"90% of tactics is about who can see who. When you cannot see what the enemy is doing, you must assume he is doing everything."
-Dhan Zagrat, Strike Force Alpha, Third Fleet, AS 1992
Juice -> Vircus -> Bastion
The disturbance eventually stops, and Ace tries to take a nap. Hippocrates wakes him up in time for the transit out of jump space, just as he's managed to get to sleep. Lo! It is the Well! There seem to be more patrol craft around than is usual - Hippocrates scans who they are and what they're doing. They seem to be running a search pattern. Ace flies casually towards the rendezvous point that's been arranged with the three wayward crew members. As they get there, they're hailed by Ruehan, aboard a somewhat familiar-looking ship calling itself the Night Mail. They ask for permission to come aboard. Dr. Kye fusses over whether they know who the Night Mail is. Well, it did sound like Ruehan.
"What's the password?" -KyeThe Night Mail enters the hangar bay, flips itself over, and lands - it's the Dancer! (Flying upside down apparently made them harder to recognize. Who knew! Must have been a schtick). In addition to Maury, Ruehan, and Kith, there's a fourth person - the StepChild Cavirt, who apparently handled the actual theft of the ship.
"Dr. Kye is an idiot." -Maury
"Permission to come aboard granted. Welcome back." -Hippocrates
The ship itself is a lot plusher. The interior has been substantially prettied up since everyone last saw it; as Ace's ship, it was more tidy than clean, and more functional than decorative, with perhaps a few artifacts of plushness. Now, the seats are soft, deeply cushioned leather, the area that was cargo is now a grand salon, with a small holoprojection suite, a wet bar, a jacuzzi, a pool table, and so on.
Janzur is appalled by the mention of the holosuite: "Take it out, now!" but Ace doesn't want his ship chopped up just yet.
"Ooh, we could install that in the rec room?" -MirrisAs the Hippocrates proceeds to the Vircus jump gate, the patrol ships in the search pattern eventually seem to realize that the ship that went by was the Hippocrates, and no doubt they have something to do with the missing ship. It's too late for them to catch up, though.
"Install what?" -Janzur
"The pool table, of course." -Mirris
"Why don't we go to battlestations and continue flying casual?" -Hippocrates
"Everything I said about eating my brain? You're forgiven." -Ace to Ruehan.The Dancer's transponder is, for the moment, altered to call it the Vigilance, (the name of the fighter blown up by the Red boarding party).
"You're renaming the Exotic Dancer to the Vigilance? Exxxcellent." -JanzurThe Hippocrates hails Vircus Battlestation HBX, and asks for Vocari Dyvas. He's not there, but he'll be shipped up immediately! Are the Sky Guards there for the graduation ceremony? Yes, they suppose they must be. The planet will be prepared for their arrival. An honor guard of one fighter escorts them in, leading to some worry about what has happened to the second fighter. All three domes are pressurized, though the third doesn't seem to be much in use yet. The landing pad is, as is traditional, filled with cheering crowds (though they have rebreathers, which is better than the first time.)
The Patriarch is in a reclining chair being carried by four guys; also there are Vocari Dyvas, the Blades, and several of the Creekian Grandmothers. Everyone salutes the Sky Guards. The Patriarch welcomes them (sounding really quite decrepit), and ushers them into the High Hall. But then he has to go to his rest, unless there are commands or orders that the Sky Guards have for him. No, no, he should go and rest.
The previous set of things the Grandmothers wanted is delivered, and a new grocery list is given. Vocari Dyvas introduces himself to Mirris, whom he has not yet met.
"I am Vocari Dyvas Firstjudged. My heart is bound by the Chains of Command."The Vocari decides to meditate on this truth. Others give further reports: Population is up a percent and a half.
"I am Mirris Auden. My heart is bound by the Oath of the Hippocrates." (looking around) "Right?"
