"With the advent of virtual reality, solipsism becomes a relevant topic to philosopher and psychologist alike. When all that we can perceive of reality is filtered through our senses, and those senses can be completely and utterly fooled, acceptance of reality begins to resemble a leap of faith."
- Merriwether Shiene, Académie Persuese, AS 873
Riden -> Nurl
Max finds a publisher for Memories of Pierogi.
Still on Tyrell's Folly, Jim briefs Dylanna (who is both curious and persuasive) on the Flames, though he manages to cut himself off before mentioning Katya and Jayla in particular.
The Philosophical Guidance Council, which is worried about the integration of Tinoori worldview into any joint human/Tinoori government, asks Jim to go and see how the Brochoah are integrating Brochoah worldview into the government on Nurl. Unfortunately, all Jim has for transport of all of himself, Geoffrey Oxford, and Smeerp Patrol is the Clarke's Honor. The Scouts have some diamonds left that they can use to barter for passage, but Jim lectures them on Scouts being Thrifty, so they arrange for transport on a Sparky Cola soda resupplier.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Hippocrates crew has been thinking that they need to talk to Commander Branch about the promised telepaths. With Akito at the helm, the ship sets out for Nurl.
"Do you have anything to declare?" -the Blue border fleetAs the Hippocrates jumps into Nurl from Riden, they note the Clarke's Honor jumping in from Highguard. Bobby Finch, piloting the fighter, hails the Hippocrates, causing a little consternation - has he stolen the ship from Jim? Who is this Bobby Finch anyway? After a few rounds of interrogation, it becomes clear that Bobby is one of the Smeerp Patrol scouts, and it's his turn to fly the fighter. Where is Jim, everyone is quick to ask. Bobby thinks he should be on the Sparky Cola transport a little while behind - the fighter goes faster than the transport.
"We're great!" -Ruehan, uncharacteristically
The Hippocrates stands by and waits for the transport to arrive, and then asks to speak with Jim.
"Sir, more of your groupies are hailing you." -Snow Lime Express captain to JimEventually Jim, Smeerp Patrol, and the rest of the Hippocrates crew link up, and Jim tries to explain why he's on Nurl:
"I was on Cabry, and the Tinoori told me to go..." -JimThe ship lands late in the afternoon; once on the planet, Hippocrates requests an appointment with Commander Branch. Eva receives some encrypted email, and then heads off to "run some errands".
"...away!" -anonymous voice in the crowd
The next morning, Commander Branch meets with everyone except for Akito (who has no patience for things like Meetings with Talking People, and remains behind on the ship). At the meeting, there is another Brochoah and a young human man, as well as Commander Branch. The second Brochoah is introduced as Dr. Spruinz, an expert on efficiency; the human seems to speak for him, and is very suave. Dr. Spruinz would like to trade his expertise with precision of psi for the opportunity to interview the crew regarding their operations aboard the Hippocrates in order to gather data towards his theories of efficiency of space ship utilization and crew accomodations.
NDAs are discussed - Spruinz has "standard NDAs" which are actually NDAs which require the crew to not discuss what they learn from Spruinz; the crew wants a reciprocal one requiring Spruinz to not talk about what he learns from the ship. He isn't interested in something that doesn't let him use Hippocrates data in his efficiency research, and would prefer that they just not answer any questions which would divulge ship secrets.
Sharra and Max start hammering out a set of acceptable NDAs; Spruinz is required to not talk about specific data he learns from the Hippocrates for three months, while the crew is permitted to talk to each other but not anyone else.
Meanwhile, back at the ship, a rather nervous-looking gentleman has arrived, looking for any officers of the Hippocrates. Akito says there aren't any available right now. Well, how about Sharra? No, she's not available either. Akito tries to get the guy to tell him what's going on instead. After much badgering, he finally confesses: "My boss and your captain have vanished." This seems important enough that Akito lets him in and takes him to the conference room, and calls the rest of the group.
Max and Dr. Kye head back to the ship, while everyone else works on the NDAs and talks to Commander Branch about arranging a large number of support people with high Precision of Psi.
Akito keeps trying to find out who the nervous guy's boss is, but he says he can't say. He could tell Miss Wade because she's a loyal Blue citizen, though. Kye gets back first, and plies the guy with Sparky Cola.
