The Great Ship Robbery

"I've never seen someone too smart to be conned, too secure to be robbed, too strong to be beaten. I've only seen people who it wasn't worth the effort it would take."

- Zach Staughton, AS 2431

2780.259 - 275
Crux -> Riden -> New Light (with many stops in between)

Max (with Ace and Maury) spends a little while poking around to see if he can find out anything about the other people in the "underoutworld" competition. Then he comes back to the ship and falls asleep, exhausted. Ace checks in with the Gang of Four - they've heard about Kels Rouche, and the Corinthian (apparently Ozymandias's protege/heir). Kels is more of the information-trafficking sort of criminal (blackmail, contacts, that sort of thing), whereas the Corinthian is more of a generalist.

Then, it's off to the vacuum wickets outside Sparta. No girl scouts seem to be lurking about, but when Ace takes the Hippocrates on a scanning pass-by, there is a detectable signal coming from the channel between the two singularities. Sophia manages to sort the signal out of the noise (and Eva confirms that the encryption isn't the Terran code the party has already encountered):

In this place was lost Andrew Prey. Let all who come to this place honor his spirit, for he was among the last of the great explorers, travelling unknowing into the darkness for the good of us all.
Eva suggests that another crystal-shooting experiment get done. Sophia designs a mad physics experiment to use spacetime compression energy as a type of damage, which involves making another pass by the wickets. Through a random stroke of bad luck certainly having nothing to do with Sophia's manipulation of gravitational constants, a huge swarm of flotsam is pulled from the nearby debris cloud towards the Hippocrates, but Ace manages to dodge the only one that gets too close. True to mad scientist form, Sophia doesn't stop at six, either, and gathers extra data at the seven-success mark.
"There's always more data." -Sophia
Sophia is also reminded to look at the "black nanites" that Maury acquired from the planet of black nanites. It's not self-replicating, which makes it moderately safe. As Maury determined, it's atomically indistinguishible from dirt, but chemically indistinguishable from the thing it's impersonating (except for being black). The most impressive thing about is that it's insanely small, compared to nanites that Sophia's more used to dealing with. Maury wonders what causes the nanites which are fixed into a form to reset back into copying mode - she picks up some neutrino communication going on, which she thinks at higher densities, would allow them to lapse back into base mode. So that's why it happens on the planet, but not here.

Meanwhile, though, there's a Hegemonicon at Riden, so the Hippocrates does eventually head towards the inworlds. At the Nonesuch transfer point, a harbor pilot comes aboard (as always, with two guards). He gives Eva a chit containing new official regulations - the pilot must have an open comm channel at all times. There's some internal discussion about putting the comm channel on a seven second delay, like radio broadcasting, but Nonesuch doesn't have anything that anyone thinks is dangerous, and picking a fight with Klothos at the moment is not necessarily helpful.

On the trip from Nonesuch to Gateway, Sophia wants to try to hook her new decryption device into the ship's scanners. This is that whole looking-out-the-hyperspace-window issue, that Jayla's always advising against. But Jayla isn't here (having gone with Hippocrates, Sharra, Kith, Janzur, and Corwin off to Tinara), and the rest of the crew decides that forgiveness is always easier than permission. She hooks the scanners up to the decryption widget, and lets it run for a while. Very odd - there's something that seems to be optimized for her specific channels. People speculate that she's getting some sort of reflected signal, except that she isn't actually transmitting.

Then there's an alarm in engineering and on the bridge, that there's a power overflow from the port engine. The pilot throttles back power to the engine, while Maury heads there at top speed. He notes that it seems to be overheating entirely on its own - there isn't a good cause for it. Sophia turns off the scanners, though she insists that it isn't her fault. Eva calls around wanting to know what people are doing - nobody is up to much. Ace and Sophia and Eva are on the bridge, Maury is in engineering, Kye is in the plasma bomb lab ("Not doing anything! Just thinking!", he is quick to protest when people think this is suspicious).

Ace pages "team perception" to go scuttle around the port area of the ship. It takes them a little while to parse this, but then the Tinoori start scouting the area. Night Blooming Wisteria finds Dr. Kye in the lab, and then looks startled. He tells Dr. Kye to duck, but Kye is too fazed, and is promptly leapt upon and knocked down by NBW. Night Blooming Wisteria notes that in the top of the room, there is something of "the essence of explosive might" (not an exact translation).

