Chapter 12:


From Nowhere to Sender

"A canister?"

"Yes, a canister. An empty one at that. No identifiable features to speak of."

Esma was currently conferring with Reefe, the comms officers aboard the Crusader who recovered the canister in question. Apparently one of the security officers spotted it from the strong side platform of all places during the brief run-in.

"Collecting cans ain't rare in field service, but they're usually carrying smoke. Hussards throw them to help cover the approach of Volts and Demens."

"But there weren't any approaches, and smoke would have hurt them more than helped them in this scenario."

"The possibility remains that it's just litter from a previous clash, but where we found it is just too convenient."

Esma agreed, and the canister more or less confirmed suspicions that the raiders were camping this portion of the route for some time. Raising the possibility that one of them could have just dropped or forgotten the canister.

"Hey, you're talking about the thing Preece recovered right? Tell 'em to throw it over, I want to see it." Lux, who had remained on the bridge in the wake of their first visit, finally spoke up from the front of the bridge.

"Um, would it possible to pass the canister over to C248? Some of ours would like to have a look at it."

"That could be...difficult. You see Flannery already reported the details of the first visit to Belveer. They would be none too pleased if one of the objects of interest didn't reach the station for further analysis."

Lux strode over and snatched the headset from Esma's head, as if she somehow knew where the course of the conversation was going. "For fuck's sake Corrs just toss it over already! I'll catch the damn thing as long as you make sure to throw it far enough!"

"We're talking about an empty canister you know? Weight and wind become a factor."

"So put something heavy in it!"


"I'll be waiting on the back deck." With that Lux handed the headset back over to Esma and exited the bridge.

"Hold on! Let's at least pass it over from the platforms!"

"I'm afraid she already left." Esma could already imagine Lux standing on the back deck, arms crossed. Gaze fixed on the Crusader across the formation from them.

"I'll call down to Vedmann and have him catch it." Cade who still wore the additional headset offered, although his mic wasn't hot.

"Go ahead and pass it over from the platform, they'll be someone down there to receive it."

One very precarious game of catch later, exasperated by a certain security officers relentless heckling from the deck, and the empty canister was now in the C248's bridge. Lux picked it up first and began her examination by checking all of its sides.

"Looks like an ordinary smoke canister." She proceeded to lift the opening to her face and huff the nonexistent contents, "Doesn't smell like one though."

Lux gestured to Esma and Evan, who'd come to see as well, as if to ask if either wanted a whiff for themselves. Both declined, uninterested in putting an object of unknown origin and purpose up to their faces.

"Can't have Tristler smell it, he'll contaminate the evidence. Where's Nocks?"

"Brooding downstairs. Still seems put off from earlier." Evan offered.

Cade sighed and got everyone's attention with several loud snaps of his fingers. Like really loud snaps. Esma questioned whether Cade's fingers were even flesh and bone with snaps so severe.

"No one else needs to go huffing canisters, but I would like one of you to go trade positions with Gandlin. I need to ask him something."

While Evan went to fetch Tristler the others resumed their investigation. Esma finally got her hands on the canister and found it to be unremarkable in every way.

"Not to be that girl, but isn't it possible this has nothing to do with anything and we're all just wasting time and energy that would be better spent strategizing how we'll handle upcoming attacks?"

"I'd be a supporter of that theory if Nocks's recounting of the attack had been less eventful."

"Your referring to the flag."

"Not the flag, although that is worth acknowledging. His short-term voice loss is what has my attention."

Esma hadn't given much thought to the security officer's prior voice struggles and attributed most of it to the stress of the situation. But would a flag going up and a bullet to the calf be enough to challenge a field service vets mental fortitude? Improbable, granted most security officers didn't have hands on experience dealing with guerrilla warfare. Or so she was led to believe.

Just then Tristler entered the bridge, to their pleasant surprise he'd put out his smoke ahead of time. In doing so the residing smell coming from his person was fairly benign.

"Hold on, I think I can smell smoke now!" At some point Lux had resumed her fervent scent evaluation.

"Uh, Lux."

Lux lifted her head and saw the actual source of her brief revelation. "Oh." She tossed the canister off to the side with woeful abandon, Esma going over to collect it from the ground for Reefe's sake.