"So, young man, why don't you tell me what happened."-KyeAs Max shows up, Kye manages to get out of the guy that he works for Blue HegInt. Well, yes, they already figured that out. He had taken some people and then Eva, to one of the Haunted Forests, though it's not politically correct to call it that any longer, and then they didn't come back. He's kinda upset about that. Max wonders which way to Eva, and thinks that it's through this guy.
"Are you an officer?"
Everyone else shows up, and with the presence of officers, he proves a little more forthcoming. Ariel and her team of three went in to explore the forest a little over a day ago, and then Eva disappeared after that when she went in to check on them. (This guy's code name is Junior).
Hippocrates suggests that the party take this all to Commander Branch, if it's a problem in the Haunted Forest - Junior is not happy with this.
"You can't go to the government, that's who we're investigating!"Apparently, several weeks ago, Nurl received 650 metric tons of superfine ultra-heavy-grade ore (this is the shipment from Vircus that the party learned about), but as far as Junior could trace, only 500 metric tons is being used for anything, and 150 has gone missing. Through tracking imaginary trucks which didn't take anything from nowhere to nowhere else, Junior thinks that the missing ore has been shipped through the Haunted Forest and not arrived at the place it wasn't going afterwards. So it's probably in there somewhere.
This doesn't make a lot of sense to people who don't have Junior's abilities in bureaucracy, but he seems assured of it, and the missing ore is sufficient to build a small fleet, or perhaps even a giant battleship. And when Ariel and then Eva went in to investigate, they both didn't come back.
The group asks Junior to take them to the same place in the Haunted Forest that everyone else disappeared - they don't seem particularly worried about it, which makes Junior more worried - they sound just like Eva did!
Does Deirdre know anything more about the ore shipment? It was sent from Vircus to Nurl, in exchange for engines for the Santa Maria and other useful stuff. Janzur arranged this with Commander Branch, who talked to the Mining Conglomerate about disbursement of the ores.
Ruehan and Sharra finish up hammering out the non-disclosure agreements (they have all the clauses that the party wants, but if the party discloses any of Dr. Spruinz's secrets to external agents, there will be significant monetary penalties). They arrange to meet the rest of the party by the Haunted Forest, while Junior drives everyone else there.
"When you guys vanish and are never heard from again, who should I call?"Crossing into the Haunted Forest requires dealing with the ENTS. Junior's papers for the "field trip" do aappear to be in order, though, surprising both the ENTS and the party. Junior apppears to be good at bureaucracy, if nothing else...
"But he's in on it."
"Don't tell Commander Branch that your people disappeared. Just tell him that we disappeared."
"And tell everyone left on the Hippocrates."
"There are more of you? Why don't you bring them now?"
"They're the second wave, for when we vanish."
People try to get Junior to explain again how he traced the ores here.
"The supplies that never left and never existed never arrived either."This doesn't seem to help. In the end, he just points out where Ariel and Eva headed off into the woods. The party suggests that he wait here, in the car. He's not thrilled by the idea of staying there by himself, but that's clearly better than going with them.
Jim gives him a quick blaster test, taking apart his blaster and seeing if Junior can put it back together. He can (after a couple tries). Jim lets him keep it and off the party goes into the forest.
Max takes Ruehan and Hippocrates with him as nobody's problem, while everyone else sneaks in the direction that the previous people went. Kye manages to find a few tracks, and then some disturbed sod. He notes that whoever dug the hole was not an archaeologist - they've just dug any which way, with no respect for the proper strata. Anyhow, under the sod is permaturf, and under the permaturf is a wheeled access hatch. Kye thinks the other side is full of deathtraps, but the access hatch itself is not particularly perilous.
Sharra digs a metal detector out of her backpack, and determines that there's a lot of metal, all over the place under the ground. She notes that the security panel for the access hatch has been recently disabled. Jim looks at the sod and finds what appears to be another hatch. Hippocrates, using tactile sonar, finds a long metal seam under the sod.
Once the hatch is open, there's a huge dark cavern visible. A rope is already tied - Akito and Kye climb down to the floor, which is hegemacadam. The only light is from the hatch in the roof, but dimly visible are several huge crane arms and several concrete piers. Also, there are several channels in the floor with a liquid in it. Jim descends, and then Sharra descends somewhat more precipitously; finally, Hippocrates lowers Max and Ruehan, and then climbs down himself on two ropes.
Ruehan scans for other minds - there's only one that he can find in the immediate vicinity, and it's at the edge of the large cavern. Jim finds some low-light goggles in his backpack - Sharra finds some scuba goggles.
