"The difference between a defender who must stand his ground and a defender who can flee is the difference between striking stone and striking water."
-Ambros Nomarche, On Conflict
Stannis Law -> Sparta
The Hippocrates heads off again, to redeliver Hegemon Marchant to his Hegemony. He's dropped off with the Red Fleet in Tinara, and then the party proceeds through Sundown to Vircus, to pick up a bunch of Vircan fighters and pilots.
Jim appears, wearing a red/green/black tunic, hose, cape, and a saucy hat. He introduces himself as "The incomparable Giacomo! King of Jesters and Jester to the King!". He has just returned from the Highguardian Court - where better to court Highguardians, eh? He also hands out cards of introduction:
The Hippocrates heads down to Vircus and docks with the Star of Judgement. There are work crews visible all over the Santa Maria, installing huge engines. Everyone on the Star of Judgement hurries to assure them that their hearts are bound by the chains of command. And there is a carefully sealed black box for Hippocrates. The engineers say that Mr. Grimblemaury is off with the Inopportune Moment fighting the Deciders at Lendt (or, at least, that was where he went), because the Hippocrates won't be there. Ciernan starts scrubbing bits of the planet, and checks in with the Grandmothers.
The role of
The Incomparable Giacomo!
will be played by Jim Powell
* Disclaimer (also written in Tinooranthi): The role being portrayed is just that, a role. Statements made should be received with an implied lower confidence than would normally be expected from a perceiving sentient.
Hippocrates gives Janzur the walking stick from the auction. Janzur asks if Hippocrates has tried to use it - no, he hasn't. Hippocrates turns it on, takes a practice swing, and promptly thwacks himself in the leg. Well, it's a good thing it's not a real plasma brand. Hippocrates briefs Janzur on the three-thrones plan (joint Red/Blue throne for Donella's line, state religion for Jayla's line, and Boy Scouts for Katya's line). Janzur is a little surprised at the idea of Katya being in charge of the Boy Scouts, but is pleased that she's decided to be in charge of something. Hippocrates says she's coming along well.
The conversation turns to the battle in the Outworlds. Janzur says that the Hippocrates really needs to go. There should be eight fighters and pilots ready to head out. Hippocrates asks how they should be presented - Janzur thinks that's simple: "They're yours."
Giacomo gives Hippocrates a scroll explaining that he hopes to set up his Board of Review for Millenium Scout, before the Flames hit.
"Get it?" -GiacomoJim (well, Giacomo) shows up to talk to Janzur, as well. He capers a bit and plays his lute: "My heart sings a little tune!" while using Elite Bodyspeak to say "Psst! I need to talk to you!" Janzur is nonplussed, and thinks the ship needs More Discipline. Giacomo gives Janzur a scroll about the Board of Review too. Janzur says to just let him know when.
<pause and wink> "I suppose you have to bury yourself in the role..." -Hippocrates
"Get it?" -Giacomo
Janzur arranges to page Jayla to talk to Hippocrates about the coming battle. Jayla informs them that she thinks the fighting will be pretty spread out over several planets, but can't say precisely what's going to happen. She does know the Inopportune Moment is planning to cover Lendt.
The Genetic Diversity and Clarke's Honor are left behind on Vircus, and the eight Vircan fighters start being loaded aboard, along with Kye's plasma bomb and two prototypes. Apparently the Vircans think the Hippocrates needs to leave at 0800 the next morning. As Ace heads out to enjoy the Vircan night life, Hippocrates tells him that the ship is leaving at 0715. Of course, this results in Vircans running around like madmen trying to get things ready earlier.
Ciernan notices that the Vircans are sporting more colorful clothing, though it's sort of segregated among various groups. It reminds him of a step towards uniforms or castes or something, so he investigates. Unfortunately, everyone he talks to mostly seems to say it's just a fashion statement, and doesn't think of it as ominous at all. Ciernan enlists the help of Giacomo and Ace to look into it. Giacomo tags along with Ace. "As long as you can hold your liquor. Or lick your holder." They carouse around a bunch, but don't find any "ringleaders" behind the clothing conspiracy. They're pretty convinced the only people who could influence everyone at once on this planet would be Jayla, the Vocari, or the grandmothers. Ciernan talks to the grandmothers, who say they've just started noticing it a bit, and will look into it, but don't have a lot of details to give him about anything they think might be going on.
Eight Vircan pilots are inducted by Hippocrates as Auxiliary Skyguard forces. They are not worthy, but it must be so. Off goes the Hippocrates, bound for the outworlds. On the jump (through the closed jump gate) to Gateway, there is a small ship that scans them, but does nothing else. Happily, the bombs are hidden in the Aberdevine's secret compartment, and are unlikely to have been spotted. The jump through Gateway to Nonesuch passes without event, and the party picks up 75 asters worth of mail at Nonesuch to deliver to Crux.
Hippocrates announces himself to Crux Command as "Skyguard Battle Squadron 1" and asks what the situation is. Due to some mis-hearing, there is enthusiasm that the Reds have sent a Starguard battle squadron. This does eventaully get cleared up.
