Throwback Thursday: Space Cowboys #4 – “Laid Up”

by mshrm

Rahne’s army men appear again, here. These were packages of action figures and accessories, loaded up with advanced electronics to turn them into robots with just enough AI to play their roles. Rahne was something of a war game enthusiast, so all of her army men were based on soldiers from different historical periods. She could give them orders through her onboard computer. The TL 9 folks were initially spooked at them, but Bubba was so charmed at the little soldiers that everybody got over it.

Rahne had an implanted computer running an AI, named Cervantes. She also had an Biological Operating System Implant that allowed her to consciously control her metabolism. Her TL 10 family had been early adopters, so they had her wired at an early age. They counted it as the equivalent of getting one’s ears pierced. Dr Nanika knew, of course, but the rest of the crew was largely oblivious. They would have flipped, had they known, but they didn’t entirely understand what they were seeing. As far as they were concerned, both Rahne and the doc just occasionally acted really weird.

Rahne came aboard with her life-long pet, a genetically engineered buffaloid. Imagine a buffalo, about the size of a large dog, but more powerfully built. It had been engineered for increased intelligence, to about halfway between most dogs and Lassie. She would ride it around the ship. It was very protective of her.

At this point, Rahne was never changing her clothes. She wore a jumpsuit of what appeared to be plastic, along with a pair of chunky boots and an oversized wrist chronometer. The jumpsuit was a TL 10 space biosuit (see GURPS Ultra-Tech, pg 179). It had its own independent AI to supervise its activities, named Don Diego. The thing on her wrist was a survival watch (UT p77), with a sufficiently advanced computer to support yet another AI, named Don Lorenzo.  

“All three barrels” isn’t a typo. Bubba had equipped the ship with weapons in case of pirate attack. He chose triple-barreled shotguns loaded with shot, to avoid the possibility of poking holes in the ship’s skin. 

Hal has a lucky moment, in contrast to his usual. It wasn’t luck, it was a Gizmo. Hal remains fate’s whipping boy.

On Ceres, TL 10 technology was available. The crew took some advantage of this. Mainly, Osolo got an active tattoo on his eyelids, so when he closed his eyes, he still looked like he was awake and alert. His plan was to use them to cover his frequent naps.

Another detail about Osolo that was familiar to the players, and so didn’t really get called out in the reports:  He was a fervent believer in a fringe church, an offshoot of Christianity who got their Bible mixed up with their zombie movies during the great exodus from Earth. They believed that Jesus rose as a zombie and that the zombie state, being life-after-death without leaving the living world behind, was a state of grace to be greatly desired. 

What with the end of the world, plus the trauma of the exodus, future religion clearly took some odd turns along the way.

What happened:

The Cabra set sail on 5 September 2517, leaving Ceres. Samale was notably subdued, but the real attention was on Hal. (Flashback: Hal in the Botany Bay police’s interrogation room, being worked over by two agents who never bothered to ask any questions. The only word Hal recalled, from halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness, was “Yakuza”.) Dr Nanika put him on bed rest, leaving his sail-raising duties to Cap’n Jack. The escape from orbit went without incident, while the crew discussed their course. After reviewing the cost/benefit numbers, the vote was for the quicker, riskier, 90-day transfer. The course was laid in, while accommodations were made for the refugees.

A space for the refugees was prepared in the back end of the upper cargo bay. In particular, a pair of camp showers were put in. This required some re-routing of pipes. On the afternoon of 6 September, as Dr Nanika was removing the last of Hal’s bandages, Cap’n Jack staggered into sickbay, bleeding heavily from a head wound. While the doctor set to work cementing Cap’n Jack’s skull back together, Hal backtracked the trail of blood. The trail began near the ladder from the utility airlock chamber.

When Cap’n Jack regained consciousness, he asked who else was hurt. He explained that he had been working on the re-piping project when he noticed a bloody hand-print near the utility airlock. In his surprise, he said, he had slipped, fallen, and hit his head. At Bubba’s prompting, Dr Nanika checked Cap’n Jack’s blood alcohol level, finding that he shouldn’t really be operating heavy machinery. While nobody particularly confronted Cap’n Jack about it, the crew agreed that the Cap’n had probably just taken a drunken fall, possibly with some “pink elephant” hallucinations thrown in.

Over the course of the next few days, the presence of the refugees made itself felt. Zubayr, one of the refugees, made a name for himself around the ship – even among the missionaries – as being a bit too credulous, when he discovered an image of Elvis in a tortilla. More than once, both passengers and crew were startled by oversized, unusually aggressive spiders. (Osolo identified these as a seasonal infestation: startling, but basically harmless.) Rico and Norberto, another two of the refugees, claimed that they had been chased from the cargo area by some sort of angry, hissing creature with glowing red eyes.