There are a few tracks in the dust to some cabinets; Kye starts following them. Ruehan mind-reads the single mind, but doesn't get much as it seems pretty strong willed. Max investigates the liquid in the trenches - hyperchloric acid. Well, that's a good deathtrap.
As people begin to move around, some of the more perceptive notice some subtle variations in the gravity, as if artificial gravity is enabled and malfunctioning slightly. Akito bounces around, testing the gravity. Ruehan suggests tying everyone together, but Jim thinks that's not very good as a tactical move. As people get slightly lighter and heavier again, in apparently random fluctuations, Ruehan tries to figure out if it's Morse code. It doesn't seem to be.
Jim starts heading for the end of the great hangar that has the single mind in it. This requires either going the long way around, or jumping over the trench of acid. Ruehan suggests that jumping over the acid while someone controls the gravity isn't the best of ideas, but Jim thinks he can make it. He starts his jump just as the gravity slams to 2G - Akito, who's been ready for this, chi-pushes Jim to safety, with only a dip of the sneaker in the hyperchloric acid.
Max and Ruehan start reality-tunneling towards Jim; Akito leaps over the acid trench, while everyone else walks around the long way. Ruehan tries to mind-read the mysterious person again. It's Ariel, who seems to be trying not to be interrogated.
The party starts haphazardly converging towards the door that looks like it goes to where Ruehan thinks Ariel is. Dr. Kye is still distracted by the cabinets, though, filling up his backpack with various data disks. While rummaging, he hears some deathtrap-like humming off in the distance, and Ruehan spots movement at the other end of the hangar.
A small group of rolling carts has come out of a far construction bay and begun to head around the acid channels towards the party. Everyone starts to hurry towards the door except Dr. Kye.
Sharra notes that there's a small security pad that's been disabled, and opens the door. On the other side is Utter Darkness, that neither Jim's night-vision goggles nor Hippocrates'sonar can penetrate. Nonetheless, Sharra heads in, as do Max and Ruehan. Since nothing eats them immediately, everyone shouts for Kye to come away from his cabinets into the safety of the room of impenetrable darkness. Jim holds the door, as Akito goes to help Kye get to the doorway before the rolling carts get there. The carts helpfully spread out and slow down, allowing Kye time to run to the door. Everyone goes inside, and Jim shuts the door, leaving everyone in complete and utter darkness.
Ruehan searches around the office for Ariel, who really should be around somewhere. He can only find a desk and a chair; exactly where Ariel is in relation to the two is somewhat confusing. Kye's archaeology-senses have begun to go somewhat haywire, also - perhaps because this is a modern office, not an ancient dig. Though the chair behind the desk is sized for a Brochoah.
Ruehan, getting more suspicious, says to the air: "Hello, what is going on here?" The air does not reply.
Max scans around with his tricorder, looking for holodeck controls. He doesn't find any, but he also thinks that the last couple of significant figures on his readings are off. Sharra doesn't think the bits he's indicating are relevant, but he insists.
Ruehan investigates the desk - there's stuff about ship construction from three hundred years ago. Kye keeps stuffing paper and data disks in his bag - there seems to be more room now than there was before. Max wonders if all this can be some sort of automatic reaction from the AI running the place. Hippocrates thinks that it's just an expert system.
"Expert system, AI, whatever." -MaxHippocrates broadcasts a standard ping: "HMS Hippocrates to all Skyguard units. Respond." He does, in fact, receive a response, asking for Hippocrates' authorized chain of command, which Hippocrates gives.
"There is a distinct difference between those two categories." -Hippocrates
"Yeah, one you can just loot, the other you have to negotiate with afterwards." -Kye
"Welcome to Nerele Skyguard Construction Bay 15."Davinci is quite dubious about Hippocrates' claim that the current people with him are his crew - there's not a uniform among them, other than the non-matching red leather jackets they're wearing - and is being a bit cagey. Has Davinci been active the whole time? No, not for the entirety. Has he communicated with anyone? Yes. Where are the intruders from the last fifty hours? The location of two of the previous intruders is unknown; one intruder is in Construction Bay 15.
"NSCB15. Status report, please."
"Are you unable to produce a status report?"
"Construction facility operating at 93% efficiency. Multiple intrusions detected in the past fifty hours."