Apparently, the Deciders are attacking all four of their known systems at once - the 0.2 CEU (Combat effectiveness units) of the remaining outworlds fleet are spread out across the four systems to try and combat the threat. Bastion Navigator Control has already engaged the Deciders at Bastion; the Inopportune Moment and others are covering Lendt, and there is some word that Pierogi is... well, something unclear is going on there, but Dmitri is there, as well as some number of Vertaki ships.
The Hippocrates makes best speed down to Crux (which, with Ciernan and Ace both helping, is really quite fast), and are quickly met by Marina. Ace is concerned - why isn't she already out fighting Tarn? She looks embarassed. She hasn't broken her ship already, has she? Well, there was this plasma brand, and... well. It doesn't fly right now. But she wants to get out and fight the Tarn! She has some bounties she's working on to earn the money to fix it. There's this new drug Belle is trying to get a line on, and a theft from the Vertaki, and a guy named Fiorella to be tracked down.
"What do we know about Vertaki getting psi crystals stolen?" -AceOff the Hippocrates goes again. No, wait, it turns around and comes back, dropping off the Aberdevine to pick up Marina's (broken) Goldrunner ship instead. The ship takes off again - wait, no, it doesn't. The plasma bombs are retrieved from the Aberdevine first.
"Nothing. We just got here." -Ciernan
"That's why I asked you if the basket was safe!" -GiacomoOnce that is all sorted out, the ship does finally lift off and Ace checks to see if Twig can get Marina's ship into shape before the battle.
"Battle: when?" -TwigWhile the ship proceeds to Sparta, Ace searches Marina's goldrunner for evidence that she's still dealing White. He finds a poorly hidden crate full of the stuff! He confronts her about dealing! She claims that's her personal stash. Ace glowers.
"Between 24 hours and later." -Ace
"Answer: Between no and yes." -Twig
The Hippocrates lands on Sparta, and the crew meets at the hall of the Guild of Skalds, where munition-class skalds are being assigned to ships. Ciernan spots Michael Firebrand, an old classmate of his. He grabs Firebrand as the assigned skald for the Hippocrates.
One of the coordinators briefs everyone on what they've heard from Bastion: Navigator Control has pinpointed the Deciders, and they're currently eight days out from Sparta. Any ships which aren't stopped go into suicide-bomber mode, and detonate in population centers (they were mostly stopped in the Bastion system by mad teleporting-rocks tricks). About thirty ships are expected. The choice is between meeting them in the dust cloud (with more terrain, but also more places for Deciders to sneak by), or outside the dust. All in all, the party and the skalds tend to prefer having terrain. Asteroids are ferried from the planetary belt to hide amongst various dust blobs.
Some of the skalds are asking around if anyone has any Glitter or White for the fight. Firebrand has run across a new drug, "Flash", but hasn't tried it. Ciernan's never heard of it before. Firebrand says that there's a guy named Spike who's trying to sell it to the Skalds, and gives a dose to Hippocrates to analyze.
Ace and Ciernan spend a while keeping Firebrand and Marina from meeting each other, but eventually everyone meets in the conference room and is introduced. After the meeting, Marina asks Firebrand about the "local scene", whether he's heard of a guy named Fiorella (no), or where she might be able to pick up some... stuff. Firebrand says Glitter is awfully scarce right now, but there's the new Flash, being sold by a guy named Spike.
Hippocrates' analysis of the drug is that it's very puzzling - it's not nanotech, and it's not organic. It's basically a neutral liquid with some particulate matter in it. Firebrand thinks the particles are more like quartz than anything else, but quartz shouldn't have that sort of effect. This being a Mysterious sort of Tech, Ciernan decides it must be from the future. Firebrand thinks everything gets more complicated when Ciernan is around.
Firebrand asks around among the skalds - they only find one of them who has already tried Flash. The skald reports that Flash is indeed quite the stuff, and he was far more powerful on it than off of it, and that it works on Mind and Body stats as well as psi. But the side effects are bad (as reported) and he's not been up to full strength since he used it. He and Giacomo head out to see what they can find out about Vertaki crystals, while Ciernan, Ace, and Marina go off to talk to the Seedy Underworld.
Ace, Ciernan, and Marina try to make a Flash buy, and find a dealer. They follow the dealer to a warehouse they think is the source, and then back off. They plan to meet the dealer later, to buy two doses of Flash for 50 asters.
Meanwhile, Firebrand and Giacomo have failed to find anyone obviously confessing to having stolen a Vertaki crystal, but hear that several Vertaki are in town - Lord Dinar and Lord Kesh. Lord Dinar is not at home (that is, not in the inn), but when the pair enquires at the (nicer) inn in which Lord Kesh is supposed to be staying, they are pointed towards a tall gentleman with a curled moustache, reading a paper in the lounge.
