Thin Red Line

" Captain, you know your mission. The enemy must not pass this gate. If that comes to pass, we both know what side of the gate that leaves you on. The Hegemony counts upon you to do your duty. "

-- Commodore Taj Riall, 2666.198, Sundown.

2779.88 - 2779.93 AS
Lendt -> Crux -> Sparta

Last conversations and goodbyes are made with the crew of the Inopportune Moment, who are staying after the Hippocrates leaves long enough to move their asteroids. Ace and Max scout around for good places to leave bugs, and return to the Hippocrates remembering that they did, in fact, successfully place bugs. On the way from Lendt to Crux, Max, Ace, and First Frost of Autumn all search for bugs, but don't find any. However, when Hippocrates reviews his internal videotape, he spots Sal (their teleporter) palming and picking up a bug from a particular table. The table is promptly searched within an inch of its life, but no bugs (or bug footprints) are found. Nobody else, viewing the videotape, is quite sure that they can see the bug Hippocrates is talking about, but Hippocrates himself is sure it's there. And the videotape doesn't seem to show anyone from the Inopportune Moment passing through that area earlier. Hmm. Well, it's a mystery.

Maury takes the opportunity to take the Exotic Dancer apart and all over the shuttle bay for upgrades, before vanishing into the tubes. If the party does manage to get to Vircus, the plan is to stash all the spare ships there long enough to transport all the fighters to the outworlds.

The Hippocrates lands on Crux in its regular berth. A vaguely familiar security guard (Frederick of the Small Field) asks after Kith and Anya; Eva says she'll take them a message, but they're in the middle of something that can't be interrupted. He says he'll check back later.

Ace wanders off to run some errands for a while. Hippocrates notes that there's a lot of incoming spam, and then two odd pieces of email from a particular account. One is to, asking if there will ever be another Traveling Cavalcade of Wonder, and one is to, asking how his vacation went. He bounced the latter, but kept the former (though it isn't actually Xanthippe's address). This is deemed Suspicious.

Sook and Max begin investigating this mail by starting with the letter to Xanthippe. It appears to be random fan mail, but there are odd bits, such as the claim that the sender could attend a performance on any planet Xanthippe chooses, at any time.

This leads to a discussion of what, if anything, Xanthippe had done to tidy her affairs, and if anything needs to be done by the party now that she's unavailable. It seems that the Traveling Cavalcade of Wonder was pretty much all of her doings, except for the secretive past that no one knows about, so there's not really much to be done on her behalf at the moment.

Tracing the mail back, they find that it came from an effectively anonymous account at a small independent ISP. Sook decides that this warrants further investigation, so Max and Sook head off to the university library to do some l33t hacking from the public access terminal in the research section. After shooing away the helpful librarian who tries to explain how the computerized card catalog works, Sook unplugs the machine's network connection and hooks up her laptop. They're off!

Hacking into the ISP, they find that indeed the only two pieces of e-mail this account has ever sent were the two to Hippocrates. Furthermore, there are several other accounts that have been sending "spam"-like mail (hotel room offers and the like) to Hippocrates over the last several days since their arrival.

Tracing the funding, the party discovers that the originator of the mail is a woman named Dolori Huang, and her address is obtained. At this point, people regroup for strategizing. Ace suggest breaking into Dolori's house and looking for clues. Sook feels perhaps burgling the woman's house is a bit of an over-reaction to spam.

Sharra: "That depends upon how strongly you feel about spam."
However, once it is discovered that Dolori seems to be paying for all of these throwaway accounts with government funds, it is decided that the party should at least check her out. In the end, Max, Ace and Sook, head to her house to talk to her.

Meanwhile, Eva and Ruehan go to talk to various political types; they bring the Hippocrates radio box. Dmitri is briefed about the new state of the mad loa on Pierogi, and that it wants someone to pursue vengeance for it. Dmitri seems somewhat distracted by this idea, and may be going and talking to the loa.

The trio tells Admiral Peters (Defender Party) that they'll bring more fighters - how soon would they be needed? "As soon as possible", he suggests. Hippocrates is curious whether they're very helpful, compared to larger ships. He admits that larger ships would be better, so if it's a choice of eight destroyers or eight fighters, bring the eight destroyers. But fighters are better than no fighters. The group asks about the ship the Golden Ascension sent to Sparta - it's called the Deuteronomy, and it headed out into the dust cloud, not down to the planet. On the other hand, that's what a lot of ships do, go on patrol. The distress beacon from Pierogi is installed in a building.