"They've gotta be needing some help with that project." -AceThe fighter project is running into some difficulty. They've finished the prototyping, except for the final test, but they could use an actual modern-trained engineer to help, though they're doing the best they can with the manuals Maury has provided. There's some discussion of bringing in a Brochoah engineer (the Vircans think Brochoah are children's stories), or, Dr. Kye points out, they could just hire someone on a long-term contract after vetting them to make sure they won't be trouble.
"Yeah!" -Dr. Kye
"Hey! None of that! You're engaged!" -Mirris
Ace gets the Grandmothers talking about the Vircan culture. Apparently the idea of gradually getting them ready for changes is difficult. Do they think the Blades would be up for going and fighting in the Outworlds? Certainly they'd be up for fighting anyone the crew said was the enemy of the Hegemon.
"It's nigh unto impossible to cause cultural disruption among these people. We've been trying." -Grandmother ClaraThey think that they'll just need to go through the big culture shock, and while they can be prepared for it, they can't really be slowly brought around. There's more discussion of the fact that five thousand people is a bit of a small population for proper genetic spread.
"Ace's genetics are more your business than mine..." - Mirris to Sophia
"Where's Janzur?" -MirrisHippocrates looks for old documents, like the antique Regulations that Captain Tomlinson was interested in. Ace considers disguising himself to go and see what Vircus is really like when they're not pretending for the Skyguard, but with only five thousand Vircans, it's going to be difficult to pass as a Vircan that nobody has ever met. Mirris thinks that she can probably figure that out better, but in the end, nobody really thinks they're lying.
"He's off diversifying the population!" -Ace
"Say what you want of Dr. Kye, but not Janzur!" -Mirris
Dr. Kye takes Dumbo out, investigating old sites, and digs up a set of old mining offices. There's a large enameled resource map built into a table - it's too large for him to bring out by himself, so he summons help. There's lots of toxic dust that people kick up - Hippocrates and Ruehan are both okay, but several other people take some health hits. The table is struggled up and out of the excavation - Ruehan considers physical carrying beneath him, but between Hippocrates being reliable and Ace being lucky, the table is retrieved, and formally presented to the Vircans.
The graduation ceremony is being set up - they have a big banner with the eye-and-hand symbol of the Secret Order of the Hand. (Note that this is "secret" in the way that the Masons are a Secret Order, not that nobody knows about them.) Of the seventeen who entered training, three have passed the tests ordered by Janzur. Vocari Dyvas presents the three (Deirdre, Corwin, and Gerard), and tells them to go forth and find a master. They kneel in front of Janzur, and pledge themselves to the Hegemon and to Janzur until he leads them to the side of the Hegemon. Janzur makes a brief speech:
[insert speech from Eon]After the ceremony, there is a celebration, including the three graduates, their families, and the other Elite-still-in-training who have not yet passed the tests (only eight are able to attend; a few are dead, and the others injured). After the celebration, Dr. Kye and Ace take advantage of the festive atmosphere to spread some genetic diversity among the Vircan women.
Most of the torpedos are offloaded from HBX Vircus; a few are left so they can work on a Torpedo Project when they finish the Fighter Project. The Star is left, and the plasma bomb is not taken.
Maury speculates about why the Vircans have less psi. It doesn't seem to be that Vircus is a specifically anti-psi environment; the population just seems to have been low in psi initially, or perhaps there was a psi die-off some time in the past.
The Hippocrates proceeds to Gateway (and leaves Cavirt off on the station). Ace spars with Deirdre, Corwin, and Gerard; Deirdre can't touch him with a blaster, but Corwin and Gerard aren't too far off his level in knife.
Gateway Station notes the large number of torpedos (bound for the war in the outworlds), and offers the crew 100K asters for the lot. They politely decline, but this does lead to a discussion of whether they're going to just be given to the outworlds, or sold, or traded for something. Hippocrates says these weapons are for defense of the linked worlds. Maury points out that people in the linked worlds are in fact being killed by other humans as well as Deciders. Mirris doesn't want Sharra's brother killed by torpedos they sell to Red. Some squabbling later, everyone has agreed that getting some sort of political concession from the outworlds in exchange for the torpedoes is good, and asking for actual money isn't necessary.