"What can I do for you guys?"

Cade motioned over to Lux to take over the controls, something she seemed awfully giddy about, and came to the head of the bridges small central tabletop.

"I understand you're well informed with regard to Raiding Party's in the West, and I have reason to believe that the canister Lux just discarded is actually another one of Quiet Murns raiding strategies."

"Hah! So that's why things were so mum during all the chaos. I thought it strange that everyone decided to go all reserved and quiet on us."

"So there is such a thing?"

"Ladies and gents we've fallen victim to Harlecher's gas, better known as 'Pipe Down'."

Realizing an explanation was incoming Esma tossed her headset over to Tristler and rushed over to the switchboard, setting the transmission target to the convoys shared frequency. No need to waste time re-explaining all this later.

"The name 'Pipe Down' comes from the technique used to find the natural gas that serves as the main component. You see, the gas itself is colorless and its odor is negligible, albeit some people attribute a subtle nutty scent to it. Anyways, the only way to identify a source is by finding plants and wildlife who use it to their advantage. And some old coot by the name of Winstan Harlecher was the first one to do it."

Tristler paused for a moment to build suspense, wanting to make the most of his chance to exhibit knowledge built on years of traveling for field service.

"Harlecher found that whenever he ventured down the seaside path, near the lighthouse he served as caretaker for, that he'd temporarily lose his voice just before he reached the path's end. Right around the same area but several meters below he found an abundance of coastal plant life called Pipe Cattails. Turns out the end of the path sat beside a natural gas vent and the gas spewing from it, being heavier than air, fell down cliffside to the location of the cattails who absorbed it. Sort of like a natural alternative to photosynthesis in an area where the weather is constantly overcast. Factor in the cliffside limiting what little sunlight does manage to get through...nature finds a way. I guess."

"So this gas essentially makes you lose your voice."

"Pretty much. If you want to go into specifics it hinders the vibration of your vocal cords."

As engrossing as the story was, the theory that this gas was the culprit still had several holes. The most obvious being...

"Why didn't the gas affect everyone onboard?"

"Esma's right, I warned Nocks without issue. And it seems like neither Evan or Smokey had any voice related issues." Lux chimed in from the controls.

Looking back, Nocks was the only crew member on C248 who'd been affected, hence the emergence of his resentful attitude. Cade, who'd been soaking everything up to this point, offered a possible explanation.

"We can rule myself, Esma, Browder and Vedmann out. Taking into account the wind direction, just by being inside the Crusader it's plausible to assume we avoided direct exposure to the gas. As for Lux and Gandlin, it's safe to assume our resident chain smoker was in the process of exhaling said smoke. It might have even displaced the gas for all we know."

"Time to take up smoking I guess." Lux joked.

"Lux, I assume you were whistling."

"You know me so well." The way Lux purposefully let her voice rise and fall in a cutesy sort of manner made Cade grimace.

"Would whistling even be enough to stop the gas altogether?"

"Like I said earlier 'Pipe Down' is heavier than air, add that to the speed the convoy was moving and the window for inhaling the gas would have been small."

"Then why use it at all? Unless they're thrown directly on the Crusader wouldn't it be a waste?"

"Stuffs not easy to come by either, there are limited accounts of any raiding party using it."

"Great, the party leader of 'Quiet Murn' must be a special kind of moron to be throwing gas around carelessly. Think I can tell Vedmann we need to go faster?"

"It's no coincidence that the gas was used in tandem with the attack, obviously they're trying to disrupt onboard communication and synergy."

"Convoys are battles of attrition, they probably employed the gas in an attempt to weaken our combat potential and get us thinking."

The room settled down after that remark and Esma retrieved the headset from Tristler, offering a nod for the assistance he'd provided. Lux begrudgingly returned control of the Crusader back to Cade, who Esma could tell was still deep in thought. She couldn't blame him.

There was too much Esma still couldn't get her head around. Why did we only find one empty canister? Did the flagpole serve a purpose beyond relaying our position? What of the two anti-faith factions?

A few injuries aside, the raiders biggest objective had been accomplished. They had gotten them thinking.