The Cooperative Front has heard of Ruehan from Dmitri and from when he worked with the Crux Parliament five years ago, so they offer him a job as an envoy. When he's wandering around the inworlds, here is a set of things that he is empowered to offer on behalf of the Cooperative Front for military aid - make whatever licit or illicit arrangements he sees fit. They give him a small stipend and will cover expenses, as well.

Then the trio heads to the Spagnall-Forbridge party to offer to license heal-patch technology. They aren't willing to commit to anything serious without actually seeing the blueprints; they sign an NDA and say they'll look at it and make an offer in three days. Politics all settled, Ruehan and Eva head back to the Hippocrates to catch up with the Spam Investigators.

In the meantime, Sook, Max, and Ace have arrived at Dolori's house. They confront her - Sook introduces herself as the computer officer of the HMS Hippocrates, and she's looking into some misaddressed mail. Dolori is somewhat taken aback that a house call is being paid over the matter - she claims that the raul_umberhardt message must have been a typo to Xanthippe's domain. Dolori wants to know if Xanthippe is really sublime? Yes, always, Sook says. Is it like an aura? Is it visible? Or do you just know? Sook waffles. Dolori, ever-persistent, asks if she's here on Crux now? Can Dolori get an autograph?

Sook decides that endless frittery is not the way to go: "So, you do realize we don't believe you, right?" Dolori is a bit confused. So they don't think she sent the mail? Ace takes advantage of her confusion to pick her pocket; he gets an ID badge for the Golden Ascension with "full access". From behind Dolori, he signals to Sook in Silent Hunter: "Trap decoy." Sook tries to send Ace a zephyr, but his radio-text-thingy is in his pocket.

Dolori regroups, asking for Xanthippe's real email address (having been told that "" isn't right). Sook demurs - Xanthippe is a very private person. Come to think of it, Dolori wants to know how they found her house.

"Did Xanthippe tell you where I lived?"
"Would she know?"
"I don't know - would she?"
Max explains how Xanthippe lost her family - well, not her family family, but people she was close to - at Pierogi, and is now in something of retirement. Ace suggests that Dolori bring a message for Xanthippe to the Hippocrates this evening, and the group heads back again (Ace keeps the ID card).

It's noted that Dolori looks more like Sook than anyone else - plans immediately spring full-fledged into everyone's head of sending Sook to infiltrate the Golden Ascension. There is some puzzlement as to what Dolori's Secret Terrible Plan is - does she want to prove that the Travelling Cavalcade actually survived, so as to uncover the alleged destruction of Pierogi as a fraud? Does she want to capture Xanthippe and brainwash her? It's hard to say.

Back at the ship, First Frost of Autumn has exciting news. He found the bug! It was on that table that everyone searched. He says it wasn't there in the morning, but it's there now. Hmm. Sook and Sharra un-buggify-it and put just the (electronic) message "Well Done" in it, and then put it back under the table, where, they guess, Sal might... um... pick it up again in the past.

Perhaps the team should visit Raul Uberhardt! The research team discovers that he's a member of the Spagnall-Forbridge party, and a retired professor of electrical engineering and computer science living in the country. There don't seem to be any connections there.

Eva thinks about the mail logs (the two from Dolori's account, and the larger set of more junky spammail from the other address), and decides that the intent was to probe the mail system, to see what sorts of things bounced and what didn't. Once the mail to Xanthippe went through, the probe stopped.

Well, this changes everything. Dolori isn't some random kook, she was Probing Sook's Computer System! Ace bets Sook five asters that Raul was on vacation at Pierogi.

Out front, there's a delivery guy, who's been intercepted by Frederick the security guard and the other security guard. Max admits that he ordered a desk. The security guys seem a bit overprotective and insist on examining the shipment. This is also deemed Suspicious, though the security guards are not, in fact, leapt upon and questioned.

Ace forges a copy of Dolori's ID, plus another one with Max's picture instead of Dolori's (name: "Teras Zi"). The Dolori copy is wiped of fingerprints and dropped in a bush outside Dolori's house.

It's decided that the only reasonable way to get serious information is to have Sook do the breaking into the parliament offices of the Golden Ascension and hack their computers from right there at the main terminals. There's a stunned silence at the thought of Sook breaking into the guarded parliament building and the dangers that entails.

"I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing, but they probed my system! A bunch of outworld hicks!"
Clearly on the warpath, Sook is briefed on the basics of infiltration by Max. This mostly consists of, "Stay near me, and you won't be anyone's problem", so things seem pretty foolproof, but they bring Ace and Sharra along as back-up outside. People consider exactly what backup is supposed to do in the event it all goes wrong.