The harbor pilot shuts down the port engine, and is somewhat disconcerted to see that the plasma keeps actively roiling even after it's been shut down. He starts talking about venting the plasma, before it explodes and changes the physical configuration of the engine.

Eventually the mysterious essence-of-explosion dissipates, and the engine shuts down. The transition to Gateway space is made with just the starboard engine, and the pilot gives Eva a yellow card - no transiting the Nonesuch / Gateway gate without having repairs and diagnostics done at a licensed shipyard. Ace takes the yellow card, figuring it'll be easy enough to forge a fake checkup.

Then, on to Riden! There's mail waiting for Dr. Kye from Gilbert Godfrey-Morgan, at IPX. He's been working on an experimental digging suit called the Iron Badger, and if Dr. Kye is in the area he should stop by and see. Eva sends mail to Dr. Kandemeer saying she's in system. The Red fleet in Riden is on high alert - there are lots of warnings about not going to Nurl, which is held by Blue terrorists, and about staying in patrolled shipping lanes (because there's still that backfield fleet). The asteroid locator indicates that the Zach Staughton asteroid is on this side of the system, which is good.

"Jim, help me forge the yellow card?" -Ace
"Stop corrupting him!" -Eva
Sophia and Maury suit up in vacuum suits, and head over to the asteroid. There's a disguised impact crater that Sophia remembers, and inside are several vacuum-proof boxes. They get taken back to the ship. Several boxes have mementos of Melody:
A set of newspaper clippings and pictures and such, of Melody. Very little in first person, but it's usually clear who she is. Some moderately young, then a dearth, then an older woman. She seems to have been a mayor for a year, and a cop for six months and the madam of a VR brothel for six months and all sorts of other things.
The final box has a book:

A gorgeous metal bound book with what appear to be golden pages.
On the cover are embossed the familiar concentric rings of thirteen stars symbolic of the Linked Worlds.
The pages are thin and crisp like fine paper, but completely untearable.
On each of the left hand pages are various writings in numerous different hands.
It is difficult to read, as each page seems to contain numerous overlapping writings in different colors of print.
One color or another stands out more strongly depending upon the light and how you hold your head.
On the right hand pages are intricate full-color diagrams and illustrations, depicting familiar scenes such as the Palatium Tamarch, and the dust nebula, as well as abstract designs, all interwoven with texts of a highly technical nature.

People try to read the book - for the unskilled, there is little to be gained, but for others, there is more to be gleaned. Melody's notes and mementos are copied, and then the box is put back in the asteroid. Dr. Kye senses the book: "It was in the dark for a long time. Before that it was owned by someone who hated it, and before that it was cherished by a long line of kings." To operate it, you read it, though to write in it, you need a special tool. Are there any other books about? There's one with Jayla. The purpose is to assist the Hegemons and to serve as a permanent record of emergency procedures.

Jim searches for an artist named Selena Mere on the web. He finds a listing of a sketch in a little museum, but no other information.

The Hippocrates lands on Riden. Kye emails Mr. Godfrey-Morgan, and gets invited to the Iron Badger testing site. Everyone heads over to see - it's something like a metal suit that vibrates very fast, like a jackhammer, allowing the wearer to swim through earth. It's mad, but there's nothing cutting edge about it - he's a mad engineer, not a mad scientist! Dr. Kye tries the suit out, and starts sinking into the ground. He manages to get the hang of it (driving/piloting, based on health) enough to swim back up again; when he gets out of the armor, he's moderately fatigued from the vibrations.

Sophia and Godfrey confer about methods of damping the vibration - Sophia has some idea about spatial compression dampening, based on the spatial compressions from near the singularities. In addition to the dampening ability, it may also make the suit heavier. They scribble blueprints - Godfrey-Morgen has a tendency to draw with his finger coffee-stain when he needs shading.

Meanwhile, Ace tries out the digging machine. He's quite good at it, but it's still tiring. Both Jim and Ace ponder improvements and uses that could be made to the machine.