"Classify the people in this room in addition to myself as non-intruders."
"Reclassification incomplete. Require additional authorization information."
"NSCB15, please state command chain."
"Davinci, Lt. Manwell Daystrom, <several more, up through the First Brochoan Construction Battalion> Strategos Ambros Nomarche."
"Davinci, I've been looking for you."
"Apparently Hippocrates' mission: 'search for Davinci' is successful."
Davinci requests that human consumables be placed on a horizontal surface; Jim has some granola bars, and Sharra (who's been hungry due to her Kaufman experiment volunteering) has a number of snacks, which they provide.
Akito, bored by all this talk, starts playing a computer game with the sound down. Hippocrates gives a brief overview of his having crashed on Ganfrey and three hundred years having passed.
Davinci is still dubious: "Estimate probability that briefing will be accepted by this unit as verified information?" Hippocrates says that the only Skyguard officer currently still alive is Commander Branch. Is he available for verification of recently relayed data? After some fussing on the radio with his secretary, Hippocrates reaches him, and says that he's come across Construction Bay 15. Commander Branch is nonplussed - there were only fourteen construction bays.
Commander Branch requires a report from Davinci. Davinci reports that he has been engaged in a training simulation of duration approximately fifty hours, under his training officer Lieutenant Manwell, as of a date about 300 years ago. Commander Branch points out that as of <that date + 3 ticks> ago, Lt. Manwell was transferred from Nerele to the Strategos' secret weapons and ordinance research division.
Commander Branch orders Davinci to terminate his current exercise and report to the Second Construction Battalion for reassignment. Davinci claims that Commander Branch doesn't have the authorization to order such a thing.
"Get him!" -Jim, joining Akito in being tired of talkingDavinci starts querying for details about the alleged Brochoan Protectorate, and political stability, and piracy. Akito starts wandering around the bay, bored. Ruehan notices that Akito hasn't actually left, to his mental senses - everyone is still actually in the little room of darkness!
Hippocrates works on trying to figure out what the point of Davinci's training simulation is, on the theory that if they can accomplish the goal, then they can end the simulation. Unfortunately, Davinci wasn't told what the goal of the simulation is - he's the one in it. How will Davinci know when he's succeeded, Hippocrates wonders? Well, presumably, it will end.
Max vanishes - both in and out of the holodeck visual - and reappears after a little while in front of Davinci's main computer core. The rolly carts start heading for the room at a fast clip. Max demands that Davinci terminate the simulation or be terminated, sticking a limpet mine to the main console.
Davinci demands that Max remove the limpet mine or Davinci will begin executing his companions. Max demands that Davinci release the Hippocrates from the training simulation. Davinci says that's not an option that's available to him. An impasse apparently having been reached, Kye "falls over dead" as far as anyone except Ruehan can tell. Ruehan points out via mind link that that didn't just happen, and then "falls over dead" too. (As far as Kye and Ruehan are concerned, things are just black.)
Jim looks up emergency codes for training simulations, wondering if he'll get more or less information in a holodeck simulation of his book than he would in his real book. The book suggests that the emergency codes for the holodeck would likely be somewhere in the main office.
Hippocrates tells Max to take the limpet mine off! And badgers Davinci as to why he simulated the death of Hippocrates' crew members. Davinci points out that Hippocrates' crew is threatening him with non-simulated death. And besides, isn't Hippocrates supposed to be especially motivated by threats to human life, being a medical frigate?
"My crew members seldom behave in a manner as to convince people that I am not compromised." -HippocratesJim heads out of the office, looking for the base office, and blasts through a lock. (Since he's just in the holodeck, he figures it doesn't actually matter).
Davinci grudgingly offers to talk to Commander Branch to confirm this ridiculous three-hundred-years have passed story, and asks that Hippocrates not give him any hints. Commander Branch immediately wants a status report from Hippocrates - he's sending PDFs (planetary defense forces) and orders Davinci to stand down.
Meanwhile, Akito asks Davinci for some killer robots to fight. Gort obligingly appears in the middle of the bay. Akito and Jim and Kye work on him, and then Sharra picks him up with a crane and drops him in acid. There are high fives all around.
Ariel appears in the "office", in some consternation: "Don't believe your eyes. It's all a trick!" Yes, they had figured that out.
The group brings Ariel (in the holodeck) to the office Jim has found, to get her to break into the safe. She doesn't think that will help any, but there's some hope that the combination will be the same in the real world. Unfortunately, when Max heads for the real-life version of the same office, it turns out that it isn't.