"It's better for us to get arrested than to shoot up Parliament."
With these words, Max and Sook head in. Wearing their badges and not really anyone's problem, they find it fairly easy to get past the guards at all of the various doors and corridors of Parliament after hours, and eventually make it to the offices of the Golden Ascension. There is a light on in the offices of the Shepard, so they quietly pick the lock into the offices of the Guide and poke around. They move to an inner office where Sook gets to work on the computers. Quickly getting root for herself, she pretty much has access to the whole shebang.

Useful information gained from the computer searches include the complete membership and staff lists of the party, and all of that kind of information. It's quickly determined that Dolori is more important than originally thought. There's apparently a whole Omphalos Dust Wyrm project, in which Dolori is a prime mover. They've noticed that the Dust Wyrm has changed and realize that Xanthippe is connected to it, but don't really understand much more about it.

Breaking into the government finance computers from here, results in them finding out that the Dust Wyrm project is being paid for by a government grant to look into claims of piracy in the nebula. Perhaps the Golden Ascension is misappropriating the fund? Or perhaps they just normally look into Dust Wyrms when told to investigate piracy.

In other news, there's also a lot of stuff about the Tarn (Deciders). They clearly knew that the Deciders existed before the current crisis happened. They have detailed records from all of the evidence packets as well as complete logs of the Pierogi survey team. They also have notes about the jumpgate at Craterrock, a link to the Tarn homeworlds.

Finally, there are a couple of directories of more inscrutable stuff, but it's behind a lot of security, so it must be good. Once is a collection of strange sayings, that look like they are the output of Golden Ascension psis over the last several years. Another is a large collection of nursery rhymes and children's songs, two of which are marked with the notation "Gift of the Other". People recognize one of the two songs as the key to escaping from the Omphalos Dust Wyrm months back.

"Hey! These people have the Dust Wyrm Ritual!"
"Wait, there's a ritual? Do we have a Dust Wyrm ritual?"
Meanwhile, Max is going through the other inner office which seems to be the private office of the Guide himself. Unfortunately, his detective's intuition indicates that there are psionic alarms on the locked desk, so he decides to leave it alone this time.

The last piece of information that Sook uncovers, is Dolori's daily diary, where she mentions the strange visit by the trio of party members earlier in the day and include notes about how she'll be bringing a "strike team" to get information out of the Hippocrates crew when she goes to visit them later this evening. This gem is immediately relayed back to the Hippocrates as a warning.

Meanwhile, on the Hippocrates, Dolori and another woman (introduced as Marsha) show up. Ruehan meets them and notes that Marsha is a reasonably strong psi. He doesn't think she's able to get much from him, and then he stashes them in a conference room to wait for the Captain's convenience. They look around some, and check to make sure the door isn't locked (Hippocrates introduces himself at that point). Marsha sits down and thinks for a while. Ruehan tries to read Dolori's mind, and figures out that they're mostly here to find out everything they can about Xanthippe, though they don't think she's here.

Having received the away team's report that Dolori is part of the Golden Ascension's Dust Wyrm Project, and that Dolori and "a strike team" are on their way to the Hippocrates to find out everything they can, Hippocrates notes that there are three guys vaguely lurking outside. He calls the starport security station, and the two guards go over and seem to check IDs. The three guys wander a little further away. Eventually Ruehan shows up again, and tells Dolori that the captain will talk to her, but "doesn't want to talk to the psi". No offense appears to be taken, and Marsha looks faintly amused.

Eva tells Dolori that Xanthippe isn't on the Hippocrates any longer. Dolori says that she's sorry to have wasted their time, but surely someone could have told her that before all this runaround? There's a brief attempt made to stall her with conversation, but then the away team radios that they're coming back, so Dolori and Marsha are released back into the wild.

Finally, Sook is making notes about the sources of the government funds so she can "investigate" them later, when someone walks into the outer office. Quiet as mice, they wait for the interloper to head into the cubicle area and then sneak out. He hears them leave, but luckily, they're not his problem. The away team returns to the ship.

The three lurking people are still lurking, though they're ostentatiously watching a different ship now. Sook presents the information she turned up from their system. Things like "why do they know Xanthippe is associated with the Dust Wyrm" are still a little fuzzy. Everyone's attention turns to the lurking people again. Ruehan picks up from that they're keeping track of who's going in and out of the Hippocrates. They have clipboards which have pictures of Xanthippe plus a lot of the other crew members. Should people trundle in and out of the ship carrying fascinatingly obscured heavy objects? And mailing many packages to Bastion, so as to divert their attention there? Well, maybe not.