"Jim is building mech armor, Ace is robbing banks." - Eva
Having spent most of the day playing with the Iron Badger, the party returns to the Hippocrates for the night.
Commercial Break...
Eva wakes up in the captain's chair. This is somewhat odd - she doesn't remember going to sleep in the captain's chair. She checks the computer - it's been two days since the day of the Iron Badger. No one else is on the bridge - and the door to the bridge keeps opening and shutting on someone's foot.
"Eva finally snapped, and killed them all!" - Tom
It's Gerard's foot. As Eva gets up to see if he's all right, she notes an upside-down yellow patch that she seems to have fallen on.
"Good thing you were on top of that." - Charles
In a pocket is a note in her handwriting - "Intruders and that damned amnesia drug." Well, that explains why she doesn't remember the last day or so. Gerard has a heal patch stuck to him, but has been shot up quite a bit and is unconscious rather than dead.

Eva checks the cameras. Most of them are showing only static, but Maury is sprawled out in the brig covered in blood. Moment Before Dawn is sprawled in front of the environmental engineering controls. Nothing on the ship seems to be moving.

The comm seems to have a bunch of incoming messages queued up - "This is the Hippocrates, we're under attack! Help!" Many are in Eva's voice. Well, that's no good. Somehow someone has rerouted outgoing traffic to incoming. How about outbound network? That's live. No sign of Nero, though. Nobody is in the sickbay, though both Katya and Cassandra are in the tubes, and there's blood on the floor.

Eva finally ventures out of the bridge, and down to the brig; she pulls Maury out, and then finds Ace and Night Blooming Wisteria, fallen in the hallway, amidst signs of a battle. Heal patches and Yellow for everyone. Ace notes that one of his boot knives has been blooded and put back, uncleaned. Hmm. Well, maybe he knew what he was doing at the time.

The computer core is a place of devastation. The doors have been blown off, and then several deathtraps appear to have been set up, including a contrivance with an inflatable life raft set to fall down and smash the intruders. Kye and Jim are both here, unconscious, and there are four smashed vials each of affection and relaxation by the intake vent to the air vents. Sophia is found in the communications room - she's been recording on her communications analyzer, but she's only recorded the encrypted traffic, not the decryption.

Maury reviews the camera records. The day after the Iron Badger, someone comes to the door. Martan and Jim go down and talk to them through the comm briefly, and then let them into the airlock. The audio is strangely garbled. They're talking about something, and one of them is gesturing with a clipboard. There's some conferring, one of the guys looks apologetic, Martan turns to call on the comm, and the two guys ambush Martan and take him down, while Jim ducks around a corner. They open the airlock again, and the camera goes "pssh" into static.

How about the brig camera? There's no one there, and then Maury teleports in, pauses, and concentrates. An anubis (an uplifted dog) appears, but before Maury can teleport out again, the anubis gets a free strike in at him, and takes him out. A bit later the door to the brig opens and the Anubis leaves. Unfortunately, Maury's stuck in the brig, until the others come by much later and get him out.

Sophia works on decrypting her recorded comm channel. Maury teleports a random useful thing to himself - it's a Starguard ID, which seems to have teleported from his tool pouch. Perhaps he teleported it to himself earlier.

Did anything go in or out of the ship, earlier? Nero and Jim both spent a while surfing the net, pretty low bandwidth. Some local news got downloaded. Jim took off for a little while to go to a museum.

Sophia analyzes the blood sample from Ace's knife. As some people have begun to expect, it has the "master criminal" teaming nanites. Tactically, they seem to have been going for the computer core. There's a brief speculation that they were trying to steal Hippocrates and accidentally stole Nero instead, but they seem instead to have been going for the Hippocrates databases like "KS: Linked Worlds Military" and "Military Etiquette" and "KS: Old Crew" and "KS: Hippocrates". The specific things they're going for are military, in fact.

Sophia finishes decrypting the comm traffic. There's not a lot of actual communication ("To your left." "Got it.") but there is one bit where Eva is on the intercom, telling them to surrender, resistance is futile, they'll never steal the ship. One of the intruders confesses "It's not your ship we're after!" before being told to shut up.

Maury digs out the nanite jammer from the cargo hold (no, it wasn't stolen). Where is First Frost of Autumn? Well, he could be unconscious in the Jeffries tubes, or he could be hiding - in which case no one will find him. Jim climbs around some looking for him, and Ace searches too, but neither can find him. Oh, dear.