Ace looks around to see if there's any mail that needs carrying. As always, nobody has been piling up mail thinking "O woe, if we but had the Hippocrates to carry this, we would send it!" but he does acquire a package to carry to Crux. 250 asters in advance, 250 on delivery, with the understanding that it is not to be opened or scanned. The rest of the crew is somewhat unhappy about this proviso, but Ace is pretty sure it's not a bomb, and Sophia puts the box in a shielded container with various passive monitors to see if it tries anything. It doesn't.
"I think it's a bad idea to accept packages for which we are being paid to not notice what is in it, for the obvious reasons." -Janzur(Apropos of something or another, Maury thinks a fine plan is to tie the Santa Maria to the Inopportune Moment, fill it with people, and jump it into the future, as a backup plan to save people from the Flames.)
"And the other reasons." -Ruehan
The Hippocrates lands on Crux. Ace and Janzur take the package to a guy who looks at it briefly, and then pays him the rest of the money and puts it in the local mail.
Much puttering happens on Crux. Ruehan and Maury, escorted by Corwin, go to meet with the Cooperative Front and tell them about the torpedos. They'd like a Favor To Be Named Later, as transferable as possible. The Cooperative Front cannot guarantee that all outworlders everywhere will consider themselves responsible for this transferable favor, but they certainly have a lot of political alliances that they can spread it to.
Dr. Kye blows up a piece of the dust cloud, for another bit of his experimentation. Maury swings by the Rosicrucian Academy, gets a copy of the psi report Anya had commissioned (+2 to psi theory), and replaces the psi books that he lost on the Well. He also finds out that Anya has gone to Pierogi with Dmitri. Ace arranges to have the Puritan Book of the Hegemon assayed by the apprentice of the sage who examined all of Cassandra's paintings a way back when, and he'll be preparing a report as he sorts through the images he saw.
Hippocrates and Janzur meet briefly with Senator Peters. Hippocrates asks to see the plan for evactuating the outworlds that he must have in reserve - it's been briefly considered, but written off as implausible. The almost three month Crux/Nonesuch round trip essentially means if they stopped fighting the Tarn and put all their fleet capacity to evacuating, they could get Crux, Sparta, Lendt, and Bastion in about a decade. He briefs them in a bit more detail on the disappearance of the Red fleet - there was another incursion at Lendt, and it went off in pursuit into the nebula, and never returned. The invasion fleet at Bastion appeared well after that. Fleet Command at Bastion has been trying some ultra-fast flybys, but has generally been having trouble approaching near enough to the Tarn fleet to do anything useful.
Now that the Exotic Dancer is even hotter than it was before, Ace gets it officially registered with Crux under a new name, the Genetic Diversity. That's about it for Crux, so the Hippocrates heads out again towards Bastion. Hey! This is the Outworlds! Maury re-enables the ship's guns. Entering the Bastion system, there's a communications buoy informing ships that they need to keep Flight Control updated with their tonnage and position, via the 14.374 GHz frequency. (Hippocrates remembers this as an old Skyguard tactical cooordination channel).
A whiterunner approaches. The party does not fall for the GM's nefarious trick and recognizes it as a Goldrunner. The Goldrunner hails the Hippocrates, and offers any and all assistance. The Hippocrates starts heading for the planet, with an eye to talking to Fleet Command on Fifth Bastion.
Suddenly, six armed guys in quasi-military style uniform appear in the Kaufman facility!
"Intruders! Cease your activities and report!" -HippocratesThis mostly causes them to shoot at Ace. Sophia calls for reinforcments, and two more of her run out of nearby rooms. They shoot at one of the boarders, as does Ace. Another group of intruders appears in Storage Compartment C: two adults and three kids ("Mommy, mommy! Look at all the boxes!").
