” Xiu answers.

And then River and Xiu talk colors. Xiu says she hates blue, but it looks good on some people. The talk falls into seasonal color palettes and then River smiles and says she’s going to see the bridge. River leaves. Xiu goes on to show Kaylee all the parts and pieces of the engine room. Kaylee notices something in Xiu’s expression and asks Xiu if she’s okay.

None better, is the answer.

And at that, all brakes are off and the two young women suck out all the oxy in the room as they fly off into engine-babble land. Allyne Stone watches off to the side for a moment and when River leaves for the bridge, he takes his leave of Xiu turns and goes off to follow River.

He doesn’t see River on the way, which is odd, because there is only one public route to the bridge without access to the private ladders in the pilot’s and captain’s quarters. He thought River would be in the foredeck corridor or in the elevator waiting for him but no, no sign of the girl until he walks onto the bridge itself. River has somehow made it to the bridge and is currently talking with Verity.

Verity and River flirt and there’s a hint that they might actually get up to something later. But flirting is flirting and it may lead to nothing.

Allyne Stone quizzes Xiu as to what she’s doing with the engines. She gives Allyne a list of parts she’s going to need to get that hard burn mod put in.

Meanwhile, Oksana is over on Serenity talking shop with the ship’s doctor, Simon Tam. Tam describes a patient’s symptoms, she glances at the records readout and manages to understand more than Tam suspects. Oksana recognizes some similarities between his patient and Xiu. She’d encountered a drug during the war that high ranking Alliance officers were given, Polypropylhydrocortane-3. It helped them to recover from PTSD and other emotional/mental trauma. It bonds to affected neurons connected to scarring. It also causes regeneration of nerve tissue. It is made in limited quantities in the Core and is prohibitively expensive at 15 thousand credits a dose.

On a hunch she returns to Space Otter to whip up a drug cocktail as a substitute for the more expensive drug. It’s a combination of adrenal blockers (Nix-Ephrine and Adrenol) neuro-blockers (Delcynor) and she explains the dosage. While not as strong as the PPHC-3, it may yet give Simon Tam’s patient relief, who is currently being dosed with Dopamine inhibitors. When Simon asks Oksana why she’s helping him—after all, she doesn’t know his patient and is under no obligation to treat her—Oksana tells him that she’d seen a lot of traumatized women and girls during the war. They all had a certain look in their eye and a set of symptoms that matched the patient he was caring for. PTSD, nightmares, and such. She couldn’t help all the women she’d found during the war but perhaps she could help this one patient. Simon thanks her for the medicine and admits he’s uncomfortable in discussing the matter further. Oksana gets the hint and bows out, leaving behind some medical journals for him to read.

The day ends on the crews agreeing to meet for dinner together before they depart for Harvest with the cargo.




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