As a response to all the creepy-crawly activity, Bubba asked Rahne to deploy her army men around the ship, set to count big spiders as the enemy. More than once, various members of the crew made attempts to track or trap whatever creature had invaded the boat. Finally, nearly fed up, Hal, Osolo, and Bubba armed themselves with shotguns and went about shifting all the cargo, looking to flush out the beastie. The plan worked; Hal came face-to-face with a skunk when Osolo and Bubba lifted the box it was hiding behind. Hal narrowly avoided being sprayed – a couple of refugees weren’t so lucky – and retaliated with all three barrels of his shotgun. The skunk reverted to free atoms, giving the cargo area a distinctive odor. Osolo described it as the “smell of zombie”.

Around this time, Samale came down to the sickbay, muttered “I don’t feel so…”, and passed out. Dr Nanika had him on support in short order. The diagnosis was some sort of viral infection, which put Samale in a coma. Jobs were shuffled, such that Bubba was handling the piloting, while Hal and Cap’n Jack took over the engine room. Pitching in, Rahne took to helping Osolo with the cooking. At one point, she asked his opinion of the passengers (also opening an IM window to ask the same question of Dr Nanika), mentioning that she didn’t like them, since their “relationship matrix” was entirely too “inward-facing”.

Weekly inventories of food began to show discrepancies from projections. Over time, it became obvious that food (and wine, and medical supplies) were disappearing at an accelerated pace. Eventually, it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough food to make the entire trip, at the measured rate of consumption. The crew took increasingly stringent measures to discover the cause of the problem, including moving one of Rahne’s units of army men to keep an eye on the pantry.

During the second week of the trip, the refugees were becoming fairly unsettled. However, one day, they were found to be in excellent morale, singing hymns to The King. When questioned, they explained that they had been given a visitation from Elvis himself, during the night. More than one of the refugees reported Elvis sightings. They had taken this as a sign, that despite the trials of the voyage, they were blessed and protected.

One day, while working outside with the sails, Hal happened to notice something through the upper cargo bay door: two of the refugees, Rico and Norberto, trying to siphon fuel from the reserve tanks! Full of righteous anger, Hal went to the airlock, aiming to enter and confront them… only to find the door locked. Queries upon the comm system raised Cap’n Jack, seemingly out of his head. He insisted that Hal was not, in fact, Hal, but a pirate pretending to be Hal to gain entry to the boat. After a few moments of delirious rambling, he fainted. Once let in, Hal led Bubba on the trail of the pair of refugees, while Osolo and Dr Nanika took Cap’n Jack to sickbay.

Once confronted, the two refugees admitted their wrong-doing. They promised to never do such a thing in the future, and to do extra chores to work off their debt.

In sickbay, Dr Nanika found that Cap’n Jack was protein-deficient, as if he hadn’t been eating enough, which explained his fainting. Aside from signs of excitement, nothing else seemed troubling. There was some discussion of relieving him of his duties, but, already short-handed, the crew decided to keep him on the job.

Among the crew, not being comforted by the sheltering hand of Elvis, there was an atmosphere of mounting paranoia. Rahne’s pantry-guard were found deactivated. The food stores continued to be depleted more quickly than expected.

Zubayr pointed out that they weren’t only under the protection of Elvis, but also “angels”. He explained that he had met “the angel Hendrix” in the cargo bay the night before, near the showers. Fed up with the mystery of the religious visitations, Hal went to spend the night with the refugees, dressed in one of their robes, while Osolo went to take a long shower in the refugee’s area.

Unknown to the rest of the crew, earlier that day, Rahne had confessed to Dr Nanika: Rahne was Elvis. Bored, and annoyed with the refugees’ shows of faith, she had been using her pocket holoprojector to create a hoax. Having gone this far, however, she was afraid to just admit to it. At Dr Nanika’s urging, she set up one last prank.

While Osolo was taking his shower, Bubba was trying to get some quality time with his daughter. He tried to get her interested in the control room, but she feigned boredom. She claimed to be more interested in the engine room. Delighted, Bubba took her to the engine room, right around the corner from the refugee’s showers… unknowingly putting her within holoprojector range of Osolo. In the showers, Osolo was confronted with a glowing, floating “young Elvis”. With a roar, he dove to capture the manifestation, only to fall right through it. Inside the engine room, Bubba heard Rahne giggle, followed by the sound of his twin impacting the engine room wall.

Feeling that Osolo was in danger through their psychic twin connection, Bubba threw Rahne to Cap’n Jack, shouting “Don’t let her out of your sight!” Picking up his extra-large pipe wrench on the way, he went to find out what was going on. Just as he was helping pick Osolo up off the floor, Dr Nanika, keeping an eye on Samale down in sickbay, received a series of messages from Rahne: “911. Help. Help. Help. <status changed to ‘Pressurized’.>”

When Dr Nanika got on the communicator to announce that something was going wrong, Bubba had dropped his weapon to help rescue Osolo. The two of them, as well as the refugees and Hal, were drawn by the sound of the engine room door slamming shut and locking. They were more puzzled than worried, until they heard from Dr Nanika.