"Explain yourself while you still have lungs!" - Ace
Mirris shuts down the lifts and locks a lot of the doors, to keep the invasion from spreading. Maury shows up, blinking, with a blaster in his hand, and Janzur chops blasters. Ruehan reads someone's mind to see why they're here, and announces over the headsets that they've been kidnapped.
Hippocrates announces over the intercom: "Intruders, if you were teleported here against your will, we were not part of it, stand down." Ruehan convinces one of them extra-hard to stand down, and Janzur chops another blaster. A third boarding party arrives - this one in red uniforms with gold piping, carrying cases of equipment.
Maury, realizing first what is happining, tells Hippocrates to fly away from the planet as fast as possible, just as Bastion Flight Control orders all ships in-system to heave to and do nothing.
The kids in Storage Compartment C start tearing boxes open. Hippocrates tries to report to Flight Control that they're resolving the issue, and that they have three groups of misplaced passengers (Six Bastion combat pilots returning from leave, one marching band, and the Ven Kirk family). And, they have a teleport sink on board.
The pilot who's been shot is apologized to and patched up; there's some bitter recriminations all around as to whose fault the shooting was. The Ven Kirks become slightly hysterical at the idea of a "teleport accident".
Bastion Flight Control tells Hippocrates to report in constantly with tonnage and position, and complains that they didn't declare their teleport sink as a Hazardous Material. A HMT reporting form is sent, which Sophia thinks sounds vaguely familiar. Maury theorizes that putting him in a psi damper field would help, and theorizes wildly that a fortune suppressor would help even more.
Lots of paperwork is filled out (well, over the radio). After taking some readings, Navigation Control is going to compensate by treating the Hippocrates as massing 53.4 times its normal tonnage. The importance of constant updates on position is re-emphasized. Hippocrates is given a direct channel to Navigator Control on Third Bastion; he thinks that the whole data exchange procedure is going excessively smoothly...
A test teleport is reported to have gone well, and traffic resumes. The marching band heads to the mess hall to rehearse, watched over by Deirdre, while Corwin watches the pilots. Gerard is guarding the bridge, and the Tinoori keep an eye on the Ven Kirks. (More hysteria ensues.) The passengers all want to be left off on different moons; as a compromise, they'll be left on Fifth Bastion and given complimentary flights.
Hippocrates sends out a ping on the Skyguard frequency, and receives a reply from Deep Blue at Tactical Command! He asks Deep Blue for a status report: status is "returning to nominal, though there are still massive miscalibration problems due to presence of hazardous materials."
Upon landing on Fifth Bastion, the ship is swarmed by officials in big inflatable biohazard suits. They want to see the hazardous materials. They're a little puzzled that Maury doesn't seem to be either radioactive or biotoxic, but they give him a transponder and some forms, to keep on him at all times so Navigator Control will know where he is - he's also not to enter the transport buildings without clearing it with them first. He grumbles about collars.
Hippocrates briefs the rest of the crew on Deep Blue - another of his AI classmates. Deep Blue was the only of them to not choose a human-inspired name, and was never very good at behaving like a human.
"When you say 'never very good at behaving like a human', do you mean 'never had any care for the number of people he killed' or 'was really bad at parties'?" -AceHe's currently posted to Navigation Control, though providing tactical military advice as well.
"The latter." -Hippocrates
"You survived. Good." -Deep BlueAce, Ruehan, and Janzur go to talk to Fleet Central. They deliver the torpedoes, and are told of the need for scouting. Apparently the Bastion fleet forces haven't gotten close enough to the main Decider fleet to get a good tactical read on it, they are being repelled by the picket forces which seem composed of new "Orange-liners" which are similar to regular blaster ships but with no range mods on firing.
"Glad to see you." -Hippocrates
In the meantime, Hippocrates and Mirris talk some more to Deep Blue. He is a little sorry to hear that Xanadu fragmented. Hippocrates asks for speculations about why the Tarn fleet is going so slowly - he doesn't know, but suggests that it's draining something, or powering something up, or waiting for something to happen, or doesn't think it has a deadline. Hippocrates thinks they do have a deadline, which Deep Blue wonders if they know about. Hmm. That's an interesting question.