It does seem to become clear that the Hippocrates robbery is but a step in a deeper plan - the theft of the Bellarion. There's the speculation that the Criminal Mastermind has been recruited by Blue HegInt (since they were from New Light), and that's why the crew isn't dead. Or maybe it was the Relaxation/Affection. So should they just let the theft happen? Opinions are originally mixed, but in the end the idea of Blue HegInt is deliberately suppressed and the plot continues.

If they take the Bellarion, the speculation goes, they might just induct all the crew into their groupmind. Though that could cause its own problems for them.

"Bring too much military into the group mind and you might not still be a criminal group mind." -Maury
Ace checks if the Starguard badge is forged, but can't tell. Dr. Kye thinks its purpose is to sneak people into the military starport. It was made a week ago, and there are both many others of its kind and four others.

So perhaps they're sneaking onto the starport now? Is there a ship that's been publically stolen? Or even secretly stolen? Ace doesn't hear about a big fuss (or about a big job that hired recently).

Eva ponders what they're missing, and thinks that maybe the plan is farther along than they're assuming. They took the Hippocrates in about forty-five minutes, and it's been thirty-six hours since then. They probably weren't going to stage a raid and then stall for a day and a half, counting on nobody to discover the carnage. So they've probably already either gotten to the Bellarion, or punted due to something going awry.

Moment Before Dawn and Night Blooming Wisteria have still been searching for First Frost of Autumn - they're pretty sure by now that if he were unconscious, they would have perceived him, and if he's conscious and hiding, they would have gotten a response from him by now. So both Nero and First Frost have been kidnapped! A small giant spider is probably a good recruit for a groupmind, though it'll probably mess him up pretty badly. On the other hand, maybe they'll all get the psych lim "can't lie."

Eva, as Isra, sets up an appointment with a "High Government Official" (the Hegemon), and Eva goes through the explanation again. He's a little dubious that half a dozen thieves can really steal the flagship, just because they could take out the Hippocrates crew, though he's polite enough to not phrase it quite so bluntly. There's half a company of marines on board! It's with the fleet which is preparing for a secret maneuver, which he shouldn't be telling her about. The fleet is under radio silence now - they could send another ship out to contact it, but that might be considered strange. Spooking the thieves might make them punt, which is better than having them have the flagship, but not as good as catching them.

Jim goes on a shopping trip to restock supplies, and acquires more gas masks.

Another digression into philosophy - Dr. Kye wonders if the party should care? Ace says yes, that a balance that isn't Blue walking all over Red is best, because Eva said so. Maury also objects to Blue taking over the world. Jim thinks a negotiated surrender or armistice would be more stable, in the long term, than holding onto a conquered populace. Okay, the party cares.

Back at the discussion with the Red Hegemon - most of the available ships are with the fleet. Hippocrates could be sent, as it's pretty fast - but it would be seen. No, it wouldn't, Eva assures him. Well, he'll give them a squad of marines, and a technical expert - they can go and see if it's really a problem.

Ace considers sneaking up to the Bellarion, and landing on it. Well, that's probably more than ship stealth and ship sleight-of-hand, but it could be done with some karma.

The Hippocrates heads out, and sneaks up to the Red Fleet. There's a central ship, which the tactical people think is where the Bellarion ought to be. But over at the edge is a ship "flying casual" which is a little odd. That must be where the thieves are. They haven't taken the Bellarion yet? No, that is the Bellarion. And it's drifting ever so slightly away, as if due to random drift vagaries. Hmm.

Sneak sneak sneak goes the Hippocrates, up to the Bellarion, and then in a particularly impressive feat of sneakiness, Ace lands the Hippocrates ever so gently on the side.

The party suits up (the Tinoori get to wear their space suits for the first time), and starts hacking through the airlock. As the party trickles in, some guys in black jump suits appear (surprising the marines, who were really expecting that nothing was wrong), and combat begins.

The initial several mooks are taken out before Derris (one of the actual criminal masterminds) shows up, and demonstrates a couple of interesting shticks, like "split your dice and shoot the same person twice" and a dodge pool. Jim demonstrates the sword-fu he's been training in against several mooks.