At that point, Hal revealed that he had luckily borrowed the master keyring earlier that day, and pulled out the key to the locked door. Inside, they found Cap’n Jack, spitting curses against pirates, in his vacc suit but with his helmet open, dragging Rahne, with her suit sealed, towards the airlock door. Bubba drew his attention, then knocked him out with a single punch to the jaw.

Cap’n Jack was taken directly to sickbay, sedated and bound. Dr Nanika again noted high adrenaline levels and protein-deficiency, but still could not isolate the cause.

Now even more short-handed, the crew was all but working around the clock. The food inventory continued to be nothing but bad news. Dr Nanika also realized that medical supplies had gone missing, even though Jarvis (her virtual assistant) insisted that the numbers added up. A close review showed missing antibiotics, shown as removed by “Feargus McDoughal”, a crew member who had died of starvation on a ill-fated trip in 2485, over 30 years before.

Fed up with the missing supplies, Osolo borrowed a shotgun from the ship’s gun cabinet, and took to sleeping in the kitchen. (Unknown to him, Bubba had loaded it with rock salt.) On the night of Sunday, 26 September, he awoke, disturbed by his twin brother’s nightmares. There, in the kitchen, he saw… Elvis. Controlling himself, he used his new eyes-on-eyelids active tattoos, and his natural acting abilities, to fake sleep. Reassured, “Elvis” opened the refrigerator door. There, in the light, Lefty, one of the missionaries, was revealed! With no hesitation, Osolo unloaded the shotgun into Lefty’s backside.

There was no denying that he had been stealing food. Lefty claimed that the given portions were just too damn small for him, so he had been forced to take matters into his own hands. Furthermore, though he admitted to stealing food, he would not accept responsibility for stealing all the food.

The next morning, Dr Nanika entered sickbay to find that Cap’n Jack had gone through a transformation. His skin was gray, his eyes were red, his teeth and fingernails were pronounced, and he announced an enthusiastic willingness to consume human brains. In short, he had become a zombie.

Shaken by this discovery, Dr Nanika initially tried to keep Osolo away from sickbay. That fell apart when Rahne ran to report what she had seen before Bubba threw her out. The entire crew gathered to discuss the problem. Soon, the question of contagion came up. It was proposed that sacrificing a chicken to the experiment would be worthwhile. Osolo was sent to secure a test chicken.

In the chicken coop, a shadowy figure jumped Osolo, knocking him out. Bubba sensed that something was wrong, and so the rest of the crew, understandably spooked, went to help. Just outside the coop, they met the Signifyin’ Monkey… now, also zombified, and with blood on his lips.

Hal and Bubba engaged the Monkey in hand-to-hand. During the scuffle, the Monkey drew a laser pistol and got off a wild shot, putting a hole in the skin of the boat. Displaying admirable cool-headedness, Hal noted the location of the hole, prioritized it as no immediate worry, and went right back to the fight.

Back in the coop, Osolo awoke to find that his ear had been bitten through. Despite his earlier protests that the state of being a zombie is an ideal state of grace granted by Zombie Jesus, he decided that he wasn’t yet worthy. He tried to cut off his own ear, to head off infection, but was unable to do the deed.

Outside, Bubba got in a world-class kick to the Monkey’s groin, and the tech-ninja went down. Dr Nanika went to help Osolo, and finished the job of ear amputation with some expedient field surgery. Hal went about putting a patch on the hole in the ship. While everyone else was thus distracted, Bubba carefully broke the unconscious man’s neck, killing him instantly.*

Now able to compare blood samples from Cap’n Jack, the Signifyin’ Monkey, and Osolo’s ear, Dr Nanika was able to isolate the virus that was affecting them all. (Osolo was relieved that he had avoided a false zombie state.) She broadcast a warning back to Ceres, to watch out for signs of a possible zombie plague.

At this point, the boat was entering the influence of Jupiter, and the crew was running on little more than Osolo’s coffee. Dr Nanika was forced to make the navigation of the boat a priority over keeping watch over her patients. Sadly, after several days, Cap’n Jack lost the battle with the zombie plague, and died before Turn-Around Day.

Cap’n Jack was buried in space with full honors, while the Signifyin’ Monkey’s corpse was sent on a course into the atmosphere of Jupiter, to guarantee cremation.

* Quite possibly, the most consequential event of the entire first season. When Bubba’s player announced it, the room went dead quiet. We don’t get many of those.