Chronicles of Chiron: Network Node | Scene 18

As we prepare to roll out of camp, single file, I make an offer. “I’ll see what I can do to make a clearer track for us to move through, now that we have this whole giant robot parade.”

“You got this, Mariah!” Cor encourages me.

I’ve been able to get xenofungus to wave, and I’ve pushed miasma aside. Maybe I can do something about all this undergrowth. I take the lead, walking out of our small clearing while concentrating on the plants and fungus nearby, trying to coax them out of the way. Where we are now is more shroom forest than the vine-like entanglements close to our cryopods and Data Haven. That means there’s a bunch of, for lack of a better term, mushroom saplings to deal with, which don’t feel as pliable to me. As I walk around, seeing what will respond to me, I get a sort of feedback, an impression of what is around. I keep finding myself returning to the same spot, where a short, stubby, brilliantly blue mushroom sticks out from the greener tones around it. 

I pull out the zine Dr. Citali gave me and flip through it. This is called a bluebell, and it’s described as being a miasma attractor. I can’t help but wonder if it was attracting me to it just now. I point the bluebell out to the others, and Cleve says that’s what they used to treat my lungs last night. Ah, so that explains the color of what was smeared all over my face and chest. This mushroom seems like a useful thing to keep on hand—if we can transport it safely. Cleve offers me an empty jar from his first aid kit. It’s labeled burn ointment, and I suppose they used up that resource on me last night, too. I scoop up the bluebell along with some of the dirt it’s growing in and carefully transfer all that into the jar. Then I put my new terrarium into my satchel.

That distraction set aside, I return my attention to trying to clear a path through the vegetation.The most I can manage is just a gentle sway aside. “This is too much space, and with us moving… It’s more than I can figure out how to consistently do right now,” I tell Cleve, trying to excuse my inability to be useful here. “I can’t juggle this all.”

Cleve nods, looking unsurprised. Maybe he’s not really judging me all the time. Maybe I’m just projecting that on him, based on all the evaluative questions he’s asked me. But I really feel the need to justify myself to him. “Save your strength,” he tells me. Then he brushes past me and guides our bushwhacking expedition onward.

Cleve is pleased with the progress we make that day. The suns are just starting to set following an afternoon cloudburst when Cor has to do the first battery swap, so it’s a good thing Cleve found that spare. We’re moving at about the same speed as we did on the way out, since he’s just retracing a route he’s already blazed—though we don’t make camp in the same spot, so as to avoid upsetting any wolf beetles. There’s a pretty good chance we might reach Data Haven late tomorrow before the second battery runs out.

Day two takes us through some very thick vegetation, and all of us—not just me with my boutonniere—end up covered in bits and pieces of it. Including the robots. This turns out to be a good thing, because it helps Cor and our prizes remain hidden when Cleve and I step out ahead of them into a clearing and hear a familiar voice. There’s not many voices on this planet that we would recognize, but this is one of them.

“Whoa! Who’s there?” Yushi calls out, as startled as we are. He’s in the same attire as last time, but with a daypack of travel supplies. A couple of his underlings wear light rain ponchos over their polo shirts. 

What is the repo squad doing all the way over here? We’re a couple of days of hiking from when we last encountered them. Hopefully they haven’t somehow followed Cor’s trail this far. “Yushi! What are you doing this far afield?” I ask, with unfeigned surprise. And then it’s back to being a con artist, like I was before I landed the job with the Unity Project. I pitch my voice loud enough for Corazon to take the warning as I say, “It makes sense for prospecting people like us to be out this way looking for new places. I’m surprised that you folks from the repo squad are needed over here.” The lie comes easily to me; we’ve used this approach with Yushi before. But it occurs to me that in the week since we’ve last seen him, his squad could have learned at their domes that Cleve and I aren’t actually employed by Morgan Prospecting. I keep talking, padding my lies with some truth to make them more credible. “Man, there’s been some pretty bad miasma out here.”

“Oh, we have to go all around. You know how it is!” Yushi replies, waving away my concerns. Then he goes on, “Anyway, we’re a part of the repo squad, so we get help wherever we can, right? And I need you two to help me. We’re trying to track down any information we can about a network node that’s actually not that far from here. Something went wrong with it.” I school my features, showing no reaction to this information. Cleve is helped by his general stoic look. Internally, though, I groan. Claiming to be an employee of some Morgan group has placed us under Yushi in some grand hierarchy where repossession is king? They have the power to impress people into their service? What a future Nwabudike Morgan has built here!