And, apparently, the base commander didn't leave the combination written down on a post-it in his desk, as far as anyone can find. Max offers to blow the safe.
Hippocrates asks Davinci for the combination to the safe, but Davinci isn't willing to give it to him. Hippocrates shrugs - he had to ask. Max starts wiring the safe. Davinci says that that will be interpreted as a hostile act. Another impasse seems to be reached.
Hippocrates asks how to end the simulation - Davinci, frustrated, says that he didn't make the simulation, how should he know?
Two Brochoah walk into the main entrance of the bay (at least, as far as everyone in the holodeck is concerned), look around, remark that this will do to build their pirate fleet, and walk out again. Hippocrates wants to know who they were. Davinci says he's asking Hippocrates.
Jim wants to know if that was real. No, Davinci explains, it was part of the simulation. This particular subject of simulation versus reality doesn't seem to be getting explained to anyone's satisfaction, but everyone but Davinci seems willing to understand that there were real Brochoah here a little while ago.
Ariel, finally catching up on the plot, asks if that's what happened: the missing ore shipment is going to build a secret pirate fleet?
Jim asks Davinci for applicable Hegemonic laws regarding putting civilians in simulations against their will. Davinci doesn't think there's any "against their will" going on, not to mention that the crew is possibly engaged in rebellion against the Hegemony in any case. More argument ensues.
Eventually, Davinci says that the reason network access has been cut off is that there's a Brochoan-designed expert system on the other side trying to attack the base systems. The attack started forty hours ago, at which point Davinci cut net access. Hippocrates is released from the holodeck in order to assist in defending the local subnet. He suggests that Jim be released as well, but Davinci is still a little cranky over Jim having shot through a (holodeck) door.
"What good could a Boy Scout do?" -Davinci, clearly not familiar with Hegemonic ScoutsBrochoan expert systems prove quite tenacious, however, and an epic battle ensues. It looks like the expert system is going to win, until Hippocrates convinces Davinci to let Jim out of the holodeck, and then even with the three of them, it is a close thing.
The rebuff of the network attack, however, triggers a physical attack, and a dozen or so Brochoah pirates enter (in the real world). Everyone else is finally let out of the holodeck, but that only seems to make things more confusing as the fighting starts.
"Defenders, retreat into the kitchen, I'm going to flood the place with gas." -Davinci, confusing the party, which has seen no sign of a kitchen.The gravity turns up to 2G, causing everyone to take damage when moving, and the cranes and welders go on the attack. Rather than run towards the enemy, Akito jumps onto a rolly cart: "Let's go, cart!" Kye opens fire on the Brochoah, doing a lot of damage, but is taken down by their return fire. A cart rescues him. Ruehan is similarly taken down (but not dying, miraculously), and grabbed by a cart. Jim and Max and several others start putting on gas masks, in preparation for the gas that the bay is about to be flooded with. Meanwhile, all the carts are retreating to the holodeck room, rather than attacking, much to Akito's dismay. The holodeck appears to have plush suede sofas and drinks, and a sign saying "wait here".
Davinci announces that the nerve gas dispensers are malfunctioning and the welders are shutting down - preparing for vacuum flush.
"You do know that Brochoah are immune to vacuum?" -MikeEventually, the mad plan comes together, and the party is cajoled back into the holodeck, where they are pursued by the Brochoah pirates. Once inside the holodeck, of course, the Brocoah are immediately put inside personal sensoriums and trivially captured.
You need to tell me about the mad plan in order for it to work! -Mike
The initial interrogation reveals that the Brochoah pirates have taken control of two construction bays - 14 and 15 - and are building a pirate fleet. Commander Branch is prevailed upon to send an overwhelming force to the other facility to call for their surrender - this seems likely to work, as most of the pirate thugs have been taken prisoner already. The pirates are all Brochoah, except for one human "consultant" who has been working with them.
Commander Branch notes that the shipments of ores that were diverted here were earmarked for building supplies; the pirates apparently didn't announce their intentions accurately to the Mining Conglomerate.
The Planetary Defense Forces storm Construction Bay 14, and capture several more Brochoah (and rescue the other two of Ariel's team), but unfortunately, by this point, the "pirate captain" and the human consultant thought by all to be a Terran have vanished into the night with Eva.