The ship starts lurching ("Bridge Lurch!") and everyone drops to half move. Ace heads around a corner and triggers the ambush - unfortunately, the people backing him up don't have the actions to follow up on it, and Ace goes down for the first time to Derris hitting him twice with his kris.

Other named characters start making an appearance - Jenny keeps popping around the corner, reporting in, and popping back into hiding, and Jek, the anubis, is nearly as terrifying a fighter as Derris. Maury gets a free shot in at him, but Jek leaps on him and Maury goes down for the first time too.

The nanite-communication jammer, which Eva is currently carrying, finally locks onto its target and the bad guys lose their other-people's-shticks. Jim leaps into the lower hallway with a rocket launcher - the mooks he's ambushing have lost their ambush ability, but Jenny still has her thiefy shticks, and vanishes back around the corner.

Sophia intercepts a transmission from Meyer: "Locate the damned jammer and destroy it. It's currently located with [ksh] the woman who came from Nantucket..." The transmission continues with more limericks - this was Ace's "ace in the hole" and Nero has broken into the bad guys' communication channel.

Maury goes down again to the anubis, dying. Sophia stabilizes him. Moment Before Dawn and Night Blooming Wisteria leap upon Jek, and web him (though not beyond his ability to get out.) Maury goes down a third time to Jek, and Derris throws his kris through Eva.

Sophia steals Derris's dodge pool with her shtick-grabbing device and gives it to herself, and he flees around the back of the bridge. Kye gets the front door to the bridge open - that's where the last three named bad guys are (Ladybird, Meyer, and Calvin), just as Derris comes through the other door. There are also another eight mooks, who open up on Kye and the two nearby marines.

Maury, not wanting to go down a fourth time, manages with some karma to teleport to the engine room, where there's no one. He starts welding the door shut.

Meyer announces "plan omega" - this apparently means "named guys flee, while mooks hold the line." Kye and his two marines are a wall of fortitude, keeping the mooks in the bridge from getting out, while the rest of the party chases after the fleeing Masterminds. Many of them have gotten to the shuttle bay - Meyer has gotten into a shuttle, but Jek and Derris are pinned at the door, Derris without his dodge pool. Jim takes Derris down.

Jim calls out, in Tinooranthi: "First Frost of Autumn, now would be a good time." (This is his ace in the hole). First Frost decloaks on the ceiling of the shuttle bay, and falls straight down onto the invisible Jenny, who also decloaks. Sophia promptly steals her "vanish" shtick and gives it to Ace.

"Captain, I've wired you into the Bellarion's radio, because I bet we're not flying casual any more." -Maury
Jim jumps in the shuttle with Meyer, and shoots him. Ace shoots him too, for good measure. Jenny gets in, and shuts the door. Interesting tactics there. Jim tells them to surrender, and Jenny declares "You can't capture what you can't see" and makes as if to vanish. Except she doesn't. Oops.

Eva calls out on the Bellarion's radio, and explains that the ship has been retaken, while Ace dashes around between the armory and the security room. He manages to lift a machine gun and six grenades before some new marines come in and shut the armory - he decides not to be trapped in it.

There's some arguing over who should get the kris, but Eva claims possession of it as it was sticking in her gut.

A Blue spy ship takes off, having spotted the Red fleet at this point, due to the radio traffic and the fleet heads home, mission scrubbed.

The bad guys are variously interrogated - unlike many others the crew has encountered, they aren't so hard to make confess, now that they're caught, and all of their wonderful schticks taken away. Their rendezvous has also been blown, and the other members of the Mastermind who were there will have abandoned them by now. They weren't actually working for Blue, but they're vaguely patriotic, being from Blue, and they thought crippling the Red war effort while stealing a battleship for their floating criminal base was pretty cool.

The masterminds here:

(Ace, using Jenny's vanishing shtick, talks to Jenny and Ladybird about possibly working for him. They still seem pretty pro-groupmind, though, and exactly how to get them out without letting the Red military find them aboard the Hippocrates is a little unsure. In the end, he gives Jenny some thief tools and a radio that can contact the Hippocrates, and tells her to get in touch once she gets out.)

Things sorted out, the Hippocrates takes its leave of Riden, meets up with the rest of the group coming from Tinara, and then goes to New Light, to start planning the wedding / Dr. Cain trap.