Yushi’s tone is bright and amiable. “Your help will be invaluable if you’ve already been in the area! As a prospector, you’ve probably seen a lot of things.”

“Uh, networks? That’s completely outside prospecting…” I hedge. 

“We were just over that way,” Cleve tells Yushi, stepping in with a clever approach. “There’s a lot of miasma around there right now. This is not the time to be going over there. In the day? When the miasma’s the worst? That’s a dumb idea. You should wait a few days.”

“Ugh, I wish I could,” Yushi says pleasantly, “but what with the rains, we have to get there as soon as we can. We’ll just be quick, in and out, and we’ll take care of it.” Yushi is jovial, but his squad doesn’t much like Cleve’s tone. I suspect they’re also impatient with the leeway their boss is giving us, rather than just ordering us around. Each one probably thinks he could handle this situation more effectively. “A factory blew up,” Yushi continues, “so it’s pretty serious.”

“We’d love to help you out, but it’s just not safe for us to go back there,” I tell him. “We were just back where all that miasma was. Our exposure levels right now are really high. We need to get back inside. Before we bumped into you guys down in that river valley, we’d already been out for a week. And we’ve got another week ahead of us just to get back.”

“Oh, gosh! You should get a better position then. They’re keeping you out that long?” It’s not said in a commiserating tone, but a more vacant, cheerful one. While I can appreciate a pleasant person—goodness knows I want to be liked—Yushi’s positivity here is bordering on naivety. Or perhaps it’s willful ignorance. He just doesn’t want to think about what Morgan Industries puts its employees through. “If you can get a spot in Repossession—well, my squad is full right now…” A couple of his underlings bristle at this potential threat to their position. “Some people think it’s not the best since you spend a lot of time outside. But while you’re still young, it’s totally fine, right?” He looks around in satisfaction, and I get the distinct impression that this fit young man likes being out here. It may actually still be okay for him. I’d thought he was about Corazon’s age, but he might be a little younger even. The fellows in his squad, they’re probably only sixteen or seventeen.

“It’s great that you get to spend so much time outside,” Yushi continues. “I don’t know how they run your detox, though. They keep us on a pretty good schedule: a week in, a week out. And at least that way you get to see the outdoors. Although, well, they’re expanding more… But that just means I get to go further afield and see more things, right?” He’s got some level of discomfort surrounding development, but it’s buried under too much company loyalty. That misplaced loyalty comes to the fore now with more of a push than a gentle nudge. “Ah, look, Mariah, you really do have to help me since I’ve activated repo priority. Do you know how bad your debt ratio goes up if you upset the repo squad? It’s really bad.”

Yushi’s tone of voice is still friendly and helpful, like he’s looking out for our best interests here, but there’s an underlying threat. I may have no Morgan debt right now, and so in that sense it’s an empty one, but I understand what this would mean to Yushi’s intended audience. The amount of medical debt I entered adulthood with was enough to keep me living paycheck to paycheck until I left Earth.

It’s a shame Yushi and I are on opposite sides here; there’s a lot of common ground we could share. If we’d met in Data Haven, I’d be telling him about all the cool plants and animals I’ve seen so far. I don’t want to upset him, and I don’t want him not to like me, but there’s kind of a lot in the way of that right now. “It’s twenty percent worse. Twenty percent!” Yushi continues. “You don’t want your credit rating getting hurt. And you two have been so helpful so far,” he adds, including Cleve in his magnanimous cautions.

“Fine,” Cleve says, “but we went through there, so we pick the path.” Ah. A brilliant move by Cleve. If we can keep the repo squad occupied and lead them on a circuitous route, maybe Cor can find her own way back to Data Haven. It’s essentially the same ruse we pulled before. We can continue to just be so helpful that we disrupt their plans. That works for Yushi. He even graciously agrees that we don’t have to go all the way to the network node ourselves, just get him and his squad going and guide them around the worst of the miasma. After all, they’re the investigators, not us. All he needed was a little agreement from us; he’s as interested in maintaining friendship as I am.