Lord Kesh seems darkly ominous, and Giacomo starts getting nervous. Since what the pair really wants is to talk to Lord Dinar, Giacomo asks for an introduction to Lord Dinar. Ah, so Giacomo wishes to put himself in Lord Kesh's care for an introduction to Vertaki society, Lord Kesh asks, twirling his moustache. Yes, he supposes so, Giacomo stammers even more nervously. At this point, Lord Kesh appears quite charmed by Giacomo's manner, and suggests that they go upstairs to prepare Giacomo for the introduction. Giacomo suspects some sort of trap, but doesn't think whatever it is is going to be instantly fatal, so follows along. Firebrand lurks on the floor below.
Lord Kesh's plan, as it turns out, is to put a strong but decorative chain on Jim, and attempt to beat him up in a similarly decorative fashion (his first blow bloodies Giacomo's lip and bruises his cheekbone, but does no significant damage at all). Giacomo finds that his feet don't seem to be going anywhere, so starts shouting for help. Firebrand dashes up the stairs and orders Lord Kesh to let Giacomo go. Kesh tries to tell Firebrand to go back downstairs, but Firebrand is having none of that, and sets Lord Kesh on fire. Lord Kesh pauses to menace Giacomo one last time, cutting a mark on his face and vowing to be back, and then leaps out the window. Firebrand gets off another flamestrike after him, but then Kesh is around the corner.
Firebrand and Giacomo climb out the window on a rope of Giacomo's, and look around for tracks. Unfortunately, neither of them is any good at tracking on a city street.
"I think the Vertaki can stuff their damn crystal." -FirebrandThe pair climb back up the rope and into the window again, and search his rooms. They find some money, and spirit gum (with which his moustache was attached, Giacomo speculates), but no mysterious crystal. Firebrand confiscates half the money as "bad guy tax", delivers it to the Skald's guild, and the two head back to the Hippocrates.
"But what if he's one of the people who stole it?" -Giacomo
The concept of Vertaki archetypes is explained to Firebrand - he continues to be convinced that things are more complicated when Ciernan is here. However, the leads have temporarily dried up in pursuing the Flash dealer, so the group gets back to planning the battle with the Deciders.
Giacomo starts a briefing, for the Hippocrates crew, as well as the Vircans and the Spartan pilot/skald crews. He's somewhat nervous and waffly, until Marina snaps her fingers - at that point he gains confidence and competence, and blazes through the explanation.
First, if it proves necessary to keep the Deciders from fleeing, the thing to do is "fall down dramatically" when shot - this will keep the ship that shot you from fleeing the field for a whole turn. Second, by going only in even phases, this will lure the enemy into thinking that you are weaker than you are, and things will be easier for you. These briefings prove a bit puzzling - no one is sure if they are dramatic theater or military tactics, but Giacomo manages to reassure people that they'll work.
An ambush is set up in the dust nebula, and the Deciders appear: a Yellowliner, a Purpleliner, five Redliners, seven Greenliners, and five Orangeliners. Battle ensues!
The Greenliners are quickly demonstrated to be the ones re-armed by the future-tech people - they don't shoot plague greenlines after all, they shoot plasma, and have mysterious weapon-malfunction defenses. The skalds prove able to affect them (for obvious reasons), as does Marina (for not at all obvious reasons).
Dr. Kye's two prototype plasma bombs have been hidden around the dust passages, waiting for ships to come close - they do a lot of damage, but the second explosion is basically unobserved so no data is gathered. The purpleliner doesn't shoot anyone, but just keeps accelerating forward towards the exit from the dust. Hippocrates gets close enough to scan it, and notes that P is for Purpleliner and also for Planetbuster. Well, that's no good. Everyone mobs the purpleliner for nearly an entire turn, until it explodes in a huge gout of plasma. This destroys a number of Vircan fighters utterly, as well as a Spartan ship. Hippocrates, quite some distance away, doesn't quite go down, due to his aux power in health.
The yellowliner is pinned (in a dramatic Vircan sacrifice), which means that the Deciders can't flee for a little while. Marina heads in to clean up a new set of orangeliners that have appeared on the scene, and is promptly gunned down (though her ship doesn't explode). Eventually the yellowliner is pounded enough (by remote control turbs!) to be destroyed as well, and the battle is won!
The Vircan fighters have suffered the greatest casualties: only three pilots (and four ships) survive, from the original eight. One ship of Spartans has been destroyed, and several more ships are badly damaged, including Marina's. The explosion of the purpleliner was observed well enough that it can make do as a plasma bomb test (though not one that contributes towards the extra-stressy test).
The Hippocrates limps back to Sparta. Word from Lendt is that they were also victorious with some casualties, and Bastion has already defended itself. On Pierogi, there will be no word for some time, unless a ship goes there and back.
Once back on Sparta, the mysteries are quickly resolved. A group of skalds sifts the warehouse where Marina and Ace located Spike for evidence, and tracks down a kidnapped gem cutter being forced by Spike into chipping little bits off of the missing Vertaki crystal. The bits are ground up, suspended in an emulsion and sold as Flash. The Skalds confiscate the gem as evidence, since there is no fondness for the Vertaki at the moment.
However, later that evening, a duel rages across the streets between Lord Dinar and Lord Kesh. Dinar is in the end victorious, and then goes to the Skald's Guild for the return of the Vertaki property. They give the crystal back to him.