There's some discussion of dressing Mirris as a Tarn, putting Kith's amulet on her, and launching her into the Tarn fleet to see if she can "join" it.
After the silliness abates, the idea of trying to talk to them at all is broached. Perhaps sending a message buoy with a projector, broadcasting in Decider to ask what their plan is?
"My plan was not to ask 'are you the secret faction that's talking to us?'" -HippocratesThe Hippocrates heads out to the picket of Bastion ships, out of range of the Tarn Orangeliners. There's a line of safety that the orangeliners can't shoot beyond, but that's far enough back that scanning past the orangeliners is also pretty much out of range. There's a line farther in that some of the Bastion ships have been able to sneak up to, but not past.
A probe is constructed from one of the Memento Mori probes; it displays "We Want Talk" in Decider, has a radio control allowing the Hippocrates to change the screen, and has a radio to broadcast back. The probe is thrown in. Off it goes. Nothing seems to happen - the pickets say that this is different, their previous tactical probes have been blown up. The radio broadcast back seems to be doppler shifting into red. Woah! Are they towing a black hole, and that's why they're going so slowly? (Okay, that must not be it. Navigation Control would have noticed a black hole by now).
Maybe the Tarn aren't talking because there's nothing that looks like a Tarn to talk to? Maybe they should make a sock puppet? The silliness abates again. A second message probe is sent, saying "Please talk to box." Maury thinks there's a really low-frequency radio emission coming back out of the fleet, but he can't get enough gain to tell what it is.
Sophia builds a Superprobe, which will attempt to pick up the signal, speed it up, and relay it back. This display sign says "New better radio talk." The probe drifts into the fleet, and slows way down. Ahah. That's what causes the redshifting - it's some sort of giant time-slower, not a giant black hole... but why would they want to be in a slow time bubble?
Over the course of about twelve hours, the Superprobe relays back what appears to be a message from the Inopportune Moment, from three months ago, saying that a fleet is incoming. This apparently matches the message they sent, well, three months ago. It appears to be repeating, just very very slowly.
Sophia ponders the temporal physics of it all, and doesn't think the Moment could create this effect by itself - it's probably some sort of interaction between two separate temporal effects.
A second Superprobe is launched, this one to actually scan the fleet and relay back information. It says "You Know You Real Slow?", which is apparently clever enough to have the Deciders let this one in as well.
Meanwhile all the data has been relayed back to Fleet Control, and Deep Blue is analyzing it. The slow-time effect seems to be growing - the Tarn fleet is moving, but the time effect is moving faster. The scanning Superprobe finally gets a look at the inside of the fleet - there are a few lines of redliners, and three yellowliners, and a black ship, and the Inopportune Moment, in the middle of a combat. Two of the yellowliners are in mid-shot at the Moment, and the black ship and the Moment are caught up in some sort of Horrible Temporal Distortion. They're currently in about round 5 of the fight, and apparently are still in the same combat turn as they were three months ago; a squad of redliners is just beginning to turn around. This seems to support the idea that this is not in fact some mysterious non-hostile Decision, just an invasion fleet.
From the gathered data, Deep Blue thinks that the actual time-slowing effect will reach Bastion itself in a few weeks, but that the sooner it's turned off, the better. A number of plans are considered - having the mass teleporters pull the Inopportune Moment out, or teleport torpedos in. The mass teleporters aren't so good at summoning - but Maury is. Again, the sooner the better, as the farther back the Gathering has to stand, the more difficult it will be.
A couple of scouting expeditions have tried to go into the dust cloud to look for the other side of the Tarn fleet; one didn't find it and one didn't return. Janzur thinks they're likely to have a small rear guard.
The final plan is
Then, from another "corridor" in the dust nebula, the Lost Red Fleet emerges, and hails Bastion on open channels.
"This is Davira V'Dalari of the Vertak Expeditionary Force. Can we render assistance?"