Max investigates his newly acquired lapdesk. Scanning with the tricorder doesn't turn up anything, but a very careful search turns up a secret compartment with a circular depression which contains a plastic same-density-as-the-wood disk with an Omega (Ace identifies it as the symbol for Ozymandias).

Tired and confused, the party finally retires until the morning. Wilson comes out of the tubes.

The next day, Max, Ace, and Sook head to Professor Umberhardt's house in an attempt to tie up the final loose ends of this mystery.. They're met at the door by a housekeeper, and shown into the study. The professor isn't up yet, but the housekeeper goes to get him. She gives them all a stern warning that they're not to tire the professor out. He arrives in a wheelchair and introduces himself. The party follows suit and Sook shows him the email. He says that's not his address. She knows that. He says he doesn't take vacations, either, so he doesn't know why the e-mail would say that.. He's retired. His life is a vacation. Sook says the mail was sent by Dolori Huang - he doesn't really recognize the name. Nobody is willing to write him off as a complete red herring, so eventually the professor looks Dolori up on his computer, and recognizes her as having taken some of his classes. "B student." Why would she be emailing him, though, and why would she be emailing him on Hippocrates' network? He really doesn't know.

"I'm a Technologist. We prefer our mysteries... not."
He makes pleasant conversation with Sook - does being computer officer pay well? No, um, not really. It's a research vessel. Professor Umberhardt nods knowingly. "Patents." Sook is enlightened. Patents. Ah.

The third day on Crux, Sook finds the 4312 charitable organizations on Crux which permit on-line donation. She writes a script to leave on the local university computers, so that it will donate one aster to each of them from the Golden Ascension's government grant and then reboot.

Spagnall-Forbridge makes an offer for the med-patches: 2000 asters plus 15% of net profit in the future. The group accepts just as an alert comes in.

Red Alert. Major Decider Fleet incursion in the Sparta system. All capable vessels proceed at best speed to Sparta system. Report to Sparta Fleet Command on arrival for assignments.
Shortly thereafter, the Pierogi distress beacon goes off; presumably jump gates all over the Linked Worlds are flashing. There's an insistent nag at the back of Hippocrates's mind that he has to go to Pierogi Right Now but he manages to ignore it with effort. The Tinoori are left with the elite shuttle on Crux; the three grandmothers come along with the Hippocrates. Two spare Crux pilots who can man fighters are also borrowed.

The Decider fleet was spotted, incoming, from the dust nebula. The Sparta fleet met them and have been fighting a retreating battle towards Sparta; one of the yellowliners, plus a wing of forty redliners, split off from the main fleet and has been heading for the jump gate. The Hippocrates, five Crux merchantmen, and the other two Hegemonic fighters arrive and array themselves in front of the jump gate; there's one lone small ship back by the jump gate, ready to shoot and close the gate if the Deciders get too close.

Eva rallys the seven pilots and the three Hippocrates gunners to fire on the yellowliner on her mark. Four of the yellowliner's guard of redliners are destroyed leaping in front of the shots, and only Sook gets a few points of damage through. First blood to the computer programmer!

The previous barrage has destroyed the four redliners closest to the yellowliner, so Eva calls in another barrage. Hippocrates overloads his Precision of Body with extra auxiliary power; the Sparky Cola machine and the mess hall autochef short out. The yellowliner uses its Coordination of Body to dodge three times, but still takes a nearly catastrophic amount of damage. It manages to flee into more redliners during its action, but the party has gained the upper hand. One ship (the Bootstrap) is hit by the yellowliner, and the redliners manage to slow and stop several ships; Maury's redline defense, as set up by Sharra, bounces three redline shots.

Finally, the yellowliner is destroyed; it explodes, taking out a number of redliners in the backfield. A small number of redliners manage to escape and head back to the main fleet. About this time, the Sparta fleet destroys another yellowliner, and the Decider fleet begins pulling back. Over the radio, the Hippocrates crew hears:

"Captain Megaera, get back in formation!"
"Sorry, sweetie, we don't do formations. We have places to be."
The Inopportune Moment heads at top speed towards the Deciders, and then vanishes. The redliners pull in tight around the yellowliners, and the entire Decider fleet begins to shimmer out. For just a moment, the Inopportune Moment reappears, and then shimmers out with the Deciders.

About 15% of Sparta has been sterilized by the yellowliners - BlackWinter Mountain is okay, but part of the College of Skalds has been hit. Despite the massive number of casualties, the battle is being treated as a victory by the defensive forces.